Religion and Me

Worshipping with Elvis

Elvis was not famous for his hymns. His fame was built on hound dogs, blue suede shoes, shocking dance moves, bad movies, a sexy sulk, and the drug-and-food induced glittery, sweaty end of his short tragic life. I thought he had made just a few little gospel recordings, a nod to Pentecostal nostalgia. The truth is that he left a catalog of my childhood hymns, recorded in his velvety, melodious voice. I discovered them thanks to the internet.

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,” brings me to tears. One of my mother’s favorites that the choir sang at her funeral so many years ago. It is embedded in a childhood memory of untroubled religion: the awesomeness of seeing the Big Dipper as I snuggled between Mama and Daddy on a mattress in the yard, trying to escape the stifling heat of our small house on a summer night.

“How great Thou art,” my dad’s favorite. Thirty years after Mama’s funeral, his grandson, my son, Adrian, sang it at Daddy’s funeral.

Daddy. I never really knew who he was, and I am so sorry that I didn’t try harder to find out. Mama told a lot of stories about herself, her life, and other people, even random people that we barely knew. Daddy, on the other hand, kept his stories locked in his heart. He was in his late seventies when he told me, because I questioned him, that at age 17 he had begged my noticeably tipsy grandfather not to go work on the oil rig that Sunday when the crew was not there. Unable to dissuade him, Daddy had gone with him and had watched in helpless horror as a poorly handled piece of equipment crushed him, causing the injuries that led to his death two days later. The saddest thing about being a child is that unless they open up to you, unless they show you the way, you have no idea how to convey your desperate childish love to your parents.

I had never paid much attention to Elvis’s gospel songs. He was the King of Rock’n’Roll. I wondered if they could have come from the heart of one who lived what I saw as a sinful and worldly life, but today he touched my heart, and I find myself in a spirit of worship to the tune of Elvis’s angelic voice. My worship ends with a doxology of sorts sung by another worldly sinner, Nina Simone: “Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord, to the cross where Thou hast died.”

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