Sing A New Song
Every Wednesday afternoon 30 or 40 children from the neighborhood and congregation would gather at our church for a time of learning, playing together, supper and choir rehearsal. It was a wonderful time.
I was never certain who enjoyed those Wednesday afternoons more--the children or the teachers. I know I would have worked in that program even if I hadn't been the paid choir director.
After a couple months there came a day when the worship committee decided it was time for the children to sing for Sunday morning worship. The children and I thought it was going to be fun. Choir smocks were unpacked from boxes where they had been stored, tried on in all their wrinkledness for size, and then sent home for washing and ironing. No wrinkles on Sunday morning!
The children looked quite different on Sunday morning than those I had such fun with on Wednesdays. They were all cleaned up and rather uncomfortable in their dress-up clothes. Their behavior was changed, too; more stiff, formal and subdued. Our rehearsal was disappointing. On Wednesdays you could hear the kids sing from one end of the educational wing to the other. Now I wondered if anyone beyond the first three rows of pews would observe anything other than their mouths moving.
And then Jamie cornered me. He'd always been one of the boys I particularly enjoyed. He looked like one of Norman Rockwell's models, clothes trying to rearrange themselves in some wayward direction while still remaining haphazardly on his body, red hair flying anyway but where the comb put it, face covered with freckles.
"Mrs. Rader," he whispered, "How do you want me to sing this morning?"
What? I wondered to myself. What was this question? Jamie was one of the biggest kids with one of the biggest voices. He loved Wednesday night choir practice, and he always sang with abandon. "What do you mean?" I asked Jamie.
"Well," he said, "do you want me to sing loud or soft?"
Only then did I remember. This child was absolutely tone deaf. He was always off-key. In rehearsals it somehow never seemed to matter.But now--well, after all I was the paid choir director whose husband was the assistant pastor in one of the largest churches in the denomination. And the children with whom I had enjoyed such wonderful Wednesday afternoons were going to sing in church this morning.
Jamie looked at me and waited for my response. There was a long pause as I looked at this child from the neighborhood who had found a place of shelter and fellowship in our Wednesday program. What should I say?
Finally I whispered in his ear. "Just sing," I told him. "Sing the way God wants you to sing."
He did. Off key. With abandon. And all the other kids who had been so tense and suddenly bashful joined in with their own forms of gusto.
And the congregation began to pay closer attention and then to smile and then to exuberantly applaud. Somehow Jamie's slightly off key singing reminded us that we're all still a little less than perfect, that we all wonder how what we have to offer will be received. And yet, and yet…we knew that day that we are all welcome, all acceptable, all blessed when we give and receive without counting the cost.
Who would have thought one of the neighborhood kids would be the one to teach the Sunday school children the "right" way to sing? Would anyone have believed that it would be a rough and tumble boy who dressed differently than most of the regular church goers who would be the one to show us how to really worship?
I wonder why we keep getting surprised at those kinds of happenings? After all history is made up of the most unusual people showing us what life is all about. There is the story of an old woman, a very old woman, getting pregnant and giving birth to a son who would establish a nation. There is the story of a murderer becoming one of God's favorites and leading a nation in wisdom and love. There is the story of two poor, unmarried teenagers living under foreign domination, giving birth to a baby and having that boy child be named a future king of the oppressed nation.
And today the story is of strangers, perhaps wealthy, educated men, traveling far distances to find that newborn baby, only to be astonished at the very common home in a very ordinary town in which he lived. But never mind. When they came to the place where the Jewish baby and his mother were, they were not disappointed.
Instead the story says those wise men, those kings, those educated and sophisticated men, came to this little baby and his poor parents in this beaten down town and somehow were transformed. They knew they had found their hearts' desire. They were filled with joy or as one writer put it: they were "flooded with great happiness." Kings excited about a baby!
The Christian story just turns all our expectations upside down. We keep thinking that if we had more money, or a finer house or the senior position in the firm, or if we were smarter, we'd know peace and happiness. Our fear and suspicion of others makes us try to shut them out. We like ourselves and our friends and our church just the way they are. We think we're content and we don't want anything or anyone to change us.
We keep trying to make the Christian story something it isn't to suit our own desires. In the words of the country-western song, we keep "looking for love in all the wrong places." But today's story shows us a better way: Wise men search for a ruler and find a poor baby who changes the direction of their lives and the world. A nation longs for power and prestige and they get sent a "king" who refuses earthly claims and titles. A king, Herod, wants to retain security and comfort and Jesus offers a future cross.
It was a cold winter day a couple years ago when I went to visit one of the United Methodist congregations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The church building in the heart of the city attracts people from all around.
We entered the parking lot, found a place to park just as another worshipper was parking. She drove to the church in her Mercedes and got out of the car dressed in a lovely mink coat.
Together we walked toward the church building. There were others entering as well. A number of them had no coat even though the temperature was very chilly.
Inside we were shown to our places in the sanctuary, but not until we had been asked if we would need a large print bulletin. The congregation that gathered was very diverse--many colors, many ages, many abilities. The pastor was white; the preacher of the day black; the worship leader, hispanic. A child about 8 years of age played a solo on the piano for the prelude. A mentally disabled child with many needs was held and quieted by an elderly woman obviously not her grandmother.
As the morning offering was received, the ushers avoided a man seated in the second row. Suddenly he stood up, waved his dollar bill and shouted, "This makes me so mad! Why didn't you come to me? I want to give too." It was only then I noticed the man was blind.
After the sermon was preached, the children's choir sang. Following their anthem, it was time for communion, the Lord's meal, and the children were invited to kneel at the communion rail first. They were welcomed at the table. They knew they were very special in that place.
Everyone in the church that day was welcomed to the Lord's table. There were some who were mourning the death of one member of the congregation; a young woman, a nurse from Liberia, who had died of cancer the previous week. There were others who were celebrating a return to health after serious illness. As each group of people joined together at the communion rail and were fed, they were dismissed by the pastor saying, "Arise and go in peace, and God's peace go with you." And with each dismissal, a man in the back of the sanctuary who obviously was unable to understand all that was going on would shout, "And also with you."
God's peace is "also with us."
"God's light shines not only for good church people, but especially for the ones who have never heard the story.
"The light shines not just in the mansions of power and wealth, but is particularly directed to the humble, oppressed back alleys.
"God's light shines not only where people are happy and content, but it also makes its way into the places where we struggle and cry and are lost.
"The light shines not just when the music is in four part harmony, but, thank God, it shines for all it's worth even when the rhythm is irregular and the singing is a bit off key.
"God's light shines; it shines for you and me, showing us the way in our search for the One who will bring great joy.
Sharon Rader The Protestant Hour