When I was in seminary in the late '70s, there was precisely one black student, named Carl Ellis, and he pretty much saved my seminary experience. Here we were folded into rows in the auditorium, a sea of unrelieved whiteness and looking for all the world like Pop minus the pitchfork in "American Gothic." There was the professor at the front, telling us interesting things about Parmenides and God. Then from the dimly lit bleachers came the husky African-American voice-unabashed, uncorkable: "Amen!" "Uh-huh!" "Preach it!"
Brothers, in those spontaneous emissions was redemption. Remove them and you had . . . a lecture. Retain them and you had connectivity, relevance-almost worship. The Godward praises of my neighbor are contagious.
Another professor punctuated erudite exposition on Revelation with a cappella eruptions of "Worthy is the Lamb." There was a twinge of awkwardness in the student body (mine) that was not accustomed to mixing academics with praise songs. Sisters, why would a person be embarrassed to mix academics with praise songs?
This is a paean to all the folks who praise at inappropriate times. They know no compartments between praise and lectures, between praise and chatting afterwards at the café. They waste scads of time at their carrels in the library stopping over every other sentence of Van Til to praise their glorious God.
And when it comes to that, I have noticed that nothing I ever do non-interactively ever sticks. At any given moment that my religious activities become mere doctrine and not communion with Jesus, I have, for that moment at least, stepped out of truly biblical Christian living into some other mode of being-judge, spectator, player at religion. Francis Schaeffer said true spirituality "is a moment-by-moment, increasing, experiential relationship to Christ" (True Spirituality). Where have you gone, brother?
I'm not a Skinnerian, but I'll share a new habit that has changed my life. No more do I listen to the Sunday sermon in passive entertainment mode, one cylinder firing. I have taken to muttering through the sermon. When the preacher says Jesus died for my sins, I find myself whispering, "Praise you, Jesus!"-and it's OK if someone overhears me. When he says Jesus has been exalted to the Father's side and handed authority for the church, I may let escape something greedy like, "Lord, open the floodgates!" Interactive listening just feels right, completing the circle from God's mouth to my heart and back to God's ears.
The hymns are no longer a warm-up act for the sermon. Nor time for taking mental inventory of what's in the freezer. It was when I finally set my mind to focus on every word of the worship songs that I realized how much I wasn't doing it before. I am learning to sing like my Lover is near. I send up thank-yous in the half-note rests to make the words my own. Today I caught myself raising my hands at a lyric that said, "I lift up my hands to you." Pardon my moment of rapturous abandon.
When the benediction is pronounced, it doesn't sound like the closing protocol of Robert's Rules of Order anymore. I claim it and am still thinking about the words hours later. They were prayed over me by an ordained man, so I expect them to have gone out with power. The parson says, "Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling," and I echo in my spirit, "Lord, You will keep me from falling." The parson says, "to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy," and I take it to the bank. I insist on what's mine. Christ won it; I want it.
It's bad enough our psyches have those rigid rows of pews to contend with, a long way from the Corinthian house church where young Eutychus slouched on the window sill, and I'll bet there was a fair amount of Carl Ellis holy rambunctiousness. I don't know what Frank Lloyd Wright says about the interplay of architecture and the soul, but I worry. And I find myself leaning hard against losing Christ in Christian traditions, which C.S. Lewis called "the subtlest of all the snares." I have no solutions but to pull like mad in the opposite direction, for a moment-by-moment faith, worship, and love.
Maybe one of you could shout "Amen!"
-Andrée Seu is the author of Normal Kingdom Business and Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, essay collections available at worldmag.com