I slip into the pew beside my family, and I hope no one minds I brought my camera. I’ve been looking forward to this morning all weekend long.
The guitarist is already up front, gripping the fret with age-spotted hands that wrap around like gnarled branches. I cup the camera-lens to steady it, then shoot a few frames.
For most of the weekend, our family had sat on lawn chairs sprawled out before a stage that held some of the top names in Christian music. We worshipped under dome of sky, as the last of summer sun beat on our backs, then melted orange down the western horizon. We stayed late, leaning deeper into canvas seats and praising under a canopy of twinkling jewelry until little girls fell asleep on shoulders.
And the next day we did the same thing.
But then came Sunday.
Thousands upon thousands of worshippers gathered for a worship service on that farmfield-turned-arena. Who would want to miss a Sunday worship service with Kari Jobe leading worship, right there on a South Dakota farmfield 20 minutes from my front door?
For this moment, we would be willing to miss it.
Because the headliner we wanted to see was playing to a crowd of 40, under a white steeple in the country church we call home.
An old farmer, who keeps a comb in the front pocket of his button-up dress shirt, plugged his guitar into his own personal amp. He had a few songs to pluck out.
We found our place third row back, right side.
He fumbles to find first notes of What a Friend We Have in Jesus. He gets his fingers straight and we find our place in the song about a God-Man who knows our every weakness.
He strums timeless songs and mouths the words. Because he knows them by heart. He plays his favorite: Children of the Heavenly Father. And I know it’s his favorite, because we sang it together once, smack-dab on the middle of the church aisle. I had to turn to page 474 to follow along, but he didn’t look at the words once.
These songs — rooted in a heart –are the overflow of his embedded praise.
How can I keep from singing along?
I caught him after church in the fellowship hall. This was my backstage pass.
“Helmer?” I said. “I just want to thank you for playing today.”
“I figured you’d be at LifeLight,” he says, because even he’s in-the-know like that. He’s been singing old hymns on this hallowed ground for more than 80 years, but he also knows how some of us in this church family like to sing Chris Tomlin and Lincoln Brewster every now and then. And he knows we’re often absent from the pews on Labor Day weekend, because we’re sitting under Sunday sun in front of an outdoor stage.
“Yes,” I nod, “We were there. Saw a lot of guitar players, too. But you know what? You’re my favorite one of all. Hands down.”
And he opens wide his mouth to let laughter spill from a reservoir of deep joy. He shakes his head, and he thinks I’m joking.
“You know,” he adds, “I’ve got a six-string at home, from 1931. It’s an antique.”
“Do you play much at home?” I ask him, and he nods his answer.
“When I get to feelin’ down sometimes, you know, I get out my guitar and sing,” he says.
We talk awhile about how we can worship all day long when songs and Psalms are imprinted on the soul.
He reminds me that he memorized all of Psalm 1 as a child. He’s told me that a few times before, but I just listen to the story again. Years ago, I scratched his name in the margins of those verses that start with the words: “Blessed is the man …”
I thank him again. Before I turn to go, I put my hand on his back, tell him I hope he’ll play for us again sometime.
And he smiles wide his answer. “I ‘spect I could do that.”
And I ‘spect I’ll find the best seat in the house to hear him.
Related: Point. Click. Worship.