August 2020: Worship
When God closes a door, he opens a window for us to jump out of.
In the spring of 2013, Meg and I started attending a small, young church in our neighborhood in East Dallas. We’d been proper parents for a little over a year—Olivia had been earth-side since February 2012—and we were on the prowl for fellow new parents. It’s a strange time in a person’s life, that first year as a parent. You’re constantly reädjusting while desperately seeking consistency. When they say that becoming a parent completely uproots your existence and identity, they don’t mean that it uproots them and then re-plants them somewhere else. No, your identity is now in the bed of a truck, then maybe a train, eventually landing somewhere to be replanted long enough to take hold, to be strong enough to stand on its own, only to be uprooted again and then resold to someone pushing an orange cart at a Home Depot who plans to put you in their own garden, call you theirs, and not give a fuck whether or not you used to play the drums in a band.
This church seemed to have exactly what we were looking for. In fact, the music pastor and his wife we’d observed, or at least I had, and they seemed like cool folks, which is of course to say that they seemed like us. When I learned that they were the welcoming committee, I almost engineered a meeting, saying we Were New Here with the intention to reluctantly mention that I was a drummer. They took us to dinner, and, as I recall, the evening went exactly as planned. Within a few weeks, I was playing drums in the band on Sunday mornings. I can remember the rehearsal for the first Sunday I played. There was a song with a front-of-the-overalls sized pocket and I was buried in it like week-old lint. He told me, “yeah, so, there’s ‘in the pocket’, and then there’s ‘in the pocket’. I think… you’re dragging.” He was right.
Come April, we’d begun to plan a big Easter service. When we started at the church, it met in a public elementary school’s auditorium. The school was a mid-century relic nestled behind 100 year-old oak trees, and the sidewalks had cracked to the trees’ whims. The auditorium was ninety-eight per cent hardwood—the floor, the stage, the folding theater chairs. The other two per cent was velvet and iron, respectively hiding the unkempt borders of the stage and creakily folding the chairs, some of whom had seen their last fold. Only a few weeks before Easter, as rigid as the velvet and iron they chartered, the school district chose not renew the church’s lease; we needed to find somewhere else to worship. We soon found ourselves using a different school’s auditorium—a private school’s. Its auditorium was all glass and steel and linoleum. It bordered a huge public park, one that had the tendency to flood during those Texas prairie thunderstorms.
Easter is the most important holiday to a Christian. On Easter, Christ is believed to be risen from the dead, to have defeated death, to have paid for our sins and paved the way for our salvation. The church planned to rent out the bordering park and have its Easter service there with the unspoken goal that the message would be loud enough, literally, to be heard by the whole East Side. A stage was built. It was one of those rubber and steel contraptions that look like someone had disassembled a 10-story crane and re-fashioned it, tires and all, into a stage. We transported a sound board and its serpentine companion outside. I arrived on the scene at 7:15—the service was at 10:00—and began to unload my drums from the back of my Honda hatch-back.
The place was bustling. It seemed like the whole church was already there, their hands busy in service, repeatedly turning to those whose lives themselves were objects of service, and saying, “what next?” The sun had begun to peek through a layer of Spring clouds like it was searing a hole in them in service to God who was determined to see what we were up to. The grass at the basin of the park glistened with dew, turning it into a field of interspersed gold and green. It was like King Midas, turning what it could reach into precious metal. I nervously opened one drum case at time, starting with the hardware as I’d done hundreds of times before. When I was asked, “how can I help?” all I could think to say was, “where should I park my car?” This resulted in my car being moved for me, and for my keys to no longer be on my person. Once everything was racked and secured, once I’d made all of the micro-adjustments that are necessary, I set a pair of sticks on my bass drum, a pair on my snare, and joined the ”what next?” gestalt. I was assigned a broom and I swept the cement floor of a covered picnic area.
A few minutes later, someone came to find me. It had begun to sprinkle a little, and they wanted to know, did I need to do anything to protect my drums. I followed them back out to the stage and we took my drums, a piece at a time, under the cover of the picnic area I’d just swept. Then, in an instant, thunder cracked the sky open and that dappling sunlight was sucked in. A thunderstorm rolled over the park and darkened the sun-kissed grass, removing its luster like time in reverse, turning diamonds back to coal. Not long after, the bottom dropped out of the storm, and sheets of water were falling from the sky. Time moved in reverse for us too: set-up became tear-down—all of the gear and the chairs and the food and the bibles were going back into trucks and boxes. The congregation moved as one, in perfect, ineffable synchrony, to transport our entire service back inside the school. Maybe Pastor Jeff made the call, but I didn’t hear it. It was as if all of their minds were changed in a second, like bees in a hive, and everyone knew just what to do next.
