Christian Courier column (May 27th, 2013 issue)
You haven’t lived till you see a seventy-something tough old dude who looks like he’s survived a battle or two, deep lines crisscrossing his face, eyes like horizontal slashes in a rutted terrain, standing ramrod straight, fervently singing about the tender love of his Heavenly Father. Or, next to him, a middle-aged guy with impressive handlebar mustache and dignified demeanour pleading with his “precious Lord” to take him home because he’s “tired,” he’s “weak” and he’s “worn.” If you’re in a grand old church with the rays of the evening sun slanting through stained glass windows and pooling on rich chocolate brown pews, you might, like me, feel as if you’re on heaven’s threshold.
Choirs are a dying breed, but I love them. I’ve been a member of the Con Spirito Choir since the early 90s. I’d be inclined to boast, but my mom will chime in that she’s been in choir for 65 years, so pride is moot. Choirs come in all shapes and sizes – male choruses, four-part mixed choirs, and my favourite, gospel choirs with robes, clapping and ecstatic improvisations. You can coax ten members of a tiny rural church to line up in front of a piano-playing director and call them a choir.
Here you might be expecting a dirge on the loss of the church’s great choral traditions and the dwindling interest of the next generation. But I don’t really know enough about music to deliver a convincing rant. I just love to sing with other believers who also love to sing. And not just for the singing. For whenever a ragtag bunch of choristers gather, I see something about how the Body of Christ is supposed to function.
These are the kind of things that are happening: the director is battling a severe head cold, but he’s there with his game face on; the pianist, who’s gifted beyond what the choir deserves, is playing the same bass line ten times with exquisite patience; someone is leaning over to point out a tricky CODA to a neighbour who can’t read music; a board member has come early to put on the coffee and another one’s staying behind to turn off the lights and lock the doors.
A choir is communal. William Sloane Coffin, well-known American clergyman, has said: “Many of us overvalue autonomy, the strength to stand alone, the capacity to act independently. Far too few of us pay attention to the virtues of dependence and interdependence, and especially the capacity to be vulnerable.” But a choir does. A choir pays particular attention to the “virtues of dependence and interdependence.” A choir has to blend, to bend individual talent to the needs of the whole. To sing in a choir, you have to be willing to be a follower, to place yourself under the leadership of the director. You have to listen to others, adapting your voice, and even your breathing, to those around you. And you have to practise forgiveness. A lot. For this one’s excessive vibrato, that one’s habit of holding on to a note just a fraction too long. Within all this “interdependence,” you’re gradually blessed to discover the “peoplehood” of God that Richard Mouw talks about in Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, a covenantal togetherness that says you can’t be a Christian alone. “Christian” only comes in plural, he says, like southern “grits.”
A choir takes sustained work and commitment, very much like the kingdom of heaven Jesus describes in Matt. 24. You have to get up and show some initiative: sow seeds like a farmer, plant a mustard tree, mix yeast like a cook, let down your nets at dawn. It takes determination – like a merchant who spends all day hunting for that pearl of great price.
Yes, the kingdom of heaven is like a choir. When we’re ascribing to the Lord the glory of his name and worshipping him in holy splendor (Ps. 29:2), we’re being changed. Singing in a choir places us in Westminster Confession mode where our chief end is defined this way: “to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”
Sometimes, when I’m singing in the choir, that really does happen. I lose myself, enjoying God. When I get to enjoy God forever, in heaven, it might be kind of hard to spot me “crying out with many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand,” and “chanting with every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea.” I’ll be the one belting it out like Mahalia Jackson between tough old veteran dude and distinguished handlebar mustache, waving my palm branch and wearing my white robe.