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.

I Miss The Bags

file000450585184As the interim Praise Team Leader at my church, December 24th found me playing guitar for our “family friendly” Christmas Eve service (the first of three that night). I also had a moment when I wondered if the other two services were less family friendly, had a two drink minimum, and featured a comic who started his routine with, “Two Jews walk into an inn…”

But I digress.

It was all very nice. We had shepherds and wise men in the requisite bathrobes, angels, Mary, Joseph, a real baby, candles, and we sang traditional Christmas carols. All to celebrate the most famous birth in history. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, because Christmas Eve services are my favorite.

But I missed Santa and the paper bags.

A lot of people don’t know about Santa Claus and the paper bags. Then again, not everybody grew up poor.

When I was a little boy, Christmas programs at the church were a little different than they are today. Oh sure, we acted out the nativity story in all its bathrobed glory and heralded the birth of the savior of the world with a plastic baby doll (often with a light bulb strategically hidden in the manger so we would know this was no ordinary baby). We would gather in the sanctuary, listen as the scriptures were read, watch as the holy procession came out mostly on cue, giggle as a shepherd or two picked their noses, and see an angel’s underwear when she got bored and pulled the hem of her angel dress up over her head.

Then, we would hear the jingling of bells followed by the unmistakable Ho Ho Ho of the second most important figure of Christmas (hey, we were Santakids): Santa Claus.

And Santa had a sack full of paper bags, all of which contained the most amazing Christmas treasures imaginable. Each small paper bag had an apple, an orange, lots of nuts (Brazil nuts, almonds, hickory nuts, and pecans), candy (Mary Janes, assorted hard candy, and a box of candy cigarettes), and a toy (a 25¢ cap pistol and a box of caps for the boys and a tiny plastic troll doll with frizzy hair for the girls). After we climbed on Santa’s knee and told him that we essentially wanted everything in the back half of the Sears catalog, he Ho Ho Hoed his way down the aisle and passed out the bags.

Back then those bags represented a special Christmas treat before his big appearance a few nights later. Today, with the perspective of half a century lived since those days, those bags represent something much more magical.

They represent the sacrifice of farmers, plant workers, bread truck drivers, and little old ladies (my grandmother included) who took in sewing to make a little extra money, all so a handful of children who most certainly wouldn’t be getting everything on their Christmas lists, would have a special Christmas treat. Those bags came from adults who didn’t have much in the way of money, but were wealthier than any billionaire in matters of the heart.

No, the piano wasn’t in tune, and yes, the pageant was less than perfect (then again, not having been at the original nativity scene, I can’t say for fact that no angels showed the assembled crowd their pink bloomers and no shepherds farted on a plastic sheep then rolled on the floor laughing while his mother prayed for the floor to open up and swallow her whole). But in those bags from a pillow-stuffed Santa who smelled suspiciously of Dutch Masters cigars, was a gift equal to the finest gold, frankincense, and myrrh. For in those simple offerings of nuts, candy, and trinkets was a massive sacrifice of love.

As I go back in time and look through the window of a small white clapboard church out in the country, I still get a true sense of the meaning of Christmas. The true spirit of giving.

And don’t get me wrong. We had a meaningful service in the here and now.

But I missed those bags.