When I was a child, I would often hear someone singing, “Give Me that Old Time Religion,” but I rarely hear that song anymore. Most people have given up on religion entirely now, or they have shifted their interests to a newer, more modern way to worship. For most people, the old time religion went out with the wringer washers, and I am not sure that we are better situated.
Several months ago, I wrote about the time that I visited Guatemala at Easter time. Guatemala is a natural paradise, but most of its citizens are very poor.
If I had visited Guatemala any time other than when I did, I would have had difficulty saying what I loved most about the country. But my visit was during Easter, and Providence provided me a front row spot, where I witnessed the most incredible display of devotion that I have ever seen in my life.
Apparently, many of the Guatemalans live in the hills outside of the towns, but a day or two before Easter, the people converged upon Antigua and began to prepare to celebrate the crucifixion of Jesus, and the sacrifice made both by Jesus and by his mother, Mary.
To set the stage, allow me to point out that the people did not come and stay in hotels. They did not even have tents. They merely congregated. They brought baskets of food with them and built fires in the street to cook it. If they slept at all, they probably slept where they cooked.
After they arrived for the Easter celebration, the Guatemalans built long wooden frames that stretched from one end of town to the other, and with precision, the Indians filled the frames with intricate designs made of colored sawdust and sand.
And the next day, the men, boys, women, and girls put on their black and purple mourning clothes and lined up for the honor of carrying massive floats THROUGH the incredible designs.
A small band formed and began to play some of the most cacophonous and yet, the most beautiful tweets, honks, thumps, and drones that I have ever heard. I remembered the scripture:
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe. Psalm 150:4
I felt that the honest and plain people of Guatemala were putting their best efforts into offering praise. No doubt, they had saved their very best outfits for this day; yet, the beautiful thing about the ceremony was that there was no pretense at all.
The oldest men were allowed the privilege of standing closest to the statue of Jesus,
And the oldest women were allowed the privilege of standing closest to Mary.
I watched the earnestness with which these people worshiped and offered thanksgiving, and I was ashamed. On Easter Day in Antigua, I had seen a living example of the parable of the Widow’s Two Mites, and I was truly humbled.
The Widow’s Two Mites
21 And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury,2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. 3 So He said,“Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God,[a] but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” Luke 21: 1-4
Allow me to return to my initial comment about the Old Time Religion. In my opinion, most people in America today have too much to return to the spirit of the Old Time Religion.
To this day, no music touches me as much as the old spirituals do.
The original American spirituals were sung by slaves who were tolerating a deplorable existence on earth and who could only hope for a better day–for another home “Over Jordan.”
The slaves sang about the angels that their faith promised would come and carry them home, and that is how they survived the misery of their lives. Even after the slaves were emancipated, they were poor and barely enduring their lives on earth. At that time, there was also an abundance of white people who were living the same way, hand-to-mouth. These were the people who lived the Old Time Religion. The Old Time Religion was made up of people who did not have their heavens on earth [as most of us do now]. During the time of the Old Time Religion, Things had not yet become America’s gods.
Over the course of my own life, various churches have made an impact on me. I have attended church in regular, brick churches and out in natural settings, too. When I was in college, I discovered an old, white, wooden church that was nestled in a forest. I never attended services there; but for a couple of years, I went out to that site every day and just sat. I suppose I meditated–in a very simple way. I remember the first day that I found my old, country altar.
I was driving around the countryside that surrounds Oxford, Mississippi, and as I turned one corner, I spotted an old church that stood like a lighthouse at the end of a long road. I began driving toward the building and the road crunched. My tires chewed and spit gravel from their sides.
As I drove closer to the church, I rolled down my window; and the shade of the forest cooled the air around me. The fresh, pungent smell of the pines pierced my nose, and the dust from my car’s ascent was settling. A smoky haze floated and bits of powdery earth landed on my tongue.
I parked my car and began walking toward the building. Long, splintery boards were nailed to the rough bark of two massive oaks that stood about 15 feet apart. I had been Southern Baptist long enough that I knew that these boards were the buffet where church picnics were served. Standing there, I could smell hot, buttery biscuits, crispy-fried chicken, my grandma’s dumplings, macaroni and cheese, ham so fresh that it almost oinked, and cinnamon-loaded apple pies in homemade crusts.
