Okay, one last church post, because I’m starting to sound like some political exile who spends all her days talking about a place to which she has no intention of returning.
Still, I went there almost every day for 18 years, and I’m still trying to figure out how to come to terms with that and be a happy woman. It’s because of that, or in spite of that, that many of my good friends are people whose parents also served churches in some capacity. My dad is a minister, his best friend and the father of two of my oldest friends is a minister, the Super Genius’s mom is a minister, JR’s mom was the organist at one of my dad’s churches, and the Divine Ms. B and Miss J’s mom was the organist at their church, and the voice of God . . . which I’ll come back to.
First, I want to tell you about JR’s mom and her organ playing. JR’s mom always wore dresses that she made herself and she wore sensible shoes. When she sat down on the bench, she would always slide her feet out of her shoes and slip around on the slick wood seat to face the organ. Probably because we were in church, it reminded me of Moses–take off your shoes; this is holy ground–and like some Old Testament prophet, seeing for sacred what the rest of us saw as ordinary, she would begin to play.
Church organists make two mistakes. The first is that they decide “Skating Rink” is the appropriate sound for an organ in every instance. The second is that they don’t consider the congregation. They get caught up in what they’re doing and plod ahead at that tempo whether the congregation is with them or not. This is especially dangerous with Methodists, because we like the sound of our own voices and will drag out any hymn until the organist is on “the triumphs of his grace” and we’re still on the “O, for” of “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” Or worse, the organist will get caught up in the sound of her own playing while we’re caught up in the sound of our own singing and everything slows to almost a stand-still. And believe me, when you have six verses to get through, the molasses approach is not the one you want to take.
But JR’s mother always played beautifully and she understood that the role of the organist is not to compete with the congregation and the minister for control of the song, but to shepherd them into a reasonable tempo and get them through the song some time before lunch. Those two qualities, beauty and understanding, made her a tremendous organist.
My dad, in an effort to humiliate me to death, would make me sing once a year. I hated it, even though I love to sing, because I’m not very good at it and I don’t enjoy proving that to myself on a yearly basis. JR’s mom, thankfully, would always accompany me. I loved it precisely because of the beauty and understanding part of her talent.
It didn’t matter what Amy Grant song I was slaughtering that year, she’s make it sound amazing. So, in effect, it wasn’t like I was singing, I was just singing along to some beautiful music. And, if I got lost or scared or off-tempo, or came in too late or too early or whatever, she always added some extra notes or left some out or some how made her beautiful thing fit whatever flailing mistakes I was making.
Miss J and Ms. B have a confidence singing before crowds that I lack, and I’m a little envious of it. Miss J is the kind of person who gets standing ovations at kareoke night with her rendition of “Walking After Midnight.” Ms. B. gets up on stage and it doesn’t matter if she’s standing way in the back, playing a rock who only comes in on the chorus of one song in the dullest part of a musical, you can’t take your eyes off her. Even as a still rock, she’s dynamic.
When they sing while their mom plays, it’s incredible.
They went to this conservative Lutheran church and their minister spent a lot of time worrying about whether women understood their proper place. Their mom’s “proper” place was tucked away out of sight in the choir loft at the organ.
This made for the funniest and coolest part of going to church with them. Every service, in the middle of this religio-patriarchal fun-fest, there came a point when a disembodied female voice would drift down from the rafters listing the names of people who ought to be in the congregation’s prayers.
With no visual cue as to who was speaking, and the gentle but insistent tone the voice took, it really seemed to carry with it a divine authority–for a few brief seconds every Sunday their mom is the voice of God.