When you’ve spent as much time in church as I have, you are bound to see some unusual things; emotional outbursts, psychotic breaks, attempted healings, and visitors who’s behavior is out of place because they are used to a radically different style of worship. But this event stands out for me as the most unusual.
Every faith community has a unique personality. Denomination is a factor, but even within denominations there are unique differences. This community I was attending was very progressive. It was one of the first churches in the state to extend full welcome and acceptance of people regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. The church is filled with thoughtful, accepting, highly intelligent, and highly educated people. There are many professors and great thinkers who attend. This is a very eco-friendly community. You’ll find many Prius’s out front. The worship is beautifully, and carefully planned. It is a very rich, innovative, and peaceful worship setting. I greatly value my fifteen years of membership there.
But what happens in a church like this when a visitor shows up for worship who’s behavior is out of the bounds of the character of the worship tradition? I can think of a few incidents where although we wanted to do our best to be inclusive with people’s behavior, we had reached a limit.
An older man with white hair and cowboy boots began attending one summer, and although he struck me as a little odd, he was friendly enough. In talking with him, I learned that he was quite a bit more traditional than the average member of my church, which often brings with it a very different expectation for worship. Most of the more conservative churches are non-liturgical, a free’er formula for worship. The United Methodist Church is a liturgical church. Liturgy is a formula for a worship service that has an order for it’s prayers, litanies, sacraments, sermons…and music.
One Sunday, as I was entering the church, the man was sitting on the bench playing a harmonica. I stood for a moment to listen. He was playing an old gospel tune very skillfully . I nodded my approval and stepped in thinking that this was a nice way to start the morning.
The next week, he had moved his harmonica into the loggia (Methodist for foyer or lobby). I noted this. He was especially focused on the children, and although some were interested, most were standoffish. He was still in the category of “stranger” to them.
He attended sporadically for a time. Then one Sunday, right before the service, our pastor called an emergency meeting of any man in the vicinity. We gathered in the fellowship hall, and she shut the door. She was visibly shaken. She eyed the door as she addressed us. I could see that she was trying to remain calm, but it was clear that something upsetting had happened.
She said that our visitor had approached her and the music director to ask if he could play the harmonica for the kids during the children’s sermon. She did not feel comfortable with this. Perhaps she was concerned that it would interrupt the very intentionally planned flow of the service, but more likely she simply had a bad feeling about the guy. A gut feeling. She didn’t want a guy that she didn’t trust having any interaction with our children, and I believe there was a consensus in the room on this. Plus, the protocol is that special music goes through the music director in enough time to make the arrangements in the bulletin, but Harmonica Man wouldn’t take no for an answer. There had been a very heated argument which ended with his pronouncement that he WAS going to play and no one could stop him. Our job, the ten of us, was to make sure that didn’t happen.
I remember feeling a great deal of apprehension about this. I’m not a very confrontational person, and the idea of responding bodily made me a little queasy. I wondered if I would even have the nerve to do anything at all.
When the service began, Harmonica Man had positioned himself as close to the place where the children would congregate, which was in the middle of the circular sanctuary in front of the altar. I could just make out that his harmonica was tucked in his front pocket. I also observed the other men spread throughout the circular sanctuary. Their eyes were never too far from him.
When the pastor invited the children to join her, we all moved to the edges of our seats. Throughout the message, he sat patiently and quietly. I began to wonder if the whole crisis would be averted with no action necessary, but just as the pastor was concluding her sermon, the man stood up and whipped out his harmonica. What happened next could only have taken 10 seconds. It was so swift, that if you had been in the middle of a private prayer, you might have missed it.
Nine men jumped from their seats and rushed the Harmonica Man. He did not resist but he managed to put the harmonica to his mouth. It was the shortest, most hurried parade I had ever seen, as nine men surrounded and escorted him out of the church to the tune of “I’ll Fly Away”. The congregation must have been astonished but there was no time to observe it because the service resumed almost as quickly as it had stopped, almost as if nothing had happened. As if, perhaps, this was a normal occurrence.
But I had not acted. When I saw the other nine men move, I sat put. I guess I must have figured that nine was enough. I felt guilty for weeks about it. I’d be charged with a manly task, and I had failed.
After the service, I got the rest of the story. Harmonica Man was mouthy out in front of the church, and one of our senior members, a professor, a most dignified man, put up his fists and shouted something like “You want to fight? Well, fight me!” But there was no fight. Harmonica Man calmed down and they all had a little chat. He was invited to rejoin the service under the supervision of the feisty professor where he was docile for the rest of the service and in the weeks to come.
As far as my part, the story ended a few weeks later. Our accompanist’s dad had been visiting occasionally. One Sunday, when the Harmonica Man was absent, the pianist’s father was sitting in the exact seat where the man had been sitting, also with white hair and wearing boots. During the joys and concerns, I stood up to speak. I have know idea why I stood up or what I said, but I addressed whom I believed to be Harmonica Man, and then sat down. Perhaps I offered a few words of welcome. I’m not sure.
A few minutes later, the pianist’s dad stood and addressed me back. He was fuming. He assured me that he was not, in fact, the Harmonica Man and didn’t appreciate the mistaken identity. My ears rang and my face burned over this. I had made a terrible mistake and embarrassed myself and the pianist’s dad.
After the service, I sought him out immediately to apologize. He was very gracious, a vigorous man with a sense of humor about it all, and welcomed my apology. I saw him from time to time when he visited. He was always very affectionate with me, and he never let me live it down.
Of all the odd things I have witnessed in my years of church, this was by far the most dramatic, bizarre, and comedic. I’ve turned it over in my head to consider if there could have been any other course of action. I wondered what I would’ve done if I had been the music director. Perhaps it would have been just fine to let the guy play the kids a tune. I’m sure this would have been welcomed in other churches where the worship isn’t so carefully planned, but in the end, I believe I would have done the same thing. That’s just not how we do things. There is a time, an order, and place for music and personal sharing. We who grew up in a liturgical setting understand this. You don’t just walk into a liturgical church and start blowing a trumpet, or a tuba, or a harmonica. But more importantly, I trusted this pastor’s instincts about the Harmonica Man; and, as you might expect, I will never be able to hear “I’ll Fly Away” the same way again.