If you were a visitor for the traditional 11 o’clock service at my mainstream Protestant church one Sunday, you might consider us a restrained congregation. We don’t shout or moan or dance or wave our arms about — though I am not saying we might not one day. We tap our feet and nod our heads. We clap. We laugh. We hug. We cry. And occasionally (at appropriate times) we might respond with an even-toned “Amen.”
We underline scripture, take notes, go home and journal, or read more on the topic. To outsiders it all looks very staid.
But on the inside, our brains and will and heart are active. Inspired by a word or a line, a plea, a story, a song, or even a stray thought, we are bubbling and roiling, alive and connected to each other and all mankind. We are praying, questioning, reasoning, resolving. We are fiercely thinking about how to turn our personal spiritual responses to God into positive actions — through organized outreach, our financial choices, and our personal services toward our neighbors, kin and community.
Sometimes I consider how my personal faith, traditional and private as it is, aligns with my political beliefs. I felt good about most of my work as a teacher, but I am still struggling to find the skill and power to do good as an apprentice writer.
Now, I’m beginning to sound holier than thou, when I am still a seeker.
I learn and grow from the preaching and the church service, but I look forward to the music: the choir, the piano, the organ, but mainly the hymns. I can admire contemporary songs. I like Wynonna Judd’s “Testify to Love” and Mark Hall’s “Oh My Soul” among many others.
But twice last week, two different friends and I went into raptures and cried over “This is my Father’s World” and “Be thou My Vision,” which we had sung the Sunday before. The inspiration and the awe remained days later.
Maybe I’m just an emotional wreck teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown, a victim of my high-strung Scots-Irish heritage. I can have an emotional response to family gatherings and nature. But I am especially open to the art and beauty of poetry set to music, a hymn’s meaningful words, combined with old folk melodies or sophisticated tunes.
So, as I discussed with my similarly affected friend, I had been looking forward to a new learning or a reminder to control my sharp tongue. I couldn’t wait to hear our Carey Castellow bring forth sublime melodies from our organ. But I knew I was in trouble when I couldn’t make it through the first hymn.
Folliet S. Pierpont wrote “For the Beauty of the Earth” in 1864, but the words still resonate with me and many of my friends. The first stanza I sang lustily: “For the beauty of the Earth/For the glory of the skies,” and then the second, which praises the wonder of each hour, hills, vales, trees and flowers, and then sun and moon and stars of night. So I was only a little surprised when my throat choked up and my voice stopped on the third verse, which extols human love: “Brother, sister, parent, child/Friends on Earth and friends above.”
I just mouthed the last two stanzas, hiding my tears in a straight-ahead stare, not daring to wipe my cheek.
I managed to get myself under control to listen to an amazing sermon only to lose it again while trying to sing, “Be Thou My Vision.” The old Irish melody surrounds me and the words are magnificent. I waste many hours on YouTube listening to dozens of versions of “Be Thou My Vision” by quartets and choirs.
So never judge a person by their silence, their quiet participation. Sitting straight and still in our pews, we may be having a rich worship experience.