I spent the next eight years worshiping at North Anderson Church of God with a break during which I lived in Florida for a couple of years. What North did well was enable me to participate and use my gifts. Where they were weak was, like many churches, in the development of fellowship. Most people do not easily become comfortable getting outside their comfort zone. I learned this while I was in Florida--thankfully because of someone who did get out of her comfort zone. She stood apart from the rest of the small church I was attending in going out of her way to form a friendship with me despite her busy life and the fact that she had never been around a blind person and experienced quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. I was very troubled at that time in my life, coping with disabling migraines as well as the emotional impact of some very poor decisions I had made. Amy's friendship during that time was not only positive emotionally but also spiritually grounding. She had made her own poor decisions in life and had recovered from them and found her place not only in the church but eventually in its ministry. She became not only a friend but a mentor to me. A song that I had sung with North in the past, Grace, became even more personal to me than it had initially been.
My experience of worship in Florida was very different. The church in Florida had some 30 people. The recording of our August 22, 2004, worship snippet is of a service with another congregation. The quality is poor, but hopefully the style and atmosphere is still evident. The style resembles that of the Assembly of God I attended in the 1990s, but on a much smaller scale. The sermons were very expositional, though the pastor had never been to Bible college. He dug and dug and dug to learn the background of the material he was preaching, and he didn't preach about contemporary topics. He preached about topics related to the particular passage he had chosen and often lingered on a particular passage for two or three weeks.
When I moved back to Indiana in 2004, I was a much more introspective person theologically. I eventually rejoined the choir at North, though I didn't do leads very often. The choir at North had changed. North had changed. It was on its way to becoming an extra large church with a full orchestra and a choir of at least 60. The change is evident in the recording of I Am, made on February 13, 2006. I enjoyed singing in such a phenomenal group, but it wasn't the same as what I had experienced in the past. I discovered that when a person is gone, it is really not possible to return and plug back in as if nothing had changed. Still, I gave it a good four years before I realized that perhaps it was time for me to go elsewhere and participate in building up another church--and perhaps even find my community in the process.
My four years at North were not entirely in Vain. One reason I stayed for so long was that the teaching touched me deeply. When I wasn't singing with the choir, I sat in the congregation, soaking up the congregational singing and the pastoral message. I've posted many Sundays' notes here from 2005 and 2006 especially, and I remember feeling an almost constant pulling toward something I didn't know how to put in words. The healing process that had begun in Florida was continuing. One of the most powerful moments for me was sitting in the congregation when they sang Nothing But the Blood and The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power. The recording I made is extremely poor quality--I was using a handheld cassette recorder that was on its last leg. But it is one of my favorite recordings because it captures two of my favorite songs sung by a congregation of 700 people in a moment that was very precious in my life. That was the moment when I knew that I needed a better way to capture audio. Music was such an integral part of who I am, including the congregational singing, that I needed to find a way...
In early 2006, the worship themes at North were all about deliverance. particularly deliverance from fear, and faith. I didn't know it at the time; but I would need these lessons as I prepared for seminary later that year. I had a lot of doubts and fears about how I would provide for myself, whether I was really cut out for something as ominous as seminary, etc. But in February, 2006, I didn't even know that I would be going to seminary. I only knew that when we sang songs like He Never Failed Me, I couldn't sing. I cried uncontrollably, on the platform. This recording is from 2000, and J.J. is doing the lead. It was the first time the choir ever sang that song, and I didn't sing--I was ill with bronchitis. I was in the audience, and the impact was stunning. Remember that I am as comfortable in the Pentecostal church as I am in the hymn-singing church that doesn't vocalize spontaneous praise. The North Anderson choir is a bunch of white people, and they had to be taught how to do spontaneous praise for this song. The impact of this was that it freed our one African-American member to shout, and it brought the rest of the congregation to their feet. For me, personally, it nearly brought out my own unscripted praise--and I never did come to feel comfortable participating in the spontaneity of the Pentecostal church though I was comfortable with other people doing it.
Going to seminary opened a new chapter of my life spiritually. I began to participate more actively in these moments of worship, especially as more of my old wounds healed and I became aware of how meaningful they were personally when I let my own spirituality become part of them. Since 2006, my musical experiences have been extremely varied. Part of this is because the Church of God does not have a musical standard. Many churches use our old hymns, and many others use contemporary worship music. Many use both, and some are louder in their contemporary worship and more contemporary about their hymns than others. One of our loosely related groups, a split off group which practices old-style Church of God teaching with a bit of a twist (they are allowed to use some modern conveniences for certain purposes), sings our heritage songs a cappella. They were invited in March, 2007, to join the seminary students at Park Place, which is near campus, for chapel and to spend the day touring the historic buildings on campus. I had never heard such singing in my life, and I learned to worship differently on that day. Here is what it sounded like.
In the spring of 2007, I joined the seminary chorus. Singing with the chorus has been a beautiful experience. Late in the spring, we sang at the local African-American church for their spring concert. There were other guest groups as well as some of their own musicians performing. I posted some text snippets from songs that were especially meaningful to me. I enjoyed singing, but my own personal experience with the event couldn't happen until later.
My frame of mind was very needful over the weekend, and my hearing was very distorted. I was able to sing adequately, but I was not able to understand much of what was going on. I thought while I was there that the acoustics and sound were awful. Listening to the recording later, I realized that the problem was largely my distorted hearing. I was very thankful that I had taken the recorder. I caught only a few snippets of what was said and sung while I was there, but it was enough that I knew that God was trying to get my attention. When the group from Illinois was singing, the leader called at one point, "If he's ever made a way for you, you oughta get up out of your seat and praise him!" The singers launched into a chorus of nothing but, "Oh, Jesus," while the leader did some ad libs. Normally I find this kind of thing taxing to listen to; but it was hypnotic for me and very comforting. At this point in my life, my faith is the one thing that gives me stability. It doesn't depend on the stability of my circumstances as it did when I was younger; but it is the stability amid the craziness that is my circumstances. Without it, I could not cope with all these things. That's worth a bit of "Oh, Jesus!"
During my last few weeks at North, I was grieving the retirement of Meghan, my dog guide. Two weeks before I went to training with my new dog, the choir sang the most amazing song I had ever heard, We Are Not Alone. I was in the audience, and I thought back over all the years I had been there and how much the choir had developed over time. And in my grief, I knew that God was with me.