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Hello everyone! What are some of your favorite things to do on Sabbath? I like to watch nature shows, listen to music, and read! :)

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Once I Lived Forever in a Smile

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remember riding to church in the backseat of a 1937 Ford. I remember wearing shorts, suspenders, and a bow tie to church. I remember carrying offering until my hand smelled of the coins, and walking in single file by a toy church with a slit in the roof through which I dropped real money that clinked as it fell. I also remember forgetting my offering and filing by the toy church wishing I were invisible because I had no smell of money in my hand and nothing would clink as I walked by. I remember all this like the colorful bits and pieces in a stained glass window.

I remember sitting on the second row of church pews, behind the deacons, listening for stories in the sermon. I fingered the mahogany offering plates, smooth and round with velvet bottoms, underneath the deacons’ pew. The men stood to pray with plates in hand, coats and trousers rumpled by the sitting, then turned and passed a plate to me, alone in my pew. I dropped in an envelope, sealed and labeled with the meticulously printed letters of my name, filled with the tithe from a 25-cent-a-week allowance. I remember wanting someday to be a deacon.

I remember standing in a “heavenly” choir on Thirteenth Sabbath wearing a crown of gold construction paper and a robe torn from a white bedsheet, carrying a cardboard harp flecked with glitter. I loved to sing. I recited thirteen verses without eyeing the picture roll. I looked for my mother and grandmother in a crowd of faces and saw them craning their heads and smiling luminously.

I loved Sabbath. I thought about it as early as Wednesday. 

I looked forward to frozen raspberries for breakfast, instead of the usual whole-grain hot cereal. If there was cooked cereal, it was sprinkled with something special, such as fruit and raisins. 

I saw friends in church I had not seen all week long. I heard stories, played games such as Bible tic-tac-toe, sang “The Captain Calls for You” and my other Singing Youth favorites. I gazed at the church service unfolding like a drama. I read Our Little Friend, then Junior Guide. 

I watched people sitting in their favorite seats, observed their idiosyncracies, mimicked their walk or talk when I got home, which regaled the family with laughter. I liked potluck luncheons in the park, surrounded by family, expansive lawns, lush foliage, and evergreen trees.

I belong
I entered my first baptismal class at 8 years of age and almost reached the baptistery until my mother learned of it. She felt this was all too soon, and after her rather intense conversation with the pastor, in words I could not completely understand, I was removed from the class. Another attempt to baptize me at 10 also was foiled by my mother. But late in my twelfth year she permitted me to remain in a baptismal class as the lone candidate of an assistant pastor, with whom I underlined Bible doctrines in red and blue pencil. I remember standing in the baptismal tank, dumbstruck with reverence and fully expecting never to sin again.

I remember when I moved from the second row of church to the back row of the balcony. I remember wanting to sing but not singing because that was for girls and older people. I spent the service recycling tithe envelopes into paper airplanes. Less stewardship quotations appeared on the envelopes in those days, which allowed more space for sketching.

I remember sitting in a row with my brothers and writing out every negative physical characteristic we could think of in each other’s profile. David had “guinea pig ears” (a reference to their smallness) and “pig nostrils” (denoting their bigness and visibility). Joel was cursed with a “crag tooth,” a “buffalo head” (large and hairy), and a “lantern jaw.” My list began with “elephant ears” and ended, much, much later, with “fang teeth.” David, the Adonis, had only four things “wrong” with him; Joel, about seven or eight; and I, as the youngest brother, had twenty-five “defects.”

The three of us would sit together on the main floor of the church and utilize the eleven o’clock hour by timing how long we could hold our breath. The clock on the back wall had a sweep second hand. We hyperventilated, drew in as large a breath as possible, and held it, peering at the time periodically. Thirty seconds. A minute. A minute and a quarter. A minute and a half. Late in the service my brothers reached two minutes and more. I often have wondered what the minister thought, looking out on the congregation during his message and seeing three small heads in a row turn purple.

After church let out, I remember roaming the parking lot with friends while my mother chatted with her friends. We rolled up our Youth’s Instructors tightly and used them to hit each other good-naturedly over the head. We chased each other in a slalom course among the cars. We admired the new, big models and the small, sporty ones. We climbed behind the wheel of a few that were left unlocked. We let off the emergency brake of one and rolled it out of sight behind the recreation building. Under the noon sun, the sea of automobile hoods heated up like a lake of fire. I wondered often, in those days, whether I had committed the unpardonable sin.

I remember Pathfinder Club. Tying knots and lighting fires using friction. Standing at military attention and at parade rest, marching left and right and to the rear and oblique, march! Surviving in the woods on bay leaf soup and yucca plants. Chasing lizards and snakes and hoping, really, not to catch them. Hiking high into the mountains where the air was thin and the clouds were wisps of spun glass against a cerulean-blue sky. Camping under a dazzling vault of stars. Sitting at campfires flickering with mystery and wonderment, filled with God.

I remember the new young minister, as handsome as a movie star, with a glistening smile, a contemporary wardrobe, and a wife as pretty as he was handsome. He preached every sermon with flare and eloquence and without any notes. He rejuvenated a thinning, graying congregation into a healthy, robust membership with a sizable sampling of all age categories.

Mothers led their four and five children through the early divisions of Sabbath School. Professional men awakened the minds of young adults in classes that swelled and overflowed into ever-larger rooms. I remember discovering C. S. Lewis and reading him so far into the night that my eyes burned.

Saturday nights the people I had seen in suits and dresses on Sabbath morning wore jeans and T-shirts. We played volleyball as mixed teams, with girls setting up the ball for tall boys and men to spike over the net. I hardly missed a Saturday night of volleyball in four straight years. I was in love, intermittently, with a girl named Margie, a Victorian sort of love as subtle as a blush or a furtive glance across the Sabbath School aisle dividing boys from girls. We went Ingathering together, bunched as Christmas carolers in the back of a pickup truck, caught up in the spirit of an urban hayride. I always wound up next to her in the truck. I raised two goals one year because I never missed a night.

Heavenly light
I think back on the home church of my childhood as a spiritual Camelot, a brief and shining moment never to be forgotten. There was a sense of community there, a warmth, a personal chemistry that shapes an ideal in my mind for every church experience I have since enjoyed. I know I cannot go home again, but I never stop wanting a church home away from that home.

In the simple and unaffected humanity of such a community, in off-key choirs and box socials and Christmas parties, in dentists and plumbers and housewives and children held together in worship as they could be held by no other experience, God disclosed Himself through an incarnation of His presence.

God poured Himself through a stained glass window like a shaft of light, in which particles of dust and humanity floated. I remember the warmth of that light, the unfading smile of it. I remember and can never forget that at least once, to borrow from the poet, I lived forever in a smile.  


This article originally appeared in the January 22, 1980, issue of Insight. At that time Jonathan Butler was a professor of church history at Loma Linda University in California. Dr. Butler received his M.Div. from the SDA Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has written many influential articles about Seventh-day Adventist church history and was coeditor of the magazine Adventist Heritage. He and his wife, Marianne, are now retired, enjoying their kids and grandkids.

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