TITLE: Southern Fried Ego
By Kerry Peresta
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After twenty-plus years in the advertising field, scurrying to meet deadlines and make clients happy, I was overjoyed when my husband received a job offer that would double his income and effectively allow me to retire.
We relocated to South Dakota and settled into a perfectly lovely house on the prairie.
I worked like crazy unpacking, putting final touches on our new home, and exploring the community. In about three weeks, I spun out. When I awoke in the mornings, I had no plan for the day.I found myself uncomfortably conversant about Fox News, countless NCIS episodes and even switched on Oprah a time or two. I was disgusted with myself. Was this what retirement felt like? If so, I needed to rearrange something. Our church’s Pastor had approached me a few times about filling a need for a part-time Education Director, and since this seemed the only relevant position available that would not involve deadlines and selling media, I accepted. Besides, I thought, I could serve God full-time now! A dream come true!
Seven fantasy-busting months later, I have come to the conclusion that folks called to serve in church as paid employees are a different breed.
Over the past few months I have organized marriage seminars, discussed the finer points of overhead projectors with technicians, begged teen-agers to babysit on a Saturday so our young parents could attend church events peacefully, reviewed countless curriculum for various seasons of life for Sunday School classes or mid-week groups, written press releases, brochure copy and anything else needed; filled in as as substitute teacher, arranged chairs in classrooms because the custodial staff has overlooked the task, cleaned up a huge kitchen after a churchwide birthday or anniversary celebration, stood guard over hundreds of donuts in danger of being scooped up by 5-year olds that didn’t know the meaning of ‘just one’, and, well, you get the idea. The job is rather...amorphous...and when one works for a church, how do you say no to stuff? How ungodly would that look?
The icing on the proverbial cake was spread rather thick last week when my Pastor asked if I would fill in for him at a couple nursing homes in the area. My antennae responded by quivering uncontrollably, but I shoved the sensation aside and told him I would pray about it. He glanced down at the floor, shifted his weight from side to side and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Okay,” he smiled, gamely. “Just need to know something by Monday.” I had a weekend to pray/mull it over.
Saturday morning I head for my prayer corner and settle in, beginning with the usual structure God and I have developed for our prayer conversations together, and after a few minutes I realize I am steadfastly avoiding asking him about the nursing home thing. I try to talk to him about it (I am one of those people who pray out loud...I tend to fall asleep if I try to pray silently) and the conversation goes something like this:
Me: “Well, Lord, I guess I need to ask you about Pastor’s request...”
God: “Um..hmmm I was wondering when you’d get to that.”
Me: “Well, since you already know all about it, what do you think, Lord, I mean...”
God: “What’s the problem?”
Me: “Well, I don’t know what to talk to them about, and what if I get tongue-tied and...”
God: “You remind me of Moses. He didn’t much like an opportunity I laid before him, either.”
Me; “So, this is an opportunity YOU have put before me?”
God: Smiles. Waits. (Or at least I imagine this is what He is doing.)
Me: Big Sigh. “Okay, I know when there is silence, this is something I ought to figure out without big lightning bolts or something but...”
God: “Well, daughter, if not you, then who would you have me send?”
Immediately Isaiah 6:8 comes to mind: “Here am I Lord, send me!” I feel a churning in my stomach. I have a few more tussles with God over the next two days. Monday morning my Pastor drops by my office to follow up on his request. By this time I know that God is asking me to do this and I say yes and smile, even though inside I am shrieking “No! No!” and trying to hide under my desk. My Pastor expresses his heartfelt thanks. When he leaves, I glance upward and resist shaking my fist. I shrug, knowing that God has indicated He’ll meet me in this endeavor, and besides I have a week to prepare. Should be just fine. I feel faint stirrings of pride because of my obedience.
Over the next few days, I pick out a few songs to share before my little talk. Might as well do a whole mini-service, and Pastor had told me they like music. I play a little piano, and sing even less, but I figured their lusty and enthusiastic voices would more than make up for my vocal ineptitude. I am beginning to feel somewhat secure. Even...slightly holy.
