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Telling the Stories That Make a Difference

We thus ended the day not staring at some electronic box dramatizing stories fabricated for our entertainment, but gathered as families have done for millennia and more, telling the stories that really matter, of the moments and movements that have made us who we are, unto the third and fourth generation.

For six hours on Sunday we greeted friends and neighbors. The funeral and burial on Monday took four hours, followed by another term of food and conversation at the house. Square in the middle of this two-day wake, like a fulcrum upon which the whole episode turned, something wonderful happened, a serendipitous event we all will remember for a long time.

At the close of the day, when the long lines had tapered down and before we scattered for a fitful night, I pulled a chair to the couch whereon sat Ruby’s mother and sister. “Tell me about Ruby,” I asked, thinking of the eulogy I had been asked to prepare.
I was curious about her baptism, especially the spiritual and social elements that surrounded that childhood event.

Most Christians cannot remember their initiation into Christian things, being infants at the time. But those of us who were dipped and dried in the Baptist way have the delightful advantage of remembering many human and humorous elements of this significant occasion.

There is no reason to think such immersions make better Christians 20 years down the gospel road; but they do make for better stories.

Like the woman who neglected to inform the baptizing minister that she wore a wig—and who promptly resisted immersion, preferring instead to float atop the water. The startled preacher did his best to restore the hair to its rightful place as the embarrassed woman emerged from the water. But to no avail, as she never again was seen at the church.

Then there was my uncle, who testified to a teenage conversion while sitting in a homemade tree fort. Overcome with emotion, he fell headlong into the waist-deep creek below, from which he ran dripping wet to the nearby church to inquire of the minister if his accidental (or providential) dunking constituted Christian baptism.

In Ruby’s case, the narrative took us back to the days of tent revivals, when itinerant evangelists erected poles and spread canvas, staking down the edges and rolling up the sides. Wooden chairs, a few benches, an upright piano, a makeshift altar, and everywhere—in all directions—a layer of sawdust.

It brought to mind not only my own childhood memories of such events, but also the ballad made famous by Neil Diamond, written he says in an airplane high over Memphis:
“Hot August night and the leaves hanging down and the grass on the ground smelling sweet. Move up the road to the outside of town and the sound of that good gospel beat sits a ragged tent where there ain’t no trees and that gospel group telling you and me it’s love: Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show: Pack up the babies, grab the old ladies, everyone goes, everyone knows Brother Love’s Show.”

Back at the funeral home, what began as a three-way conversation between a mother, a sister and a preacher turned quickly into a classic storytelling event, with four generations standing, sitting, listening, laughing—and all the while learning things they had never known.

It didn’t take long for religion to give way to romance, and we all discovered how John and Ruby met, courted and kissed (not until the seventh date, John confessed to the delight of all). And then how this shy college kid concocted the courage to enter the sometime study of a part-time preacher to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

We thus ended the day not staring at some electronic box dramatizing stories fabricated for our entertainment, but gathered as families have done for millennia and more, telling the stories that really matter, of the moments and movements that have made us who we are, unto the third and fourth generation.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.