On Sunday, while in East Tennessee, I visited the church of my youth. I had one goal in mind: to hug James Watson. James was one of several men who--twenty-six years ago, when we were new to the county--visited my family and invited us to church. He's a retired coal-miner turned welder, and he's just a little older than my dad. Like T.L. Lay, he took my brother and me to the river to swim when it was hot, and I'll never forget his driving all over tarnation to help me with my ninth-grade leaf collection. He kept an eye out as I grew (both physically and spiritually), and--if you've ever watched Little House on the Prairie--you'll understand how much James means to me when I tell you I thought of him as my "Mr. Edwards."
Anyway, I got my hug, and I was surprised at how much I got, besides, especially considering I didn't get any adult teaching (by Pastor Jeff, James' son) because--having been in church nursery all day on Saturday--my wascally wabbits were not about to let me out of their sight.
But, Y'all. George Byrd still plays the piano down in that holler, and there's just nothing quite like George Byrd playing the piano. By ear and out of heart, not by notes in the pages of the 1951 maroon-red hymal. He bangs around with beauty: makes that little church ring with gospelfied Wild West. Half the congregation crowds into the choir loft, and everyone else taps toes from the pews. The babies stand in their mothers' laps; raise their eyes and tip their chins; and sing along best they can, and no one cares. Because kids learn to sing by sitting under music, in church.
People sing differently in this place: not necessarily according to notes in the hymnal, but by ear and out of heart, and in tune. Four or five different parts and some of them made up entirely. You can almost see music notes sliding down the aisle like for homerun and pinging off the window panes. It's an amazing thing to hear the entire congregation sing "Happy Birthday, God Bless You" just perfectly: no missed notes.
And, Brother...Sister, it's not about right or wrong; do you understand what I'm saying? But there's beauty in altar prayer, where folks gather and hit their knees as standard practice: not because they've responded to an invitation (amazing in and of itself).
There's beauty in praying aloud on one's knees in the altar, just like tens of other people. The voices spiral around and circle your knelt-down figure, and it's like being in the eye of a gentle storm and very much like being a small, open-beaked bird in the midst of your small, open-beaked bird brothers and sisters. You can't necessarily understand the words of any voice save your own: especially if you're concentrating on forming complete sentences for the Lord, who picks your voice out from the rest. But the hunger of the voices has a hum of its own, and pulse, and your prayer keeps time and hammers its way up the walls and through the ceiling and roof.
It's a thing not everyone knows, and it's a thing I'd almost forgotten until I let myself rest in it. As in, I was home.
I remembered the day of my Easter baptism, some twenty-five years ago, when I was about twelve. I remembered how the ladies safety-pinned my skirt between my legs so it wouldn't float up in that cold, muddy pond. I remembered rising up from the murky waters of my baptism and looking into younger versions of the same faces.
I remembered casting myself into that altar on so many occasions, and those gentle folks gathering around to touch my arms, my back and shoulders, the hem of my dress. They would cry out to God on my behalf and--if they ran out of words--kneel quietly near me as I continued to pray. And cry.
I remember rising up from that altar feeling changed! I remember exiting those double-doors knowing I'd been to church, knowing I'd been in the presence of the Lord!
And I realized: not everyone has experienced church like that of my youth or understands that--right, wrong, or indifferent--there's a difference between teaching and preaching: also a distinction to be made between church and church-house. Not everyone knows about raised hands and shouting and dancing in the pews; about no bulletin, no planned music, and anybody have a song on your heart, today? Not everyone has seen that rapture painting, sung "Victory in Jesus" with near-tangible joy, turned the pages of a Church Hymnal.
Having been away for so long, I saw it all with fresh eyes, and let me tell you: it felt like going back in time. It felt as though someone I'd loved and lost was sitting at the edge of my bed, shaking gently my shoulder, and telling me to open my eyes to bright, sweet-smelling sunshine.
Sometimes, I reckon, things stay the same more than they change.
(Thank You, Jesus.)
(Imagine this with gospelfied Wild-West, piano music, and you'll be there. Sort of.)