Tuesday, March 13th. The 21st day of Lent.
A few weeks ago I slipped into a worship service on a weeknight at a church that is not one I frequent. I thought it was going to be a Taize service with the expected chant songs and a more contemplative feel. As it turned out, the service was a contemporary service with “praise and worship” music, which is the kind of thing you hear on Christian radio stations.
It wasn’t what I was looking for. But they were brothers and sisters in Christ and I had no reason to think anything but the best about them. These days I find myself at peace with many different kinds of people.
I find it helpful not to sing songs that are not meaningful to me. Instead, I listen to the sounds of the people who love the songs singing them with passion. Since I can now meditate to just about any sound, including the murmurs of large numbers of people talking or traffic, it was no problem to sink into my own thoughts while the people around me sang a few choruses of “Our God is an Awesome God.”
A woman got up to preach. God love her, it was probably the worst sermon I’ve ever heard. She read a text of scripture, then jilted it at the altar and ran off after any number of trite subjects, each of which could be conveniently tagged with a popular religious catch phrase. Unfortunately, she was not a good public speaker, so she didn’t have that to fall back on. She stumbled over her words, got lost occasionally, and alternatively was glued to her notes or abandoned them to chase after a new thought that always seemed to have just occurred to her. I lost my way after a few moments and could never get enough purchase to find my way back to wherever it was she was trying to take us.
As someone who bore the craft and calling of preaching for many years, I feel honor bound to try and stay with preachers. So I didn’t just zone out and let her voice become a backdrop to my own meditations. I listened in solidarity for her faithfulness. After all, she probably volunteered to bring this sermon. And preaching is actually a shockingly difficult thing to do well. Really, there is no mastering the craft. All you can do is throw yourself at preaching for years and years, allowing yourself to be continually and publicly broken by the scriptures until humility is all you have left. Somewhere along the way it might be said that you’ve learned what it means to preach.
Finally, mercifully, she wrapped it up and the congregation stood to sing a chorus called “Shout to the Lord.” Some of you with experience in this kind of worship will recognize it as a common song in the genre.
The woman behind me was singing with great exuberance and joy. But she didn’t know the words, so about half the time she slipped into those nonsensical mumbling phrases that we all say when we can’t remember the words of a song but want to keep singing anyway. It was so cute and wonderful that I began to weep silently to myself. The utter and helpless humanity of her singing broke my heart and caused me to reevaluate the entire service.
It turned out to be a sweet and tender night of halting words and frail humanity.