This picture is of the house across the street from where I worked clearing trees with one of my church families today. It’s a traditional 2-story Cape Cod, except that the storm converted it into a cozy master-on-main with an open floor plan. And a completely vanished first floor. What you see there in shadow is the main floor with the second floor, nearly intact, about a foot and a half above it. Like an horrific pull-the-tablecloth trick. Voila!
If you’re completely new here: I’m a UMC youth leader and sometimes worship leader/singer-songwriter. The one thing that I’m never immune to in a worship setting is the way others engage in it, particularly when it’s with emotion. Really, you can stuff the rest of it in a sack as far as I’m concerned. When I first started volunteering regularly with youth I was troubled by how I not-at-all I enjoyed the music that they used in worship. What I discovered to get around that dislike initially was that I could worship through how they engaged in worship. That remains one of my preferred means of worship in a corporate setting, but the fallout as a worship leader is that engaging with the actors in worship (the gathered) can present some real challenges to one’s ability to continue leading, particularly if those present are deeply moved. For example if you, the leader, are now blubbering and shaking and such it makes the words hard to follow. Also the melody.
There are ways to somewhat head emotional collapse off at the pass. Never sing a song without reading through the lyrics for things that might send you into a sniffling death-spiral. You can rehearse transitions in your mind, thinking through the places that might push you over the edge. You can try to tune out any meaningful speaking or video segments that might bring the next song to an untimely close. And for Pete’s sake, don’t look at anybody.
All that works great for standard fare like mission weeks, moving closing worship sessions on retreats, and that sort of thing. But NOTHING can prepare you for leading worship in a time of heartache or need. When the earthquake hit Japan in March, we held a responsive prayer service which, at the last second, included a song I’d written celebrating the calming presence of God. Two lines I made it before falling apart. With that in mind as we began to form the elements of a community worship service for our first Sunday in the aftermath of our own storm, I was desperate to find a way to hold it together through what promised to be some difficult worship prompting. But TWO DAYS before the service I couldn’t even think about the transition from a deeply moving audio piece (someone had captured the tornado strike on video from a distance; as the storm hit our town, the man shooting began to pray repeatedly, “Lord, be with them. Oh Lord be with them”) into the Gungor song “Please Be My Strength” which cries out from a place of sorrow for God to be the strength that we do not possess. As the service got closer and more events unfolded, it got worse. There was no way I was going to make it.
Please know that I wasn’t trying to avoid crying for the sake of saving face. I’ve got two kids; I’m not afraid to cry. I just feel that those gathered can better offer worship to God in a time of weakness if those prompting can be strong.
So I was reaching Sunday afternoon, reaching for anything that might distract my mind enough to fight off a moment of emotion without removing me from the moment. Like thinking about baseball for… when you’re not thinking about baseball. But it couldn’t be anything complicated; nothing with a story line, nothing long–after all, I needed to look at the next line of the song or speak the next words to remain present. Something quick like… like slapping a baby.
I don’t know where it came from and obviously I (nor you, dear reader) would ever do such thing. But “slapping babies” became my mantra for the afternoon. Quick, like a pop; odd enough to distract my mind, foreign enough from my behavior to go no further that the thought of those two words: slapping babies. One dose of “slapping babies” and I was right back in it without so much as a shaky breath during sound check. Even more incredibly, it worked during our service as well. I was fully present mentally in the service. I even listened to the howling audio of the tornado with that man brokenly begging God to be with us. And I only had to think “slapping babies” twice on the first verse and once on the second chorus of “Please Be My Strength” to stay in control. Then I was free to exit stage right and weep quietly on my own.
I have more, but it will wait for another day. Yesterday ended in anger for me, not at any person or process, just at needless pain. It’s too much to think through; too much to bear. This is the most prolonged heartache I’ve ever known, and we’re not yet a week into a process of years. At the same time, I’ve never been more grateful to be in ministry, nor more grateful for my faith family. They, in many spoken and unspoken ways, are my strength.
And thank God for slapping babies.