Reflections . . .
“Who’s Been Sitting in My Pew?”
If you have missed a Sunday or two this past summer, you may find someone else sitting in your favorite pew this September. Church-going regulars who know the rules of the pew may be a bit miffed at being displaced, but shuffling sitting arrangements can be a sign of church growth. New members don’t know that the regulars plant themselves in the same spot for so long that their sitters have worn distinctive patterns into those oaken benches.
We are the same people who as children had regular places at the kitchen table. In my case, each of the four Sernett kids not only had a customary place to sit but also our own colored metal glass (formerly holding cottage cheese). Mine was gold.
I thought about congregational seating patterns when visiting St. John’s Lutheran Church in rural northern Iowa some years back. As a youngster, I attended Sunday school, VBS, and worship services at St. John’s while staying during the summer on my Uncle Charlie’s farm. The congregation was an old German one. Curiously, the women and the pre-Confirmation children sat in the nave or main worship area of the church while the old men and young males who had survived the rite of passage that Lutheran Confirmation was, sat up in the balcony. I can still remember the Sunday that my Aunt Elsie allowed my cousin Walt and me to go up there to sit among the adult males, some of whom, I noticed, habitually dozed off once the sermon began.
Ethnic Lutheran rules of the pew might as well have been another set of commandments. The folks at St. John’s looked askance at any one who sat where he did not belong. When a cousin of my cousin, a confirmed young male adult with the first name of Carol, dared to sit in the nave with the woman and children, the church gossip mill ground furiously. Carol later became congregational president. He taught my Sunday school class, and I found him to be one of the most knowledgeable of the members at St. John’s. Still, tongues wagged.
In the Old Country, among Scandinavian Lutherans in particular, worshippers sat where their family name was rosemaled or inscribed on the ends of the pews. Having someone sit in your pew was as bad as having an interloper sleep in your bed. Though German Lutherans did not always practice the custom of “pew rent” as Cazenovia Methodists did when they built the “Old Stone Church” in 1832, they likewise held to fixed seating patterns, usually demarcating differences in gender and age. However, in America, these hard and fast habits weakened as the immigrants became acculturated. Carol was one of the first truly modern Lutherans at St. John’s.
Thinking back on my personal pew habits, I am surprised at how constant they have been. In multiple church settings, from childhood to late middle-age adult, I have generally sat on the right side, about two-thirds of the way back. Once I attended a Lutheran church in the round and felt totally discombobulated. I like the traditional pew setup—with a left side and a right side. I have generally observed the first commandment of pew etiquette. Do not sit in the first two rows, unless forced to do so at Christmas when the church is packed and there is no room but up there. I also tend to avoid the way-way back, as those pews were allocated to mothers with fussy infants before there were “cry rooms.”
Somewhere I got the notion that the right side is the liturgically considered the Gospel side, a subtle though wrong-headed assumption that to be on the right is preferable to being on the left. Don’t the saints sit at the right hand of God? The left, including the left hand, implies something less than holy, perhaps even sinister. You may remember the days when schoolteachers tied the left arms of children behind their backs to encourage them to write with their right hand. The left-handed have had to endure a kind of second-class citizenship for generations. My mother, who was naturally left-handed but learned in school to write “the correct way,” complained of how hard it was to find a left-handed scissors to use when she sewed.
I wonder what the seating arrangements will be in Heaven. Psalm 110:1 reads: “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” Quoted five times in the New Testament, this passage underscores the image of Jesus as “the Right Hand of God.” Most Biblical scholars do not interpret this as a positional relationship, as if there were two deities, God the Father and God the Son, with Jesus, the Son sitting at the right hand of the Father. Instead, the image is meant to invoke in us a sense of awe.
Because of His sacrificial death and resurrection, Jesus has conquered all enemies that would separate us from God and now sits Himself on the Throne of Heaven. This pictorial poetry is carried over into the Book of Revelations, where the writer says (Chapter 7, verse 9): “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.”
Look closely now with the visionary eyes of one of faith. See yourself in that “great multitude” standing before the heavenly throne giving praise. There are no divisions in that royal assembly, no right and no left. Stand (or sit) where you please.
There is room for all.
Dr. Milt Sernett