Watch Night

     For a person who is religion-challenged, religion-resistant, agnostic, or atheistic, this little essay will probably have no interest to you, because I am going to discuss a subject, or an event if you will, which affects many persons who do have an affinity toward spiritual concepts and who do have an interest in somehow having a connection with their Creator, whoever or however they may imagine he may be. Of course, when a new year makes its entrance, it’s not just those of a religious persuasion who become reflective toward the year past and anticipatory of the new year, but it’s we down home, Southern Gospel, fundamentalist, Bible-thumping Christian believers (and more specifically, Pentecostals) who believe that the only way to welcome in a new year is with a Watch Night service.
     Now I am aware that there are many religious organizations which observe the New Year entrance while conducting a church service right up to the midnight hour of New Year’s Eve, and I give honor to each one, but since I wave the Pentecostal flag whenever possible, it is a Watch Night service in a Pentecostal church that I wish to describe. Since our retirement Shirley (wife) and I have been attending Bethel Tabernacle, Houston, Texas, pastored by Rev. David Fauss and his father, Rev. O.R. Fauss. We had moved to the Spring, Texas, area after retirement to be closer to our children and other beloved (I had to say that) relatives. “Bethel,” as the church is affectionately called by its members, is an incredible church led by incredible people. However, the incredibility of Bethel Tabernacle is not the subject of this essay. I can only tell you that if you would like to know more about “Bethel,” read my blog entitled “The Ideal Church.”
     Anyway, a few weeks ago, Pastor David Fauss announced that Bethel Tabernacle would be scheduling its eightieth…that’s 80th... New Year’s Eve Watch Night service, and that it would be a special time of reflection and recommitment. He mentioned several things we would be doing that night in service, but when he mentioned the service would last from 8:00 pm until after midnight, after which time we would be having breakfast and relaxing…well, I didn’t hear very much after that. I don’t know about you, but I have been in some intensely powerful church services, but once the clock on the service passes two and a half or three hours, my brain begins to become a little numb as well as some other parts of me. Shirley and I, being lifelong Pentecostals, have attended many Watch Night services, but generally, these past services got cranked up around 10:00 p.m. so that the participants still had a pretty good head of steam when we saw the New Year come in. I can’t remember a service that ever started even at 9:00, so when Pastor Fauss announced the 8:00 starting time, I was floored. However, looking back, I should not have been. We have now been attending Bethel for seven months, and one thing (among many) I have learned is that Pastor David Fauss does not hurry through a service. One might even say…..well, even I won’t say it. But I will throw this consideration out for your thoughts. Could it be that it is the fact that our pastor does not rush through a service which contributes to the powerful spiritual effects that we in the congregation experience? Perhaps it is because our pastor attempts to sense the leading of God in a service and pass that inspiration to us that has made Bethel the church that it is. It is my belief that is the case.
     But regardless of that fact, I thought to myself, it’s still four hours! Over the next couple of weeks I very gently brought up the subject of the four hour service with several valued friends and acquaintances who shall remain unnamed for their protection. To a person, almost, each declared that four hours was just way too long, and of course, on top of that, New Year’s Eve is not the best time to be out and about in Houston. Many made the decision to just lie low at home New Year’s Eve and pass on the Watch Night service. Shirley and I discussed it, and I must admit we did not look forward to the long ordeal and had just about decided to stay home.
     But, you know, Shirley and I had a serious problem…God had abundantly blessed us in the year 2009. In December of 2008 I was still receiving chemotherapy treatments from M. D. Anderson Cancer Clinic and recovering from open heart surgery at the same time. Although we had anticipated retirement from our jobs, the uncertainty of the medical problems and finances made retirement seem less likely. We were living in a sixty year old home in Baytown, Texas, and the real estate market seemed to be crumbling, and we knew that we would need to sell the old home in order to retire and make our move to Spring. The economy looked awful, and gloom and doom was prophesied by every economist and most politicians.