I walked closer to the little, wooden building and from its white, peeling paint, and the cracks in the mortar that lifted it from the ground, I knew that this old church had certainly been in its spot for many, many years; and something about that made me feel secure.
Two heavy doors stood at the entry of the church, and they were locked; but standing there, I could hear the old, out-of-tune piano plunking and a scant congregation, mostly of old, weak voices, joining and singing, “When We All See Jesus, We’ll Sing and Shout the Victory.”
I am in the process of writing my memoir now, and when I am being honest–when I am speaking from my heart, my closet Old Time Religion slips out. Anyone who has read many of my posts knows that I was born and reared in the rural South. There were very few people in the town where I lived, and my closest neighbors lived on cotton farms that stretched as far as one’s eyes could focus. When I was a child, there was no air conditioner in my Southern Baptist Church, and people fanned themselves with cardboard fans that were mounted on a stick. On one side of the fan, there was an advertisement and on the other side of the fan, there was the old, familiar painting of Jesus.
During the hottest months of summer, our church would hold a revival, and people would be born again and again. To this day, I cannot hear the hymn Just As I Am without standing up and shuffling my feet forward. Just As I Am was the cue to rededicate one’s life to Christ. My grandmother’s church had old-fashioned tent revivals, and not long ago, I wrote something that simply grew out of my experiences when I did live with an Old Time Religion. The piece started one night when I walked downstairs to let my dog go outside, and I noticed the moon.
Full, But Hazy Autumn Moon
by Jacki Kellum
Tonight, the moon is perched high in the sky, directly above the garden–just outside my back door.
Tonight, when I first got downstairs and looked out the sunroom window, my first thought was that it must be the moments just before dawn.
Everything around was fairly brightly lit and the plants that were still brave enough to have continued blooming, after the cool, October air had tucked their neighbors into bed, had a soft, muted, and faintly-colored glow.
Tonight, the moonlight is bright, but this is not one of those hot-light nights like the ones when I used to walk home from church, well after sunset, and the hum of the locusts was so loud that the air seemed to rattle along.
And tonight is not one of those nights when ladies in the church would beat around their faces with cardboard fans that had Jesus painted on them, flapping about their heads like hummingbird wings.
Yes, Lord, tonight’s moonlight is not like that when I used to go to the tent revivals with my grandmother and stand up and sit down, singing Shall We Gather at the River beneath the bare light bulbs that were strung across the top of the tent and dangled.
Tonight’s light is not like that of the summer nights when the neighborhood children and I would dart about the yard, playing tag and hide and seek, running until the sweat could be wrung from our clothes. On those nights, nothing brought more relief than crescents of ice, cold watermelon; homemade ice cream; and tart lemonade poured from large, sweaty glass jars, into rainbow-colored glasses that clinked when they met my teeth. The glasses tasted like aluminum.
No, tonight there is no hot, blaring, bugle-like, jazz-singing summer moon.
Tonight, there is a soft, hazy autumn moon–a cornstarch moon–kissed by honey, hanging in the dark.
Copyright Jacki Kellum October 28, 2015
To this day, I nostalgically long for the Old Time Religion. Very simply, it is part of who I once was, but when I honestly appraise the situation, I realize that for most of us now, that day is gone. The Old Time Religion was only available to people when they had little and when they stood in awe of the prospect of leaving their meager existences on earth and going somewhere else where they believed things would be better. As we drive our shiny, new cars, and live in our palatial homes and as we zip to the Islands or Disneyland now, most of us cannot even imagine a life that could be better.
The sad thing about getting is that the more that we have, the less easily we are impressed. Far too often, more is actually less. It is as though getting is a relentless dance beneath the limbo stick. The more that we get, the higher the stick is raised and the more that it takes to awe us. When we began creating our Heavens on earth, we lost the need for an Old Time Religion, and as I said before, I am not sure that our replacements are improvements.
©Jacki Kellum June 23, 2016