“Ye Must be Born Again,” Memories of a Mountain Church

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I can still hear that man’s voice echoing off the Appalachian hardwood that comprised nearly every square inch of that tiny church house tucked away at the bottom of the holler I was raised.  A wooden ceiling, wooden walls, wooden floors, wooden pulpit, wooden altar, and my least favorite, wooden pews, served as the pinnacle on which our house of worship was built; which made sense, seeing that our Saviour was nailed to a wooden cross.

He wasn’t articulate, in fact, he could barely read.  He wouldn’t have been able to have “tol’t” you where to even purchase a tie, let alone own one.  But boy could that man preach.

There was an indescribable confidence in his words, they were forceful, yet loving all at the same time. His words could bring terror to that soul nearest hell, while at the same time paint the most incredible picture of Heaven one could ever imagine. He was a Gospel preacher, and he was our preacher.

With a shirt drenched in perspiration, he would preach, not from behind the sacred desk of a pulpit, but all over the church house – even from the front porch on rare occasions. Darting like a spiritual boxer in a heavyweight fight,  in and out of pews, arms flailing, sometimes jumping atop empty seats before racing back to the pulpit to read out another verse from the Good Book, there wasn’t any sleeping through this service; and momma would have beat our butt’s had we even appeared to have done so.  Behaving in church was one of the first things children learned in those days, or at least in our holler.

His message was simple and clear: “Ye must be born again.”

“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” he would announce each week to a congregation filled with saints – and an unlucky handful of sinners who found themselves forced to endure an hour’s worth of pure, unwatered down, preaching of the cross.

“‘If we say that we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ Therefore, all of humanity stands in need of the forgiving hand of God Almighty,” he would shout.

Somewhere around this point, I would find myself gazing out the opened summertime windows onto the cemetery we buried my grandmother in when I was in the early days of my youth.

“For the wages of sin is death,” he would shriek out, bringing my attention back onto the events taking place in that sacred room.

“But thanks be to God, that it doesn’t have to be like this,” he would interrupt himself, in a southern mountain twang that simply cannot be duplicated.

“God commendeth his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

“I’m glad the book says, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,'” he would announce, before concluding, “Oh sinner, won’t you come down to this old rugged altar and ask Jesus to forgive you of your sin and draw you into the family of God. Oh sinner, won’t you come down and pray through?”

The preacher’s conclusion to his message was without a doubt the most sacred ten minutes of our mountain family’s week.  The events that would take place during this time would serve as the gauge by which we would determine if church went well or not.

On a good day, one of those “old sinners,” often a teenage son of some praying widow woman, or someone’s husband who bootlegged on the side, would step out into the middle of the aisle and “go down”.

“Jesus said, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,'” he would offer as one final plea.

Without any warning, I have seen some of the most unimaginable candidates for salvation, go down to the front of the church and kneel at the first wooden step that led to the platform, we called it an altar, and begin “praying through”.  Praying through to Jesus, asking Christ to to be their Saviour.

These were special days.  Special, tear filled days.

That person who had spent a lifetime apart from God, would stand to his feet a new creature.

“Not a perfect creature,” the preacher would joyously announce, “But a new creature.”

All had been forgiven and all was made new.  Oh what special memories I have of that old mountain church!

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