It started quietly at first. A young woman’s voice opened the space, once silent, now sung. With her came the voices of older men and women, voices that long knew the song, their tongues and lungs reacting out of sweet ritual. The voices built, generation after generation adding their tenor until the music swelled like one living, breathing organism. I knew not the words they sang, these ancient Hebrew-meets-Yiddish words but I knew, I knew what they meant. It was clear from the tone, from the eyes that softly closed, the hips that slowly swayed, the heads that gently bowed – this was a song of devotion. Before I knew it, I was singing along with the congregation, offering my own voice to our God. My eyes began to well with tears as I watched my friends Aaron and Julie make their way to their chuppah, the wedding canopy. When each rounded the corner and heard the fullness of our song, of their community singing praises to the Lord, it was clear as could be that we were in a thin place, a place where the veil between heaven and earth was lifted. It was clear to me that our voices – voices of the old, the young, the trained and untrained, the stranger and the friend – our voices were living into our purpose: to praise God with pure devotion.
There, in that setting, it was a joy to be among a diversity of voices. It was safe; it was harmonious. It didn’t matter that I was a Presbyterian minister in a sea of Orthodox rabbis or that I lived in the South or that I voted for so and so in the last election. What mattered was that I was devoted to God.
But, as soon as I left lovely la-la-land Berkeley, California, I knew the harmony I felt would disappear. At the airport, I got annoyed at the headlines of newspapers and magazines that toted divisive political messages and oppressive images of women and men. On the plane, I started to get irritated by what people were reading or watching on their little airplane TVs. The cacophonous sound of human voices crept in and took over.
It is like this most of the time, isn’t it? We have these holy moments – these moments when we know we are in God’s presence, when we know we are embodying the fullness of our purpose. Our newly-elected officers will read this in Officer Training, but it bears repeating here. In the Westminster Catechism, the document used since the mid-1600’s as a theological educational standard for Reformed Christians, the first question is: what is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy God forever. To glorify God. So easy to remember and yet so easy to forget.
The church was born at a moment when a group of people came together to glorify God. All those gathered there that day of Pentecost were fulfilling their chief end, their purpose. It didn’t matter where you came from or what language you spoke. It didn’t matter where you went to school or what degrees hung in your office. It didn’t matter if you made six figures or six dollars an hour. What mattered there in that place was whether or not each person, each child of God, was using their manifestation of the Spirit for the common good..
Many years ago, I served on summer staff at Montreat as a counselor for the high school day camp. In late July, my co-counselors and I took our students on a camping trip. We brought along two outdoor educators and guides, Justin and Christina. They were wonderful at their job, leading us on our long hikes, teaching us how to pitch a tent. On the second day, we were climbing a particularly high mountain and had labored to reach the peak. When we finally arrived, it was magnificent, the fodder thick for psalms and prayers of praise. The luminous sky, the way ancient trees cascaded down as far as the eye could see. Ranger Justin asked if he could offer a prayer of thanksgiving – of joy, of gratitude, of devotion to our God. The gift of creation so vividly displayed before us, there didn’t seem like any other option but to pray. Sure, I responded, as if I had the authority to decide who gets to pray when. We circled up, joined hands.. As Justin prayed, words of praise rolled off his tongue but in between the thanksgiving, he used language I had worked so hard to avoid all summer whenever I led prayers for our group. The language was more exclusive and dare I say, more evangelical, than I ever used but it was also laden with more Spirit than my standard "progressive" script. In my 21-year-old mind, I thought such language would damage these young high school minds I was so responsible for. After he finished his prayer – his prayer of pure devotion – I took him aside and told him he was not allowed to lead prayers the rest of the trip. I am so ashamed of my naive self when I retell this story. Who did I think I was to ask another to silence himself, to silence his devotion for the Lord? His words did not damage the youth in our midst. My reaction, however, left far more of an impact. They saw me oppress another, stifle praise, deny the manifestation of the Spirit, keep a voice from sharing its purpose, from adding its tenor to the common good.
This summer, as our denomination approaches another General Assembly and our state reconvenes its own General Assembly, it is tempting to block out the voices that are different than ours. It is tempting to claim that the voices of others are wrong, are unjust, are damaging the moral fiber of our community and to end the conversation there. No one side, one party, one opinion is right or wrong. What is wrong, what is damaging, is all this division, this mud-slinging, this name-calling. And let me be clear – I’m not calling for a kumbayah circle or a harmony so pure we sound like one. Each voice is important and we need to speak up against injustice, hold fast to the Good News of the Gospel that sets all people free, tell the truth when it needs to be told. But this? This is not what is happening.
At the end of it all, when the day is done, we have to remember this: our chief end, our purpose, is to glorify God. Our words, our actions, our devotion shall have a singular focus even when nothing else does: on the God who created you, your neighbor, your enemy, on the God who gave each of those people a voice to sing praises each in their own voice. When it gets loud, and it will again here soon, listen for what is good and true: the Spirit is moving in each of us. The Spirit is drawing us together for the common good. Join in, add your voice and when your verse is different from your neighbor’s, may the chorus be the same: All praise be to God, all good and glorious and pure praise be to God. Amen.