The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Make two silver trumpets;
you shall make them of hammered work;
and you shall use them for summoning the congregation,
and for breaking camp.
Numbers 10: 1-2 NRSV
I was dipped below the waters of Fruitland Baptist Church in a baptismal backed by a brightly colored, tropical river scene—palm trees lining the banks and clear blue water meandering further and thinner into the horizon. Brother Mike said to trust his hold on my forearm and let him lower me, backwards, into the lukewarm water before pulling me up and out. But when he bent me back, in front of nearly a hundred people on that Sunday morning, my right foot stepped to catch my weight, afraid my arching body was going to fall. I knew Mike wouldn’t drop me and I wasn’t scared of water, but my leg reached back and planted, just in case.
When Mike lifted my 12-year-old torso back into the Sunday morning air, the robe clung to my body, and I felt self-conscious of the water in my nose and dripping down my face. I felt embarrassed to have stepped back instead of letting my body fall slowly and freely into the water. But when I wiped the water from my eyes, the church clapped and I stood before “amens” hollered from the congregation below. No one seemed to have noticed my misstep, and I left the baptismal to change into the dry clothes waiting in a plastic bag in the pastor’s office.
As a small child, I had sat in the wooden pews of that church and stared at the painted scene behind the baptismal. The pastel river was the backdrop to every Sunday—higher than the pulpit, higher than the choir—and I wondered where it ended, if it ended.
The next Monday at school, sitting in 7th grade band class, Adam Pressley asked me if, since I’d been baptized, I planned to stop cussing. Adam and I both played trumpet, and I’d known him since I could remember: his family too came to Fruitland.
I cleared the condensation from my trumpet by blowing soundless air through the mouthpiece and opening the water key, glancing sidelong at the new girl playing clarinet, and finally replied, “Hell no.”
While there was something a little exciting the next year about sitting, hidden, in the church sanctuary’s wing instead of with the rest of the congregation in the wooden pews, it was mostly a guilt-driven feeling of duty that sat me in that padded chair with my trumpet on my knee. I was 14, nearly in high school, and I felt I ought to be part of the newly-formed Fruitland Baptist Orchestra because everyone who could play an instrument was. There were seven of us. Adam and I sat in the back with our trumpets, and luckily for us, a more talented man sat in front of us with his trumpet, meaning Adam and I could simply move our fingers up and down with the trumpet’s keys without actually making any sound. Along with we three trumpets, there were also a couple trombones, a clarinet, and a flute. We played as everyone sang the hymns on Sunday mornings, but during the offertory—when money is collected—we played all alone, without the cover of a congregation of voices.
I didn’t like the trumpet. In sixth grade, the trumpet seemed exciting, and I remember walking the dirt road from the school bus to Grandma’s one afternoon, when the apple trees were heavy with fruit, and blowing with all of my might to blare any sound from it. It sounded as I imagined a dying moose might, but I kept blowing and blowing until something resembling a clean note erupted. Yet by the end of middle school I wanted nothing to do with the golden beast. It was no longer cool to be in band class, and I was tired of tightening my lips and cleaning the condensation and spit from it. So I sat in the back of the Fruitland Orchestra and played softly or not at all.
There were, however, occasional Sunday mornings in which I did try to hit the 2nd-trumpet notes of hymns like “How Great Thou Art” and “Power in the Blood,” but when an off-key bleep came from the wing, it was likely Adam or I, and I’d then resort to faking it.
My family’s line had attended Fruitland since it was built in 1875. Grandma ran the kitchen. Granddaddy was the Sunday School director. Daddy was a deacon; Mom ran the nursery. Aunt Rhonda directed the choir. Uncle Tim gave the morning announcements. It was a church of families, a place where everyone knew everyone because it was a brick building in the middle of a small apple-farming community in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It was a place where opening prayers thanked God for much-needed rains and women left right at noon so the beans didn’t burn. I grew up within those walls, singing in the youth choir and competing in Bible drills.
So when I said “hell no” to Adam in band class I felt strange. My parents didn’t really cuss, and while tossing damn and ass into sentences made me feel a sturdier part of my middle school world, the words still felt fraudulent falling from my mouth. My hell that morning had quite a bit to do with the new, pretty Kathleen Hatcher playing clarinet, and assuring I was still in.
But I also didn’t feel much different after my dip that Sunday. I believed in it. I believed in God and that Jesus, somehow, could fill someone and change a life, but I didn’t know what it looked or felt like to have Jesus seep into my adolescent heart. I was taught that baptism meant more than commitment: it signified an entering. Still I wasn’t sure that I’d felt or noticed what I should have.
I did set myself to some changes—changes that wouldn’t undermine the work I’d done for popularity, but changes nonetheless. I started to live my life within the goods and bads I gathered from the youth group at Fruitland. I didn’t drink alcohol or smoke marijuana because those things were bad; I went to church on Sunday and was respectful because that was good. I tried to align my life with what I believed the Bible taught to be right and wrong. I didn’t usually consider my motives or the reasons behind the goods and bads, but I attempted to live within a code that seemed to be the Christian way.
