In all my years of writing, I never stopped to write about an aspect of church we take for granted. I say we take it for granted because we do, but the folks who hew them from wood don’t. I imagine they love pews, those dark-stained wooden benches no church is without, even inactive, empty ones.
Many a day I have settled onto a pew as others intone me to become a better man. Many a moment I have listened to others’ fire and brimstone sermons, which strike my eardrums and bounce away at the speed of light. Up and down I go, too, as we stand and sit, stand and sit. “Turn to page 276, verses 1,2 and 3.”
I’ll confess, too, that there have been many moments of boredom when lesser speakers and cliché marriage ceremonies failed to mesmerize me. That’s when that old pew turned to stone. What say you? Shoot straight now. Don’t waffle.
Well, we all can admit that tears banish the pain of sitting on hard, fine-grained wood. The funeral of a loved one is a time when I fail to notice just how uncomfortable those austere wooden benches can be. Another discomfort takes over altogether.
Well, I repeat. We take pews for granted but we shouldn’t. The church pew, wooden entire, with a stiff back and holes for communion glasses and racks for hymnals has provided a place to sit for many a soul. Yes, I’ve seen pews equipped with thick cushions but they seem out of place, an unnecessary luxury. As I’ve written about air conditioning in churches, you should be a tad uncomfortable during a sermon. What’s a little heat compared to Hell. And what’s an ungiving wooden bench when you could be sitting on a blistering rock down in that place we’re to avoid at all costs. Think of all the pews your bottom has graced. Remember any that were a joy to sit on?
I own a pew that radiates discomfort. I inherited it from my parents and I know little of its history although I have no doubt it’s a storied one. Just who sat on that brown bench of longleaf pine? For sure they had on suits and ties unlike this era where blue jeans seem to be acceptable. I daresay the women used old funeral home fans and more than a few donned bonnets. What stories that old pew could tell.
In my backroad journeys, I sometimes slip into an old church, often one no longer active. When I do, I look at those empty pews and conjure up images of men and women in their Sunday finest. I see, too, fidgeting children who sooner or later get a parental stare or pinch that freezes them stone still. Statues they become, like those poor souls at Pompeii, for a bit. I say a bit because it’s hard to keep a good kid down and they’ll commence to squirming and lazing all over that wooden thing we call a pew when no one’s watching.
The pew. It’s a vital aspect of church though few pews stand out in my recall but two. One was in a kitchen. Not a church or chapel, mind you, but a country kitchen. Over in rural Georgia, I can spirit you to a place along a back road that is hard to find. No, it can be impossible to find. I’m not saying exactly where it is because the owner doesn’t want publicity. However, should you discover it and should you get a tour, as you walk through the kitchen of this fine old home turned inn, stoop a bit until window light catches the wooden countertops just so. If you strike it lucky you’ll see sizeable depressions in the wood at regular intervals. I say sizeable depressions because the wood every so often has been compressed into what amounts to large circular basins.
So, what do we have here? An old pew turned countertop from a church of long ago where the same well-padded ladies sat for decades. And that brings to mind yet another aspect of pews. They become real estate in a way. Folks claim them as their own and sit in them Sunday after Sunday. We did and I know you do, too. I can go to pews in my church and tell you who sat where going back some 50 years.
My other memorable pew? I sat in it Easter Sunday, our family pew, the one near the old Regulator clock on the wall. That clock has long been ticking and it keeps on ticking ... Dad’s gone, Mom’s gone and the places where they sat now hold us younger people. But we are just passing through, and the church struggles. Someday, perhaps as another church, that pew will accommodate different folks who come to hear the gospel and leave feeling a tad better about the world.
I don’t think any derrières will mark our family pew, but I know this. The old wood will remain as unyielding as ever as generations of souls come and go. And that brings me to this. As congregations and preachers come and go, pews become unflinching constants, even in dead churches. Some pews, however, take on new lives. Some even become countertops.