Monthly Archives: October 2007

Judy’s Terrible Wonderful Afternoon

“The beauty and order of nature are not gratuitous. The tapestry does not exist for its own sake, just to be admired. Its grit and grandeur has a purpose. The
prettiness has a point. Nature is, as Psalm 19 says in
the King James Version, God’s ‘handiwork.’ It has
God’s fingerprints all over it. John Calvin called
creation ‘the theater of God’s glory.’ It is a place
where, and a way that, God performs.”
                                                                              Nathan Bierma
                                             Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

A dear family friend stopped by. I’ll call her Judy. She said, “Want to hear about my day yesterday?” We said yes, and she warned us that she was still tired and weepy, so she might not do very well. Then she plunged ahead.

Judy had driven to meet her son and his girlfriend. Her son was transferring colleges, and his girlfriend, who had recently graduated from college, was also planning to find an apartment in this new college town.

Together the three of them toured the campus. They stopped at the housing office and learned that it was campus policy for students who were not yet seniors to live on campus. The son’s face fell. They stepped outside the office carrying a housing application to complete. The young man told his mother that he was about to cause great disappointment to two other guys who were hoping to live together with him and his girlfriend in a rented house near campus-in fact, they already had a house on hold with a realtor. This arrangement was new to Judy. She bit her tongue, aware that her relationship with her son was at that universally dangerous moment of passage from childhood into adulthood. While her son was considering what to do, she suggested that they stop and say hello to a friend of their family: the college president.

The president was in his office, and he greeted them with warmth, rejoicing that Judy’s son would be attending his college. “Are you here looking for an apartment?” asked the president. Judy explained that they had just discovered the housing policy. The president said, “Well, we have a lot more men than usual attending this fall, maybe there’s room for an exception to the housing policy.” Judy told him no, that they hadn’t come there to secure his intervention. When they left, she gave the president a hug and again told him that she wasn’t expecting him to intervene regarding the housing. Outside the president’s office, the girlfriend said, “What a wonderful man. He’s the kind of person that you wouldn’t ever want to do anything to disappoint.”

Judy took a breath and asked her son and his girlfriend if she could treat them to a late lunch. “Pick a place that you couldn’t otherwise afford,” she said. They chose a lovely Italian bistro in the center of town. After they’d ordered, Judy said, “We need to talk about the elephant in the room.” She paused. Then she said, “Are you two sexually active?” Without looking at one another, the two young people immediately told the truth. Yes.

Judy did not tell us all the details of the next two hours. What she told us was that the young woman cried through most of it. And so did Judy. Judy told them, “Sex is not something that is just yours. It happens in the context of your life in a community and what you do as a sexual couple impacts the community.” Ultimately, Judy’s son made her proud with his own tears and respectfulness. “I don’t want to disappoint you,” he said. “And I don’t want to set a bad example.”

But make no mistake. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t neat, and it wasn’t done by the end of two hours. Her son argued that sex was natural, a part of a healthy relationship. His girlfriend admitted that her parents didn’t know and would be very disappointed if they ever found out.

I asked if this all happened at the restaurant. Yep, said Judy, waiters were stopping by with their usual questions, “How is everything? Anything I can get you?” Judy said their food was great, and they even ate some of it. Outside the restaurant, Judy looked them each in the eye and told them that she loved them. And she left. Her son was on his own.

Judy was supposed to meet another young couple who lived in that town. She was late, but she called and asked if she could still come over. When she got there, her friends could tell she had been crying. They led her into the dining room where there were places set, and there was fruit cut and laid out in the middle of the table. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Judy, “You’re expecting guests.” The wife of the young couple laughed and said, “We’re expecting you.”

For the next hour Judy gently revealed her mother’s heart to this younger couple who did not yet have children. They listened. She was struck that they told her she was very unusual. This is not the sort of thing that parents talk about with their children. “Yes, but I don’t know if I’ve done it right,” sobbed Judy.

“You’re doing it,” said the young husband. He reminded Judy that her son would never forget this day. He said, “Now if your son and his girlfriend have sex again, his mother will be in the room.” And the young couple told Judy that she was helping them prepare to talk to their own children about sex someday.