In high school I donated my trumpet to the church, hoping someone else would play it. I had retired from trumpet playing and surely had no more plans to lift the metal mouthpiece to my lips on Sundays. While I went to Fruitland on Sunday mornings and sat in its pews with my family, I had started attending Sunday evening services at a larger church in town with friends from high school. Mud Creek’s evening service was called X-Treme Life, and it was only for high schoolers. One of my friends played bass in the loud, exciting worship band and teenagers from all of the area high schools came: it certainly felt like the place to be.
X-Treme Life invited people to raise their hands and sway to simple songs projected on huge screens beside ten-foot speakers; the music was hip—there were no trumpets or organs—and the speaker wore a t-shirt and made jokes. For all intents and purposes, X-Treme Life was plain fun.
And passionate. People danced and sang loudly, and this, they said, was worship. At Fruitland, worship meant the entire service—the prayer and the sermon, the orchestra’s playing and the shaking of hands during the “fellowshippin’ time”—but at Mud Creek, worship meant music. It meant closed eyes and dynamic songs rising and falling, bouncing off the walls of the church’s gymnasium.
I wondered why Fruitland didn’t incite such passion. This was the same Jesus in the songs, and even though Susy Rollins sometimes rocked her head from side to side during a country-western-sounding choir song on Sunday mornings, no one jumped or clapped or seemed to approach music as a way to meet God, face to face. At Fruitland we sang and sat back down; at Mud Creek we sang and kept singing.
I didn’t leave Fruitland completely. I was there every Sunday morning, but the hymns and suits and ties started to feel distant and empty. I sat in the pews, waiting for Sunday nights, when I would head to Mud Creek in a t-shirt to sing and laugh and listen to loud rock music. I wished the people at Fruitland could engage God as I did, beside young people and bright stage lights.
Brother Mike decided that Fruitland should have an early service on Sunday mornings, a more contemporary and casual service before the normal worship meeting, and he asked me to lead the music. There would be no organ or choir or trumpets: only me and my guitar, and I was to lead the congregation in the songs I’d learned from X-Treme Life. Even though there were no skits or games, Mike didn’t plan to wear a suit and the service was to be shaped for a younger audience.
I’d started playing the guitar a few years prior. My parents agreed to buy me a used acoustic Epiphone from a pawnshop. I had plans to form a band, to be on a stage, or at least a stool in a coffee shop. I even imagined myself on the stage at X-Treme Life, as I sat in my room contorting my hand into the chords of popular songs—Oasis and Counting Crows.
For the early service at Fruitland, I projected the words to the worship songs on a sheet that Dad helped me hang over the baptismal, hiding the tropical river from view. I asked the congregation to stand as I played my guitar energetically, but they had a hard time learning the words and following the songs.
Despite Mike’s intentions, the early service largely attracted senior citizens, who especially liked the 8:30 a.m. time. The younger members of the church slept and showed up for the normal, traditional service. Most Sunday mornings, elderly faces who preferred to sit, trying to catch the lyrics to the fast-paced songs, stared back at me as I sang “Lord I Lift Your Name On High” alone.
After a few months, we canceled the early service, and I took my guitar and left home for college.
In college I stumbled into a group called InterVarsity. They met in one of the university’s cafeterias after it closed, and when I stood in the back that first Tuesday night, I heard songs I recognized from X-Treme life. Over 200 college students gathered in the room to sing along with a small acoustic band, play games, and listen to a short, hip talk about relationships, filled with TV clips and stories, from a young speaker.
The meeting was smaller and not as organized or flashy as X-Treme life, but everyone sang loudly and swayed or danced. I came back the next week, and eventually I started playing in the worship band. Since I knew many of the songs, and since they mostly consisted of only three chords, I played along with my guitar, filling in simple licks to enrich the tunes. At the end of the year, InterVarsity asked me to lead the worship team for the upcoming year. I agreed.
While IV’s meetings were entertaining and trendy, they meandered along and often seemed to simply wander from skit to music to speaker without any transitions or turns. I saw quite a bit of room for improvement, and as newly appointed worship leader, I formed a full band-drums, keyboard, bass, electric and acoustic guitars-and found a garage for our weekly practices. We learned the songs without any need for sheet music, and integrated various moves to make the songs tighter and more dynamic—key changes, solos, crescendos.
As worship leader, I was the front man. I sang and chose the songs; I decided when the music slowed or built or ended. The first IV meeting of the year proved to be a musical success. The songs were tightly orchestrated and people seemed to engage them head-on, singing loudly and moving with the drums and bass. I dropped the music off completely for our final song, leaving only the voices hanging, singing the chorus once more a cappella. The lights slowly came back on and everyone stayed quiet, as though we had been somewhere else, in a dream, but now reawakened. In a cafeteria.