     In January of 2009, however, my tests at M.D. Anderson came back clean as a whistle, and I was cancer-free! I was feeling stronger by the day and my heart was solid as a rock. I returned to work after missing twenty six weeks and quickly got back into my teaching routine. Things were looking up, but we were still concerned about selling the old house. We had decided that we would like to sell the house in the summer after we retired so we could be patient and take however long it would take to sell it. Many houses in Baytown were sitting for months, and, with our home being rural property out of the city limits we weren’t sure how long it would take. In early April, however, I talked to a Realtor friend of mine who suggested that, in light of the length of time it might take the house to sell coupled with our anxiousness to move, why not just stick a “for sale” sign in the front yard right away and see what interest there may be. In doing so, we would get a jump on our time frame for moving and maybe get out of town by Fall.
     So on April 6, 2009, I put up a “For Sale By Owner” sign in my front yard. No ad in a paper, no nothing but a sign and a phone number. I am not exaggerating when I say that my phone started ringing within thirty minutes. The next day we showed the home and a family said they wanted the home, but had no money to leave for a deposit. I gently suggested they go get some money and come back. We showed the home twice more in the next two days, but on Friday another family came back for the second time, and wrote a check for a hefty deposit. No haggling on the price, just “We’ll take it!” That same afternoon, the first people came back and said they had their money, but it was too late. It had taken us five days to get a contract on our home, and by April 26, the deal was closed and done. By May 15, we had moved to a beautiful home in Spring, Texas, and for the last three weeks of school I had to drive from Spring to Pasadena each day…but I didn’t complain. Also by May 15 I had been checked by M.D. Anderson again and was still cancer free, I was feeling great, and our house had been sold. Everything was going BETTER than planned. Because we were able to sell our home for what I thought was a good price, I was able to use some of the extra money to buy more retirement time through the Texas Teacher Retirement System, so in June when my retirement began, our monthly annuity from TRS was higher than we had expected. I could go on about how things have worked out for Shirley and myself as we closed out 2009, but I would only bore you. As of June, 2010, I have been checked by M.D. Anderson five times and passed with flying colors to the point now that I will only be going back for checkups every six months. 2009 turned out to be just the opposite of 2008.
     So then we had to consider the Watch Night service. I have thanked God many, many time over the past year for what has transpired in our lives. But for the Watch Night service, Pastor Fauss had announced that we in the congregation would be given the opportunity to offer testimonies of praise if we desired and felt that God had been especially kind to us. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that it was imperative for me for my own sake that I publicly honor and thank my God for extending his merciful hand to my family during this year. I mentioned it to Shirley, and she indicated that she had been feeling the same way, so, come 7:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, we were on FM1960 headed east toward Bethel Tabernacle. Traffic was already buzzing on FM1960 (what’s new?), but I was still cautious since I knew the partiers were already getting geared up.
     Sure enough, we were speeding up from a green light when I heard a pop! to my left and a crack! on our windshield that sounded like a boulder hitting the glass. We both ducked but continued driving. We saw no cracks in the windshield, only some scrapes on the lower part. Whatever hit the glass must have been a glancing blow. For an instant, we considered heading back to the house. We made it the rest of the way to church without incident. Arriving at Bethel, we were a little concerned about the sparse attendance at the 8:00 starting time, but actually, within about 30 minutes, there was the equivalent of a healthy Sunday night crowd. To be honest, I was surprised. But I shouldn’t be, it seems that many Pentecostals enjoy being stylishly late. If we had started at 11:00, some would have drug in at 11:30.
     Anyway the service began with our choir (flashing their snazzy new robes) singing some hip, contemporary, noisy music designed to get the youth up and hopping. I really do not want to be negative…it’s just that, as an…um…older person who appreciates good music skillfully presented with emotion and sincerity, the frothy, rhythmic, spiritual Pablum of the youthful set doesn’t do much for me. (See my blog “The Rise and Fall of Christian Music.”) But many youth do like the music, so…well…God bless ‘em. After about an hour of contemporary cacophony during which time I kept my eyes closed and tried to think happy and hopefully spiritual thoughts, Pastor Fauss gave the congregation the opportunity to testify, and I, along with several others, walked to the front. My testimony was not long nor was it eloquent, but I said what I wanted to say and I was satisfied. I had spoken publicly of the blessings of God in my family and I felt complete. After a few more testimonies, Pastor Fauss let the choir have another go at singing.
