What happened at the Delaney Street Church is so remarkably fascinating and yet unsettling that it’s impossible to understand the phenomenon without a summary of the initial events. Please, allow me.
Pastor Smithson is a fine man. If humility is the first of virtues, one could call him a saint. He’s neither a showman nor a shaman. And believe me, he doesn’t enjoy controversy.
What’s more, the beautiful sanctuary the Delaney Street congregation recently built was not something he dreamed up. It was our doing--the congregation’s. We wanted something big and attractive, and I guess we got it. It sits, Monticello-like, on the end of Delaney Boulevard. You must have seen it on the road to the airport.
But that’s another story. What I was explaining was what is now called, almost reverently, “the first occurrence.” It happened on the fourth Sunday of our worship at the new sanctuary, and, when it occurred, the cause was no mystery at all: the new mobile mike system simply picked up some radio or television transmission. Everyone knew that. But knowing what caused the “malfunction” didn’t diminish its effect on us.
Pastor Smithson’s sermon that Sunday dealt with--how should I say it?--God’s power and magnificence and our unworthiness. He was just moving to the second point when words suddenly emanated from the giant speakers. And they fit so perfectly into the weave of the sermon that--well, what can I say? The event was mystifying, the effect miraculous.
“I don’t understand how to explain that music is beautiful,” the radio announcer said. “It’s a taste for wanting to understand why things are the way they are and where they came from.” The voice was clear and resonant and lyrical. “If you don’t have the taste, talking about it can’t give it to you. Most people, I believe, have that taste because most people are fascinated with questions of origin. Asking those questions gives us a sense of discovering exactly what kind of drama we’re actors in. I don’t know how anyone could not want to know that.”
Then the transmission stopped. Smithson paused, pursed his lips, then smiled and tilted his head almost eagerly and nodded, as if what we’d all heard had punctuated his sermon perfectly. And it did. Had he arranged just those words to be transmitted via the new and expensive sound system, he couldn’t have chosen better. That’s why no one laughed. The coincidence was enough in itself to make an atheist jump aboard the freighter of providence.
“We have this hunger,” Smithson ad-libbed. “It is in the marrow of our bones, this desire to know God. You and your neighbor too. We all deeply desire to listen to the music of the Almighty.”
Joy--how else can I express it, other than by that word? What Smithson had done was incorporate the sentiment of the radio voice perfectly, as if it were God’s own voice. That moment, “the first occurrence,” is remembered today with a kind of joy, a magic that people reserve only for things profoundly mysterious and thus almost holy. You can secure a tape recording of that sermon, but there's a waiting list.
Tomorrow: Yet more "occurances" at Delaney Street Church