I Love This Story

For those who don’t know, I am an ordained minister, and as such, it was my honor to serve Methodist churches in North Carolina and Georgia (during my seminary days) for over 15 years. And out of all the stories I’ve collected, this is my absolute favorite. In all fairness to the church involved, I won’t mention the name.

But you know who you are. And we had a blast.

file0001542951705Once upon a time, the way all good stories begin, I served a small church with a very good choir. Some members could read music, and others couldn’t. But they had that natural harmony that comes from singing together for years. Even when learning new songs, it only took 2-3 times for them to fall into those natural harmonies that are so common among country choirs and southern gospel quartets.

And as good Methodists, we did something once a week that is vital to any group spiritual endeavor. We went to McDonald’s. In the summer we had ice cream and in the winter we had coffee. And this particular summer night, the choir director noticed an advertisement for McDonald’s Gospelfest. The fact that it was attached to a five foot tall cardboard cutout made it pretty easy to spot. After looking it over for a minute, she turned to me and said, “Preacher, we’ve got a pretty good choir, don’t you think?”

“We have a very good choir,” I agreed.

“You know, we probably wouldn’t come in first or anything, but I bet we could do pretty good in this. I’d love to enter us in this,” she said, her head filled with visions of standing on the stage.

“OK, sign us up,” I said since I sang with them most Sundays.

She looked at the form again. “I would, but I need to see who is interested. Plus, the entry fee is $25.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” I said. “If they want to do it, I’ll bring you a check first thing in the morning.” With that she ordered her ice cream and headed to the table to start the campaign. And to make a long story a little shorter, I brought her the check the next morning, a big smile on my face.

The next month or so we spent a lot of time rehearsing a couple of our best songs. One up tempo piece and a second more contemplative number with some really nice harmony. When word got out hat we had our official entry packet and were going to the regional competition, one member bought the choir new music folders and another member paid to have all the choir robes dry cleaned.

We were gonna be stylin’ for sure.

And I kept smiling.

When the big day came, we headed to the church Greenville, NC. We made for an interesting caravan. We had a Mercedes, an old farm truck, a 10 year old Chevy Cavalier, a Pontiac GTO, and a big old gunboat Buick rolling toward the venue. When we pulled up in the parking lot, one of the passengers in our car (the Cavalier) said, “You could put our whole church in their sanctuary.”

We all piled out, got our new folders and freshly cleaned robes, and made our way to the building. There were a lot of nice people milling around in groups outside, and many of them smiled and waved at us.

I smiled and waved back.

I noticed the choir director looking around, and when a greeter opened the door and let us in, she really started looking around. Within a couple of minutes a nice lady showed us to the Sunday school room we would be using to change into our robes and otherwise make our preparations. Just about the time the door clicked shut, the choir director grabbed my sleeve, moved in close, and said seven words I will never forget.

Preacher, we’re the only white folks here!

I looked at her and said, “I know.” Did I mention I was still smiling?

“Preacher, what are we going to do?” About this time, she was the whitest of the white folks there.

“We’re going to sing,” I said. “I paid $25 to see this.”

“You mean you knew the whole time?”

“Uh-huh. Didn’t you notice the lack of folks with white pigment on the cut out? Didn’t you notice all the happy black people singing to Jesus like singing was going to be outlawed tomorrow?”

She just stared at me. And by this time, so was everybody else.

“Look,” I said, “We are something of a novelty here. But that’s OK because we all have two things in common. We all love Jesus, and we all love to sing. So we’d better get robed up and get out there because we’re number four.”

So, we put on our freshly laundered robes, checked the music in our creaky new black folders, and made our way to the sanctuary. There were a lot of smiles and a few thumbs up from folks as we headed to our assigned seats. “You know,” the director said, “this might not be so bad.” I agreed, and the MC took the stage.

And then the fellow behind the Hammond B3 tore the keyboard off that thing and the first choir just demolished the crowd with their two numbers. They flat turned it loose. As did the second choir. And the third. Pouring out songs like The Blood Will Never Lose Its PowerBless His Holy Name, file000205431503I Just Want to Thank You, Tell It, and The Lord is Blessing me Right Now.

