Worship shapes us

Julia's final Sunday as Organist and Director of Music Ministries gave me an opportunity to share one of Michael Lindvall's great stories. Thank you, Julia! And thank you, Michael.

Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road, and when he hears that Jesus is coming through town, hope wells up. Hope wells up like water from the deep, and he shouts; he shouts, and nothing and no one can silence him.

And then we listen to the psalm, and we hear about mouths filled with laughter and tongues with shouts of joy. God has done great things for God’s people, redeeming them from the oppressor. Joy wells up, and anticipation, and they shout; they shout, they laugh and sing out their gratitude.

Worship is everything we do in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God: we shout, we sing, we tell stories, we laugh and love and serve, we eat and drink together – in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God we worship and are shaped as God’s people.

Several years ago, Michael Lindvall told stories about life and ministry in Minnesota; when I heard the one you’re about to hear, I knew that some day I would tell it. It’s a marvelous little gem, a lovely and surprising reflection on how worship shapes us as God’s people. I have waited for just the right day to tell it, and I believe today’s the day.

Carthage Lake is a vanishing town on the Minnesota prairie: seven weathered frame houses, only five of them inhabited, plus the church. The last minister left Carthage Lake in 1939. He blew away with the dust bowl and the depression, and with him went most of the town – but not all. A faithful remnant – fewer and fewer every year, but the more tenacious for their smaller numbers – have saved it from the dread fate of so many country churches – becoming an antique shop, a warehouse of memories for sale.

Carthage Lake still has a church where people worship the living God on Sunday, though not every Sunday anymore. It’s only one Sunday a month, and soon one would guess, it will be every other month, and then after a few funerals, the pews and the two stained-glass windows will be auctioned off, and maybe an antique dealer will buy the building for his shop. But for a while yet, a visiting minister comes once a month, usually a visiting minister who has already preached his sermon that morning to his own congregation and has been cajoled by Lloyd Larson to preach it again at noon in Carthage Lake to the eleven souls who will always be there barring bad colds or worse than usual rheumatism. Lloyd has been the Chair of the Board for the last 31 years and when he calls, he always says, “Yep, dere ain’t so many of us no more, but you’ll have 100% attendance, preacher.”

It was Tuesday morning when Lloyd called Michael looking for a preacher for the Sunday coming. He offered his routine confession and promise: a small group, but a faithful one. And he promised Michael an organist, the same organist Carthage Lake had been promising guest preachers for the last 60 years: Lloyd’s sister-in-law, Agnes Rigstad.

Michael said he’d be pleased to preach in Carthage Lake, and the next morning he called back to give Lloyd the title of the sermon and the hymns for Agnes. No answer and no answering machine. So he asked the church secretary to send the information in the mail.

Come Sunday, he arrived late. Only two cars and a pick-up were parked in front of the freshly painted church. He noticed the sentimental stained-glass windows on either side of the steeple: one of Jesus the Good Shepherd, lamb in one arm, staff in the other. The second showed Jesus praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, his eyes lifted toward heaven.

Inside there were twelve people, all but Lloyd seated in the front two pews of the little sanctuary. Lloyd was standing beneath the pulpit in the far corner. At eighty years, he was perhaps the youngest of the congregation save one, a young man sitting at the end of the second pew.

Lloyd was slowly reading the adult education program leader’s guide to the others when Michael entered. “Well, that’s that, then,” he said, closing the pamphlet, “Next week we do the Trinity. Hello, Reverend, perfect timing.” The class stood up slowly, all except the young man, and moved to their accustomed places for worship. One very old lady in what was obviously a wig slightly askew on her head, mounted the chancel steps and went to the organ bench to the right of the pulpit.

Lloyd pulled Michael over and offered the same whispered instructions he had given a hundred visiting ministers before him: talk loud, there’s no mike and some folks don’t hear as well as they used to. Then Lloyd added: “And we don’t do a Sunday bulletin anymore; can’t get parts for the printer, so you just gotta tell us when it’s time for a hymn.”

Worship started. “This is the day the Lord has made,” Michael said; “let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us join together in singing hymn number 204.”He glanced over to Agnes to make sure she had heard this last. She smiled back and launched into the hymn. She had not played but a measure before he realized that she was not playing “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” It clearly was “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Maybe Agnes hadn’t heard him?

