I feel the need

I feel the need

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The wild, lawless place in church: The balcony.

Good morning all and Happy Easter, if you celebrate Easter.  I do...and it's because I was in church much of the day yesterday for Good Friday services that I bring you today's blog.

Let's talk about the church balcony.

If your church is like mine, the balcony is a mysterious place for most church members. Choirs sit up there. The organist may live up there, since you probably don't see her much beyond that brief moment in the service when you're scampering out of church and she's still wrestling with the organ, limbs flailing, trying to make that beast sound like anything other than a bellowing whale. (I used to play organ in church. I would have LOVED to have gotten "bellowing whale" sounds out of the thing. So much better than what I managed.) 

Anyway...yes, the balcony. Musicians wrangled for special music on special days are up there. You may even have a hand bell choir that rings out from up there. You don't know. You're a main floor, show up on time, don't turn your head to see who on earth is making that ruckus (honestly the people they allow to play the organ these days) kind of Christian. You sit in a pew,  you have racks full of nice hymnals and Bibles.  Your pew probably was bought when the church was built, or maybe even more recently.  And there's a decided lack of sullen teens around you.

And then we go to the balcony.  

Up there, up those stairs that a generally poorly lit, are a sort of yard sale of chairs and old pews. In our church the choirs sit on these brown chairs that have lost their cushiness and the few pews that are up there came from the "old church" and are probably more than 90 years old. Those pews are wooden, they are narrow, they are not at all comfortable and yet they are guaranteed to be full every single service. Why?

Because they are in the balcony.

First and foremost, the balcony is a haven for those who do not wish to be seen in church either because they showed up late and they don't want their parents knowing it (ahem, Peaches and Skippy) or they look homeless because it's SOOOOOOO difficult to put on clothes that don't have holes in them (again, Peaches and Skippy) or simply because it's just too churchy downstairs with all the old people.  (that would just be Skippy.)

People who sit in the balcony pretty much show up when they want to and leave when they want to. Strolling in after the first hymn?  Balcony.  Can't find a seat because all the seats are taken because you forgot it was a high holy day and both choirs and the hand bell choir are up there taking up all he chairs?  

Sit on the floor in the balcony. You're not going downstairs. No way!

The choirs and musicians in the balcony give the place the feel of backstage of a big musical. There are electrical cords snaking all over the place, mostly for lamps and lights for the musicians because when the pastor really wants to make a point, usually on Good Friday or Christmas Eve, he does it by turning off the lights in the sanctuary.  And who loses the light first and is left in complete darkness longest?  The choirs. And who has to use flashlights or their phone to sing that final song as the parishioners leave the building in darkness? Yep, the choirs.

There are music stands everywhere. With some sense of organization, we could turn our church balcony into one of those obstacle courses from the set of "Wipeout."  Seriously, if we removed the
organ, we might even have room for those big red balls.  

People sometimes bring bottles of water to church.  Some bring travel mugs of coffee.  Up in the balcony, it's like Opening Day. I know this because I'm usually the one in charge of making sure everyone in my choir has a bottle of water. I stand there like  peanut vendor, holding a bottle of water and when someone points to my I toss it to them. I'm still waiting for them to send back my $3.50, but I'm sure they'll get me on the next one.  

Behavior up there is a little more relaxed, because when you're up in the balcony, you don't worry about things like rules. Man, sometimes it's CARNIVAL up there during second service because most of the musicians and singers have already seen the early show...I mean service...and we're just waiting for our cues.  So there's a bit more chit chat. People wander in and take their seats when they want to, not when the bell rings.  Most of them have procured coffee from the church basement where coffee never stops brewing. I believe you could go to pretty much any church basement/fellowship hall RIGHT NOW and you'd find coffee either brewing, just brewed, or brewed within the last five hours. Go ahead, go look.

Or the balcony.
 It's all very quiet of course, the behavior upstairs. We wouldn't want to bother anyone downstairs. It's not like we're the back pews reserved for families with small children.  The one rule of the balcony...don't talk loud enough to draw attention to the balcony.

