Paul Prather

Youth day at church reaches out to me across the generations

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This past Sunday at our church was called “youth takeover.” The congregation’s children conducted the whole worship service.

Four of my five grandchildren participated. Harry, the youngest at 3, was too shy to join in.

Because I had nothing to do with organizing or supervising the service — the deacon of education did that — I didn’t know beforehand what the order of worship would be.

I was surprised when three of my grandchildren led the congregational music, singing together as a trio. Hadley, 8, Hudson, 7, and Hagan, 5, did a fine job.

They sang loudly and proudly, like old pros, as if they had worship music in their genes, which they do. They knew their lyrics. Their dad, my son John, backed them up on electric guitar, along with our other mostly grownup musicians.

I’m sure I was grinning like a possum eating sawbriars, to use an old family expression.

Just as I’m not biased in my estimations of the grandkids’ abilities, I’m not sinfully proud, either.

But I found a catch in my throat as I tried to sing along. Because as I watched them standing on that stage, I suddenly saw apparitions up there with them.

That’s one of the mysteries of getting older. Hardly anything is just what it is anymore. Almost everything I do conjures up memories of other things I did long ago and with other people. I’m constantly surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

The history of our small church is convoluted. It was created in 1996 when we merged two congregations.

The first of those mother-churches was founded in the 1950s. That’s the church where Renee, my first wife, grew up. When that earlier church began more than 60 years ago, Renee’s mom and dad were the youngest couple in its congregation.

When Renee was a girl, her family also traveled as a gospel singing group. They performed all over Central Kentucky.

My parents helped start the other mother-church in the 1970s. My dad was its founding pastor.

To confuse the story a bit further, I later served as pastor of the church where Renee had grown up.

After my dad and I eventually helped unite the two congregations, we became co-pastors. And Renee became a leader of the music program at the new church, until she was diagnosed with cancer and became too ill to sing.

If you can’t follow all that, don’t worry. You’d need a Venn diagram.

But here’s what it means.

My granddaughter Hadley is the mirror image of Renee, her grandmother. It’s eerie how much alike they look.

When I looked at Hadley on Sunday, I swear I saw Renee singing a half-century ago with her own siblings on the old gospel-music circuit.

I saw Renee leading the music as an adult in our current church on that same stage where the grandkids were performing.

I saw my son John, standing 6-foot-2 and sporting a full beard and playing the guitar behind his children, but also as a bony, gawky boy sitting on that stage years ago studying the adult musicians, trying to learn how to keep time.

When the worship music was over, my oldest granddaughter, Harper, who turns 10 this week, came forward to lead the offertory prayer. She got a case of jitters and couldn’t remember her lines.

She asked me to help. A few rows back, I slipped out of my seat to go stand beside her.

As we prayed, even though my eyes were closed, I saw my dad there with us. And somehow I saw myself as a kid younger than Harper, warbling out a solo rendition of “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” on a church stage way up in New Miami, Ohio, where my dad pastored for a couple of years when I was in elementary school.

And then, in my soul, we were all singing and praying and preaching together, the whole lot of us, family joined across the decades, some of us living and some dead, all of us somehow in this one sanctuary now on this obscure hill in Montgomery County.

My mom and dad were there, and Renee’s mom and dad, and Renee, and John, and Harper and Hadley and Hudson and Hagan and Harry, and generations unborn I’ll never live to see. The Holy Ghost had alit among us, too.

It was a wrenching mystery. And it was sacred.