In the year of Covid, I miss those four walls called church. Imagine my delight when, taking respite up on the mountain, N. and I heard music across the street at the church. Seeing everyone gathering outside, the scene enjoined us to mosey across the lawn and sit. Welcomed by sunshine, leaves whisking on the breeze and good conversation, a friendly usher crossed the street to say hello. Feeling at home, we heard a good sermon and witnessed their ceremonial burning of the mortgage on the new Fellowship Center. Gathering, even as a stranger, feels like home. I left fed and full.
Sensing I had entered a desert in my devotion time, stumbling into the church service was a needed tonic. Morning devotions had become week-old-bread-like—not worth eating and best thrown out for the pigeons. So, changing things up, instead of reading to feed others, I decided to be fed. If anxiety is a response to the unknown, God answered my prayer. Allow me to give thanks to Henri Nouwen for giving me four words used in communion—taken, blessed, broken and given—to help me understand God’s children live in His belovedness.
Those words sank into my consciousness and this old Southerner realized God’s people are a gathering people—taken, blessed, broken and given—all in one reunion. Gathering may or may not have been invented by Southerners. But self-evident is how we have claimed it. Honed, chiseled, sharpened, Southern gatherings are so refined it’s hard to tell the difference until you either hear “how y’all been doin’,” “you may kiss the bride,” “let’s remember Bubba’s life,” or “Go Dawgs, Tigers, War Eagle, roll Tide or wait until next year.” Sometimes you hear’em all.
Southerners know things. What we know is when the gathering ends, those good feelings felt by all come from imbibing in the familial binding of a common table, of soil and seed and season, of name and ancestry. We’ve been fed by more than the fixins and Aunt Dot’s squeeze and the “Do you remember?” conversations and “Good to see y’all” goodbyes. Maybe that’s why newcomers come away using the cliché, Southern hospitality. Good ‘ol boys and girls nod at the term but know better. To us, with all its ritual and dogma and warmth, gathering is church without the four walls and steeple. Sometimes, it’s that, too.
Convinced Covid will pass, there will be a day when we say, “Do you remember…?” We will look back and be glad it’s over. Gathering will bind us again in God’s belovedness and feed us with good feelings. Until then, Christians should know God has the unknown in hand.
For now, we can go on loving neighbor as self and God with all our strength. We can gather with God each morning and give thanks for answered prayers.
And while Covid demands me to give up gathering for now, I will not give up being Southern anytime soon.
“Those who have ears to hear, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15, NKJV).