On a really high Holy Day, take Easter, for instance, you've got two services that are going to be PACKED with people and you can bet there's going to be a choir. And a bunch of instrumentalists. And then you've got the late comers with little kids who want to avoid the circus that is the back pews of the church (Quite possibly the only other place that's more lawless than the balcony, the pews reserved for "families with small children."  Well, that and the mother's room. Let's face it, there are NO rules in the mother's room, except put the dirty diapers in the bucket.  That's it.) But on a day like Easter the balcony is remarkably silent chaos.  Random percussion instruments lying around for people in the Senior choir to bang away on when they sing something fancy....chairs and music stands scattered all over for the various young instrument players who don't play for church all that often and are really nervous and therefore wander around with their reed in their mouths or constantly clearing their spit valve.  (Which is why I chose percussion.  No spit valve.  No reed. Just hitting stuff in a musical fashion.)  There's an organist, who probably got assigned this Sunday as opposed to volunteering for it because no one wants to screw up on Easter.  And she's got piles of music books laid out in a certain order on top of the organ and on the organ bench.  (Wanna mess with an organist's brain?  Rearrange her music.  Then step back and watch.)

Walk a family with small kids into that...a family that arrives late and has to share a battered, ancient, wooden pew with six sullen teens who did so not WANT to get up at the crack of dawn for "Sunrise Service" but who very much did want to get in on the free Easter breakfast, so they're there, dozing in the corner.  Now they have to share their hiding place with little kids tearing pages out of the Bible's and hymnals that are still in the hymn racks. (The few intact hymnals that make it up to the balcony are in the rack just above the choir music rack. The big secret is if you just go up and take one, no one in the choir is going to stop you.) It's okay though, for balcony people because anything you really need to know will be on the big screens in the front of the church.  Better hope the guy who makes those screens did it right and you don't have the entire balcony singing the wrong words to verse four of "I know that My Redeemer Lives."

And then there are the times when a children's group will sing up in the balcony.  Here's a secret I've learned having been the music director in a Sunday School for more than twenty years:  There is a reason most children's groups sing in the front of the church and then go sit with their parents:  those kids are disgusting.  Since I don't like to direct my kids in the front of church  (I look like a whale trying to take flight...I even jump up and down...yep, I clearly skipped "Choral Directing" in college.) and since I don't like sending them down the steps after we sing (because forty kids sounds like both armies on the Russian Front when they're told to "BE QUIET ON THE STAIRS) I keep them up there with me. And I get to observe and I have to tell you, parents, you're all raising a bunch of balcony dwellers.  We've got girls pulling their skirts up over their heads and boys picking their noses and every single one of them is a stranger to the concept of blowing their noses, so it's snot snorting in three part harmony. And every single one of them is CONVINCED they can read so they demand a hymnal and that just deteriorates into one of them, guaranteed, smacking another one in a hymnal version of a Star Wars battle.

So what brought on this rant like observation?

Well, it's Good Friday and Good Friday is one of the two nights a year (Christmas Eve being the other) when ministers combine turning off the lights in church with dividing up the verses of a hymn for certain groups to sing. Tonight was a new one. Usually we just do men and women. Men since very one, women sing verse two, you get the picture.  But tonight, Pastor says, "Those on the far right will sing verse one, those on the left will sing verse two."

A goodly portion of the choir, up there in the balcony, were spot on in the middle of the two groups.  And, being in the balcony, and also knowing we'd be sitting in the same spots for the night service as we were for the day service, we had a little chat, those of us in the middle.  We decided we were going to rebel against these new, difficult rules. 

Okay, really it was one other lady and I and we decided we'd sing with the left.  But STILL...that's the kind of thinking up there.  You just don't know which way people in the balcony are going to go.

Go ahead, turn off the lights.
See what we do with that kind of temptation.
All I know is that if I'm singing for a night service I keep my phone handy...you just never ever know when the lights are going to go out and then it's seriously the Wild West, only at night, and with adults who go to church on a regular basis.  But you get my meaning.

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