I drove seven hours yesterday to go to church.
Actually, I only drove the first leg. One of my traveling companions took the wheel for the return trip.
And actually, it wasn’t billed as ‘church’. It was a Hillsong concert at 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore.
My first trip to Baltimore: I was intrigued. Tunes from Hairspray kept running through my head.
I made this trip because a kind and generous person from our church had four tickets he couldn’t use. He called and said, “I will give these to you if you take some of the young musicians from PCC to experience this.”
I said, “Sure!” and off we went.
In light of some of the things I am thinking regarding contemporary church services – what it means to ‘worship’, what it means to engage in a service, why folks do or don’t sing – this was a fascinating trip. This ‘concert’ was actually over two hours of praise and worship songs, and every person in the room responded by engaging.
By that I mean this: people stood up the entire time. They jumped up and down during the fast songs. They raised their hands in the air. Occasionally, people would kneel. They swayed back and forth.
In some cases, they were more sedate: a few folks sat down a good bit.
But in almost every case, they sang.
I was amazed, really. The entire arena was filled with the sound of people’s voices, singing along with every song.
There was never a time when the crowd sat down and “just listened”. Even songs that were less familiar were quickly picked up; after one time through the verse and the chorus, everyone joined in singing.
I was dumbfounded, really. And very moved. My background in choral music and my experience in worship settings set deep within me an appreciation and love for the sound of voices singing. This was not a choral experience, at all; it was probably more akin to the sound of a crowd of people in an arena, joyfully and energetically singing loudly the words to familiar songs. Like something you’d hear at a soccer game in England. Just a bunch of people, singing together.
Which, frankly, is what it was. A crowd of people in one location, temporarily self-identifying as a tribe – maybe based on nothing more than a desire to see Hillsong live. I wouldn’t go so far to say that they were all Christians, or followers of Jesus – who knows?
But this I do know: they came ready to participate. There was never any intention of sitting and watching.
I say, “they” because, honestly, I didn’t plan on standing and singing all night.
But that’s exactly what I did. And it was transformational. And extraordinarily spiritual.
Not every moment. At times, it was just cool: standing with thousands of other people, feeling that sense of community, singing together. Hearing bits and pieces of harmony. Appreciating the beautiful sound of a melody in octaves, the resonance of male and female voices together. That was cool.
But there were a few other intense, more personal moments. We sang “Cornerstone”, something familiar from our church, and at the “normal” ending point of the song, it just sort of continued on its own.
Christ alone / Cornerstone / Weak made strong / in the savior’s love
Through the storm / He is Lord / Lord of all
We sang it once. And then again. And then a third time. And then a fourth. And that’s the natural spot for it to end, you know…four times sort of puts the lid on the song, and you can transition to the next tune.
But again. And again. And again. And again.
No band leading, just voices. Over and over and over. Four minutes, maybe five, just singing the same nineteen words again and again. Until everything else began to fade, and what was in front of me came into focus. Clarity. Peace. An unusual quiet, deep inside.
And I felt the truth penetrate my tired heart, the truth of a love that is higher and wider and deeper than anything else, slowly dripping from the intellectual appreciation of my head to my heart. I sang these words, and then I could not sing and I began to whisper, and I sank down to my seat and changed the pronoun as I mouthed the words and felt the tears.
Through the storm / You are Lord / Lord of all
It was not a concert. It was church. It was an encounter with God, a few sacred moments wrapped in lights and speakers and over-priced parking and a very long drive.
Just a few moments – the kind of moments that sear a memory into your soul as a reminder of why you are here, and why it matters that we come together expectantly. Something beyond the ordinary, something that happened only because I was willing to stand for two hours and trust that something extraordinary might happen.