Throughout high school I was a member of a choir. It was a church choir. We sang weekly. And I enjoyed it, although I feared it. Ms. Bell and her husband Mr. Bell were professional musicians and taught music in university. Mr. Bell led the adult choir at church; Ms. Bell led the high schoolers. Both of them were forces in and of themselves and intimidating for me to be around. I had no formal musical training. I did not have an good ear. And my voice has always been marginal at best. And when someone was off in this choir of thirty Ms. Bell would stop the production and point at each member in the offending section making them sing the offending score until she located the source of the offending note. As I have already said, I often don’t know what it is that I sing, although most of the time I am close enough. But there was grace in this choir because as long as you were there and tried, you belonged.
As a choir we sang contemporary compositions that had accompanying narrations, telling a story that followed a conservative Gospel agenda that over the course of the evening presented a particular pattern of: life, sin, fall, grace, and redemption. And growing up I never knew anything different. After all, this is the take on life with which I had been tucked into bed every night since I was an infant. And everything would be right with the world if we – I – just stuck to the party line.
In the spring of 1975 our choir rented a bus and went on tour through the upper Midwest. For several days we were driven between major cities, giving concerts at night. At the end of our tour I found myself in Minneapolis, Minnesota singing in one of the holy tabernacles in our denomination’s history, the historical First Covenant Church. We sang twice there. The first was the full concert the evening of our arrival. At that point we had the extended evening to ourselves. But the next morning we returned in order to sing a couple of songs during the morning service itself. We had been housed in parishoners’ homes overnight, I had stayed in a literal mansion situated on one of the many lakes in the affluent suburbs to the west of Minneapolis – its wealth was beyond that which I had ever experienced in my life.
The next morning, having sung our first song, the sermon eventually came around. I still recall it… it was a call to moral living…focusing on the hygiene of the soul. It is not a memorable sermon because of what it positively inspired in me, but because of what it (unsuccessfully) tried to implant in me. After several examples of what positive moral living could bring to one’s life the preaching turned to the consequences of immoral living. The most horrific depths of depravity was illustrated by the story of a clergyman who had committed adultery, was kicked out of the church, lost his ordination, and eventually found employment as a janitor. The preacher’s inflections that morning, the way he drew out the sentences, his bodily gesticulations, were all obviously well-rehearsed and meant to give added weight and strength to the horrors he described. But I just found them corny and over-acted. I had never heard such self-righteous, condemnatory preaching. And I felt very much that these words were being pointedly focused on our choir…young and impressionable as we were, at least in his mind…and probably more particularly because he kept staring at us as he preached.
The preaching that I had been raised on had been measured and respectful; this preaching was its opposite.
Our bass player was not a person of faith. He made no bones about it. He played in the choir because he wanted experience. And he was very good. He was seated next to me that morning as we were being brow-beaten in that service. And I will never forget when, as I was sitting there having my nose rubbed in my miserable adolescent separation from God our bass player, Paul, leaned over next to me and whispered in my ear, This is bullshit.
Not given to profanity at that point in my life I was somewhat shocked at what he said. But at the same time it was an accurate reflection of my own feelings. Whereas my reactions were bottled up inside of me, afraid of being expressed, his just naturally emerged. His words also reflected my own unarticulated distress between having spent an overnight in a mansion and now being told that we were sinful wretches in the hands of an angry and wrathful God. Where did my hosts stand in regard to this all? Were they reaping the rewards of having lived a morally superior life? Is that what God did for ‘good’ people…the driven capitalists who followed all the rules? I had been reading my Bible for a few years by then. What did Jesus mean when he said that the tax collectors, and prostitutes, and sinners were entering the Kingdom of Heaven before the righteous were?
There is no doubt in my mind any more that our ideas about God tell us more about ourselves than about God. The arbitrary dictates of our cultures work overtime to keep us compliant to whatever way we may deem necessary in order to keep the world from flying into what we fear as chaos…which in the end is whatever is outside of the accepted standards in which we are raised.
God’s inscrutable love is a bit bigger. If Easter demonstrates anything it shows me that God’s love is actually made up of an ongoing discourse between life and dying. As long as people are prisoners of conventional notions, their hearts cannot accept the seeds of unfamiliar truth, let alone of love. People who love find no pleasure in success or health or money, or even virtue…much less in their opposites…pain, failure, illness, immorality.
The only thing in which is found love is in knowing and doing the will of God in any particular moment, and in giving oneself fully to God to that end. It’s what it means to love God in return. By consenting to the moment with joy, and doing it with the gladness that ensues, we find God’s love in our hearts, because now my will is united with God’s love and I am on the way to becoming what God is – God is love.
By accepting all things from God
I receive God’s joy into my soul
not because things are what they are
but because God is who God is,
and God’s love has willed my joy
in them all.
– Thomas Merton