Keep me honest…

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.

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10 Comments

Filed under Contemplations

10 responses to “Keep me honest…

  1. Ashley

    Dear Sarah,

    We met at the WWM’ s conference in Dallas ( I brought you the pearl “S”). I read your blog often ( and love it) but this is the first time I have commented. Simply put, thank you for putting into words what has been in my heart for well over a year. I, too, long for worship without the hype and with the honest and humble offerings unto the Lord. I find myself seeking and yearning for the company of those you described who may not draw the biggest crowds, may not have the “cutting edge-stay current with culture programs or jargon”- but those who have wisdom etched into their hearts by walking with Jesus during the daily life and who have persevered through trials and tribulations and can share that wisdom that goes well beyond a formal or advanced education. I am going to read your posting again. I praise God for your gift of writing which points to the narrow way which leads to life. Bless you! Ashley

  2. Emily

    Sarah, What church were you attending? It sounds remarkably similar to something we might do in my church, and i’ve seldom heard of anyone else addressing people as “Brother” and “Sister.”

  3. Love it! I’d say, when we do fellowship, in a real sense, It’s like a sweet taste of what we can look forward to when we go Home. I love it when we call one another in Christ brother or sister. It is rare though. Fellowship like this is rare. My husband and I went to a church in California that was like this. Such sweet fellowship. That is why I love the authenticity of you and your mamma’s blog.

    Thank You, Sarah.

    Carrie.

  4. Sarah,

    When Linda and I first moved to WS, we became a part of a small rural country church about 3 miles from the house that was a whole lot like the one you just desctribed. It was a wonderful to be a part of a small family of Christians who were, for the most part, people who made some or most of their living from the land they lived on. Most were very independent, very conservative, very down to earth, and very unpretentious. Our church meals were like large family gatherings and, just as you described, usually ended with something kind of special. The food that showed up on the table was some of the best anywhere in the world! It was all home made for scratch as there were no fast food places to run to to buy a particular type of food for the meal. Unfortunately, time and “modernity” took its toll on our little congregation of 40. The little church eventually disbanded and everyone went their own ways to become a part of much larger congregations much farther from home with many more ministry opportunities, and ways to serve and be served. Large numbers of members where you can kind of get lost in the crowd. I love the congregation we are now in that is a 35 mile drive for us, but, it is not the same as that little fellowship of believers three miles from the house where everyone knew everyone and we used the words “Brother ____’ and “Sister ______” whenever we addressed another member of the family of God in that building. I am afraid that the “good old days” really were the “good old days” when it come to these small congregations because they are fast becoming a thing of the past.

    Tell everyone hi for us and we hope y’all can come down for Kathie’s wedding Sept 27th.

  5. That was tremendously well described, and you expressed your feeling of it just right, it seems. Thanks for it.

  6. Laure

    seems to me that you were given a gift that night, sarah. like when one’s heart finds its true home (this side of heaven) in the body. sometimes it is only after we’ve had an experience like that one that we can speak most honestly and evocatively about who we are and where we stand.

    what i so appreciate about your account is that in the presence of speaking your truth … there is a whole lotta tenderness and love.

    yes, the church for the most part is modernized and looking more like the world by the minute. yes, there are many wrinkles and creases in the body of Christ where performance and conformity and critiquing have supplanted real family-of-God love and unity and just plain being together.

    i suppose that having one’s eyes opened to something like this is really, at the end of the day, about being given the opportunity to love and pray for what is broke. i say all this because i’ve lived it … from soup to nuts, if you will. i understand the journey some. so if i may, i think i’ll just saddle up next to ya, fall to my knees and pray …..

  7. This has been my first “blog stop” of the day. Thank you for the precious cup of sweetness and truth. I belive I shall leave this computer now and contemplate the truth you have been given and freely shared. Thank you.

  8. Sarah

    It heartens me to know you all sense the same things. Thanks for your words. Sometimes its nice to know there are other minds thinking the same thoughts. Now we just need to figure out how to help eachother carry out all these things simmering just below the surface.

    Emily – It was just a little southern church, I don’t even remember the denomination as I was just visiting. First Christian or something like that. I think it was by virtue of its small, local, southern culture that it felt so communal.

    Ashley – Thank you for commenting! I have your “S” on my wall and see it every day with a very delighted heart. I so agree with your words and pray we will both keep seeking that true community.

    Carrie- I agree! It really is a taste of heaven, I think because when we fellowship like that we’re a little closer than when we are our usual, modern, isolated selves.

    Uncle Wiley- That church sounds like the sort of small, local community that I read and dream about and almost can’t imagine finding. I will keep hoping for it though. I love what you said about the meals – I really think there is something reflective of heaven in our fellowshipping and especially feasting together as believers. And I am definitely hoping to come down for the wedding!

    Steve- Thank you! It’s good to know the feeling (that I was actually having a hard time articulating to myself at the time) really did come through. Thanks for stopping by.

    Laure – You are a thousand times over welcome to “saddle up next to me and pray”, I love the way you put that. And I’m with you. We’ll have to pray and ponder and hope all of us together. Thanks for your words.

    Debbie- You encourage me so much. Thank you for letting me know your heart!

  9. Dillon

    Thank you so much, Sarah, for this beautiful post and for your weblog. I have never seen a blog that is so nourishing to the soul — except maybe your mother’s! I was fortunate enough to discover you recently, and I’m delighted. You feel like a kindred spirit; I was also homeschooled all my life, though not in a Christian home. That didn’t keep me from feeling drawn to Christ all my life, though! I am now 27 and a young mother, in need of just the kind of heart and soul that is in your blog and your mother’s books. Blessings to you from the hills of Pennsylvania!

  10. Beth M

    Memories of growing up in a small church in Wisc., and many church potlucks in musty basements were rekindled reading your blog. I’m just back from 10 days with my parents and their many (somewhat aged) church friends, who fellowship in such a pure, caring way, that it makes me wish, too, for a way we can duplicate that to some degree today. They live in reality, and though there can be struggles, are more content than this current generation of ours. I also observe with age and wisdom, striving seems to cease, and they are comfortable with themselves and what’s real. It is refreshing for sure.

    Hope all is good. When are you going to start on your digital books???!!!

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