As I leave this morning to preach at my church, I can’t help but wish I were back in coastal Mississippi today. I wish I were back home, to pay honor to a seventieth birthday. It’s not for a parent or a grandparent or a friend, but for a congregation, the place where I met Christ and heard the gospel: Woolmarket Baptist Church.
My sons will soon be awake, dressing for church, but by “church” they have very different mental images than those that shaped me. To me, a church still ought to smell like that one, like a mixture of new carpet and old lady. I still hear those Fanny Crosby gospel songs playing in my head, and I still can feel myself marching through the front doors, flag in hand, for the Vacation Bible School pledges, the closest thing we had to a liturgy or a calendar of the Christian year.
My sons don’t have any idea how big a deal this church is for me. They’ve visited but to them it was just one more church, except unusual in that Daddy wasn’t preaching. But to me it was everything. And to them, though they’ll probably never know it, it will mean everything too.
I sit down at night to read the Bible to them, and I guess they assume I just sprung into existence knowing and believing that ancient book. But I didn’t. I learned those King James memory verses there in Woolmarket’s Sunday school rooms. And there I learned to here in them the ring of truth. I pray with my sons at night and they probably assume I just always knew to do so. But it was there, at Woolmarket Baptist Church, from those people where I first heard prayers, sometimes standing over offering plates or sick lists. My sons hear me preach every week, but it was in that little pulpit that I preached my first sermon, six minutes, covering the whole canon, followed by a round of vomiting (mine, not, that I know of, the congregation’s, though I wouldn’t blame them).
My sons will go to church this morning, but the people at Woolmarket Baptist Church taught me to want to have a church to come home to.
In a very real sense, my boys are being reared by the church in which we are now members. But they’re also being reared by a church full of people they’d never recognize, many of whom are now dead.
Sometimes we tend to think of “church” generically as a synonym for Christians, some invisible blob of everyone who believes the same facts about Jesus or who follows the same principles from the first century. Yes, the church is the transnational, transgenerational Body of Christ, the redeemed of all of the ages. But the church expresses itself in this age in local, palpable gatherings of believers in covenant with one another.
I don’t idealize Woolmarket Baptist Church. There were not only those worship services and prayer gatherings; there were also business meetings that more closely resembled “Question Time” in the British House of Commons than anything from the New Testament, except when they resembled a round of mixed martial arts. But the churches at Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and Antioch were riddled with carnality and hypocrisy too, as was the church at Jerusalem who is the mother of us all. Nonetheless, through it all, Jesus was there.
Spiritually speaking, my Father, the God of Jesus Christ, is perfect; my Mother, that local church, was not. But she loved me, and, in her own frail way, she told me the truth.
One day my children will, if the Lord wills, have children of their own. Their children will ask them, “Where did you come from?” I hope they take them to this big congregation in Louisville where they learned to see the gospel in visual form. But I hope too that they’ll take those children to see a little red brick church in coastal Mississippi. They don’t know a soul there, but that church helped raise them too.
Happy anniversary Woolmarket Baptist Church. This son rises up to call you blessed.