I have a confession to make: I like Southern Gospel music. Well, at least some of it. My grandfather had a booming bass voice, and before my mother and her brothers came along, he often sang with various Southern Gospel quartets around middle and south Georgia. As I helped him feed hay to his cows or slop his pigs, I would hear him singing Southern Gospel standards like “The Church in the Wildwood” by the Chuck Wagon Gang, or “Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now” by the Happy Goodman Family, or “Where No Man Stands Alone” by the Statesmen Quartet. In the evenings, he would sit in his porch swing and softly sing some of his old favorites. I did not know then how influential those moments sitting with him would be.
In my teenage years, I had a number of part-time jobs, sometimes holding several concurrently. One of my favorites was working at the Family Christian Store bookstore in the Macon Mall. I was in charge of the music section, and it was there that my secret love of Southern Gospel music was kindled. Bill Gaither’s empire of Southern Gospel music recordings and Homecoming video series had brought a segment of Christian music back to the mainstream for many.
My love for Southern Gospel music is, in no doubt, influenced by my deep memories of my grandfather’s singing. But, for a long time, those memories and love were buried under layers of supposed theological sophistication and a distancing from my growing up years. But being mostly confined to my home for the past months, as most of us have been, has led me to rediscover the music of my childhood.
During the pandemic, I’ve been reading a lot and very broadly. One subject that has grabbed my attention is nostalgia and how past experiences shape our view of time. In a recent blog post on www.psychologytoday.com, Matt Johnson describes the actual benefit of nostalgia, especially during times of great fear and uncertainty. And it makes sense. When we are feeling threatened or stressed, our minds often turn back to the “good ol’ days.” Johnson notes, however, that studies show that when it comes to nostalgia, our memories often skew very positively. While negative memories can be very powerful and even traumatic, it seems that, for the most part, we tend to remember the past very fondly. Isn’t that true about our churches and our faith, too?
How many times have we been in church gatherings or conversations when someone harkens back to a time gone by? Sometimes we meet those mentions with eye rolls and dismissive comments; sometimes we gladly join in the reminiscing. When we remember the past, we are longing for continuity and ways to connect the larger arc of meaning in our lives. During this time of physical, social, and even psychological distancing, how deep is that longing among many of us? Can you remember what your summer plans were before the middle of March? Have you started down the road of getting your mind and heart in the right place to cancel future plans or events or trips? What about future work plans?
All of us are being changed as we pass through this time. We long for the ways things used to be because we do not know what the future holds. We want to re-engage with friends and family and church members and the community around us. We want to do all this with decreased fear and worry, and truthfully, we’re not sure how this will play out. The words of the Psalmist, from Psalm 143, really speak to these days:
I remember the days of old,
I think about all your deeds,
I meditate on the works of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. (Psalm 143: 5-6)
So, while we don’t want to always live in the land of nostalgia and a not-quite-historically-accurate past, perhaps it’s best for our souls at times to lean into our good memories of the past. So, I encourage you to recall the last great church fellowship time. Remember with great joy the wonderful Advent and Christmastide music from your congregation. Call to mind the last good conversation with a dear saint in your life and church. Relive your most recent mission experience and then make a gift of monies or time to a local ministry partner of your church if you’re able.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, amazing Colombian Nobel Prize winner for literature, wrote, “No matter what, nobody can take away the dances you’ve already had.” So, friends, remember your past dances, the places where your deepest joys intersect in our world. As for me, there are some great YouTube videos of Southern Gospel music that I must go watch!