Living in New York City, one is confronted with a daily feast of cultural opportunities, just about every form of beauty created by man. This is especially true of the city’s plethora of religious services, some of which offer world-class beauty in worship. (St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, with its famous choir school, is just the most conspicuous example.) But it’s good to be reminded that ordinary folks — men and women whose voices will never appear on a CD — can, with a little work and the right spirit, make a truly joyful noise. That’s what happened today at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Between the sermon and the liturgy of the Eucharist, about a dozen people — including a bright-eyed and clean-cut young couple who had been sitting right behind me — left their places in the pews and filed unassumingly to the front of the altar, where they launched into Handel’s anthem “Lord I Trust Thee.” (You can find another rendition of it here.) They finished the piece, and filed just as unassumingly back to their places, but not before having reduced me to tears with the sincerity and beauty of their rendition.
When you go to a lot of religious services, the temptation is to become a theological and aesthetic critic: This liturgical text was well written, that sermon was awful, this choir is better than that schola, etc. And indeed, there were a couple of things in today’s service that I would object to: I am allergic to politics (left or right) in sermons, so the fact that a substantial portion of Pastor Heidi Neumark’s sermon was devoted to lobbying Congress not to cut the foreign-aid budget didn’t appeal to me. And one of the hymns — the lovely text “O Bread of Life from Heaven” — was delivered in such a lugubrious and lackluster manner that the pastor cut in and ended it before the final verse. (It is the custom in mainline Protestant services to sing hymns in their entirety.) But these things are important only in that they serve to remind us that we all bring our failings into church with us. What’s crucial — what I will remember about this particular service — is that ordinary people, again, people like us, can become utterly transparent to the divine. I saw it happen, a Real Presence, and I am grateful for it.