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Habits In Church

Perhaps I can fill a gap, if I say something to young people about their habits in church-going, and in spending the hour of the church service.

When I was a boy, we went to school on weekdays for four hours in the morning and three in the afternoon. We went to church on Sunday at about half past ten, and church "let out" at twelve. We went again in the afternoon, and the service was a little shorter. I knew and know precisely how much shorter, for I sat in sight of the clock, and bestowed a great deal too much attention on it. But I do not propose to tell you that.

Till I was taught some of the things which I now propose to teach you, this hour and a half in church seemed to me to correspond precisely to the four hours in school,--I mean it seemed just as long. The hour and twenty minutes of the afternoon seemed to me to correspond precisely with the three hours of afternoon school. After I learned some of these things, church-going seemed to me very natural and simple, and the time I spent there was very short and very pleasant to me.

I should say, then, that there are a great many reasonably good boys and girls, reasonably thoughtful, also, who find the confinement of a pew oppressive, merely because they do not know the best way to get the advantage of a service, which is really of profit to children as it is to grown-up people,--and which never has its full value as it does when children and grown people join together in it.

Now to any young people who are reading this paper, and are thinking about their own habits in church, I should say very much what I should about swimming, or drawing, or gardening; that, if the thing to be done is worth doing at all, you want to do it with your very best power. You want to give yourself up to it, and get the very utmost from it.

You go to church, I will suppose, twice a day on Sunday. Is it not clearly best, then, to carry out to the very best the purpose with which you are there? You are there to worship God. Steadily and simply determine that you will worship him, and you will not let such trifles distract you as often do distract people from this purpose.

What if the door does creak? what if a dog does bark near by? what if the horses outside do neigh or stamp? You do not mean to confess that you, a child of God, are going to submit to dogs, or horses, or creaking doors!

If you will give yourself to the service with all your heart and soul,--with all your might, as a boy does to his batting or his catching at base-ball; if, when the congregation is at prayer, you determine that you will not be hindered in your prayer; or, when the time comes for singing, that you will not be hindered from joining in the singing with voice or with heart,--why, you can do so. I never heard of a good fielder in base-ball missing a fly because a dog barked, or a horse neighed, on the outside of the ball-ground.

If I kept a high school, I would call together the school once a month, to train all hands in the habits requisite for listeners in public assemblies. They should be taught that just as rowers in a boat-race row and do nothing else,--as soldiers at dress parade present arms, shoulder arms, and the rest, and do nothing else, no matter what happens, during that half-hour,--that so, when people meet to listen to an address or to a concert they should listen, and do nothing else.

It is perfectly easy for people to get control and keep control of this habit of attention. If I had the exercise I speak of, in a high school, the scholars should be brought together, as I say, and carried through a series of discipline in presence of mind.

Books, resembling hymn-books in weight and size, should be dropped from galleries behind them, till they were perfectly firm under such scattering fire, and did not look round; squeaking dolls, of the size of large children, should be led squeaking down the passages of the school-room, and other strange objects should be introduced, until the scholars were all proof, and did not turn towards them once. Every one of those scholars would thank me afterwards.

Think of it. You give a dollar, that you may hear one of Thomas's concerts. How little of your money's worth you get, if twenty times, as the concert goes on, you must turn round to see if it was Mrs. Grundy who sneezed, or Mr. Bundy; or if it was Mr. Golightly or Mrs. Heavyside who came in too late at the door. And this attention to what is before you is a matter of habit and discipline. You should determine that you will only do in church what you go to church for, and adhere to your determination until the habit is formed.

If you find, as a great many boys and girls do, that the sermon in church comes in as a stumbling-block in the way of this resolution, that you cannot fix your attention steadily upon it, I recommend that you try taking notes of it. I have never known this to fail.

It is not necessary to do this in short-hand, though that is a very charming accomplishment. Any one of you can teach himself how to write short-hand, and there is no better practice than you can make for yourself at church in taking notes of sermons.

But supposing you cannot write short-hand. Take a little book with stiff covers, such as you can put in your pocket. The reporters use books of ruled paper, of the length of a school writing-book, but only two or three inches wide, and opening at the end. That is a very good shape. Then you want a pencil or two cut sharp before you go to church. You will learn more easily what you want to write than I can teach you. You cannot write the whole, even of the shortest sentence, without losing part of the next. But you can write the leading ideas, perhaps the leading words.

When you go home you will find you have a "skeleton," as it is called, of the whole sermon. And, if you want to profit by the exercise, you may very well spend an hour of the afternoon in writing out in neat and finished form a sketch of some one division of it.

But, even if you do nothing with the notes after you come home, you will find that they have made the sermon very short for you; that you have been saved from sleepiness, and that you afterwards remember what the preacher said, with unusual distinctness. You will also gradually gain a habit of listening, with a view to remembering; noticing specially the course and train of the argument or of the statement of any speaker.

Of course I need not say that in church you must be reverent in manner, must not disturb others, and must not occupy yourself intentionally with other people's dress or demeanor. If you really meant or wanted to do these things, you would not be reading this paper.

But it may be worth while to say that even children and other young people may remember to advantage that they form a very important part of the congregation. If, therefore, the custom of worship where you are arranges for responses to be read by the people, you, who are among the people, are to respond. If it provides for congregational singing, and you can sing the tune, you are to sing. It is certain that it requires the people all to be in their places when the service begins. That you can do as well as the oldest of them.

When the service is ended, do not hurry away. Do not enter into a wild and useless competition with the other boys as to which shall leap off the front steps the soonest upon the grass of the churchyard. You can arrange much better races elsewhere.

When the benediction is over, wait a minute in your seat; do not look for your hat and gloves till it is over, and then quietly and without jostling leave the church, as you might pass from one room of your father's house into another, when a large number of his friends were at a great party. That is precisely the condition of things in which you are all together.

Observe, dear children, I am speaking only of habits of outside behavior at church. I intentionally turn aside from speaking of the communion with God, to which the church will help you, and the help from your Saviour which the church will make real. These are very great blessings, as I hope you will know. Do not run the risk of losing them by neglecting the little habits of concentrated thought and of devout and simple behavior which may make the hour in church one of the shortest and happiest hours of the week.


Edward Everett Hale

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