By 9:45 we had a bare setup on stage inside the school. We’d sound-checked, but I don’t remember having time to do a run-through of the set. Normally, my drums would be rear stage right and behind glass, paneled to tame the sound so that it might be controlled by electricity rather than left to the unpredictability of the room’s acoustics and the drummer’s inconsistency. This time, though, I was dead-center, no shield, and dripping wet. We all were. The whole church was there, soaked to the bone in their Easter pastels and humming with an electricity before a single note was played or a single word said.
Worship music in the modern church, particularly those that call themselves non-denominational or “bible” churches, is a fascinating capitalist machine. The songs are, in effect, ballads to God, and often times are not performed, or at least made famous by their authors. Instead, there is an elite group of worship leaders who play the songs written by other lesser-known artists. What follows is that, due to the reach—which one could also interpret as power—that this elite group has, these songs end up trickling all the way back down to individual churches and their worship pastors in the impossible geometric configuration of an unclosed circle. The songs, as they’re on their journey, receive a number of small changes here and there; they’re perfected in their manipulative power and scrubbed clean of any ambiguity, because ambiguity is the fodder of doubt.
One such song that’s received this treatment is the song How He Loves by John Mark McMillan. McMillan is a Christian song-writer, but until well after How He Loves was released, he operated entirely independently, entirely outside of the Christian Music Industrial Complex. How He Loves is a heartbreaking song that McMillan wrote following the death of a close friend. It paints a picture of the indescribable power of God’s love:
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these afflictions, eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful You are
And how great your affections are for me
The chorus then goes on to repeat, “Whoa, how he loves us so”, first at a lower register, then later it’s belted an octave up, movingly so.
In the second verse, McMillan sounds like he’s talking himself into his faith, like so many us have following a tragedy that stands in the way of the acceptance of His benevolence.
So heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way
He loves us
It’s not that tragedy makes you doubt God’s benevolence, it’s that it makes you doubt that he exists at all. God, we’re taught, is omniscient. To me, the logic that follows from an omniscient God leads to the inevitable conclusion that all events are predetermined. In fact, this is how the Calvinists saw the world. However, on the other hand, when face to face with devastation, it is at the same time impossible to see the world as anything other than cold, impartial, and entropic. These two notions are in contradiction with one another, and when faced with a contradiction, the only path forward is to accept that one of the two contradictory propositions must be false. For me, it was that the ontological proposition of an omniscient God must be false. In the face of tragedy, the conclusions I drew from my reality were too overwhelming to retain my faith. I couldn’t hate God, but I also couldn’t accept him.
Near the end of the song, barely able to finish the lines, McMillan mentions his friend by name.
Oh, I thought about You the day Stephen died
And You met me between my breaking
I know that I still love You, God
Despite the agony
It’s these two verses that are so powerful and so rich with emotion that make How He Loves what it is. To hear McMillan audibly cry and to cry out to God is to be him, to be anyone who’s suffered catastrophic loss. It is to feel the lines “I know that I still love you God / despite the agony” and to feel their implication, that he, at some point, asked himself the question, “Can I still love the God who lets this tragic thing happen?” The lines that follow contain his answer.
Listen, people, they want to tell me You’re cruel
But if Stephen could sing
He’d say it’s not true
’Cause He loves us
The record on which How He Loves appears was released independently in 2005. It spent no time on any charts, Christian music or otherwise, and, aside from How He Loves, is frankly unremarkable. Then, an insider—David Crowder and his David Crowder Band—recorded a cover of How He Loves for their 2009 release Church Music. Church Music peaked on the US Contemporary Christian Music charts at number eleven. In Crowder’s version, the last verse, the one claiming victory over doubt, is cut altogether. The line “So heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss” became “So heaven meets Earth like an unforeseen kiss” because the church cannot seem to untangle sensuousness from prurience. The frayed edges of McMillan’s broken heart had been selvedged away into marketable and nonthreatening copy. I want to know McMillan’s God, but I was brought up on Crowder’s.
That Sunday, we played How He Loves. We played it as it was meant to be played. It was the last song in the set, and the congregation was already prostrate at God’s feet on account of the morning’s events, and How He Loves broke their hearts. When people talk about having a religious experience, this is what they mean. It’s lost time, a memory of but not during.
I don’t remember playing the song. There’s a 7-minute gap in my memory of that Sunday—I can remember the song being over and the silence that fell over the room. Some were still swaying, some still had their hands in the air. I could see my ride cymbal was still vibrating, but I couldn’t hear anything. In that moment, we were all one; reposed in worship:
But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it1 Corinthians 12:24-27
I don’t remember coming down off the stage, I don’t remember what Jeff said that day, I don’t remember talking to anyone after the service. What I’ll never forget, though, is what that minute after the song ended felt like. That ineffable synchrony. And I’m thinking now, more than 7 years later, maybe that’s a manifestation of God that I’ve been missing all along.