lenten journal: by heart


I came home from working in my window seat at the Marketplace and found a post from a friend who talked about being “smacked in the face again by some serious meanness.” As I was digging through some old notes tonight, I found a short story I wrote a long time ago. I don’t write them often. Somehow, it feels like a good word for tonight.


By Heart

Cal realized he had forgotten his reading glasses when he sat down in his second row pew and opened his worship guide. He could read the bold print, but he couldn’t decipher some of the smaller instructions. He wasn’t worried though. He had been in church all of his life and things weren’t that different from week to week. The best news for him was he didn’t have to worry about the hymns because he knew his favorites by heart. When he came to words he didn’t know, he just sang the word “watermelon” over and over so it looked like he knew what he was singing.

When the accompanist began to play the introduction to “It Is Well With My Soul,” Cal was transported; it was one of his favorites. Since the song was reflective, the instructions in the worship guide were for the congregation to remain seated. When the introduction 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 song and was only slightly aware of how quiet the people were in the pews around him. He could hear one, maybe two, voices from the choir loft. When the chorus came, everyone joined in.

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well
With my soul.

When the hymn 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 slipped out the side door before the choir came back to hang up their robes. Maybe folks would forget by next week.

Brenda took her solos seriously. She didn’t feel like she did 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 With My Soul” 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 as they rehearsed before worship,

“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. Brenda 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 that they were singing at all. She looked around until she spotted a man in the second row, singing with his eyes closed. Since the choir sat in the back of the small sanctuary, she couldn’t get his attention to wave him off. She also couldn’t set the mood she wanted for worship because he hadn’t paid attention to the instructions in the bulletin. Despite all of her hard work, what people would remember was the guy in the front singing when he wasn’t supposed to. Her attempt to make worship more meaningful with her voice was shattered by the phantom singer. The song was ruined, she thought as she sat down at the end of the hymn. She felt a hurt, slighted, and disregarded, but mostly she felt like a failure. She had one gift to bring to worship and someone sat on it. What good was a broken gift?

Charley always got to church on time and he always sat in the balcony, which, in his 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. He had only been coming for six or eight months. He liked to come early to hear the choir practice. Soon after he sat down, he heard someone telling a story about one of the songs and how it had been written because a 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 did not 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.

“Thank you.”




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