I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1, NIV)
I went to church Sunday. That’s nothing new; I’m a minister, I preach every Sunday, so of course I went to church. I have to tell you, though, that going to church is different when you’re preaching, and not just because you don’t have to sit through a boring sermon, you get to stand. (Rim shot)
It’s different because you’re thinking about how your sermon’s going to go until you preach it, and then you’re thinking about how it went. Then again, that’s probably not different from most everyone else there, people who have an important meeting on Monday, a medical test on Tuesday, people who had a fight with a spouse or a kid Saturday night or Sunday morning. I guess we all are distracted when we come to church. I used to think that being distracted would put me off worship, but now I realize that distractions can help to shape our worship, if what we’re thinking about and worrying about becomes what we’re praying and hearing about.
The song leader Sunday had done a good job choosing songs that built on the theme of expectation. We sang “Where Could I Go?” leading into “Unto the Hills” (“O When for me, shall my salvation come?”) into “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (“that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear”). We sang a few more songs that reminded us that Emmanuel has come, that when we don’t know where we can go and are wondering when our salvation will come or even mourning in lonely exile, that we can know that God has chosen to be with us in Jesus and knows those feelings and has ransomed us.
We heard from Isaiah, who reminded us of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” that he knew was coming, who would be full of the Holy Spirit and would bring righteousness, justice, and faithfulness and “slay the wicked,” and I allowed myself a little feeling of triumph, even though I know that absent God’s grace I’m among the wicked. But there are people who take advantage of the weak and marginalized who deserve what’s coming to them, and I say that without any feelings of superiority.
To tell us about that new world, Isaiah paints a powerful word picture of wolves lying down with lambs and a kid leading a lion and a calf and a yearling in an animal parade, and another kid over there sticking his hand into a viper’s nest, all to make the point that in the world that the Messiah brings into being the vulnerable don’t have to worry about being hurt. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” God says through the prophet. After a month when my wife had to bury her father, I’m down for some Isaiah.
After we heard from Isaiah, we sang “Peace in the Valley,” and it was hard for me to sing it because every time I sang, I teared up, and I had to sing that song facing the congregation and I don’t want them to think I’m a big crybaby. That’s one of my favorite songs, and I think it was one of my grandfather’s favorites (Jack, my mom’s dad), even though he wasn’t much for going to church. It starts off, “Well I’m tired and so weary, but I must go along,” and you have to appreciate that kind of stoicism, right? It’s like, “Yeah, I’m pretty worn down, but there are things to do.” You have to admire that. It made me think of everyone I know there at church with me who are tired and weary but go along anyway, hopefully with visions of Peace in the Valley on their minds.
The song was written by Thomas Dorsey, a Black songwriter and musician who had a lot to do with fusing blues and gospel music, his two favorite genres, which come to think of it, “Peace in the Valley” is all about blues and gospel rolled together. Dorsey grew up in the Jim Crow south before moving to Chicago, so I can take a guess at some of the things that made him tired and weary. He also lost his wife and son in childbirth. Tired and so weary indeed.
But only until “the Lord comes and calls me away.” And then after that “the morning is bright, and the Lamb is the light, and the night is as fair as the day.” There’ll be “peace in the valley,” no sadness, sorrow, or trouble. I like that it’s a valley that Dorsey looks forward to — maybe because he’s already struggled over all the mountains. The third verse borrows Isaiah’s menagerie of bears, lions, wolves, and lambs, along with little children leading beasts, and even his own tendencies toward beastliness will be gone as he is “changed from this creature that I am.”
We turned our attention toward Communion with this odd little hymn based on an Appalachian folk song, “I Wonder as I Wander,” in which we “wonder” with the songwriter that Jesus came to die for “poor ornery sinners” like us. (The song says “like you and like I,” and one of our members is a retired English teacher and cringes every time we sing that line.) It’s good to admit that we’re all three: poor, ornery, and sinners. It’s especially good to admit it when we’re together at church, because we need to hear that others are poor ornery sinners too, that it’s not just us, and also because there are a lot of people who think Christians think they’re too good for everyone else. Well, if we believe what we sing, we know too well that we’re not what we ought to be, either.
I was thinking as we sang this time that I’m not sure if the songwriter was saying that he wonders why Jesus came, or wonders that he came. Does he wonder about it, or at it? I think I finally decided that it’s both. The communion leader reminded us to think of our attitudes toward those sitting around us, and as I shared communion with the “poor ornery sinners” around me and who have come before me, I wondered why Jesus would come to give himself for us, and of course the only answer is that he loves us. And that, in itself, is a wonder.
As we left, we sang of the “beautiful star of Bethlehem,” the hope of the redeemed, and asked that his light would shine on us until “the glory come.” I think that’s similar to the sentiments of Peace in the Valley, that we know we aren’t there yet, but trust that we will be and just need some light in the meantime. I’ve thought about that a lot this week, and because of that I’ve prayed more for light, and I hope that’s made a difference in the way I’ve conducted myself this week.
That’s what going to church can do, come to think of it. It can change your perspective: on yourself, on the people who live around you, and on God, who has answered our lost cries by coming to us in Jesus to offer us light and who will come back again someday when “the glory come” and bring us Peace in the Valley. And that I’m in the number of “poor ornery sinners” for whom he died, so maybe I can give other people, and myself, a little bit of a break when our ornery side shows.
I confess that I don’t always go to church as well as I did last Sunday, but I think that’s at least as much a “me” problem as it is a church problem.
Oh, that phrase, “go to church”: I grew up hearing that “you can’t go to church, you are the church.” I believe that, I do, but taking exception when someone talks about “going to church” is a little silly. Even though I am the church — part of it — I’m not all of it. And church, as long as we believe meeting together matters, is always going to be partly a place and time. That’s OK, because we’re people who live in space and time. And I was reminded last Sunday how much I need to carve out space and time for going to church.
Hope you’ll go to church with me this Sunday.