Then, we were up.

And the room went quiet.

Folders opened, the director nodded, and the pianist hit the first chords of Lord Build Me A Cabin in the Corner of Glory Land. Yeah, THAT one. The one written by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.

Did I mention we were really white?

There was no swaying in our group. Plenty of knees knocking. But no swaying. No dancing. Just a bunch of folks out of their element singing what they knew best for God and His people. And that was enough.

When we finished our second song, the congregation applauded. And it wasn’t the kind of applause that said, you folks are in the running. It was the kind of applause that said you got guts, and we’re glad you’re here.

Then, when the last choir finished, the MC called us all up on stage for one last song. The director looked at me and said, “We don’t know that song.” I just smiled a little more and said, “That’s OK. By the time we finish, you will.” And the call and response began.

We didn’t win. We didn’t even place. I think we were the equivalent of Miss Congeniality. But the interesting thing is, it never was about winning. Not for me. It was about the experience (OK, and the fact that I have a mischievous streak). Because what started out as a music competition ended as a full blown worship service where all of God’s people participated, and nobody was out of their element. Oh sure, there were prizes and a chance to move on to the nationals. But there was also a group of folks who got to be the minority for a change. And a larger group of folks who just did what they normally did. Be gracious and love God. And by the time it was over, we were all family. There was lots of back slapping, hugging, and well wishing all around.

You know…

The way things are supposed to be.

Best $25 I ever spent.

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Just Spit It Out

Why do we insist on complicating things or dressing things up to the point they are almost unrecognizable? Countless churches have already jumped on the sermon series bandwagon, pastors having forgotten the mantras of their mothers so many years ago: “If everybody else jumps off of a sermon series, are you going to jump too?

Or something like that.

And don’t think I’m against them, because I’m not. A good series every now and then adds spice to a worship service. I’m just amazed at how many people use the same ones that some of their fellow pastors are using (can you say canned?) with the same points?

But I digress. I understand preachers are competing with a society that lives and dies by the latest fad, the most up-to-date smart phone, the quickest podcast, and  has developed a soundbite mentality. And I know sermon series, contemporary services, movie clips,and increasingly dramatic methods of presentation are almost a necessity these days. I’m knee deep in a similar service myself and loving almost every minute of it.

But sometimes in the excitement and the drive to both reach more people and keep the church relevant (THERE’S a topic for a blog post), we forget the main thing:

The message of the gospel is simple.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. In other words, God loves you so much he sent his son to die for you.

And the best way I’ve found to reach people is simple honesty. Putting whatever the message is in its simplest terms. As a military friend said to me after he cussed out the person who rear-ended his car, “Plain talk is easy to understand. Now he understands he should have been paying attention.”

So you can imagine how stunned I was to hear in the middle of a sermon recently that some people have a food insufficiency. Or when I read articles about rethinking heaven and re-imagining Jesus.

No. It’s not a food insufficiency. There are people who are hungry and they don’t have enough to eat. That’s a fact. Which image paints a true picture, someone who has an insufficiency, or someone who is hungry? And heaven is simply what it is…not whatever concept we come up with that might make the idea a little more palatable to today’s man or woman. If people see heaven as little more than a reward for following Jesus, maybe it is because we have not adequately shown that the reward comes in the following, not from a heavenly carrot dangled in front of us. And the Jesus who died and rose again is Jesus enough. You can’t improve on  that. And if how he lived, how he died, and the fact that he rose again on the third day does not fit with your way of thinking, it is not Jesus who needs to be viewed in a different light.

Such thinking isn’t new, but it seems to be escalating. And I think the problem is a desire to make the message more palatable instead of making it more understandable. We’re afraid of offending people. We’re afraid society will label us as harsh, insensitive, or tell us we’re wrong. In short, we’ve come to the point that the church now lets society dictate the message.

And that’s dangerous.
And wrong.
And that kind of thinking needs to be reimagined.
Because the message is what it is. Jesus is who he is. And there are people out there who have no homes, no food, no family, no friends, no resources, and no hope. Those people do not have an insufficiency. They are people who need.

They need us.

Not a rethought version of what we could have been.