The Alleluia Pulpit
No matter what I do, once I hear her voice, it is planted in some inner ground that I cannot reach, to remove it, to stir it, even to nourish it or to eat from its fruit. It just sings there like some autonomic reflex. I don’t remember inviting her in, I suppose that’s the way it is with spirits.
She is a silver-haired angel. She was singing in a church I once haunted as an active participant, Downtown Presbyterian (www.dpchurch.com) an Egyptian Revivalist style sanctuary that had survived since the late 1880’s. So, the atmosphere, for me,
was rife with meaning.
It wasn’t the first song that she sang, but the second, a song of Alleluia against the odds, is there any other way to sing Alleluia?
Poetic and soul justifying moments are like that, sung into the realities of the every day human existence, to those who are thirsty, empty, afraid, alone: “as the deer pants for the water, so my heart longs after you….the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Poetry spoken against despair, the despair of the world that Emmy Lou so piercingly expresses.
In this moment of recalling the event, I am reminded of another moment, my very first funeral as a pastor. I walked behind death itself, the shunned body in the silk-lined casket of an elderly lady I never knew. I wore a suit, it was October, the leaves were in full color, the sky was blue and sunny, the leaves whispered in the wind as a lone bagpiper played hymns across the wide expanse of the well-populated graveyard. I was there merely as an observer, an older pastor read the 23rd Psalm from his pocket sized Book of Worship in a beautiful cadence. Quickly, he shook the hands of the grieving relatives and made his exit. I followed, taking mental notes along the way, remembering to never wear these particular shoes again across the soft ground of the graveyard.
Everything had been in perfect order, that night with Emmy Lou, that day at the graveyard. Everything was in order except for what I was feeling in my heart. How can she stand up there so composed and wield a power so fierce? How can ministers like myself dress in dark, well tailored suits and offer up mediation for the dead? I don’t know, I just know that it must be done, order from chaos.
This night, in this very old, Egyptian revivalist church, I remembered that this was the one place I had felt at home in over a decade of wandering some years ago. It was a place where the faithful few gathered every Sunday, a place where we jointly cleaned up the urban alleyway beside the church from the repeated evidence of the social ills of the world, a place where we invited those very illnesses to share our space, a place where we believed God inspired art could indeed usher in the reign of compassion and love into this broken world, inside a broken church. This had been a church to me, a church where I found a new life.
Behind her, to the other corner of the stage, there is a room full of photos and memorabilia, we affectionately called it “the hall of the dead people.” Photos of pastors who had preached there Sunday after Sunday where she stood, at the point verge, and sang her Alleluia song. Pastors who agonized over building issues, the homeless, the sick, who wrote sermons at midnight on Saturday because they had spent the entire week on administrative tasks that they could not even remember and showed up at hospital beds at random hours during the week and presided over meetings and meals and funerals and weddings and counseled those who had called at the last minute needing some immediate relief; pastors who had also answered the endless doorbell ringing with the needs of the world (pastors whose dreams are haunted by door bells). Pastors who had tried their very best to save and resurrect this dying form of Christendom with all of their very souls. She stood there where they had all stood, where I stand, too, in that hallowed, not so hallowed space, trying to make sense of the brokenness with whatever tools are at hand.
Even after preaching for a few years and searching for unique forms of crafting words, I find it hard to express the sense of awe and wonder one feels at the challenge of occupying this chasm, this verge, this pulpit of the world where we stand and try our best at singing. After all, a thousand words cannot equal one perfectly honest Alleluia, sung in chorus with the gathered community. And no building or institution or even death can contain it. It sings without restraint, unbound by words, regardless of me.