for Aralee Strange and Word of Mouth, Athens, GA
To this day, given a space between two rows of anything…chairs, people, trees…given an aisle, I am compelled by some strange pull, to walk. And there has to be a song playing, a song sonically and lyrically tuned to that key halfway between longing and guilt. Maybe you know the ones, like:
Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
This is the altar call, in some churches called the Invitation, the point after the sermon in which the preacher steps down from the pulpit into the aisle to invite souls to Christ. The tradition extends even to funerals, the overdressed dead reclining through their last sermon, serving as both congregant and case in point. My first lessons in imagery came from altar calls at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church.
Here’s one: Brothers and sisters, tonight, perhaps you don’t understand the gravity of your indecision. Should you step out that door and meet your death, do you know without a shadow of doubt what will happen to your soul? If you understood how long eternity was you would make sure of your fate. Eternity, my friends, is like a great mountain five miles high. A deathless eagle flies by that mountain once ever century, brushing the tip of one wing to the mountain. Dear brothers and sisters, when that mountain is worn to a pebble by that eagle, eternity will have just begun. Let us pray, with every head bowed, and every eye closed…
So it went, the pastor wrung out his prayer, shuddering to God that He would draw us down the aisle to our salvation. He begged and prayed as we sang, while the verses took a dark turn:
Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing,
Passing from you and from me;
Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming,
Coming for you and for me.
Is it any wonder I kept walking, sweaty and shaky-legged? Three times baptized, countless times “rededicated” to Christ like I was some love song repeatedly called into a radio station by an obsessive ex-boyfriend. I just couldn’t ever get it right, could never feel SAVED. The song said “Just as I Am” but it didn’t mean it. In a relationship involving a savior, for it to work, you must be in constant need of rescue. Loving Jesus felt like loving an ambulance. I started craving a god that didn’t smell like blood, that didn’t want to scare the bejesus out of me to put the Jesus in.
Recently, my mama asked me if I had found a “home church,” you know, because on vacation and while traveling you visit other churches. Your home church is your regular church. I said I wasn’t looking, tried to explain why, but the truth is something else.
I do have a home church. It meets once a month in a blue upstairs room. In something like a dream, my church serves whiskey. My church has attendants and deacons who call the order of worship. Like Revelations, we have a book of names. We have a Strange and wondrous preacher, who unlike others, hands us the pulpit. At times the spirit falls so hard you can almost see it. We say, in our own way, amen and amen. We have confessions and lamentations, we have praise and worship. In our midst we have prophets that cry out against injustice, as loud and wild as John the Baptist. We have ministers of mercy for the broken-hearted. Among us, many have the gift of the Tongue. No hymnal except for what is folded among the page and lungs. No offering plate passed, but your voice is required of you tonight, my friends, along with your ears and your heart.
So now it is time for the Invitation.
With every head raised and every eye open, we call on the Word. In the beginning was the Word and so it remains. Lord Word, maybe there is one among us who is afraid to speak, but who has a poem burning in them to share. Let them come. Let them remember there are others here, yea, even tonight, who have been ministered to by a word, said rightly, read true. Testify if you have seen the word leap across a chasm of grief and sadness to tether another, at least for a moment, to the knotty miracle of life.
Raise your hand if the Word has made you laugh, which is another way to pronounce “Amen.” Who among us has felt joy run like a shiver along your skin, from hearing a poet speak? So let the poets speak. God Word, remind them of the cloud of witnesses that cover them and give them strength…from the nameless bards who wrote in air and smoke to Sister Dickenson, Brother Whitman, Brother Ginsberg, Sister Clifton, Brother Donald. Spirits embodied and unseen lift us in our work. And so, Lord Word, be with us tonight when we leave this place to gather up poetry and bring it back. Until then, go in passion and peace,
Amen and amen.