     Oh, but this time, the choir SANG! Sister Misty Hargrave started singing the first verse of “What a Day That Will Be,” and let me tell you, this young lady has a voice that will cut through concrete, and, when she is given a song to sing that has quality, sincerity, and feeling, she can belt it out like she means what she’s singing about. She is not a performer, as many of our singers try to be, but she delivers the message of a song very powerfully. Anyway, she had me out of my seat and helped set the tone for the rest of the service. The choir then moved into “Won’t We Have A Time,” an ancient Pentecostal chorus and concluded with “I’ll Fly Away,” another Pentecostal anthem from years gone by. All we oldsters in the audience enjoyed this choir session thoroughly, although I could tell that the musicians were not comfortable with the old rhythms of the classic songs. Apparently 4/4 musical timing is a difficult thing to get a grip on for the younger set.
     To cap off a good time of music, there happened to be a Reverend Needham (spelling?) visiting the service, and apparently he was well know by Pastor Fauss and the congregation. Our pastor asked him to come to the platform to greet the congregation and also to sing “Wait’ll You See My Brand New Home!” a Teddy Huffam classic from the seventies. He proceeded to enlist the choir to give him backup, and they responded like they had been singing with him for years. Maybe they had, I don’t know. But it was foot stomping, hand clapping good. He was almost as good as Misty Hargrave, but then Sister Hargrave’s song had much more depth of meaning while Reverend Needham’s song was more invigorating. He had the congregation jumping, though.
     After all had settled down a bit, a few more of the congregation were given the opportunity to testify. I have always regretted the lack of opportunities for testimony in contemporary churches. Ministers, I think, feel they somehow lose control by giving the opportunity to speak to an unknown entity, or maybe it throws off their schedules. Whatever the reason, to hear simple testimonies of God’s effects in the lives of ordinary people can be very uplifting and inspirational.
     After the testimonies had ended, Pastor David’s father, Reverend O.R. Fauss, 83 years old and frail, pulled his electric cart to the front of the congregation and spoke eloquently of his love and appreciation for the people of Bethel Tabernacle. I was impressed with the respect and attention given to this towering champion of the Gospel. I will state flat out that Reverend O.R. Fauss was the best camp meeting preacher I ever heard, and when I see or hear him, I remember those glorious Rocky Mountain District Camp Meetings of the late seventies.
     The time then came for Pastor Fauss to deliver his New Year’s Eve Sermon. By this time it was approaching 11:00 p.m., but somehow the evening has slipped by swiftly and enjoyably. He took his text from Genesis 31:13, when God states to Jacob, “I am the God of Bethel.” He entitled his sermon “Three Nickels and a Dream.” Leading up to Bethel’s eightieth anniversary celebrations in March of this new year, Pastor Fauss told of the experiences and sacrifices that his grandfather, Reverend O.F. Fauss endured to begin the church in Houston eighty years ago, and how his grandfather had arrived in Houston with only fifteen cents (three nickels) and a dream of founding a church. Whatever I told you about the sermon would sound shallow compared to the power and emotion with which it was delivered, but the message that our church has a legacy and, yes, even a tradition to uphold and continue was brought to us ever so forcefully. One cannot sit through a sermon like that and not be moved to a deeper dedication to God.
     After a time of prayer and supplication, the process of communion was initiated. A communion service is always a time to reflect inwardly to one’s own soul and rededicate oneself to a closer relationship with the Creator. Considering the large crowd of people, the communion portion of the service was efficiently and smoothly completed, and, about three minutes after the magic moment…i.e. the stroke of midnight and the coming of 2010, our service ended. Everyone was invited to our fellowship hall where an amazingly tasty breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, gravy, milk, coffee, and some kind of chocolaty toast was served. It tasted good! Pentecostals sometime gripe about how long services go, but when it comes to eating, nobody gets in a hurry, and it was after 1:00 a.m. before things started to sort of taper off. Even then, just outside the back door of the church, they were blasting off enough fireworks to sound like an invading army, but, as they say, a good time was had by all. Shirley and I enjoyed having breakfast and visiting with our new friends we have made since coming to Bethel Tabernacle. Our months at Bethel have been the happiest church experience we have had in a long time. We have been spiritually blessed and renewed.
     Man! If things continue like this, I’m going to be forced to come back NEXT New Year’s Eve! But, please, not 7:00!