The power of the song

The Holy did not speak to me through a burning bush. Nor did I hear a booming voice from heaven or a divine communication in the sheer silence. I did not go to a mountaintop or seek a meditative state on a quest to discern God’s will. I simply went to worship on a whim.

On that Christmas Eve, tired after a long day working retail in a now defunct mall, I turned without thinking into the parking lot of a random Presbyterian church. Like a lost animal in search of temporary shelter, I timidly entered, looked around and slunk into a back pew.

I do not remember much about the service. I do know we each received golf-pencil-sized candles encompassed by small, white, stiff paper discs to catch the wax lest it burn fingers or damage carpets. I know we processed out to “Silent Night” and the bulletin gave instructions to sing “Joy to the World” once we exited the sanctuary. As one of the last in, I was among the first out, waiting for the murmurs of one hymn to end and wondering when the big finish would begin. We stood in the awkwardness of knowing what was supposed to happen, but not knowing who was to make it happen.

The crowd grew, the candles burned, the uncomfortableness of the temperature and liminal time elicited questioning glances at the bulletin and between worshippers. We’d been given instruction to sing, and yet no one wanted to start the song. And then a voice began: “Joy to the world …” The voice pierced the night — deep, strong and solo. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Not beautiful so much as certain, unequivocal, unashamed. The voice came from a man to my right. White hair. Stocky. Hearing aids. Kilt. How had I not noticed him before?

“Let earth receive her king!” Slowly, others joined the song. Taking their cue from the one unafraid to sing alone, the congregation grew in confidence. “And heaven and nature sing! And heaven and heaven and nature sing!”

“He rules the world with truth and grace!” Candles began to rise in the darkness and when the hymn came to an end, arms remained held high for a few more seconds, no one wanting to break the sense of the sacred or extinguish the light.

I wandered back to my car, drove home to my sparsely furnished apartment and realized inexplicably, unquestionably, that something in that shameless singing spoke to me no less than a clear directive from heaven. I did not know what exactly God said to me that night, but I knew God had spoken. That alone moved me to want to know more about a God who compelled people to embody such defiant joy no matter if others joined their song or not.

A few days later I got in touch with my childhood pastor. I drove the hour or so to the small town where I grew up, but where my family no longer lived. I sat at his kitchen table and told him about this odd experience of hearing the voice of God through the voice of a stranger. I said I might want to hear more of this Word but I wasn’t sure how or where. He did not dismiss me or my story or the possibility that perhaps I had encountered the Most High God in the midst of very ordinary people. Maybe I had even heard a new call embedded in very old lyrics.

I never went back to that church. I will never know the name of the man who began the song in which I heard the Word of the Lord to me. I continue to aspire to the clarity of conviction evident in his voice. I cannot hear “Joy to the World” without being transported to that night and that season, that chapter of confusion and chaos from which God called forth light and life. I am not gifted with a beautiful singing voice, but no matter, I always join in the song, just in case God chooses to speak through me.

Grace and peace,