I’m on staff in the worship arts department at my church, and as much as I love to use my musical gifts to lead, I sometimes long for anonymity. Even when I take a Sunday ‘off’ from leading, I might as well be on for the amount of times my role is mentioned in conversation and for the stress I feel while I watch a service unfold. It’s difficult when church and work are the same thing, so once in a while, I visit another church to get some rest. A lot of times, I don’t sing during worship because I’d rather not have someone turning around because ‘I just want to say you have a beautiful voice’. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in any way advocating a consumer attitude toward church. It’s just that sometimes it’s good to be somewhere I can be filled, and where no one is expecting anything from me, personally or professionally.
If Sunday mornings are stressful, Easter weekend and Christmas are even worse. I don’t get to take those off…and it’s not that I want to. It’s just that I find it challenging to experience the solemnity of Good Friday when I’m fretting over getting a song just right so the congregation CAN experience it, or to feel the unbridled joy of Easter morning when I am hoping the vocal team remembers this one really important moment in a song so people aren’t distracted. I’m not sorry that I care like I do or that this is where God has gifted me, but once in a while I miss being in the seats.
So this year, when my co-worker invited me to her church’s ‘Eve of Eve Service’ on December 23rd, I accepted. The next day was going to be a blur for me, and the idea of just sitting in a service, singing Christmas Carols (or not) was exactly what I needed. I arrived a few minutes early but stayed in my car listening to a podcast until I knew my friend was there. I wasn’t a visitor in the usual sense, so I didn’t want lots of well-meaning greeters descending on me with a packet about the church and what they believe. Again, hear me: I love the Church, and I love seeing how other congregations function. I just don’t want them to waste their welcome materials when I’m just there to take encouragement and be on my way. Once I located my friend and met her family I had heard so much about, we took our seats. They were near the back (perfect) and the room was mostly dark, except the stage where a charcoal artist from the congregation was sketching a beautiful winter scene.
The service proceeded in the usual way, with worship, then prayer, announcements, a greeting time, and a short sermon. I have to be totally honest, the only part of the message I remember is when the pastor shared a rather awkward, too-personal detail about his life and everyone dissolved into embarrassed-for-him laughter. What ended up sticking with me from the evening is something I nearly missed. About ten minutes before the pastor wrapped up and we sang the last carol, I noticed a teenage girl who was in my sight-line when I looked at the stage. Her head was turned in such a way that I could see her profile well, and she had a distinctive nose. I remember thinking how she probably hates it, and hoping she will learn to love it someday. A second later, her mother turned to say something, and it was obvious where the unusual nose had come from. Some family traits come through stronger than others, and this one was like looking at mirror-images.
That got me thinking about the Imago Dei (the image of God) every human bears in body and spirit. No matter whether we know or acknowledge it, we carry around with and in us the very likeness of the God of the universe. Even those who reject their Father still look like Him. It’s an equal-opportunity status. What’s more, when Jesus came to Earth, He became one of these image-bearers. He could have come as something ‘human-esque’ or super-human, and it almost seems that would have been more proper for the Son of God. But then I wonder if that would remove some of the beauty of the human story, and whether carrying the Imago Dei would mean as much. Not only do we look like God, but God’s Son looked, grew, and even smelled like us.
If that girl with the distinctive nose hates it enough to one day get plastic surgery, it won’t change the fact that half of her genetic code is her mother’s. It won’t change whose daughter she is. And that’s exactly the same with every one of us and our Father. No matter what we do to augment our hearts, no matter whether we throw our devotion after fleeting things or after His heart, it won’t change whose children we are. It cannot change the fierce love He showed by taking on our gangly, chubby, awkward, strange, beautiful flesh when He was born in poverty, surrounded by a menagerie of other smelly mammals. This story is too strange and beautiful to be false. No one would have chosen the way it started, and certainly no one would have chosen the way it ended for the One who spoke the universe into existence and then came to redeem it and us.
I’m glad I got to be in the seats that night. I’m grateful I was able to be silent enough to hear a voice gently say, ‘Merry Christmas. You look like your dad.’