Thursday, February 6, 2014

Magic Moments: The Old Rugged Cross

From March of 2000 through October of 2001 I was the youth pastor at the Union Church of Hinsdale, a UCC church in the Chicago suburbs. It was a tough 18 months for me, often feeling like I didn't fit in. I had been there 3 weeks when I traveled with a group on their traditional Spring Break Mission Trip, which they called Work Tour. I had discovered quickly that there was much work to be done in that ministry, and the first days of the trip had been shocking to me in many ways. But then, as so often happens, God provided a Magic Moment. A big one...

Sunday morning came cold and clear in Dungannon, VA. We walked down the hill from the mission center to attend worship at a very small Primitive Baptist church. The sign said that worship began at 11 AM, but when we walked through the door at 10:50 there were about 15 people sitting in the sanctuary listening to a man preach. The 25 of us slipped in as quietly as we could and sat near the back. I felt bad, thinking we had missed the service and were causing a distraction. A few other people continued to wander in, and then about 11:05 the man stopped preaching. People stood and stretched for a minute, and the pastor walked back to where we were sitting. It turned out we had walked in on Sunday School; now it was time for worship. The pastor greeted us warmly and said that he wanted us to say something to the congregation during worship and perhaps sing a song for them. I said I would gladly bring greetings, but that we were not prepared to sing and I didn't have my guitar with me. He assured me that he had one I could use, and pretty much refused to take no for an answer. We were going to sing.

There was one major problem- I had already discovered that the youth of the Union Church didn't actually know any songs. At least not any appropriate ones. And yet I had just agreed that they would sing. As I sat in my pew waiting to be called up front, my mind was racing. What would we sing? I didn't want to embarrass the kids or take away from worship. And then it hit me- the night before a small group sat around singing, and that group should be able to fake the chorus to Step By Step (O God You are my God). I know I must have been smiling like an idiot as I sat there; once again God had provided despite my doubts. We all went up front, I brought greetings from Illinois, and we sang for them. It was a blessed moment, and one that we all later agreed gave us a real sense of unity. We finished our song, and the pastor thanked us and then said words I had not foreseen: "How about another one?" Once again God intervened, giving me the wisdom to say, "Why don't we sing one together?" I then led the entire congregation in Amazing Grace, which only a few of the students knew. It didn't matter, because the congregation (of about 30) sang with such gusto that the roof was lifted. It was awesome. The youth were all smiles. I silently thanked God for His provisions. We could have left then and there filled with the Holy Spirit and a new excitement. But the blessings of that morning had just begun. 

We had just returned to our pews when the pastor announced that it was prayer time. Now I had worked in a pretty wide variety of churches, and attended an even wider variety. I didn't think anything they could do during a prayer time would surprise me. The youth of Union Church were a different matter entirely. Worship at UC was very formal and very controlled. Nothing happened that was not planned- and then planned again. So as prayer time began that morning I said a prayer and held on...

The pastor began taking prayer requests from the congregation. And almost everyone had one. Some were for physical needs; others for salvation for family members. One elderly woman gave her testimony and then requested that we all sing the classic hymn The Old Rugged Cross. So we did. It was an old favorite of mine from my childhood, but totally foreign to my new youth group. As I mentioned before, it was a very small church, but they sang out very loudly- especially the woman who made the request. She was singing at the top of her lungs. She couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but the song clearly meant the world to her. She sang with such vigor and passion that after a few giggles at the quality of her singing, the group was mesmerized by her. You could feel the Holy Spirit moving in her. It was a moment we would talk about for weeks to come.

But prayer time was not over. After a few more requests, the pastor invited everyone to come up to the altar and pray. In my experiences, when this happened the people would go forward and kneel and someone would pray for the requests. Not that morning. The pastor said "Let us pray," and everyone did. All at once. Out loud! My first reaction was to see and hear it as total chaos. My next understanding was much deeper. They got it. The God of the universe doesn't need us to sort out our prayers so He can hear them. He doesn't need us to sing with beautiful voices in order to sing praise to Him. He wants to hear us. As the voices mingled together in a beautiful, confused noise, I knew God was listening. I opened my eyes and saw my youth with mouths hanging open, unsure of what to make of this. It would become a wonderful teaching moment later that day. It was truly "beautiful noise..."

I don't remember a thing about the sermon. We had already been to church. Later that afternoon we went out hiking on a nearby trail, and as we sat around talking it was amazing to hear the reactions of these wealthy, big city students to what they had seen and heard that morning in that little "hick" church. And I began to understand more about how this trip was coming together. We were going to be doing some work for poor local families. That was the Work Tour part of the adventure. But the mission- the real opportunity to change lives in the name of Jesus- was about God opening the eyes of my own youth to what real faith and real worship are all about. God was moving among us, and kids were coming face to face with Jesus- many of them for the first time. It was time for them to understand why The Old Rugged Cross- the song and the event- is so meaningful to so many. It never felt like there were many "victories" in my short 18 months in Hinsdale. But that morning was a Magic Moment I feel certain none of them have ever forgotten. I know I never will.

Because of Jesus,

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