The only thing hotter than the August nights on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth were the August days, and the only thing hotter than the August days were the August Sunday mornings spent wilting in the heat and humidity that St. John’s Lutheran Church held so well.
Pastor Gross’ stern stare and even more stern sermons added to the warmth. When he and his German accent leaned into the law you were pretty sure your eternity was going to be even hotter and more endless than an August Sunday morning in church.
Going in late
To beat the heat, most of the town folk attended the 8 a.m., or “early,” service. Most of the farm folk, who had cow-milking and other chores to sweat through before church, went to the 10 o’clock service.
Since we had cows, we were fixtures of “late” church. And we always attended; hardy anything kept us home Sunday morning. Not heat, not snow, not flat tires, not sick cows, not corn planting, not nothing.
Oh, there was the very rare Sunday when fate (the devil?) or floodwaters conspired to make attendance impossible. On those Sundays, the entire family gathered in our home’s living room to listen to Lutheran service (Missouri Synod, of course) services broadcast by radio from Chester, the county seat.
And, yes, during those rare — fewer than 10 in my nearly 20 years on the farm — in-home sessions we sat as though we were in church. No toys, no books, no goofing off; eyes fixed on the singing, sermonizing radio.
We also listened to “church” on the radio on the back-to-back summer Sundays we traveled to and from our yearly family vacation.
If a Lutheran service could not be found, a Southern Baptist one would suffice. And if we were unlucky and my parents dialed into Lutheran service after the Baptist one, well, we got a double shot of the Good News that trip.
What else ya’ going to do with a carload of questions and camping equipment meandering down some frying pan-hot highway to Lake of the Ozarks or Kentucky Lake?
All the other weeks, however, it was St. John’s and heat. Hot Sundays meant even hotter Saturdays because we had to prepare our Sunday best.
First, someone had to iron five, and after my youngest brother, Christian, was born, six, white shirts. That job fell to either me or my sister.
Next, the car, always the biggest station wagon Detroit could fit between a road’s white lines, had to be washed. I don’t know why; it just had to — although I suspected it had more to do with what other Lutherans thought than what the Lord thought.
Then there were shoes to polish and buff. Dad’s, Mom’s, Richard’s, Peggy’s, David’s, mine, Perry’s and, after 1965, Christian’s. Black, white, black, brown, black, black, brown and white. Every eight or nine months the shoe owners changed but the colors, and the need for Saturday polishing, never did.
About the only cool part of those hot Sunday mornings occurred after the service when many of the now-meek gathered in the shade of the churchyard’s trees to talk farming, fishing or family. My parents, having spent the previous six days surrounded by cows, corn and kids, were world class after-church talkers.
Most Sundays, Mom and Dad would be the last yakkers standing in front of St. John’s tall steeple. Sometimes they used the serene setting just to talk to each other.
Alas, those Sundays are long gone. Most churches are air conditioned today and few parishioners stay around to visit anymore.
Almost seems unchristian. Well, not Lutheran, anyway.
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