Church Is Stranger Than Fiction
It was my first day as the new youth pastor. I had been asked to take our High School youth group to a week of summer church camp. These poor kids had no idea who I was, and I hadn’t even learned most of their names yet. The first morning we were together, we were chosen to lead the worship for the rest of the camp in the opening service. I considered this a real honor and I felt confident that our group had been selected based on my reputation as a gifted worship leader and my illustrious history with this particular camp. You see, I had grown up in the Methodist camp system of Northern Indiana and had spent many summers along the shores of Lake Webster both as a camper and a counselor. Let’s just say I knew the drill. These were my people, this was my turf. It just felt right that I should be the one to “set the tone” for a week of spiritual growth and instruction for this gathering of aspiring young teenage believers.
As the sun began to rise on the lake behind us, a crowd of several hundred bleary eyed kids and youth workers assembled in the camp’s large outdoor amphitheater. There was a palpable sense of expectation in the crowd. You could feel the excitement mounting as the rows and rows of concrete pews were slowly getting filled to capacity. This was my chance to show my kids, and everyone else in attendance that morning, what I could do with what I had so graciously brought to offer. I hurriedly got my group up on the stage and lined them up behind me so they could “help” me lead the worship. In truth, I’m not sure they even knew any of the songs I had planned to sing. But honestly I wasn’t too concerned. Leading worship at church camp had become second nature to me and in my mind I didn’t really need their “help” in the first place. In retrospect, there are many things I lacked in those days, but I can assure you, self confidence was not one of them. I was young, and thin… heck, my long flowing mullet alone was a thing of unequaled beauty. Surely it could inspire these kids to worship all by itself.
With my vintage acoustic guitar hanging on my back and my tooled leather guitar strap draped across my chest like a Mexican gun slinger, I opened the service by pouncing on the microphone and blurting out some undoubtedly hilarious witticism. Just as I had expected, the crowd responded with an uproarious wave of laughter that seemed to go on forever. I secretly thought to myself, “I’m gonna kill this one.” After delving out a few more pithy comments and undeniably deep spiritual insights, I began to make the transition into what was sure to be an awesome thirty minutes of praise and worship. With all the sincerity I could muster, I closed my eyes tightly and began working my way through a careful selection of the best choruses that the early 1980s had to offer. But somewhere in the middle of the second or third song, I could tell that the crowd was not really getting into what I was doing. In fact, it seemed like they were really distracted and there was a lot of whispering and hushed nervous laughter going on. At first, I was admittedly a little offended by their apparent disrespect of what I was trying to do for them, but I reminded myself that they were just a bunch of unruly teenagers. I really couldn’t expect them to get all serious on the first day of camp. So I decided to lighten things up a little.
I smoothly shifted out of worship mode and began taking requests from the crowd. The kids started yelling out some of the popular contemporary Christian songs of the day. Thankfully, I had a stable full of oldies from the likes of Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy, and Randy Stonehill to draw from. I figured I’d just wait till someone called out one that I knew I could breeze through from memory. Sure enough, two guys in the front row started screaming out in unison, “Shut De Door! Sing Shut De Door” The crowd roared with laughter and applause at their suggestion. “This is perfect” I thought, “I have Stonehill’s Shut De Door Keep Out Da Debil down cold… and this crowd is obviously way into that song.” And just like I had planned it all along, I nailed the song from start to finish. No guitar chording mistakes, I stayed in pitch, I even hit all the high notes that Randy was so famous for. I had done it. Now my legendary camp coolness was cast in cement for all eternity. As I strummed the last chord, I knew that my performance on this day would surely go down in camp history as one of the all time greats. But for some reason, as the song came to an end, everyone was still laughing, and whispering to each other, and now several people were pointing in the direction of the stage.
