I was at an old-fashioned church supper the other night. The memory of such meetings is an echo in some part of my heart; I grew up waiting in playground agony for the grand suppers after service on Sunday when all the mommas would gather in the church kitchen and shoo us kids away. But it’s been awhile since I visited the close, aromatic confines of a church-basement dinner. I do believe I was the only person under fifty as we gathered round a table heaped with barbecue and pickles and homemade cookies. It was a simple affair; vigorous feasting, leisurely conversation, and the laughter pricked out by a witty old man in a starched blue shirt as he handed out silly gifts to the blushing members of his congregation. At meals end there was a sort of hymn sing when everyone was sated and complacent and seated with their second bowl of fresh made butter pecan ice cream. But before we were called to a general chorus, the pastor got up and quieted us all down and said “we’d begin with a song from Brother Jim, who we know, loves to sing.”
And up stood this old man with tanned, skinny arms and ropy, muscled legs, wearing a big old t-shirt of royal blue with the sleeves cut off and out so that the unsunned part of his arms showed through like snow. He had a kind face, a round, good-natured shape of smile and a round, stubbly head that he bent with an easy solemnity over his music. As he sang his hymn, I saw only the side of his face with its slight wobble of skin around his chin, the downcast hood of his eyes.
He was neither timid nor over-sure in his song, but steady. His voice poured over his lips like water slipping over the rim of an old pitcher, clear and freely poured with an occasional bubble of vibrato or a rush of melody. He never looked up, but it wasn’t from shyness. No splinter of self-consciousness marred his ease. He sang, just sang. His eyes rambled beyond the papers in his hand as if he saw the scenes of the old hymn playing out before him in the vacant space just beyond his fingers. He fixed his sight upon them and opened up his voice and let the sight of what he saw flow down into his music.
And then he sat down and the pastor stood up and fifty more voices joined in a mighty, jarring chorus of revival hymns. But as we sang, the echo of that first song, and the gift of Brother Jim’s gracious, unassuming music ran through my head as a woven theme that subtly influenced the music I sang. And I realized that his singing changed the way I sang; for once, I didn’t think so much about myself, or even really notice my own appearance and performance as we sang.”Brother Jim” had given me a gracious, unassuming gift. The downcastness of his eyes and the simple surety of his voice didn’t require anything from me; no admiration or acknowledgement, he sang simply because God had given him music in his heart and he loved it. He made me want to sing in the same way. And so did the people around me; forgetful of myself, I watched them as we sang, the way their eyes rested easily on whatever was near, unconscious of the opinions or gaze of anyone else. I saw the way their hands tended to reach out to the other hands near them or clasp themselves together during the music. And then I bowed my head when the pastor closed us in prayer.
I closed my eyes and thought hard about what I was feeling and barely could name. But the first word that came was that here, on this night, everything felt real. Real? As if the other parts of my life were fake? No; but that evening there was a unconscious humility, an honesty of circumstance and personality, a free offering up of an unvarnished self that is surprisingly rare in my experience. I realized for the first time in awhile, how self-consciously I live most of my life. I couldn’t help but compare those humble hours to most of the church and ministry, or even modern events of my life; I find them startlingly contrived. Screens and soundboards and professional musicians for worship at church; streamlined sanctuaries and restaurants and malls and houses, all modern, clean, and free of any jolt of unsightliness. There is a showmanship, a self-aware drama to the way we modern people dress and talk and outfit our spaces and bodies. I find a performance aspect to our worship and to the services we attend; to the clothes and personality in which we attend them.
Can I say that the old way is better? Better than the enhanced version of humanity that seems to me to be so prevalent in my time? There are, of course, great aspects to modernity. I value a well-presented person. How can I ever really compare them, or defend the comparative merits of either when, as all people born, I am a child of my age? All I can say is that in that linoleum-floored basement with several dozen old farmers and retirees and their wives and children over a supper of barbecue, there was no pretention. No hipness of style, no varnish of performance or awareness of appearance.
There was just food, and old, plump people, and a sweetly given song and a score of scratchy voices lifted up in an earthy, sacred music. That night I found a welcome ease, an honesty of existence that didn’t require me to perform or project some invented version of myself. In their friendly ease, I found a glimpse of the real, rather comical, slightly unsightly, food and music and chuckle-loving sort of people that I really believe God knows we all are. That I am. In the air-brushed modernity of my age, I think I forget it. I feel watched and critiqued by every eye and I am quick to enter into critique myself. But I forgot to worry about it all that night and found myself far better for admitting my honest self in the presence of other honest selves. I think we are all rather comical, perhaps a little gangly, but the grace is that God loves every part of us, the gangly and the gorgeous. That’s what’s real.
It takes a certain sort of being, a certain set of humble mind to live that out.
I do believe I’ll try.