Most people understand that there is a difference between people who are creative and those who are not. Those who are not often wish they were able to think up wonderful things so they might be lauded as geniuses and artists. Those of us who do think creatively know it’s not really like that. I look at people who have stable lives and who are able to keep the imagination from wandering all over where the boogeyman lurks, and wish for that sort of peace. I would trade all my so-called talents for one marketable skill.
But I’m not here to whine about my ADD. I want to talk about our church’s music minister, who was let go this week for reasons unknown to me. Bill worked for us for nearly twenty years, hired originally as our organist, then as our music minister when the woman in that job left. He is a local professional musician, which in Nashville means quite a lot. The day in 1994 he first played for the choir at practice, he gave us an improvisational rendition of Amazing Grace that was so sublime it made that tired old tune seem fresh. When he was done, I knelt, genuflected, and cried, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” And it was true. He had a special talent none of us had ever seen in that church, and I believe we will never see again.
Bill thinks in music. He sometimes has difficulty with the spoken word, but in his writing and playing of music he is able to express things that the rest of us can only feel. He’s the epitome of the sort of person who thinks creatively, and for those of us who receive spiritual message best through the medium of music, he was, literally, a Godsend.
I am a Christian not because my parents made me go to church when I was a child (they didn’t). I am one because when I was in high school I was given a New Testament, and that made me curious. I then borrowed a copy of the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar, and played the music until I had every word and every note memorized. Internalized. To this day, whenever a bit of that Gospel story is mentioned in church, my mind brings up the relevant phrases of that music. This is how I access my religion. Without music, I would not have had a clue. When I joined this church nearly thirty years ago, the first thing I did was to join the handbell choir, and the second thing was to join the Chancel Choir. For some of us, the sermon is secondary to the music, and I truly believe church music exists for the sake of reaching people like me.
Having Bill for a music minister was special enough for me and many other members of the choir to stay at this church during the past several years while other church members were unhappy enough with the minister, Don Hutchinson, to leave for other churches. Amidst an entire turnover of staff, profound changes in theology, a contemporary service that has taken over the place like a cancer, and signs of misappropriation of designated funds, many of us in the Chancel Choir hung on in hopes that not too much else would change before Hutchinson was transferred to another church as all Methodist ministers are eventually. Our pleas to the bishop that he should intervene were ignored, and in fact those of us who complained were sneered at and told to leave. I can’t imagine a truly Christian church actually telling people to leave! The Chancel Choir was denigrated in favor of the paid Praise Band that played at the contemporary service. The handbell choir was also not encouraged to play in church. Certain people were told they would not be allowed to do volunteer work. We were characterized as passé and Hutchinson has been quoted as saying he was “…dragging [us] into the twenty-first century.”
And yet the Chancel Choir hung on, rather than find other churches as did 400 other church families. We could ignore the sermons riddled with irrelevant pop culture and lifted from the Internet, and the patently insincere gobbledygook from the three pastors, and have our Sunday worship come from the music. To hear the offertory, which Bill always executed without sheet music, letting the music simply flow from brain to fingers, was by itself worth getting up at dawn to serve in the choir. We knew we weren’t appreciated by the church administration, but we hung on because most of us had been members for decades and we at least had Bill.
Now we no longer have Bill. His last choir practice was on Wednesday, and instead of practicing that night most of us cleared out our folders. I estimate about half the choir won’t ever be back, and those who would stay won’t have a choir in which to serve. The church administration has made it clear that they don’t want a traditional choir, and they much prefer the hootenanny in the gym. There may never again be a Chancel Choir in that church, or a handbell choir.
I was in the handbell choir for nearly thirty years. My children grew up in that church. It was the first church in my life I attended more than twice. It was the first place I ever had that gave me any stability in my life, and it was the only sanctuary I had from the difficulties of culture shock when I first moved here. I’d intended to die a member of that church. What has been done to it is unconscionable. What was done to Bill was unimaginable, even by someone with an imagination like mine.