Mother Neff Church had one room, six pews, the organ we received when the funeral home closed, a communion table that used to be a desk, and me, a college sophomore for a pastor. We were in Central Texas, six miles from any town with enough people to have a church.
I always arrived two hours before worship to get everything ready. In the winter I started a fire in the wood stove. In the spring I opened the windows. In the summer I turned on the fans.
I swept every Sunday. The rhythm of the broom made sweeping feel holy.
Before anyone else came, when it was just me and God, we had a worship service. I preached the sermon, prayed the prayers, and sang the hymns. Preaching a sermon with only God in attendance felt less self-serving. Praying with only God listening felt more like praying. Singing without the fear of someone hearing felt like praise.
I pictured the people who would be there at 11:00. Ruth was the undisputed matriarch. She offered me the job of pastor and got church approval later. Betty, Ruth’s daughter-in-law, raised three good children, worked at the furniture factory, and longed for her mother-in-law’s approval. Clay, who operated at half-speed after his heart attack, was my first hospital visit. I prayed that he wouldn’t die, because I was afraid to preach his funeral.
Preaching to the empty sanctuary was easier than preaching after they arrived. When I imagined them sitting there, they hung on my every word.
Thirty-seven years of ministry later, I am not sure a nineteen-year-old should be a pastor. Should a congregation have to raise the minister? Still, sometimes when I sweep, and it’s just me and God, I remember how I learned to worship.