The Places Our God, Where We Meet Thee

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The following reflection was offered in Sunday’s morning worship service by Pilgrim member, Meredith Samuelson

When I was a little girl – probably about seven – my dad came home from work talking about some coworkers of his who only attended church at Christmas and Easter, and generally did not see the point of going every Sunday.

I was outraged and engaged my parents in a lengthy discussion from my limited point of view of how important it was to attend church every Sunday, and proceeded to write a letter summing up my thoughts on the matter.  My parents were not (and are not) people I would describe as immensely religious, but this episode came at a time in my life when I so loved Sunday school and Bible school, that my mother signed me up for vacation Bible school at our church AND another church.  As a seven-year-old, I knew God.

Then I got a little older and a little less interested.  As a third grader, I forced myself to listen to the sermon by writing down every single word I didn’t know, and after service asking my mom what each one meant.  My method was significantly flawed for two reasons – 1) I really only listened for words I didn’t know, and 2) my page was filled front, and sometimes back, with words I didn’t fully understand. If our pastor was using so many words that flew over my head, it was no wonder I found the sermons to be boring and disengaging, and that feeling – possibly out of habit – continued, as I got older.

So it should come as no surprise that I don’t come to church for the sermons.  What really reaches me, and grabs me, and causes me to ponder – sometimes endlessly – is the music.  From wonderful preludes, to fantastic choir pieces.  But where I feel closest to God is not in a flawless organ postlude or in a perfectly in-tune, talented choir.  I feel closest to God in the raw, unique, flaw-filled hymns being sung confidently by a full congregation.

Do you remember the Sunday school song:  Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth! Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!  Well, if I were limited to only thirty seconds up here, that song would perfectly encapsulate where I consistently find God.  How fitting, then, that our reflection topic for today comes from a fantastic hymn telling us to Lift Every Voice and Sing till earth and heaven ring.

There is something about being enveloped in sound – lovely sound made by old and young, male and female, musicians and non-musicians, those sure of their faith and those seeking answers – that no sermon or prayer or liturgy can possibly replicate.  Hymns are a communal experience with everyone contributing their voice to make music with one another.  It’s quite a unique experience for a society that celebrates hundreds of solo artists; where anyone with access to modern technology has the capacity to record and produce an album.  Popular music used to refer to music that everyone knew, but with so many genres and extensive number of artists, that definition has morphed into meaning something entirely different.  In fact, the definition of popular music changes so rapidly these days that I find myself sounding like my grandmother when I listen to the radio:  “Who is that? You call that music?!”  Hymns, then, are our most common musical denominator.

I’ll bet if I began the first line of a hymn, many of you could complete it, or at least hum the tune. Hymns like Beautiful Savior, Amazing GraceEarth and All Stars, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Lift Every Voice and Sing, are staples of our Lutheran worship services.  This is why I find church music, particularly hymns, to be so exciting.  No one can finish any line of a sermon; prayers are either prayed for us by the pastor or designated layperson, or short and pre-determined in our bulletin; and while liturgies help to set the tone for a service, they don’t provide the same opportunity for musical worship as a hymn.

I come from a family that often made music together outside of church, and married into a family that regularly pulls out the hymnal and sits down after dinner to sing when all the kids are home.  One of my favorite memories is attending Christmas Eve service and sitting in the pew with my family – my mom, dad, sister, grandma, grandpa, and three aunts.  We would sing parts for as many hymns as possible – not to show off any musical talent, but to engage in the practice of listening to each other and making the most joyful noise we knew how as a family.  As we began expanding on the possibilities when singing, others in the congregation would join in, too, almost as if they had been waiting for an invitation.  When Grandpa Shay passed away nearly seven years ago, my family carried our Christmas Eve tradition to his memorial service – finding solace in making music together, and an immense amount of comfort in those who continued singing when our own voices failed us.

So I will leave you with some food for thought.  We all come to church for different reasons, and we all find God in different ways.  Though I don’t feel God’s presence in prayer or in contemplation of the sermon, I participate in both because my contribution adds to someone else’s experience.  In turn then, others’ participation in singing hymns is a necessity for where I find God.  I’m not a church or God expert (my seven-year-old self grew out of that), but knowing that God made us and loves us, I feel confident that God doesn’t judge our voices, but instead rejoices in hearing all of our unique instruments join in praising Him or Her together.  So as we come upon hymns in our service, I ask and invite everyone to join in singing to the Lord a new song because music is one place, our God, where we meet thee.

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