Paula DiVerde was hard of hearing. I mean real hard of hearing, and maybe that’s why she sings off key. Most of the time she sings softly, but when there would be a hymn she really liked, she would belt it out at the top of her lungs.
That’s what happened on this particular Sunday. As the organ introduced the hymn, a big smile spread across Paula’s face, and sing she did, as if she had the solo and the rest of the congregation was the back-up group.
I cringed as I stood just to the left of the altar. I was embarrassed because we had a few visitors that day at St. Paul’s, and I desperately wanted to make a good impression. Like a first date. You finally get this attractive girl to go out with you after a long dry spell in your love life, so you wash the outside of the car and vacuum the inside. You wear your best sweater and a clean pair of pants, and you pop an Altoid just before knocking on her door.
St. Paul’s hadn’t taken in any new members in what seemed like two forevers, and here we had three new faces in the pews, checking us out. They had been attracted by the romantic picture: a 100-year-old white stucco church with two steeples, situated on a brick side street with a huge maple in front, ablaze in autumn yellow.
These visitors knew you can’t judge a book by its cover, so they went inside to read a few pages.
And Paula was singing off key, giving just the opposite impression you want to make on a first date. I felt embarrassed and angry, but most of all I felt anxious. Like something you want so badly is slipping away from you, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t hold onto it.
I had worked hard to make the inside of the book look as attractive as the cover. I had tried to make worship as “dynamic” as 30 people can make it.
Today these three visitors had, yet one more time, stirred up hope in me. Like a person buying a lottery ticket from Seven-Eleven on Saturday evening — this one finally is going to be the winner I’ve been waiting for. And Paula was screwing it up.
We were like that 5-year-old pair of bedroom slippers that wait for you in the bathroom — very comfortable but not very stylish — nothing you would wear on a first date unless you were very, very secure in your sense of who you are.
By this time, my speech was still understandable but noticeably slurred. I was not a dynamic preacher. The speakers for the 1950s vintage Baldwin electronic organ in the balcony would crackle when Bob Wolff would play certain notes. We were definitely not ready for prime time. And probably never would be.
We didn’t perform well for spectators, partly because the congregation was composed almost completely of adapters.
This small fellowship of believers had survived massive changes in their village and in their church because they had rolled with the demographic punches and gone with the cultural flow. They had learned to enjoy Black folk and welcomed the Thais who started renting from us in 1992. They adapted easily to guitars in worship and eventually drums. They had become attached to interns and field education students from the seminary who had a wide range of personalities and styles.
They had learned how to change from an efficient, mechanistic organization to one that is organic and adaptable. The problem is that machines tend to be more dynamic than plants. It’s not very exciting to watch a daffodil growing in a meadow at Morton Arboretum, unless there are hundreds of them. St. Paul’s had 30 in its meadow. Not worth paying the price of admission to see.
But that was St. Paul’s genius. This little congregation had found a way to accept and eventually enjoy the most amazing variety of people.
What the homeless man who came out of the cold one morning and snored loudly while he slept through my sermon and Paula’s singing off key did, however, was to completely destroy my attempts at creating the illusion that we were or ever could be a dynamic congregation, attractive to hundreds if not thousands of people moving into Forest Park.
I was so distracted by Paula’s performance and lack of awareness about herself that the words of the hymn we were singing didn’t register mentally until we got to the third verse. I looked at the words on the page, and shame replaced my embarrassment. The hymn we were singing was “Just As I Am.”
And that enabled at least part of me to say to myself, “If those visitors don’t see the beauty in this, then maybe that’s their problem.” And that enabled me to be thankful for the beautiful thing I had.