A constant backdrop for my study was the music of a player piano. All day and all evening, whether the lobby was near empty or bustling with activity, music would flow from the piano — classic love songs, light classical pieces, and even some gospel hymns. Most of the time I hardly noticed the music — it was just “there,” in the background.
Most of the time.
One afternoon as I was doing my usual reading and writing in the lobby, the music from the piano felt different. I stopped what I was doing and listened. I was captivated. The music seemed to have a passion and personality, an ebb and flow, a quietness and intensity. I noticed variations in the melody and even an imperfection or two. I stood up to get a better view. My suspicions were confirmed. The player piano had a player. A real person was seated on the bench, caressing the keys and making the music, and it made all the difference in the world. No longer was the music merely background. It was riveting.
Nothing takes the place of the personal touch. We can do church mechanically or passionately. We can set the timer for worship or come hungering after the Spirit: My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. We can maintain an institution or be the body of Christ. We can argue theology and morality, or hunger and thirst for righteousness. We can gaze across the pew at a stranger, or rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We can coolly analyze the sermon or passionately personalize it, asking what God has to say to us.
Simply put, we can do church like a player piano or like a player at the piano.
No wonder God came to be with us in the flesh. No wonder Jesus promised the Holy Spirit presence and power to his disciples and the church. No wonder Paul wrote to his beloved Philippians, How I long for you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. Nothing takes the place of the personal.
A little boy saw me “out of context” in WalMart one day. After we had greeted, he exclaimed to his mother, “That’s the guy who goes to my church!” Now that is personal!
As you think of the church, as you come to worship, as you consider your giving and your serving, as you look at those in the church and those who need to be, remember — nothing takes the place of the personal. Everything else is just background.
John G. Hamilton is pastor of First Church in Rochelle, Ill.