A Way of Hearing

I was working – really. I was looking for a video on YouTube of a song for our musicians. And I was fixated on getting the version of the song that was closest to our sheet music, so it would translate easily from the page to the voice. All business.

Until I let the video run beyond what I was searching, and this deep, powerful alto Voice came out of the computer speakers. A Voice that spoke of the Mississippi delta. A Voice that held funeral home handfans and sweet tea and that part of a hot Sunday afternoon when you have already heard what the preacher has to say, but you want to hear more anyway. That Voice transported me to a place of prayer. Not the prayer place of my childhood; those chilly Congregational sanctuaries in Northern Vermont where I first learned to pray, not there.

Instead, that Voice sent me to the brush arbor of my seminary years, and one long interim ministry. iIt was all very intense in seminary; I lived for the first time in a large city. I wondered every day whether this expensive, somewhat esoteric degree was really a good idea. And would I be good enough? Good enough to get my degree, good enough to find a church to call me, and of course, good enough for God. And the debates; we seminarians debated everything to death; theology, practical church management, politics, worship! Take a bunch of strong-willed people who believed that they were chosen of God and stuff them into one community, and you can just imagine the dynamics.

It was from that world that the Voice called me. When I was sick of talking, sick of reading, soul-sick and sick at heart, that Voice was my healing. I served a tiny church in the inner city as a student. If two of the post-graduate students from the university hadn’t volunteered to pastor there, I’m sure it would have closed. We didn’t have a youth group, or a functional kitchen or even running water in the baptistry, but we did have music.

Some of it was music I knew; the very same hymns we sang sitting in a circle in Sunday School. But the singing of those familiar hymns was so different; we clapped, we drew out some notes and skipped over others, we stomped. The hymns I sang in that little shabby sanctuary and in our seminary chapel were more than words set to tunes. They were faith itself with breath marks. The Voice spoke the Word to me.

The Voice was the vehicle for healing in a church I served whose pastor had been a legendary pulpit figure for 47 years. When I came to them, they were grieving his loss, grieving the loss of their place in the community, and searching for a road that they could travel together. The pain was so deep that sometimes we could barely speak to one another. But we could sing. When their beloved pastor died after a long illness, we sat in the Sanctuary and sang. There were many voices, but it was all one Voice.

The Voice is about music, but not only about music. It is that auditory frequency that leads you where God would have you go. It could be gospel or country or folk songs or opera or Chicago blues. No matter how many beats per measure, it moves you. And when it does; when the Voice speaks to your deepest need, you have to listen with your whole soul. God is at work.

iFor those outside the United Church of Christ tradition, a three-year masters’ degree from an accredited seminary is usually required for those who want to be ordained ministers. While I was lucky enough to receive scholarship help, paying for that degree was my responsibility, after which I would engage in a free market search for a church to hire me. It is a substantial risk, but one that has paid off for me!

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