What was this? I quickly turned around to see what was going on behind me. Strangely enough, all the kids in my youth group were now standing about 15 feet behind me at the very back of the stage. They looked like they were nearly exhausted from an elongated period of hysterical laughter. I figured some jokester had probably been making faces, or putting bunny ears over my head the whole time I was trying to lead worship. No wonder the crowd was so distracted. I knew something wasn’t right. These little jerks had stolen my thunder and they were gonna get a real piece of my mind when we got back to our cabin. Not knowing who the culprit was, I threw them all a scornful gaze and spun back around to conclude the service. Feeling quite dejected and betrayed my head was hung low as I slumped off the stage. Looking down, I suddenly realized that the fly on my jeans had been wide open the whole time and that my bright red underwear was making no apologies for its grand public appearance. Shut de door. The pun hit me like a sledge hammer… and it still makes me laugh when I think about it. What a Dufus.
You can’t make this stuff up. Church truly is stranger than fiction.
After many years of serving as a local church pastor, I have seen some really funny things happen on a Sunday morning. Back in the 1980s, I was on the pastoral staff of an older church with a very traditional style of worship. This church’s denomination was known for its historical buildings which often contained an unusually large and extravagant sanctuary. This particular building had a towering stained glass window at the front, rows and rows of hardwood pews, and giant chandelier-like light fixtures covered in archaic religious symbols hanging from the vaulted ceiling nearly thirty feet off the ground. Each Sunday morning, the pastors would stroll down the center isle, robes and sashes waving in the breeze, and assume their positions on the ornate wooden chairs positioned on either side of the alter. Often, the sunlight would stream in from the window behind them creating a luminous halo of colors around their thrones as the service was ready to commence.
But though the building and its contents were truly impressive, no service would be complete without a performance from their prestigious church choir. The pastor’s wife, a long standing member of the choir, was notorious for being the one person who could hold on to the final note of a hymn just a little longer than everyone else. It was as if she was going to make sure that she got her chance for a little solo at the end of every number so that we all could enjoy the superior tonal quality and sustain of her aging soprano voice. More often than not, the hymn would end with only she and the organist lingering on for what felt like an eternity. This awkward little competition happened so regularly that it seemed plausible to me that these two were secretly daring one another to see who would be most willing to openly promote their musical abilities without shame. Amazingly, the pastor’s wife always seemed to be able to last just a moment longer than the organist. That is, until his new organ arrived.
For many years, Bob had petitioned the finance committee for an upgrade to his antiquated pipe organ. Time and again, his request would be denied so that things like new carpet or a remodel for the fellowship hall could be purchased. He must have simply worn them out, because eventually the decision was made to buy one of the most advanced electronic organs available at the time. I remember the entire back wall of the sanctuary had to be redesigned and built specifically to accommodate the bank of speakers needed to improve on the sound that all those pipes used to make. This thing literally had all the bells and whistles.
I will never forget the first Sunday morning that the new organ made its glorious debut. As per tradition, the opening hymn was sung, first, second, and fourth verses only of course. It was clear that the organist was playing unusually loud, but who could blame him. He was quite proud of his new baby and he wasn’t going to miss this opportunity to show us what she could do. The louder he played, the more forcefully the choir sang. With each advancing verse, it became clear that we had a full on voice versus organ duel taking place. As the final refrain was sung, you could feel the anticipation mounting as we all knew what was about to take place. Sure enough, as the last chord was played, the organist held down those keys like he was trying to drown someone. Everyone watched in delight as the pastor’s wife drew in a huge breath. It was on! After all other voices had long since faded out, there the two opponents remained, locked in some kind of musical combat. I looked over at the organist just in time to see him crack a devilish grin as if to say, I will hold on to this chord all day if I have to. Sure enough, after about 20 seconds, the voice of the pastor’s wife finally gave out, and with only a faint squeaking sound piercing her lips, she collapsed back into her chair. As if on cue, the entire congregation erupted in laughter and applause.
You can’t make this kind of stuff up. Church is stranger than fiction.