As Judy told us this story, she said that her beloved son and his girlfriend don’t have a community that they’re talking with about these things. And the few friends they have are simply reflecting the mythic ethos of a culture far from the social, medical, psychological and spiritual truths surrounding real sex. As she said this, I wondered whether her son would find a church that openly and appropriately reveals itself regarding sexuality. Are there many churches like that? When in our places of greatest learning and greatest modeling, that is our worship services, have we celebrated the beauty and order of God’s handiwork as revealed in human sexuality? Is it not the case that most worshiping communities have been silent on one of life’s most important topics, while other cultural voices and images speak loudly and clearly? As one of my favorite high school teachers used to say, “Silence is construed to be consent.”

Judy’s story continued. After she left the young couple’s house, she stopped by a local coffee shop to grab something for the long ride home. There in a corner was her son and his girlfriend. She went over and asked them if they were okay. They nodded. She said, “I don’t know if the president will do anything about that housing situation, so you’d better fill out that form.”

“I’m going to, Mom,” he said. “I’ve decided that I’m going to live in the dorm.”

“We’ve decided that we’re going to do a lot of things differently,” said his girlfriend.

Judy told us she drove home singing…

Blessed be your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be your name

…worshiping the God who cares deeply about the sex life of her son.



Filed under "Quiet Demons & Screaming Peter Pan" a new book


Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: 
    praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance: 
    praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: 
     praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Psalm 150:3-5 (KJV)

When I was in high school, it seemed as if everyone played the guitar. Except me. I was in plays, in the high school choir, and on the tennis team. I didn’t have time for a garage band. In fact, I heard sermons against rock and roll. Syncopated rhythms, they told us, would lead to “unwanted pregnancy.” Our little church wouldn’t have dreamed of allowing a guitar on the platform. One boy in our youth group played guitar in a band. His fatal error was to go public. His band cut a single which had an original ballad on one side and a cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” on the flip side. Once I was delivering newspapers near his house, and I saw the pastor going in. I heard later that the pastor told the son he could no longer be a member of the church if he continued to play in the band. After that, the whole family quit coming to church. Some people said, “See what rock and roll causes.”

I was too young and too confused to mount a response. I was busy trying to decide if dancing and going to movies were really as evil as everyone at my church said. My world was pre-cyberspace small. I hadn’t yet heard of Larry Norman and “Why Does the Devil Get All the Good Music?” I hadn’t read C.S. Lewis or seen a picture of him sitting in a pub with a pint.  

Our church had an electric organ always played by Florence Bentley and a piano always played by Mary Alice Cross. Those two instruments were used pretty much every Sunday morning. Sometimes Mr. Erickson would bring his trombone and play along with the singing, doing an occasional, showy, full-octave slide and that, for me, was a pretty exciting Sunday.

Then I went away to college and my world exploded. I learned that Christ’s church had existed before 1961 when the group that founded our church began holding prayer meetings in the old auto body shop. I learned that the King James was neither the first nor the last Bible translation. I heard speaking in tongues for the first time. I read Mere Christianity.

And I bought a guitar.   

Within three years, I would pay my final visit to my home church. My parents moved to California, so I had no reason to return. We had all moved away physically, but I also just moved away, attempting to learn respect for the wide world of worshipers. I now know that this journey will never be complete, and I also have come to realize that this journey strangely still includes that little group of believers that nurtured my childhood faith and also my narrow-mindedness.

Thirty years have gone by since I bought my first guitar. I am worship coordinator at a church that has lots of guitar stands scattered on the platform. There is room for acoustic, electric and bass. There’s a drum set and a double-rack synthesizer. There’s a sixteen-year-old sax player at our church whose riffs would leave Mr. Erickson slack-jawed. There’s cello and violin. There’s a piano. There’s a choir. There are singers galore.

There’s a pipe organ.

