May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice.
- Romans 15:5-6
I was reading a profound book on spiritual formation recently, and it closed with a prayer of blessing for the reader. One of those lines was this: "I pray that someday you are given the gift of singing the Doxology with people who mean every single word of it.”* I’ve experienced that, and it’s amazing.
That line brought back my memories of growing up in a small country church in Pennsylvania that sang the Doxology together. We sat in narrow wooden pews in a small sanctuary, kind of squashed up against each other. Over 25 years later, I can still remember what the voices of the old men and women sitting near me sounded like. I can picture their faces and the tone of their voice as they belted out old hymns. I would join them with my family, belting out the songs, feeling the sound fill the room. I tried out new harmonies, and whether or not they were on key… they were put out there with everyone else’s.
Like every church, that congregation was very imperfect. But by intent or necessity, we all knew what each others' voices sounded like. We sat close enough that it couldn’t be avoided.
Today, I lead a church that is fortunate to meet in a beautiful school auditorium. There is more than enough seating, and the sound system is complete overkill. But one of the great challenges is that human beings, when given the choice, will always keep just enough space between them to maintain a safe distance. I’ve found lately that when we sing together, it’s not easy to hear the voices of others. We’re not close enough.
And as I journeyed through this memory that became metaphor, it began to dawn on me that this is exactly the challenge that we face in discipleship.
Life tends to be like singing together, but with about 8 seats in between us. Christians agree that singing together is important and beautiful and worthwhile. We just don’t sit close enough to be able to hear one another doing it. Because unless you’re an amazing singer….it’s weird when someone can hear you.
If you’re not tracking with me yet, this isn’t about singing at all.
We’re comfortable with people from a distance.
We’re comfortable talking about vulnerability as a value, until it requires us to get close to enough to people that they actually hear what our voice sounds like, crackling, out of breath, or off-key. We’re a mess. That’s when we get self-conscious. We worry about what they're thinking when they’re that close. So we go back to hiding behind our philosophies of shared life rather than engaging in the actual practices of it.
In the gospel stories, Jesus is presented as the great connector. The divine matchmaker. The one who brings us together with the father, and the one who breaks down barriers between people. The one who has no place in his reality for shame to take root, so he dispels it wherever he goes. He speaks truth to people and loves them for all of their imperfections. He calls disciples so that he can “be with them” (Mk 3:14). He flattens social hierarchies and teaches people that the best possible spot in the kingdom is reserved for the those with the courage to sing out to God that they are desperately insufficient on their own. He nudges people to sit closer.
Jesus dies so that we can walk with God and others with no curtain of separation. And he connects his followers to each other as a way of re-creating his own presence in the world (the Apostle Paul calls this “the Body of Christ”). The pressure is off, but we don’t trust that freedom. When someone is close enough to hear us sing, it’s hard not to think that the only thing they’re doing is evaluating.
So, may change start with us. May we take the first steps to be sent out into the world, singing off key or beautifully, but at least with a full heart, so that people see that Jesus makes it easier to be heard without fear. May you taste the real beauty of people in your life who, like God, are close enough to know you and love you anyways. And may you, as you hear the voices of other people, move from evaluation to embrace, helping them understand that in the presence of God, shame has no place.
Live today as people unafraid to walk in the kingdom of love.
Jesus, bring me nearer to you, so that I would find the courage to get nearer to others.
*Thanks to Sarah Bessey and her insightful book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things.