Sometimes Christmas shows up in the most unexpected ways—suddenly ringing an ole tune, echoing off a dusty pew from an old country church long ago. I was a young girl when we’d visit my grandparent’s each summer and Sundays meant goin’ to church time. We’d get up early to make sure our best clothes were ironed and our hair curled. Finally, all dressed up to perfection, we’d make our way over town to the small Methodist Church just in time for worship.
My granddaddy had helped to found the church so his name was under one of the small windows which I thought was pretty special. And, like all the other regulars, we had our chosen pew where we’d always sit. All the pews were made of simple wood and were a bit rickety when you sat down. Up front was a padded kneeling bench and a low railing that we’d use for taking Communion. And hanging up on the wall in front was one of those well–known pictures of Jesus—the one where he has long dark hair and he’s gazing upward. Being a one–room church, there wasn’t an organ but, rather, an old piano someone had donated. Some of the keys didn’t play and others would stick off and on so, when the piano player would fall behind a bit, well, we’d just all sing a little louder.
Sometimes there’d be a choir made up of maybe six to eight folks. Funny thing though, several couldn’t carry a tune too well and one dear woman, Miss Mammie Lee, liked to stand up front and sing the loudest. She always seemed to get started a little late and her lone voice would hang in the silence just after the music had stopped. When I was very young, I’d have to squeeze my belly in hard and hold my breath tight to keep from laughing!
Oh, but it’d be a lifetime before I could close my eyes and remember the slightly slivered feel of the rickety pew, hear the just barely–off piano keys ringing loud, and see those choir faces, and only then need to breathe deep to hold in and keep alive all the tender, sweet, memories spilling over the edges of my heart. Over the years, it’s been especially poignant to remember Miss Mammie Lee with her imposing, unrestrained and undiluted voice ringing out. Just the memory of it stirs something so true in me—and I could imagine, perhaps, for all of us as we each time, smiling dutifully, always tried to show our appreciation. Maybe it was something about how, when it comes to worship, just our simple authentic self, not perfection, is quite enough. I don’t know but it seemed to me that by just being who she was and doing what she was doing, she taught us all something about what was really important.
On one Sunday, when I was home from college, my grandmother and I got to go to church alone. On that particular day, the choir led us in the opening hymn, How Great Thou Art, my grandmother’s favorite. As we all stood, I put my arm around her shoulder and together we sang it out—loud, with Miss Mammie Lee leading the way of course. And I cried the whole time. My grandmother had been my saving grace growing up and I knew I’d be etching out this short time deep into the most sheltered place I could possibly find for safekeeping.
Oh Lord, my God
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.
I see the stars. I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed . . .
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee
How great Thou art . . . How great Thou art . . .
So, today, some fifty years later, I find myself right there in the old church again, standing and singing with my grandmother, and hearing just beyond our own loud voices, Miss Mammie Lee’s sweet echo.
I know in these days of mega–churches with their enamored buildings, organs, his and her choirs, and, of course, around–sound digitized music, such a memory of an old country church may feel quite antiquated. True. Still, I’d give all the world for just one more Sunday—to sit on the rickety seat–worn pew, to sing along with the sticky piano keys and, most of all, to get to hear Miss Mammie Lee once again.
I do believe it would be an awesome wonder.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Here is a picture of the original Methodist Church in Lauderdale, Mississippi.