A short story came bubbling out of me tonight. It’s raw and maybe even unfinished, but it’s what I wrote, so I will share it.
When the organist began to play the introduction to “It Is Well With My Soul” he was transported: this was one of his favorites. Since the song was reflective, the congregation remained seated. When the intro finished, he began to sing,
When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
He lost himself in the lyric and was only slightly aware at how quiet the people were in the pews around him. He could hear one (maybe two?) voices from the choir loft. “It’s a grey morning,” he thought, “maybe everyone is just feeling solemn.” When the chorus came, he could hear everyone:
It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well
With my soul.
When the song was over, Dave leaned up from the pew behind Cal and said, “Nice job, buddy. That first verse was supposed to be a solo from the choir.” Cal tried to laugh it off – and did as far as Dave knew, but he felt like an idiot. When the service was over, he skipped Coffee Hour and went on home.
Brenda took her solos seriously. She didn’t feel she could do a lot of things well, but she knew she could sing. And she loved to sing. When Roscoe, the choir director, asked her to sing the first verse of “It is Well” as a solo to lead the congregation into prayer time, she jumped at the chance. She loved the hymn and even knew the story behind it, which she promptly told to the rest of the choir: “Horatio Spafford lost all of his possessions in the Chicago Fire and then lost all four of his daughters when their ship crashed into another as it crossed the Atlantic. Only his wife survived. A few weeks later, while he was on a ship going to meet her, he said he passed near the place where his daughters died and the Holy Spirit gave the words to him. “
For full effect, Roscoe chose to play the hymn on the piano. When she heard the first few notes, she quietly cleared her throat and then began to sing precisely on cue. But she was not singing a solo. There was another voice, another voice not in the choir loft. The voice was singing well, but the problem was the voice was singing at all. She looked around until she spotted him on the second row, singing with his eyes closed. She couldn’t get his attention to wave him off. She couldn’t set the mood she wanted for worship with someone else singing along because he hadn’t paid attention to the instructions in the bulletin. For all of her hard work, what people would remember was the guy in the front sang when he wasn’t supposed to. All her hard work, her prayers, her attempt to make worship more meaningful had been sunk by the phantom singer. The song had been ruined, she thought as she sat down when the hymn was over. She felt a little hurt, a little slighted, a little disregarded, but mostly like a failure. She had failed and it wasn’t her fault. She had one gift to bring to worship and someone sat on it. How could she offer a broken gift?
Charley always got to church on time and he always sat in the balcony, which, in this little church, was a single row of chairs. He mostly came to church because he had nowhere else to go and the folks here didn’t seem to mind him being around. In fact, they were pretty good at including him in things, even though faith was new to him and he’d only been coming for six or eight months. He liked to come early to hear the choir practice. When he sat down, he could hear someone telling a story about one of the songs and how it had been written because the man lost all his children.
Charley knew that feeling, too. Since his ex-wife had moved, he didn’t even know where his children were. She made it clear he didn’t deserve to see them because of all he had done. He didn’t know what else to do but agree with her.
When it came time for the song, the lady who had told the story stood up to sing. Charley had heard her before. She had a beautiful voice that was strong and soft at the same time. But when she started singing, it wasn’t just her. There was a male voice coming from the front of the church. Even though he never turned around, the two singers were right together and sounded beautiful. Charley was sure they had practiced a lot to be able to sing so well without being able to see what each other was doing. He read the words as they sang and tried to join in with the rest of the congregation, but never mastered more than the chorus: it is well, it is well with my soul.
He wondered if the writer really felt well in his soul as he stared into the sea that had swallowed up his daughters, or if he was trying to convince himself he could feel that way. All Charley knew was the words felt true when he heard them and he needed something to feel true, even if only for a moment.
Charley was coming down from the balcony just as Brenda was moving to hang up her choir robe in the closet next to the stairs. “I liked the way you and that guy did the hymn this morning,” he said. “It touched me.”
“It was supposed to be like that,” she said before she could catch herself.
He smiled and shook her hand as he moved to the front door.
“Thank you,” she said.