A few weeks ago, as is our custom on the first Sunday of each month, I was at Lewis County Manor, our local nursing home, along with 35-40 members of our congregation for a time of worship with our neighbors who reside there. Steve, one of our song leaders, decided after leading a handful of songs to ask the residents if they had any song requests. That’s when someone pointed to a young man I’ll call Larry, whose right hand was raised. Steve asked Larry what song he’d like to sing, but Larry didn’t reply and shortly lowered his hand. With no other requests at the moment, Steve launched into another song. After its conclusion he stopped again to ask for requests and, again, someone pointed to Larry, whose right hand was raised. As before, Steve asked Larry what song he’d like to sing, but, again, Larry didn’t reply and shortly lowered his hand. In what became a somewhat humorous cycle to many of us gathered there, this same sequence of events happened three or four more times before Steve wrapped up the singing and turned things over to me to share a brief message from Scripture.
I went up to the front and shared a few thoughts with the folks gathered together that day. I’m not sure how much the words I shared changed the lives of those who heard them. But I know I walked away from the Manor that day absolutely changed. You see, I had a different vantage point from which to view that humorous cycle than almost everyone else present in the room. What I saw standing off to the side, as I always do so I can easily get to the front when it’s my turn to speak, was that Larry hadn’t been raising his hand in response to Steve’s call for song requests. The reason Larry’s hand was up each time, was because he had been raising his hand during each song. That might not, in and of itself, seem worthy of extended reflection (even on a blog), after all many of God’s people throughout history have lifted their hands as they have sung songs of praise to God. But I haven’t been able to get the image out of my mind for three weeks. You see, Larry is a bit different than most of the rest of us who were gathered together that day. In addition to being unable to walk and being bound to a wheelchair, Larry is unable to speak and generally appears to be unable to understand anything anyone else tries to communicate to him. But as I watched Larry raise his hand, it dawned on me that because someone took the time to teach him to imitate his ancestors in the faith who worshipped God not only with their words, but with their bodies, Larry was actually able to participate in our worship.
The truth is, I’ve witnessed the following scenario many more times: someone who has lost the ability to move, whose body has failed him or her in some way, or who has lost the ability to think clearly, whose mind has failed him or her in some way, has heard the first line of “Blessed Assurance” or “The Old Rugged Cross” or “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “How Great Thou Art” and is able to join in the singing of the song, because the words are inscribed so deeply in his or her heart, that the failures of the body and mind don’t stand a chance of stopping him or her from praising God. If you’ve witnessed such moments, you know their power well.
I suppose my experience watching Larry a few weeks ago impacted me differently because it exposed so thoroughly one of the lamentable failures of the faith tradition of which I’m a part. Oh sure, it’s been regular practice to sing about standing, kneeling, bowing, raising hands, clapping, and shouting. But rarely have we actually acted out any of these things we’ve sung about—except for standing. Even then, the honest truth is we’ve generally practiced standing during worship not as a way of symbolizing reverence or communicating praise, but as a means of trying to stir up energy or keep folks awake and tuned in. It makes me sad to think that many who have grown up in this faith tradition, were they to find themselves in a situation similar to Larry’s, would have no apparent means by which to participate in the worship. But my sadness is far outweighed by a strong conviction that we must reclaim the role of the (physical) body in our worship and a deep and abiding hope that through intentional and thoughtful efforts, future generations of our faith tradition, were they to find themselves in a situation similar to Larry’s, will be able to participate in worship just as he did.