I recall my first job in ministry, apprenticing for a very accomplished organist and choir director at a beautiful, traditional Presbyterian church.
One of my first assignments was to prepare a children’s choir to sing for a Sunday service. As an undergraduate music student at the time, I was armed with finely-honed technical skills, vast knowledge of repertoire and the latest pedagogical methods. None of these was the least bit useful.
I met with the motley crew of two dozen after school for an hour on Thursdays. In attendance were: the one who thinks he is singing but is screaming, the one who moves her lips with no sound coming out, the one who is far too young but is tagging along with older siblings, the one who is far too old but mom is making him, the one who cannot stand still, the one who makes up new and less appropriate words to the song and the one who will certainly cry. (I now know these to be the usual suspects in any children’s choir.) Sure, there were a few well-behaved angelic voices to carry the day, but for the most part, chaos reigned.
For six weeks, I struggled to produce a version of “The Lord is My Shepherd” (aka “The Lord is My Leopard”) that would meet the standards of a congregation used to polished Mendelssohn anthems. In reality, I ran a glorified daycare. As the scheduled Sunday approached, I began to panic. I might need a new job, I thought. All attempts at musical nuance were abandoned. I asked a parent to make cue cards to help us remember the words, and I prayed for a miracle.
There was no miracle. We filed in front of the sanctuary to sing for the offertory. Immediately I lost one to stage fright. The piano introduction began, and it happened. From the musical standpoint of melody, rhythm and phrasing, it was objectively awful.
There was, perhaps, a different kind of miracle. To my shock, people in the congregation kind of loved this tragic offering. Tears of joy, even, appeared for the imperfect, haphazard, adorable display.
None of this made much sense to me at the time. I was relieved by the reception, but also confused by it. Now that I have my own young children, I think I understand better. A child sings without inhibition, deeply flawed yet beautifully bold. Even when their behavior is bad, it is hard not to be touched by the innocent singing of a child.
Surely this is how God sees us. As our doting parent, God is enamored with our imperfect offering of praise. God must weep for joy when we sing for him with unexceptional skill. Certainly he longs to embrace us after the performance, beloved and unworthy as we are.
For what it’s worth, I was never asked to work with that group again. But I have carried the experience with me. I find myself drawn to those congregations that have managed to capture a sense of childlike inhibition in their liturgical singing. I want to be in the places where you are surrounded by a full chorus of voices so boisterous that you cannot hear yourself.
Sing loudly. Sing imperfectly. God is pleased by the offering.
I invite you to visit www.archlou.org/work-people to hear some of our parishioners reflect on their experiences of singing at Mass.