The music sounded different that morning in England. Maybe I was overtired, maybe too exposed. I felt wound up like a toy in the way that new places heighten our sense of awareness, raw in the way that travel peels back your skin.
There was nothing special about the music, not really. Some familiar hymns, sung by ordinary voices in British accents, their notes jumping from their tongues and hopping around the room, only, and always, to land on my heart. And so though the music was nothing special, the church no cathedral, I stood in my row in a silent chaos. My hands fumbling around for a tissue, my eyes the overflow of a heart too full, and my heart aching in gratitude, pleading that this was too much.
This ordinary looking building with these mediocre singers was the place where, nearly thirty years before, my father first met the Lord. On an ordinary day of an ordinary week, my dad did a very unordinary thing, for him anyway, and went to church. And in this ordinary building, something extraordinary took hold of him and rattled the cages of his soul until he, forever, was anything but ordinary. Thirty years later, I came back to that place with him and my brother to worship and give thanks, for his beautiful life and the way it’s shaped mine. I thought, as we worshiped, of what it will be like to stand one day in life eternal, still next to my father and brother, protected by only the power of astounding grace.
And in that moment, amid the chorus of a mediocre worship song, my heart was swelling, expectant to burst, gratitude sprung up from a grace underserved that threatened to break me, as I could only pray that this was too much. Too much joy, too much hope, too much kindness for my raw, exposed heart to embrace. I felt so small and so darn loved by a force as big as the sky, and I thought the compassion would, quite literally, knock me off my feet.
This moment, I think, is one of the closest things I’ve experienced to true worship.
I’m a little bit of what many Christians would call a worship snob. I’ve long stood on my self made podium, declaring that worship should be excellent, should stimulate the mind and soul, and probably also our vocabulary. The melodies and harmonies should also be excellent, to esteem the glory and complexity of God. The only way to attain this, according to me, was through white, Anglo-Saxon hymns. Never mind that Jesus wasn’t white or Anglo-Saxon, never mind that most of those hymns were written in the past five hundred years. That, to me, and many of my friends, was the only way to worship. More than that, it was biblical.
Maybe we were right. Maybe that is the right way to worship. But in that ordinary church with the mediocre music, I was more moved than I have ever been by an Anglo-Saxon hymn, more aware of the Lord’s excellence and compassion, more attuned to his power and complexities, and more overwhelmed with thanksgiving.
And in that moment, I was filled with more joy for the life at present and more hope for the life to come than I’ve been before or since.
There’s so much to say about the worship debate; everyone has an opinion on the right way to worship. Some remain loyal to hymns because of beauty and tradition. Others run toward the neon lights and guitars because of relevance. And we all get on our horses and get passionate about our reasons why, leaving behind the humility and thankfulness so characteristic of true worship. Are we so caught up in form and style that we forget the importance of the attitude of the heart?
I wonder if we’ll walk one day through those pearly gates to a tune we’ve never heard. I wonder if there are notes and melodies this world cannot hold, if they’ll fall fresh on our ears as we approach Canaan. I wonder if the form and style will be so different from what we know that it makes all of our arguments irrelevant. I wonder if the notes and words in a language known but never heard will fill the holes in our heart so fervently that we’ll look at each other and say this is it. And if the impact of a realized hope will so astound our minds and hearts that amidst the holy, holy, holies, we will be hard pressed to see or think anything other than this is too much.
Let us worship like this, in churches both contemporary and traditional, as one body and one bride, the God who has done for us altogether too much.