After the service, people congratulated me on the “awesome worship.” I said thanks.
Week to week, I chose songs that people reacted to. I brought up the drums or cut everything but the acoustic guitar. I began to sense the moments and movements of the room. I felt voices rising or a unified building in passion and catered the songs’ progressions to it. I knew when to end a song or when to repeat a chorus. I knew when to tease a song so that the group’s longing grew and grew until we finally broke into the chorus, all instruments at full force, shaking the small room. As the worship leader, I began to innately detect the desire and mood of the room, and week after week, people congratulated me on worship well done.
During my second year of college, I had also moved sturdily into my major’s coursework. I had decided to pursue a religious studies degree, and so I spent my days in classes on Christian history, ethics, and theology, as well as classes exploring and outlining other world religions.
At some point during the semester, I realized that my head’s analytical voice, the part of me that I needed to put to work in the classroom, had often been strangely absent—or at least muffled—with regard to my beliefs and religion. I had taken many goods and bads, rights and wrongs at face value because they had come from people in my church. I had sung songs and played them without question because they were termed “Christian” and were popular.
It wasn’t that I never thought in any deep way about God and faith. I read the Bible and thought through parables and prophetic claims, but I realized that I had often dropped the analytical gear from my head when it came to things deemed Christian.
During my second semester my head started to rattle between the logical days and impassioned nights. When the sun was out, I was able to step back and examine many beliefs and lines that I imagined formed Christianity and God. But once it set, I led hundreds of people through theologically simple or vague or sometimes-conflicting songs—repeating them surely.
One evening, as we sang the final verse of a worship song, the last tune on our set list, I suddenly felt uncomfortable with my awareness of the group’s longing. I knew that I could dampen the song’s final verse and build dramatically to the last chorus, sending the room into an intense moment of unified song. I could feel and hear it in the voices. But the power of intuiting the group’s yearning suddenly felt disconcerting. The air felt more like emotion, emotion that I was manipulating, rather than holy movement, and I felt ashamed of this power.
I ended the song without building to the chorus, only letting the guitar ring out remotely as the light slowly lifted and everyone opened their eyes, looking at me, waiting for direction. I didn’t give any. I felt dishonest. I put my guitar on the stand and sat down. The room was out of sorts, expecting me to anticipate their want, but eventually someone stood and introduced the guest speaker, and the meeting continued.
The crowd at IV had grown during the year, and I received consistent compliments on the “great worship.” I liked the attention, but that night, the space between worship and music felt immense. Any band worth its weight can excite a crowd and lead people through ups and downs, through jams and ballads. I realized that all of my musical planning, all of my work to improve the movement of IV had merely played upon the momentary, fleeting emotions of the people.
Disenchanted as I was, I was still the same kid that believed God moved, even if I didn’t understand how. I didn’t feel that I had clear, first-hand experience. It wasn’t as though I didn’t think people could act on passion in order to worship, that people could sing loudly to praise God, but the more I examined my time at X-Treme Life and IV, the more I began to see jokes and games and skits directed specifically at appealing to the crowd’s emotions. What had originally seemed pure engagement with a living God now seemed controlled, emotional charm to keep everyone interested.
I left IV after that year; I even left the country to study in Central America. A year later, when I returned to the U.S., I understood that life would forever be a constant struggle against grabbing surrounding attraction while searching for deeper understanding. I told Adam “hell no” in 7th grade to attempt to walk the line between popularity and my newfound Christianity. Even in college, when I had decided that “hell” and “damn” were only words with arbitrary meanings, I still tried to toe the line between spotlight and reflection.
The religious landscape to which I returned has no shortage of spotlight and fashion. Churches grow up all over the U.S. with shows and productions—cleanly orchestrated songs and dances to attract and keep crowds. Many churches arrange their services and activities like television channels in order to catch the demographics and hold a wide base. The latest Christian self-help book often floods churches, taking the place of scripture. When I returned, at twenty-one, I knew that my adult Christian life would likely be a fight against comfort—not an intentional, affected plight, but a continual awareness of any belief that seems too easy and stylish.
One Sunday, when I’d returned to Fruitland from college, I was glad to see my trumpet in use. As it and the rest of the orchestra carried various harmonies beneath our voices singing “Majesty,” I thought about how living within Christianity means existing within a group, a culture brimming with subcultures and trends. Living within the religion, among its many parts and pieces, doesn’t mean taking everything within its confines without inspection. It means searching while feeling sure you’ve found. It means accepting and questioning all in one breath. And while I already knew that Sunday morning that I wouldn’t likely live my adult life in a Southern Baptist church, I was glad to stand there with people who knew me well as we sang and I pondered the painted river—questioning its veracity while swimming in its waters and floating downstream.
Jeremy B. Jones' work appears or is noted in Crab Orchard Review, Quarterly West, Ruminate, and the Best American Essays of 2009 and 2011, among others. He teaches writing at Charleston Southern University, and excerpts of his work can be found at TheJeremyBJones.com.