Bad Acoustics and Singing Off the Same Page

December 1, 2011

Yesterday afternoon was the first opportunity for our 20-voice chorus to perform this season, and the occasion was the lighting of the Christmas tree in the big new lobby of John Muir Medical Center. We sang several pieces for an appreciative crowd, wearing our black outfits and Christmas red scarves for the occasion. But for us singers, it was a less than satisfactory experience because we could not hear each other. The acoustics of the room were dead. I for one felt like I was singing alone and could barely hear the piano, much less the altos. There were a couple of faulty entries and rhythmic tussles on pieces we knew cold and had performed perfectly in the practice room the night before. Nevertheless, the crowd loved what we did,  and some grateful patients and staff told us afterwards that we even blended (astonishing). But for us, it was a nerve-wracking start to our performing season; and most of it had nothing to do with us, and everything to do with the setting.

Isn’t that just like life in the PCUSA? How many times has a presbyter felt like a voice crying in the wilderness when something goes awry in a presbytery meeting? How often do the spiritual acoustics become so cocoon-like that presbyters cannot hear the pitch-pipe, cannot tune-up to the Spirit, and end up in their own rhythmic world out of touch with God’s heavenly chorus? Just as today’s singers reacted differently to the concert’s musical stress, I have seen presbyters employ different coping strategies themselves: retreating  into silence and never getting the courage to speak again, slowing the tempo of business out of insecurity, getting distracted by what is not working, or bellowing in desperation. These mechanisms sometimes appear in a presbytery meeting as theological drift, paralysis and indecision, or shrill demands in debate.

Our fundamental problem is a dead room, an ecclesiastical structure that has lost its ability to reflect and reverberate with the joy of doing ministry in Christ’s name and for his purposes. While a hospital lobby should be hushed and dignified and non-reverberating, the church is to be the place where the very stones cry out that Jesus is Lord! The air should crackle with the electric vitality of the Spirit. And every voice should tune in with God’s Spirit according to the Word of God so that it is not noise we make but music under his direction.

For the sake of our witness to the world, sometimes we just have to keep singing even when it feels like doing a solo. But as part of something bigger than ourselves, we take it on faith that other Christians are singing, too, and that what our audience hears is a chorus. A great deal of trust is required in order to feel comfortable making music in supposed isolation. Trust is built upon the assurance that everybody is on the same page, theologically, organizationally, and spiritually.

Unfortunately, many Presbyterians do not feel themselves to be on the same page with their colleagues. If everybody had the standard pitch and could see the Director, they could still hold it together even when they could not hear each other. But this is where the situation has broken down with new discordant themes being introduced into the Presbyterian playlist. It is precisely this dynamic that keeps many conservatives (and very possibly liberals, too) from feeling at home with their Presbyterian colleagues in ministry. We will be “accidental soloists” in a genuine predicament until a renovation of the Presbyterian environment can be made and the choir brought to order under the firm and gentle direction of our Savior.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
O that today you would listen to his voice! (Psalm 95:6-7)

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2 Responses to “Bad Acoustics and Singing Off the Same Page”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    I didn’t know you were at our Presbytery meeting this last Tuesday: )


  2. I can relate to this on so many levels, Mary. Thanks!

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