For thousands of Sundays, the pipe organ in this Iowa church was the only instrument you would have heard. The organist was essentially the song leader. Not now. Not anymore. This is to be expected, since the local climate has changed. There is more diversity in our town than there has been since it was founded by Dutch immigrants in the 1870s. This diversity is reflected in the instruments we play and the songs we sing. Unless theologically prohibited (as my home church thought about guitars), worship leaders work with the instruments that the worshipers play. And they sing songs in a style appropriate to the people in the pew-you don’t typically hear sitars in Iowa worship services, but someday soon you may be hearing more Spanish guitars in my church. The culture is changing in many ways, and these changes have impacted the use of the organ. Our church and many similar churches across the land are asking, “What’s the role of the organ in worship?” The very fact that this question is being asked suggests change in the wind. Change always means that something will be lost as something else is gained. And loss is always accompanied by grief.  

One recent Sunday morning, I was the worship coordinator. Someone else was leading, but I was there in a supportive role. I got up at my usual pre-dawn time and walked the worship space double-checking its readiness for the sacred activity of the day. Eventually, the team gathered and checked mics, and stands, and instruments, and sheet music, and cues.

The organist was sitting quietly, waiting. She is a woman who has served worship by pressing those foot pedals for many decades of her life. She once told me that when she started attending this church, she wasn’t allowed to play because the organist slots were all taken. It took her a long time to earn a place on the bench. But she is still the church’s youngest organist today, and she’s in her late sixties.

She seemed especially still this morning, so I slid down the pew and broached the subject of her mood, “Good morning. How are you doing?” She and I have learned to trust each other, so she gave me a straight up response. She said, “This is my last Sunday playing the organ.” What? Did I hear correctly? I said, “What do you mean?” She told me that she hadn’t told anyone yet, but, she said, she’d had one too many rehearsals in which her role was unclear.  

I was having flashbacks to the tensions over music in my childhood church, only now we were playing the flip side. I also flashed back to a recent sermon tape I’d heard in which a mega-church pastor asked, “How many seekers listen to organ music in their cars?”

But this was no time for glibness. I was sitting next to a woman who represented a lifetime of service to the worshiping community and she had just said to me, “This is my last Sunday playing the organ.” This was a moment for listening.

I could see that the rehearsal runthrough of the service was about to begin. “Will you meet me back on this pew immediately after church?” I whispered. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Yes.”

After church we sat there together. I listened to her grieving heart. As she spoke, a middle-aged woman gently stepped up to the organ. “Excuse me,” she said. “I don’t mean to interrupt. But would you mind if I played the organ? I used to live here, and this is the organ I learned on. I’d love to play it again.” We nodded our heads, and she slid onto the bench. We sat silently and listened. She played beautifully. When she finished, I said, “Do you come back often?” She shook her head. “No, not anymore.” She slipped quickly away, wanting to catch up to those waiting for her. I didn’t even get her name.

I asked our organist not to quit while her emotions were running high, and she agreed that she wouldn’t. Two months later she tendered her resignation.

I once asked a friend who is a concert organist, “If you were looking for a new church, would you look for one with an organ?” She shocked me by saying no. She explained, “It’s a special congregation that can afford an organ and can support its use.”

The church is not about carpet, or pews, or pianos, or organs, or drums or guitars. These are all instruments for glorifying God. The church building itself is only a tool. One day, the tasks of all these tools will be change. All of them will change. Our current building is aging and though it contains rich memories, it can no longer be renovated, and an architect is now at work designing a new building in which our church will meet for worship and ministry. There is a serious leak in the bellows of our organ. As with the building that surrounds it, we must ask, “Can our organ be repaired?” And the even tougher question, “Should it be repaired?”

There are countless faith stories carried in the memory banks of believers. Many of these stories play back to the soundtrack of an organ. What should our churches do at this time of change? I don’t have an easy answer. I do know that it’s a time for respect, love and prayer-for rejoicing with those who rejoice and grieving with those who grieve.

On the other side of all these changes, when our grieving is finally done, we will still have each other, and we will still have the Lord. And he will have us. And I believe that there will come a day that my high school friend Tony will plug in his guitar, and my Iowa friend Bev will slide onto the organ bench, and we will sing a new song. And it will sound like heaven.


Filed under "Quiet Demons & Screaming Peter Pan" a new book