Saturday, March 29, 2008

Great cloud of witnesses

I'm sometimes moved to tears by hearing my congregation sing together. I've never been able to wrap words around exactly why, but it's one of the great experiences of my life in those moments where they abandon themselves to the music and sing unself-consciously.

One of the books I'm reading at present is Jayber Crow (by Wendell Berry), a loan from my wonderful pastor/colleague. It tells the story of a small-town southern orphan who, after trying out seminary, decides that he can't authentically preach doctrine (his faith is larger than the code) and so becomes his town's barber instead. There's a note from the author at the beginning of the book, sort of gently forbidding academic analysis. So I won't. That wouldn't get where I wanted to go with this text, anyway. I want to get you to buy it and read it, and discover for yourself the serene, elegant beauty of his prose. It's like honey ambling from a jar.

I also want to thank Mr. Berry for articulating so perfectly the beauty I find in that moment of everyone singing together. I'll let two excerpts from his text speak for themselves. By way of setup, Jayber has taken on the job of church janitor, in order to supplement his barbering income, and is attending church so that they may know that he cares about his work:

What I liked least about the service itself was the prayers; what I liked far better was the singing. Not all of the hymns could move me. I never liked "Onward, Christian Soldiers" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Jesus' military career has never compelled my belief. I liked the sound of the people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone: "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," "Rock of Ages," "Amazing Grace," "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." I loved the different voices all singing one song, the various tones and qualities, the passing lifts of feeling, rising up and going out forever. Old Man Profet, who was a different man on Sunday, used to draw out the note at the ends of verses and refrains so he could listen to himself, and in fact it sounded pretty. And when the congregation would be singing "We shall see the King some-day (some-day)," Sam May, who often protracted Saturday night a little too far into Sunday morning, would sing, "I shall see the King some-day (Sam May)."

I thought that some of the hymns bespoke the true religion of the place. The people didn't really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but they still liked it. What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another's help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude. I loved to hear them sing "The Unclouded Day" and "Sweet By and By":

We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs of the blest...

And in times of sorrow when they sang "Abide with Me," I could not raise my head.

Sometimes Jayber would go to work and, completely at home in the sunny silence of the place, take a nap before he began his work:

One day when I went up there to work, sleepiness overcame me and I lay down on the floor behind the back pew to take a nap. Waking or sleeping (I couldn't tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew (as a child), where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any farther) while Aunt Cordie sang in the choir, and I saw them as I had seen them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying, the little children tucked into the pews beside their elders, the young married couples full of visions, the old men with their dreams, the parents proud of their children, the grandparents with tears in their eyes, the pairs of young lovers attentive only to each other on the edge of the worlds, the grieving widows and widowers, the mothers and fathers of children newly dead, the proud, the humble, the attentive, the distracted–I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men's necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there. They said nothing, and I said nothing. I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.

When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears.

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