I didn’t preach on Sunday, October 13.
My friend Amy Butler was in town and I thought it would be a treat for the congregation to hear her. She’s kind of famous, having recently finished a five-year stint as Senior Minister of the world-renowned Riverside Church in New York City where she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bill Moyers, Cornel West, John Legend, Neal Patrick Harris, and Adele. She preached a great sermon, and everybody seemed happy to hear her, but after spending the morning in the spotlight with a celebrity preacher I was ready for something a little different.
So, Christy and I drove to Boykins, Virginia, an hour-and-a-half away, to join our daughter Catherine and her husband Scott for a pancake supper and hymn sing at Boykins Baptist Church, where Scott is the pastor. It was drizzling rain when we got there, and so we hurried through the side door and into the fellowship hall just as Scott finished the blessing. “And here are my in-laws!” he announced.
It reminded me so much of my first church—New Castle Baptist in Kentucky. The names and faces were different but it could have been the same people sitting around those tables in the fellowship hall. And so, after hugging Scott and Catherine, I went from table to table introducing myself and learning about them. Eventually somebody brought me a plate of pancakes, bacon, and stewed apples and I sat down beside Scott to eat and talk “shop.”
“How did things go this morning?” I asked.
“Good!” he said. “It’s been a good day in church. How about you?”
“The same,” I said, forking in a mouthful of pancakes, and then, a minute later, “But we didn’t have this! We didn’t have a pancake supper and hymn sing!”
It really was perfect.
Everybody was talking around the tables. One woman got up out of her chair to come over and sit beside my mother-in-law, Lu, who had come with us. They started up a conversation and within minutes were laughing out loud about something. Christy was talking with Catherine. I was talking with Scott. Children were doing laps around the fellowship hall. The pancake chef (who was also the deacon chair) came out of the kitchen wiping his hands on his apron to ask if anybody wanted more.
Eventually someone sat at the piano to play hymns and (here was a surprise) someone else sat down with a cello. For nearly an hour we called out the numbers of our favorite hymns as these two musicians accompanied us (beautifully) and we sang from hearts full of love and heads full of memories in an old Baptist church by the side of the road in Boykins, Virginia.
Driving home afterward I began to feel wistful, remembering the days when I was a young pastor in a small-town church. Was life really so much simpler then, or did it only feel that way, looking back? I know Scott has had to deal with some fairly complex issues in his two years at Boykins. He calls me from time to time asking, “Have you ever had to deal with anything like this?” The life of a pastor is not easy, no matter where you are. But it sure was sweet, on that rainy Sunday night, to gather in the fellowship hall with the church family to eat pancakes and sing hymns, and a good reminder that the best things about church have nothing to do with celebrity preachers or spotlights. The best things are simple, and good, and true.
And always have been.