Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Lord? Singing?!?

Disclaimer: this story, like so many others, is more mythos than logos.

I used to be the pastor of a small Methodist church in roughly the middle of nowhere. To get there (or somewhere like it) drive toward the smallest town you can think of, and, just before you get there, turn left.

Our worship leader loved "special" music, by which I expect he meant music that grew up riding the short bus. Every chance he got he inserted a moment for "special" music into the order of worship. I was fine with this. Less work for me. The congregation loved it, because it meant something that came dangerously close to entertainment (even though it cut into their nap time - the time I got to preach). The worship leader would invite someone from outside the congregation to come in and sing or play the piano or maybe even whistle, as long as they whistled an "old time Gospel" song.

One Sunday he brought in a young man with a reputation as a dynamic singer. This man got up and sang as well as he possibly could have, and everyone clearly loved it. At churches, particularly small churches deep in the country, the social element is at least as important as the spiritual element. So, if you perform anything at a small church there is an expectation that you will stick around after the service so that everyone can tell you just how good they think you are.

This young man was well schooled in small church etiquette, and so like a good Christian he milled around inside the church after the service so that all the people could get a chance to talk to him. And, sure enough, everyone wanted to talk to him and tell him what a good job he had done, and how much they enjoyed it, and how much they would like to have him back, and couldn't he stick around for lunch, etc.

We Christians often have a strange concept of humility, which produces some truly bizarre (if you think about it) behavior. Humility, so often, is the inability to accept gracefully anything that resembles a compliment. It is certainly the inability to take credit for anything that might be considered good. [note: I'll probably write more on the subject of humility, and competing definitions of it, at a later date] So, like a humble Christian, this young man could not accept that people thought that he (as though on his own efforts) had done something good. Every time someone complimented him on his singing, he blushed his sheepish blush, and responded, "Oh, thank you. But it wasn't me singing, it was the lord singing through me."

This (mock?) humility, which to my congregation clearly indicated a deeper piety, only endeared him to them all the more. Church people love it when talented individuals refuse to take any credit for their talent. But, every church has at least one truly honest person, and sure enough my small church in the middle of nowhere had an elderly women who, every time she opened her mouth, had people wondering how she was going to embarrass them this time. She, a lover of music, had been deeply moved by a rare instance of music which was both "special" and actually good. So, she went to compliment the young man, who, upon hearing her compliment, protested mildly, "Thank you, ma'am. But, it wasn't me singing. It was the lord singing through me."

This honest woman responded, somewhat indignantly, "Son, if the Lord sang, I'm sure the Lord could sing a fair amount better than that!"

As a former preacher, I can't resist the temptation to find morals or meanings in stories every chance I can. So often we hide behind the rhetoric of our religion, and don't accept the fact that, for good or for ill, we are responsible for our own actions. We can't keep doing things, and then blaming the result on God. The young man in this story sang to the best of his abilities, motivated by a relationship with God, seeking to honor God, and trying to lead others into some sort of an experience of God. But he sang. It was his act, not God's.

So many evil things are done in the name of God. So many good things are also done in the name of God. But these actions, for good or for ill, are not the actions of God. They are the actions of men and women desperately seeking to find and follow the often indiscernible will of the God who is a complete mystery to us.

Embrace the mystery.


Amy said...

I see that Johanna has left her mark! "Mythos" and "Logos" - I know where you picked up those terms ;)

Sandalstraps said...

Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos is the professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In her lectures she often borrow from Karen Armstrong's distinction between "mythos" (from which we derive "myth") and "logos" (from which we derive "logic").

According to Armstrong's book The Battle For God: A History of Fundamentalism, one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism is an attempt to convert "mythos" into "logos." Myths are stories which provide ultimate meaning, while "logos" points to a kind of logical plan of action.

Since we no longer appreciate the role of myth, we attempt to convert our myths into something more logical, rational, and modern. But, when we do this we deny the power of myth, and, in applying myth in ways that it should not be applied, we create a very dangerous situation.

If anyone is interested in reading a great book which communicates how to readthe Bible both reverently and as "mythos," I highly recommend Johanna's newest book, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice. It makes the stories come alive, and demonstrates a great deal of scholarly work.

Tom said...

You are such a geek.