I’ll borrow your sunrise service

Church of the Living Waters in Lake Martin, Ala. From olivia.nigh's Picassa album.

The warm spell we’ve been having means we’ve been sleeping with the windows open. Saturday morning, the open windows brought rain dripping from the ledge to the carpet underneath. Sunday morning, they brought music from someone else’s Easter service.

It had to have been a Sunrise Service. It was 6:30 a.m. when I first heard it, aroused from sleep by singing. By 7, the preacher was making his point. I couldn’t distinguish individual words from my living room, but I guessed from his rising volume and escalating pace that he was pounding the point about sacrifice and selflessness, and that in moments his choir would race with him into that wide, bright field of redemption. My house is at least two miles away. My head, for the moment, is about 200.

My grandmother lives in a large house on Lake Martin in Dadeville, Alabama. Her sister lives in another house across the lake. Their mother lived around the cove (in a third house with a pool table in the dining room) before either of them built their own places. Around the bend is an outdoor church in the woods, with the lake as a backdrop for the pulpit. Church of the Living Waters has no permanent pastor, and despite the fact that winters in south central Alabama rarely dip below 50 degrees, it’s open only from spring to fall. Easter launches each season at sunrise, and for years this was how my family celebrated Easter.

Because the pastor is a different one each week, the sermons were of varying quality. Some were gentle, relaxed and played to the natural settings. Others were so full of fire that – had there been brimstone instead of limestone in those Alabama hills – we’d all for sure be up in smoke. My grandmother, who is an astute Biblical scholar and perpetually on what the Presbyterian Church calls the “Board of Elders”, always offered great commentary at brunch after checking to make sure we weren’t within earshot of anyone who might object.

For several years, my parents allowed me to bring a carload of friends to Lake Martin for Easter. We stuffed my mom’s Ford Aerostar van with curling irons, squeeze cheese and Steve Miller Band tapes, then drove six hours to invade my grandparents’ peaceful retreat. I don’t know how my parents managed to drag that many teenagers out of bed in time for a 6 a.m. church service, much less make us look and act presentable. I know sometimes their success was tenuous: One friend who forgot to pack a tie borrowed one from my dad, then promptly fell asleep and drooled on it.

Thanks to my dad for sending me this old photo, which was taken at my grandparents' house the year my friends and I were juniors in high school.

Easter at Lake Martin, 1994. I'm in the middle, wearing a green jumper. (What was I thinking?)

Easter with my grandmother’s sister (the one across the lake) is less about the sermon or congregation and more about what you do after church: EAT. This side of the family is filled with the kind of well-read Southern cooks who can make a pot of turnip greens taste upscale. For Easter, potluck is lamb and mint jelly, ham and pineapple stuffing, fruit trays, vegetable trays, pimento cheese, devilled eggs, and the inexplicable Sangria punch.

Someone else’s sunrise service got me thinking about my mom’s family, gathering for Easter in another state. It got me thinking about someone else’s kids, who were my conspirators on Easters past. I was asleep in my bed when you were singing down the street, but I’m glad you woke me up.

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7 thoughts on “I’ll borrow your sunrise service

  1. I remember ALL of it just like it was yesterday…going to dig up a picture to post…I know I have one somewhere…I am totally down for a reunion! Some of my happiest memories of our friendship happened in Alabama! Lots of love to all of you!!!

  2. I think a reunion seems called for. Brought back a lot of memories – wonder if Lisa remembers the fire and brimstone sermon we tried not to listen to?

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