I drove out of Birmingham a little ways to meet my friend. I watched the interstate give way to pine trees. Pine trees gave way to farmland. Farmland gave way to cattle pastures.
Somewhere deep in the sticks, my GPS went to be with the Lord.
It was Sunday morning. I found the little building just where my friend said it would be. He was standing in the parking lot waiting for me, leaning against his car, reading a newspaper.
Families were crawling out of mud-covered vehicles. Little girls wore dresses. Young men wore sport coats.
“Thought you’d never get here,” my friend said.
“I lost phone reception,” I said. “My GPS quit working.”
“Welcome phone purgatory,” he said with a smile. “Why do you think I’m reading a paper?”
We walked inside together. It was an old building. There was no microphone, only wooden ceilings, wooden floors, wooden walls, and wooden pews. America was founded in wooden rooms like this.
I have been to Philadelphia and toured the ancient wooden rooms that hosted talks between men who were traitors to the Crown. The talks that began a nation, indivisible, with liberty and free online shipping for all. Those rooms looked like this one.
I sat in a pew. I placed my hands in my lap.
Most people in the chapel were white-haired. We sang songs from old hymnals. My friend, his daughter, and I shared a hymnal which was bound with duct tape. There were crayon drawings in the front pages from some hapless hand that doodled in this hymnal long before Calvin Coolidge was born.
After the singing, a 12-year-old girl played the violin for the “message in song.” She played “Shall We Gather at the River?”and did a nice job. Although, the girl’s mother leaned and whispered to me that when her daughter practices each evening the neighbors usually call the authorities to report a dying feline on the premises.
The ushers took up the offering, which only lasted about four or five seconds, inasmuch as there were only 14 people in the room.
Then the preacher took the pulpit.
His wife helped him up hobble up the creaky steps. My friend leaned over to whisper to me. He told me that the old preacher had fallen a few times recently and needed his wife for support.
Don’t we all.
The pulpiteer delivered a slam-bang sermon. It was primarily the shoutin’ kind. The kind of preaching that the revivalists of olden times used to deliver at camp meetings. The kinds of passionate perorations young men are afraid to preach these days.
“Love thy neighbor!” was how the old man began with a mighty shout. “WHO is your neighbor?!”
And so on.
Then he offered an invitation.
Boy, howdy. It’s been a while since I’ve witnessed an actual invitation—the part of the service where a preacher invites sinners to walk down front and confess their most heinous crimes before God and cousin.
This is the crucial part of the ceremony where most visitors leave so they can beat the Presbyterians to Piccadilly.
Our invitations used to be the longest parts of my boyhood church services. They were extremely awkward because anyone who walked down the aisle was basically admitting that their life was screwed up. So most of the time, nobody came forward. Nobody wants to admit their lives are a mess.
Still, we always did the invitation. Just in case. Because you never knew. What if someone in the congregation was on the brink of suicide? What if someone needed help? What if?
Today, however, invitations are pretty rare. A friend of mine is a mainstream minister with a trendy haircut and a distaste for the invitation.
He recently emailed me an article which stated that many U.S. churches have stopped “inviting” parishioners forward at the end of service for prayer or help because it’s just too uncomfortable.
“It sends the wrong message,” said the article.
Which might be true. I’m no expert. Church can be a strange business when you think about it. It can be an Us-versus-Them club. But if we put all that dogma aside for a moment, the fact was, back during the Great American Childhood, the invitation was the only part of the service that actually mattered.
Because if the church wasn’t helping people get through their own personal hell, then what in the name of Gloria Gaither were we doing?
I once walked forward during an invitation. This happened shortly after my father shot himself with a hunting rifle. Everyone in the church knew why I was going down. And nobody was surprised when I began weeping on the heart-pine steps.
I came forward because I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think. I couldn’t do anything.
The preacher knelt beside me and cried with me. He asked nothing of me. He forced me to say no prayers. He didn’t slap his King James and call me a reprobate. He just placed a warm hand upon my shoulders and cried.
And when I glanced behind myself, the entire church had their hands resting upon me. Those who couldn’t reach me were touching the shoulders or elbows of those who were touching me. Together, the whole church formed a human spiderweb, stretching into the lobby, and probably out to the Piccadilly.
I don’t know if anything magic happened that day, but today I can still feel their prayers.
When the country church service was over, the rural preacher led us in a round of hymn number 249, “Love Lifted Me.”
“Love lifted me,
“Love lifted me,
“When nothing else could help,
“Love lifted me.”
And I’m here to tell you that it did.