Summer in the mountains: baptisms and clotheslines
“Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows, we shall come rejoicing bringing in the sheets.”
— (slight adaptation from Knowles Shaw beautiful hymn)
Standing on the banks of the Pigeon River in the early 1960s on a hot summer day, I watched the baptisms of newly saved souls along with the members of our small country church. The church, Sonoma Baptist, has long since dissolved, but when I close my eyes I can still feel the heat of that summer Sunday afternoon, hear the off-key singing of traditional hymns and smell the cool damp scent of black snakes lounging on the riverbank.
Summer Bible School had just ended and we had a new crop of young converts who — lured with grape Kool-Aid, cookies, and the promise of eternal life — marched to the front of the church to exchange their short stories of repentance for a new white Bible and a cool dunk in the Pigeon River. Already the nosy, budding psychologist, I loved to hear those sordid stories of woe and tried to imagine just how those life sagas would end.
I also loved river baptisms. They took our congregation outside the hot muggy sanctuary and marked the start of long summers in the mountains. Baptisms and summers symbolized clean new beginnings. As I sang those wonderful old hymns and watched each new convert solidly dunked in the cold water, I imagined the dark and ugly stains of sin washed from the dirty souls and sent down the river from Bethel to Canton.
When my daddy once showed me the Pigeon River in Fiberville, just downstream from the mill (Champion Paper in those days), I was sure that I was viewing the vile aftermath of sin in the roiling murky polluted waters and smelling the putrid stench of the devil himself.
I remember belting out “Amazing Grace” and “Washed in the Blood,” but the song that I most remember singing on those hot afternoons was a favorite from the old Baptist Hymnal on page 432 called “Bringing in the Sheaves.” I loved this song about sowing, reaping and rejoicing but my child’s ear heard “sheets” rather than “sheaves.” I didn’t know then what sheaves were, but I did know that bringing in the sheets from our old clothesline in Bethel was a weekly ritual that brought me great joy.
There are few household tasks that are as rewarding as hanging out clothes on a summer day. The act, much like river baptisms, symbolizes a fresh start and promises the reward of clean and dry clothes at the end of the day. It made more sense in my small child’s world that one would surely rejoice when bringing in the freshly cleaned sheets from their imprisonment on the clothesline.
I haven’t been to a river baptism in ages, but I still hang out clothes on an old clothesline most every day. As I take each towel or bed sheet from the line, I can’t resist holding it to my face and breathing deeply in the warm summer sun. It is a better meditation exercise than sitting cross-legged and trying to chase unwanted thoughts from my mind and, best of all, it brings back memories of the simple pleasures of growing up in a world without fancy baptismal pools or clothes dryers.
Cleansing of the body through baptism and washing clothes to hang out on the clothesline seem to have parallel lessons of redemption. Dirt and grime are washed from clothes; sin is washed from the soul; all is ultimately forgiven in sparkling waters. Both are summer rituals that define growing up in a small mountain community where good people live, work and care for one another by sowing seeds of kindness. Forgiveness is a gift given to lost souls and dirty laundry; redemption is followed by rejoicing; and everyday rituals performed in a simple mountain hollow are treasured for a lifetime. And we shall come rejoicing bringing in the sheets.