By Amy Butler
Last Sunday I stood at the front of the church, as I do most weeks, to welcome the community to worship. After I finished my remarks, I made my way to my seat on the side of the chancel to await the beginning of the opening hymn. The organ began to play and I stood with the congregation to sing the opening hymn:
Baptized in one confession,
One church in all the earth.
The architecture of our church is such that there is significant space between the chancel and the congregation, a canyon that sometimes feels impossibly wide. For the necessary community-building work of worship, especially in our congregational polity, this distance can be disconcerting. I am always looking for ways to bridge the gap, to establish a connection, to be myself among the worshipping congregation.
Last Sunday in particular I felt that distance sharply as I heard the strains of the organ beginning to play. There’s something — acoustics, architecture, layout — that makes it impossible to hear the congregation singing when you’re standing up front. You can see mouths moving, but the notes evaporate into the stone arches with no echo at all.
And as I stood there I could hear the organ behind me and what sounded like my one voice, alone, singing the hymn.
I’m a pretty good singer, and by that I mean I’m a pretty good in-the-car-with-the-windows-up-so-nobody-can-hear kind of singer. Neither you nor I would ever want a microphone or amplification system applied to my singing; for my singing to have any substantial redemptive power I need others singing around me.
So, as the music swelled and I sang the words to the first verse, I began to feel a little uncomfortable.
We bear our Lord’s impression,
The sign of second birth.
I could hear my voice distinctly apart from the community of worshippers, and didn’t like the distance. That feeling began to shape itself into a metaphor for life in the community of the church. With striking clarity I remembered again that the mysteries of human life and relationship with God are too big and scary to be confronted on my own.
I need my community with me in my ongoing, lifelong search for God.
As I stood there, my own wobbly notes hanging in the air around me, I could see the choir and those who were leading worship with me that day making their way down the long center aisle through the nave toward the chancel. Out of the gathered congregation they came, up the steps and all around me, their truly beautiful and solo-worthy voices ringing out, notes rising in increasing concert, together:
One holy people gathered
In love beyond our own.
I could hear singing, then, and it wasn’t just my own voice. I could feel my meager efforts buoyed and strengthened by the voices of those around me, and the notes we sang together made us into something bigger than the one.
I don’t know that my singing was any clearer or more in tune then, but I do know that my hesitation was gone. I could sing out because I knew I wasn’t alone.
I think in our best moments, that’s what church is like. The experiences we share as a community should always pull us toward each other because in that movement toward unity we are somehow mysteriously and continuously joined to a reality bigger than ourselves, to God, the one who lends order and meaning to our human experience.
Sometimes the distance between the pain and questions of human life and an experience of God seems so very wide. We can easily be disconcerted, convinced we will never bridge this chasm. It’s in these moments that the voices of those around us pull us forward toward a shared melody of hope and promise that will not let us forget God’s persistent invitation, issued over and over again until the hope for relationship becomes reality, until there is no more distance between us:
By grace we were invited,
By grace we make You known.