Michael read the New Testament lesson in a voice that was just an inch this side of a shout. The text he had chosen was from John’s Gospel, words that Jesus spoke to his little band of followers on the eve of his death. Words that include his promise to send the Holy Spirit, “I will not leave you orphaned.” He also read some of the words from the next chapter, Jesus’ injunction, spoken several times more as a fond wish, that his followers might love one another after he was gone: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Michael was going to preach a sermon about love and the power of the Spirit abiding among those who love each other, but before he started, he announced the second hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” a hymn that he had carefully chosen for this sermon. He announced it very loudly and rather too pointedly, looking Agnes in the eyes. She smiled back before diving at the organ keys and launching into “I Love to Tell the Story.”

After the sermon Michael prayed, and when it came time to announce the last hymn, he looked at Agnes and thought better of it. He took two steps over to the organ bench, bent down and whispered loudly in her ear, “Agnes, what are we going to sing?” She smiled, said not a word, and began to play, “Just As I Am.”

After the service was over, Michael greeted at the door. Agnes smiled broadly as she pumped his hand, but said nothing beyond “Nice sermon, Reverend.” Lloyd and the young man were at the front of the church when he went back to gather up his notes. Lloyd gave him a sheepish look, “Forgot to tell you about Agnes,” he said. “You don’t need to tell us what the hymn is, only when. Agnes only knows those three hymns, so we always sing ’em.”

“How long has she been your organist?” Michael asked.

“Well,” Lloyd looked down at the worn carpet at the foot of the pulpit, “since ‘37 when old Rev. Simmons left. Rev. Simmon’s wife, she played the organ for us back then, and when she was gone, there was nobody, so Agnes learned to play.”

“Good God, Lloyd, you mean to tell me you’ve been singing the same three hymns every month for 60 years?”

He was concentrating on the carpet more intently. “We like those hymns well enough, and we know ’em by heart - and she is our organist. You want some coffee, Reverend? I got a Thermos out in the truck.”He disappeared out the door and across the road to a rusty brown Ford pick-up.

The young man offered a hand and introduced himself to Michael. “My name is Neil Larson. I’m Lloyd’s grandson, I’ve been living with him for the last few months. Moved up here from Texas in March. You have to understand about Agnes. She’s my late grandmother’s little sister, Lloyd’s wife’s baby sister. Agnes has never been quite right. She never says more than a few words, and usually the same words. But she learned to play those three hymns in one week 60 years ago. It was a moment of musical emergency. Anyway, she hasn’t been able to learn another one since. Playing the organ this one Sunday a month means the world to her. Sometimes I think it’s mostly for her that they keep the church open. Aunt Agnes lives for the first Sunday of the month.”

Neil looked down, he played with the frayed carpet with the toe of his loafer.

“They asked me to play, of course. They had to ask. But Grandpa knew I’d say no when he asked. I remember how he sighed with relief when I said no, then he slapped me on the back.”

“You’re an organist?” Michael asked.

“Eastman, class of ’84. I’ve had some big church jobs, the last one down in Texas, big church in the Houston ’burbs. Brand new Casavant—102 ranks. Four services a Sunday. Then I got sick. I’ve been HIV-positive for six years, but it wasn’t till last fall that I got sick. The personnel committee of the church figured it out, the weight loss, all the sick days, not married. They told me it would be best if I were to move on, but not till after Christmas, of course. My parents live in St. Paul, but my father and I haven’t spoken since I was 19. I’m not sick enough for the hospital, but I’m just too tired most of the time to work. I really had nowhere to go. My grandfather said I could move in with him and Agnes. To tell the truth I kinda feel right at home in a town of 80-year-olds.”

He looked up from the carpet and said, “You know, pastor, that was a fine sermon, but I think that they got it a while ago. I mean the ‘love one another’ part. And they have not been left orphaned.”

He paused and went on, “They keep Agnes, and they took me in. And since I moved up here, most every night either Lloyd or old man Engstrom from down the road opens up the church for me. If it’s cold they lay a fire in the wood stove. And then I play the organ. It’s a sweet little instrument, believe it or not. Lloyd’s kept it up. These last weeks, it’s been almost warm in the evenings, so they leave the doors and the windows of the church open and everybody sits out on their front porches and they listen to me play—Bach, Buxtehude, Widor, Reger, all the stuff I love. And they clap from their porches, even Agnes claps.”[1]

Worship is what we do in response to the presence and the mighty acts of God, and for thirty-six years Julia has led us in worship, both inside and outside of this sanctuary. She has led us with exceptional skill, great faithfulness, and much love. Thank you, Julia.

[1] Michael Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The Further Adventures of a Small-Town Pastor, chapter 12