The appointed day, arrives and I stop by the church secretary’s office to check on locations, as I am still learning the area. She dutifully researches the nursing homes, and gives them a quick call to verify location and time. She tells me a person named John is going to be assisting me. My chest pushes out several centimeters and I straighten my shoulders and toss my hair away from my face. “Really?” I manage, stifling a grin. I tell myself pride is a terrifically horrible sin, hoist my purse on my shoulder and run out the door, yelling my thanks.
Ten minutes later, I pull up to the first nursing home, visions of encouraged, grateful octogenarians dancing before my eyes, some having even received salvation through my ending prayer. I push open the door and the room is deserted except for a small raisin of a man in a wheelchair. He smiles at me weakly. “Hi!” I venture, sticking out my hand. He stares at my hand, perplexed. I let my hand fall to my side as he continues staring at it.
I am in an oversized den of sorts that is bordered by a hallway on one side, ostensibly leading to resident rooms; a glassed-in office where a receptionist would probably sit, and a big, commercial-sized kitchen, where I could see a dark-headed younger man making his way towards me. He eyes me warily. “Yes?”
I am momentarily taken aback. I thought I was expected! “Hi, I’m from Community Bible Church - ?” A look of recognition sparks his features.
“Oh! Okay...uhh...I expected a MAN, for some reason. I’m John.” My shoulders sag a little. Wasn’t quite the welcome I’d been anticipating. I smile, and explain I am the (lowly, good-for-nothing woman) Adult Education Director and standing in for my Pastor (who is a man) and he’d asked me to minister to the residents, and I hoped that would be okay. He looked me up and down, apparently decided I’d do, and told me he’d gather everyone up. I sighed and put my purse on the floor, and checked out the piano, which I found to be in tune. A good sign.
By this time, another resident had wheeled up, and I decided I should invest some preliminary discussion. My chatty conversation went on for some time – a monologue – as they stared at me blankly. Finally I decided to hand out the music sheets. I’d selected Power in the Blood, and I’ll Fly Away, and Blessed Assurance, thinking that everyone in Christiandom, no matter what church background, would know these old faithful hymns. Wrong. Being a southerner now firmly ensconced in northern Lutheran country, it simply did not occur to me these precious folk had never heard of these toe-tappin’ southern gospel favorites. I decide I’d simply teach them some new hymns. John, in the meantime, had hustled everyone into the common area and disappeared.
I glanced around the table, smiling brightly. “Hi, everyone!” Silence. Lips set in a thin line. Rheumy eyes surveying me.
I mumbled my way through introductions, apologized that my Pastor (the competent and called of God..man...) could not be there, and inquired if they’d like to begin with music.
A hand shot in the air.
“I played piano and organ at church for 50 years! I can play for you!” she quavered.
I nodded and thanked her and said I usually accompany myself, would that be alright. She said it would, but set her shoulders just so. Told me she was ninety years old. I asked if someone would like to lead the singing. Nope. I noticed the raisin-man in the wheelchair had fallen asleep.
We launched out into the unseemly waters of southern gospel on the northern prairie, the few voices blending as a joyful noise unto the Lord. The lively southern gospel tempo mystified them, but they sang on, anyway. A silent lady with a walker clapped and swayed, her eyes closed. By the time the songs were done, everyone was laughing and clapping; good soil to sow the seed of my short message about prayer. Though separated by decades agewise, our spirits were united around His presence and the power of His word. As I concluded the message, I asked for prayer requests, and a few were haltingly put forth. I felt God’s strong, warm leading as the final prayer was prayed aloud.
I prepared to leave, feeling much less spiritual than when I’d arrived, and the ninety-year old piano player, arms crossed, said,“Where’d you learn to play like that? What kind of music do you call that?" I responded with style of music, and a bit of information about how I’d learned it. “I think one of those TV preachers plays music like that,” she continued. “Seems to me he got caught in sin and is off the air now.” With that she stuck her chin in the air triumphantly and rolled away.
Sometimes to obey God by faith does not feel very good. As I drove to the second nursing home, I flipped a quick prayer heavenward and asked Him to bless my humble bit of service. I obviously was not sure whether I’d struck a chord with these folks or not. But I am absolutely sure that God loves southern gospel music.
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