A year ago today we laid Joey to rest in the grove of trees behind our farmhouse. It was just a few days after she “took her last breath on this side of heaven and her first on the other”. And now, here we are… the “dust” has settled from the pastor’s ‘dust to dust’ message and a deep bed of grass has grown over that mound of freshly broken soil.
Indiana and I sat together on that spot as the sun fell from the sky this evening. Indy played with the flowers as I let my mind drift back to her Mama’s memorial service last year. And all that has happened since then.
Some things have changed since that day last March, and some haven’t changed at all. There is still only a wooden cross to mark that piece of hallowed ground – nothing permanent – like stone or marble. Maybe it’s waiting for me to join my wife, or maybe it’s just not time yet for those chiseled dates-seperated-by-a-dash. Or maybe, a hand-made wooden cross wrapped in twine is just more my wife’s style.
From where Indy and I sat together, I could see our farmhouse and the big red barn beside it. It’s been a year-and-a-half since Joey and I sat our guitars down and walked off the stage of our concert hall together. Five months later, I was back on that stage. But this time alone. There was an audience sitting in the chairs, and there was music, but it wasn’t ours. It was for Joey’s memorial service. The room was filled with friends and family, all lifting her up in song and in prayer.
Since then the barn has remained mostly silent. No music and no life, except for a few neighborhood get-togethers, a taping the Gaither folks did for Bradley Walker, Indy’s Signing Time show and some family dinners now and then.
But it lies empty no more. On one special day a week, it’s not empty… it’s a church. Or at least a place where a church service is held on Sunday mornings. A cowboy church to be exact.
Joey and I have been what some would call “church hoppers” most of our marriage. It’s not that we didn’t want to settle down and be at one church, we just never quite felt at home at one. The churches in Franklin and Cool Springs were amazing, but too big and too far away for us to truly connect with people there. And the churches near us were too small. Not necessarily in size, but sometimes in their thinking and what they wanted and needed from ‘church’ on Sundays, compared to what we were looking for. And so my wife and I bounced from church to church and never really settled in. Nothing felt right for Joey and I. Well, not until now that is.
A few months ago – on our middle daughter Hopie’s urging – I walked into a small church service in the rural community of Bethesda. The sign at the entrance to the Elementary School where they were meeting said it was a ‘cowboy church’ and the pickup trucks in parking lot confirmed it. The man at the door shook my hand and tipped his cowboy hat to Hopie as we entered and the music they played wasn’t just gospel and hymns, it was “country” gospel and hymns… with guitars and fiddles and mandolins.
By the time I had dropped Indy off in the “Barnyard Babies Corral” (their nursery area) and found myself seated and listening to the music and message, tears were starting to fill my eyes. I kept thinking, “Joey would absolutely love this”. I knew… that had my wife been there with me that morning… she would’ve squeezed my arm and said, “this is it honey… this is where we’re supposed to be”.
And so we came again the next week and the week after. And soon after that, I was introducing myself to the pastor of Cross Country Cowboy Church and offering our concert hall for them to use for their Sunday worship services. I had recently learned that though the church had been together for about 3 years, they had moved from building to building and were having to get there a few hours early each week to load their stuff into the cafeteria from trailers and set up and have service… and then after church, spend hours more breaking it down and reloading it into trailers to store until the following Sunday.
The church needed a place to call home and we needed a church to be part of. And so, for a month of Sundays now, our empty building has been filled with a hundred and fifty people or so. And, Indiana and I just walk across the driveway to church….
I have to admit, I don’t know a whole lot of folks there yet and they’re still working the kinks out and settling in, but it’s pretty darn special if you ask me. And it isn’t just cowboys and cowgirls that come, its lots of folks who love Jesus and live in the country. And families that live in the city, but feel a strong call to take a step back in time and worship without as many frills as some of today’s churches have.
The music is led each week by Craig Campbell and his wife Mindy and some other wonderful musicians that join them and some special guests who’ll be singing at services in the near future. Craig has a big hit out on the radio right now called “Outskirts of Heaven” that he co-wrote and sings and he was kind enough to let me use it to share a few clips from the service here last Sunday morning…
I don’t claim to know what the future holds. Maybe the church will move on to a bigger barn or building in time, but for now I feel blessed to have them here and thankful to be able to bless them with a place to gather and share the good news, without having to load in and break down before and after every service.
As the sun continued to set behind us in the cemetery and Indy and I got ready to head back to the farmhouse, I couldn’t help but smile and think of the beautiful irony of it all… how we held a service for Joey in our barn a year ago and now church services are being held there every week. And also how that line in Craig’s song seems almost written for Joey…
“…Lord when I die, I want to live on the outskirts of heaven.”