It was such a Gen-X thing to do--that's what I thought. And quite unusual. Even though I have worshiped in a dozen churches or more throughout the fall and early winter, I'd never seen it done before--a pastor ending a sermon with recorded music, just a song from someone's album piped in over the sound system, the congregation reading the lyrics on the back of the church bulletin. When you give something the clout that comes with sermon's end, I thought, you're giving away a great deal of power; and our preacher last Sunday gave that special moment up to a tune and lyrics I'd never heard before--which is okay. I'm not complaining.
He directed us to the bulletin when the music began, a little piece of music labeled "Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)," a selection by an artist named Chris Rice, something perfectly in-line with the pastor's unburdening sermon on that famous passage from Matthew 11 about yokes and laboring. If you'd like, you can hear it here.
In all the worship I'd been in, I'd never seen that done before. Truth be told, I found the little hymn interesting but, that Sunday, I wasn't particularly moved, at least not as moved as our young pastor must have been or wanted me to be. "Come to Jesus" is slow and earnest and rather sweetly gathers us lovingly through the successive rooms of our own emotional lives to bring us through it all to faith in the arms and hands of Jesus. Its lyrical character is simple and direct, very contemporary, uncomplicated, its metaphors well-worn. That's okay--if we sang only lyrics that were fresh and showy, we'd never see the forest beyond the trees. "Come to Jesus" is quiet and meditative, just like Mathew 11:28-30, a passage, I would have said when I was a boy, was my all-time favorite scripture.
So I looked up this Chris Rice hymn, listened to it a few times on You-Tube, and read the comments appreciative people had left behind, many of them telling stories of funerals, where, obviously, this particular song has wonderfully warm currency. For them--and maybe the pastor--the music's tender heart beats with the memory off earlier unforgettable renditions, in the same way that "Peace Like a River" sends me to tears every last time I sing it.
So I'm thinking maybe that's why he did it. He gave away his own sermon's climactic moment to an mp3 that somehow had, in the past, wrested his own emotions from him in a way that left him shaken and selfless, the very state of mind and heart and soul which is--or so it seems to me--the way God wants us in worship. That's what he wanted for us. That was nice.
Now turn up the volume, play this, and just keep reading.
There was nothing particularly special about that December afternoon. Truth is, we were biding time in LA; we simply had an open afternoon and determined to spend it at the Getty Museum. I know enough about J.Paul Getty to know that the fortune he raised wasn't conjured from personal righteousness. He was an oil tycoon thought to have been America's very first billionaire, a man who once said that "a lasting relationship with a woman is only possible if you're a business failure." He should know--he had five wives. Sure the art in the Getty is beyond description, but all that glitters there is not gold.
A bunch of high school kids walked into the spacious arboretum at the entry to the museum and, rather unceremoniously, began to sing. It was clear to me that these weren't just any high school kids--they had to be from some prestigious prep school of art and music maybe. They looked rich and spoiled, in fact. But maybe twenty of them gathered unhurriedly when, as if out of nowhere, their director appeared, just the kind of maestro one might draw into place right then and there; and when they began to sing, it was this piece, the "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebl, a totally transcendent piece of music made gorgeously famous by the musical ensemble Chanticleer.
I honestly don't know that I'd ever heard it before, but the music those kids made so perfectly filled that space that I thought for a moment I was listening to angels, even though I have no clue what repertoire angels call peculiarly their own.
Honestly, there was no reason for me to be as moved as I was. I was far from home, in the middle of sheer opulence; the musicians were just kids--talented, but just kids; and I had absolutely no history with the music--no stories, no flashbacks, no unforgettable memories. The anthem is in Latin, for pete's sake, so I wasn't shaken by the freshness of the metaphors or the sheer grace of the lyrics. I'm not Catholic; I wasn't born with any version of "Ave Maria" pinned to my heart.
But the music those kids made that afternoon, right in the middle of us all, of all our lives-- filled that arboretum with sheer beauty in a way that brings that moment back now every time I hear this incredible piece. That afternoon, right then and there, not even the Getty Museum held any more beautiful work of art. We were blessed, I swear it. Wasn't only me who swooned.
I suppose this piece--Biebl's "Ave Maria"--is the one I'd use to end a sermon, if, like our pastor, I wanted to deliver some kind of knock-out punch. If I wanted to drive a stake into this world's ills and leave believers with as vivid a vision of the divine as I could, I'd have them listen--not sing, just listen, as our pastor did--to Biebl's "Ave Maria," just as I hope you're doing now.
I can't think of a better way--which is to say a more selfless way--to end this sermon and begin the day.