Sunday mornings on Sirius XM’s Bluegrass Channel (#62, I believe), there’s a program called “The Gospel Train.” It’s bluegrass music with faith overtones, including some of the old time hymns—“The Old Rugged Cross,” “I Come to the Garden Alone,” and the like—as well as more contemporary songs that reflect a gospel message, and the lifestyle that goes with it, all to the rhythmic accompaniment of banjo, guitar, and the requisite mandolin.
It’s music I enjoy, for the most part. It includes songs that are basic in style and in theology. There’s no real heavy lifting involved. They tend to focus on the simple side of one’s faith. Still, there can be much at stake in some of these songs. They include stories about men who gave up Saturday night taverns for Sunday morning pews; songs about walking the narrow path; of parents trying to raise their kids right (think Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder’s “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer”). There are songs about little country churches and being baptized in muddy rivers, and endless tunes about Heaven, with lyrics like these from the Steep Canyon Rangers’ number, “I Can’t Sit Down:”
Who’s that yonder dressed in blue?
Must be my brother, and he’s coming through.
Who’s that yonder dressed in gold?
Must be a prophet from the days of old.
Why don’t you sit down?
No, I can’t sit down.
I just got to Heaven, and I want to walk around.
In the simplicity of these songs, there is one constant. Over and over, the name of Jesus is never very far away.
Some of this reminds me of my own growing up “in the church.” As a boy, my parents took me and my siblings to a small congregation in a small town in southwest Missouri. The original building had almost no classrooms—it had previously served as a short gym for the local high school up the street. After I turned ten, and we moved to a new building my father’s construction crew built, it became a warehouse for a local feed store. It was a musty place where one hundred or so souls met on Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday nights. There was no air conditioning, and I remember a couple of small electric fans mounted on platforms flanking the pulpit that blew warm air from one corner to the opposite. Below the fans were a couple of wooden boards, with one announcing the hymn numbers for that particular Sunday morning and the other the contribution for several running Sundays. We sang songs out of hymnals, a congregation of voices that included full baritones and tinny altos. It was all good. And simple.
From those years of growing up and developing a personal faith, I don’t remember much about sermons with deep theology, kind of like those bluegrass songs with simple words expressing simple messages. Mostly, I remember the relationships—friends and family who gathered together to express their love for the Lord and their love for each other. It was something that formed me. And I was reminded of it again last Sunday, as we came together as one after being divided three ways—early service, late service, online service—by the awkward logistics of Covid.
What made last Sunday so good for me was to see so many whom I had not seen for so many months. It was great to hear our voices in song, to hear the enthusiastic amens, and to share time and pew space. No deep theology involved. Just Christian folks coming together in common and communion. There was a blessed assurance to it all, amid reminders that the simple love shared by Jesus’ people represents a crucial cord of many strands, one not easily broken.