By Lutheran pastor David G. Johnson, Prairie Parables, 1989, pages 14-17
For at least seven summers I worshiped at Norway Lutheran Church. Seven summers of church going did not make me a son of that congregation, but it came close. My grandparents, with whom I lived, never missed a Sunday. Count them, thirteen summer Sundays times seven years. Ninety-one in all, to say nothing of the Sunday evening events. I’ve known folks who would settle for 91 Sundays of church as a grand total for a lifetime.
Most of the sermons were preached by Rev. F.W. Rossing. I do not remember a word he said, only that he was a kind and soft-spoken man, whom my grandparents dearly loved. Rossing may not have known that, but I did and it may have been that kind of deep respect and admiration which my grandparents displayed which left an impact on me. For whatever reason, memories of Norway Lutheran Church are still vivid to me.
My grandfather faithfully fell asleep every Sunday during the sermon. It was really not Pastor’s fault. Pa worked hard and long out-of-doors all week. Hence, whenever he came to the house, it seemed to me that instead of sitting in a chair he fell into it. Only the news and “Mr. District Attorney” on the radio kept him awake. Certainly Grandma’s chatter did not, nor did Pastor Rossing’s sermons.
The church was warm and the air was close those summer Sundays. I sat between Pa and Grandma about two-thirds of the way back, always on the right side of the sanctuary. Grandma grew more alert as the service progressed, watching Pa nervously for signs of slumber. Fortunately, he had a kind of early warning system which alerted Grandma to impending unconsciousness. A couple of little jerks of his head sent her into action. She would whisper to me, “Kick him!” But those were not the days when you kicked your elders, especially a much admired and respected grandfather. So, with as little commotion as possible, she would stretch her stubby leg across me and belt Pa on the shins. And he would straighten up, tilt forward with a studied expression, as though he was considerably impressed with a thoughtful point in the sermon, rearrange himself and prepare to sink into slumber once more.
One of the members, perhaps in his late twenties, had some developmental disabilities. He was forever showing off his watch to anybody who was interested. While he could not talk, it was evident that he appreciated compliments about his timepiece. Sunday after Sunday the same good people would praise his watch and him. His other joy was to come up behind the women and flatten their hats. Without batting an eye or even turning around to glare at him, the women would take off their hats, fluff them up and put them back on their heads. As a kid, I steered pretty clear of him, but it was a powerful lesson to see how everybody accepted him and allowed him some space to pursue his pleasure.
The cemetery enfolded the church on the west and north sides. Pa’s parents and other family members slept there, as he and Grandma do now. He would take me from stone to stone and tell stories that became a part of my roots. Sunday evenings the kids would head for the cemetery to play some sort of tag. Pa took a dim view of that and gave me strict instructions not to run in the cemetery. I could see his point, but on the other hand that was where the action was. Reasonableness prevailed however; the other kids accepted my limitations, Pa rarely looked our way, and I developed the fastest walk anybody could remember seeing. Nonetheless the lesson that some places are special and sacred because of human associations and feelings was not lost on me.
Carl Hermanson was in charge of ringing the bell. A church bell could be considered a form of extravagance. During World War II the gas rationing stamps which were placed on the car window confronted the driver with the ominous question, “Is this trip really necessary?” That question governed much of life. A lot of wants had to be submitted to the necessity test. A church bell was not an absolute necessity. Everybody had clocks and watches. Everybody knew when church started. But the beginning of church, the event of worship, called for an additional, even unnecessary, bit of elegance. What gave the bell a special impact was that it issued a call. It summoned people into a larger world than putting up hay or picking eggs. It sounded an invitation to prayer and discipleship. My mother recalled how, as a little girl, she used to listen for the Norway bell to ring on Christmas Eve. The church was three miles away but the sound of the bell carried well on a sharp, still winter night. The message of the bell was, as always, “This is a special time, reach for the meaning.”
My grandparents did not wear their religion on their lapels, but they left no doubt in my mind about the importance to them of their church. Ole Rolvaag spoke for them and many others when he wrote, in The Third Life of Per Smevik: “It is impossible for one who hasn’t seen it to imagine how the church has followed in the footsteps of the pioneer– followed him through struggle and suffering into the wilderness, into the forest, and out over the endless prairie; how the church, like a mother, has taken him by the hand, asked him to straighten his back, rest a moment, and look upward. The back was straightened, the head became more erect too, and the eye received visions of glory from above. For the early pioneers, there was no force other than the church which could draw mind and thought away from the struggle for survival. It is miraculous how it has been able to open the hearts of the people.”
Several years ago the Norway congregation disbanded and those members who still remained joined other congregations. I returned for an auction of the contents of the building and succeeded in buying a coffee pot and a communion chalice.
Those two items may be as representative of the old church as anything sold on the auction. I look at the coffee pot and I see a kitchen full of women preparing a lunch. I see the basement full of people, eating sandwiches and cake, drinking coffee and enjoying being together. The church was the only social life my grandparents had, aside from an occasional visit to or from a neighbor. Whatever else Norway church was, it was people.
And the chalice takes me to the sanctuary and reminds me of how grace-filled Norway Lutheran was– grace proclaimed through the promise of the Word and experienced through the touch of the sacrament. For farmers who had to make hay when the sun shined, it was pure grace to return weekly to church to be reminded that the Son would always shine for them out of God’s inexhaustible love.
Psalm 133:1…3b — How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!… For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
Matthew 18:20 — (Jesus said), “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Hebrews 10:24-25a — Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.
Listen to Alan Jackson sing Precious Memories at: