Old Time Religion, Revisited

     Anyone who has bothered to read any of my essays concerning contemporary Christian (using that term very loosely) music knows how I feel concerning that very sensitive subject. Not desiring to flog a dead horse nor rehash wild accusations, I wish to move on and rejoice when one of those increasingly rare moments occurs when singers, souls, spirits, minds, music, melodies, and songs happen to blend into a spiritual oneness which creates an atmosphere of simple yet elegant, spontaneous, joyous, heartfelt, sincere, and meaningful worship of our Creator.
     In our church, we members address one another as “brother” or “sister,” so as I meander through this story, fellow members to whom I refer will be named as such. If this is strange, weird, offensive, or unusual to you, please forgive our trespasses and just count it as a charmingly antiquated method of communication. Be aware, however, that the custom is traceable back to the Bible and the days of the apostles and the belief that the church is the family of God on Earth.
     Three months or so ago, Sister Audrey Thomas, a devout member of our church, approached Shirley and me about participating in a singing group which would be emphasizing the classic gospel songs of yore (You know, those songs that apparently no one under the age of forty knows.) Sister Audrey was getting a group together at the invitation of a fellow church in Edna, Texas, a small community about 100 miles southwest of Houston down US Highway 59. The folks from that area visited our church a few months ago and enjoyed such a good reception that the invitation to reciprocate was extended. The strange thing is, Shirley and I don’t remember their visit at all, and we’ll usually sing an old song at the drop of a hat, so we concluded that we must have been out of town when the blessed event took place.
     Anyway, it was our time to be the singers, and Sister Audrey was on a mission. We began to meet on Wednesday evenings an hour before church time in the fellowship hall of our church and practice the songs that Shirley and I had been singing and playing musically for fifty plus years. Shirley was our pianist and I strummed my guitar, so, at least in the beginning, we furnished the music while the other volunteers learned the songs. They needed Shirley, because she is apparently the only pianist (other than my mother-in-law) in a twenty mile radius of the church who can play a gospel song out of a songbook. (Now, for those who didn’t know this, there was a time when people in church actually sang gospel songs out of real, honest-to-goodness song books, provided free by the church. You just picked them up, turned to the correct page, and sang right out loud. It was awesome!) However, since we come as a package, they had to put up with my guitar playing also.
     When we first began practicing, it was in the dead of summer, and the fellowship hall was blazing hot when we practiced. Coupled with that was the fact that our volunteer singers were volunteering at a very slow pace. The first few sessions were a little discouraging, and I confided to Shirley that I wondered if this gig would ever get off the ground. We plowed through twenty or more songs during a practice, but with few voices and stifling heat, by the time we finished, we were almost too tired for church. But the songs were the old songs we had cut our teeth on as children, and I will debate with anyone that the simplest of these old songs has more depth, spirit, and meaning and any of these new “Christian” creations with their non-rhythmic, non-rhyming melodies with seventeen chord changes. Oops, there I go. Sorry. Anyway, even with the heat and limited numbers of singers, the old songs carried a message that inspired worship.
     But we continued to practice, and things picked up when Brother Trini Hernandez began attending on a regular basis. Sister Audrey had anointed Brother Trini as the lead singer, and it was a good choice. Trini had managed his own band and played the local bars for over thirty years until God miraculously changed his life several years ago. A big, burly guy equipped with a quick smile and a ready laugh, his positive attitude is contagious and his testimony inspiring. He is one of those people whom you instantly like upon meeting. He has that instinctive ability to sing well and project a spirit of worship while doing so.
     Sister Audrey, of course, was still the ringleader of this band of carolers, and when Brother Trini did not sing a song in the way she wanted, she was quick to make him stop and start over. More than once she asked us to stop the music and let Trini sing without music or other singers so she could make sure he sang it right. Trini would graciously smile…and sing the song to her approval. I suggested that when Trini made a mistake that we all stop, point at Trini, and yell, “That’s wrong!,” but Sister Audrey thought that was a little extreme. Anyway, we had a good laugh, and everyone kept a good spirit.
     As we drew closer to our date with destiny, more people began to join our little ensemble, and by the time we left for Edna, we had a good sized group of singers, three guitars, a bass guitar, a saxophone, and a set of drums. When I first saw the drums a couple of practices before we left, my heart sank. I am convinced that the decline of Christian music began when a music director somewhere said, “Hey, man, let’s put some drums up there and see what happens!” I have since learned that drums can be very beneficial to certain church music if played with the idea of complementing the other instruments, but unfortunately the guy with the sticks usually tries to dominate the musical sound, and the effect is devastating to the spiritual impact of the music. Let me just say that when the time came for our presentation in Edna, our drummer (whose name I forget) was very complementary.
     On a recent Saturday, our date with infamy finally came. We assembled at the church, loaded our gear into two large vans, and prepared to move out. We had to take all our instruments and sound gear with us because the meeting was to be at a civic center in Edna. Apparently the church would have a keyboard for Shirley, but the rest of the instrumentation was up to us. We had been unsure of the starting time and length of the service, but Sister Audrey told us the starting time would be at 6:00 p.m….and we were leaving at 2:00 p.m. for a two hour trip. I had understood that there would be several singing groups there, but it turned out that we were the main attraction. Fortunately, we had practiced at least 25 songs. As we were loading up, Sister Audrey put a chest of ice water in our van…and then told us we couldn’t drink any of it because “it was for emergencies.” Right after that, she told us that we could talk amongst ourselves only for the first thirty minutes of travel. After that we had to pray the rest of the way. Though anxious to be responsive to the spirit, we decided that if we prayed for the additional hour and a half it would take us to get to Edna, and then have two additional hours once we got there to pray, we would be so spiritual that we would not even need to have a singing service, and we could go back home. So that we would have some worship in our tanks to use during the service, we sort of coasted and meditated on the way to Edna. Besides, Brother Trini kept laughing.
     Arriving in Edna, we drove to the address given us…and there was nothing there. It took us awhile, but we finally discovered that our address was “north” and not “south.” The civic center turned out to be very nice, spacious, and ideal for our use. Chairs had been set out, and there was a nice keyboard. Shirley prefers a piano, but this was a good quality keyboard, and, after finally getting all the slides and settings right, it sounded fine. There were approximately 100 people in attendance, along with the local pastor and his wife, Reverend and Sister Yancey, and the UPC District Presbyter, Brother Kite and his wife.
     A touching thing occurred while we were in the process of warming up. Shirley was breaking in the keyboard, and I was limbering up my fingers on my guitar. Sister Yancey came up to me with tears in her eyes, and said when I played my guitar it sounded just like her late father when he played his guitar. She wanted to know if it was all right to take a video of me playing. Of course I said that would be fine. She then called her sister on her phone and told her to “watch this,” and then held the phone up to video my playing. Brother Yancey mentioned in his testimony later how his wife appreciated my guitar playing. Don’t get me wrong…I am not the greatest guitarist in these parts; I have a simple style of playing which produces a sort of steel guitar sound. Apparently her father was on the same skill level I am. I was glad I was able to bring back some memories for her.
     At 6:00 the music started, and to make a long story short, we barely took a breath for nearly three and a half hours. We sang them all…

(1) He’s All I Need
(2) I Will Bless Thee, Oh Lord
(3) Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus
(4) Peace in the Midst of the Storm
(5) Jesus is the Sweetest Name I Know
(6) I Have Decided to Follow Jesus
(7) Let’s Talk about Jesus
(8) Come and Dine
(9) I Feel Like Travelling On
(10) We Have Come into This Place
(11) Heavenly Sunlight
(12) What A Day That Will Be
(13) Because He Lives

     The above list is about half of the songs we sung and played. And let me tell you, the spirit and worship began with the first song and did not end until the last one. We sang and played for an hour and a half before we stopped for a moment. Presbyter Kite spoke for about fifteen minutes and preached liked they used to preach. Not once during the entire three and a half hours did we hear someone say, “Let’s give Him a handclap of praise!” Didn’t have to…the praise was coming anyway. I can remember that when we were growing up, it would have been considered out of order to give applause to anything or anyone. Spontaneous handclapping was common during worship, but "applause" was nonexistent. When we Pentecostals went to the Music Hall for a gospel concert, we did not applaud the singers, because it was considered secular. Shirley and I never heard applause in a church until we moved back from Wyoming in 1991. By that time some Pentecostals had been watching the mega-churches on television and apparently thought applauding everything that moved was cool, and our churches adopted the practice. Successful mega-churches which have only a message of self-empowerment have had a far greater influence on Pentecostal assemblies in the areas of music, management, and praise than we would ever care to admit. God help us if we adopt the message. Forgive me…I digressed again.
     Into the second hour of the service, we began to have personal testimonies along with greetings from Pastor Yancey. There had been a couple of prayer requests, and finally a prayer line was formed, and everyone, including us musicians, went through the prayer line to receive healing or blessing. The singing continued, and the enthusiasm never seemed to wane. We musicians played until our fingers ached, but we enjoyed every minute. The simplicity of the worship, the enthusiasm of the singers and musicians, and the power of the spirit approached those days of the Rocky Mountain Camp Meeting of years past. I was amazed that when I took time to look at the crowd, everyone appeared to be singing (with no books)…because the songs were simple, powerful, and meaningful.
     By near 9:30, the service had run its course, and after a final word from Brother Yancey, we were dismissed. Naturally, the time honored tradition of eating came next, and we were taken to another hall where yummy baked potatoes, salad, desserts, and refreshments were in abundance. We ate and talked far more than we should have, but the food was good and the fellowship better. I enjoyed chatting with Brother James Thomas. I did not realize he was a roofer. Since my dad was a roofing contractor in Baytown for 40 years, I grew up on roofs and still feel a certain kinship to roofers. Finally around 10:30 we reloaded the vans and headed home. As we were leaving, we asked Sister Audrey if we could have some of the water now that she had forbidden earlier. She laughed. With all the food and the two hour drive back home, as a safety precaution (!) we stopped at Buc-Ees on the way back to get some decent coffee to sustain us along the way. I noticed several people got other items to sustain them on the way home, even though we had just enjoyed a big meal. In the interest of decorum, I won’t say who got what, but nobody starved on the way home, that’s for sure. We rolled into the church parking lot about 12:30 a.m. We were tired, but we had enjoyed a great evening. Shirley and I felt closer to more good members of Bethel Tabernacle, and once more we were thankful to be a part of a great church family.