I have recurring Saturday evening nightmares. I think it’s a part of being a song leader or church service director. But today topped them all! First some background:
At least once a month, and some times more frequently, I pillow my head on Saturday evening only to be tormented all night by some nightmare experience unfolding in a church service in my head. For a long time, that nightmare was that everyone showed up for church except for the choir. In the dream, I would turn around to lead the opener only to find NO ONE standing in the choir loft. I would then panic, freeze, and panic some more as the church service came unraveled before it even began.
In another version of the dream, the choir would show up, but they didn’t know the song. Neither did the orchestra. And so, for several devastating measures of noisy embarrassment, I would try to lead as utter chaos unfolded. The hairs on my neck would stand up, my face turn beet-red, and my heart rise into my throat. I would begin sweating profusely in terrified anxiety, only to wake up relieved that it was all just a dream.
In yet other versions of the dream, I arrive on the platform to begin a service only to discover that I am wearing something completely off the reservation for a church service. Sometimes its jeans and a t-shirt. Sometimes its pajamas. Sometimes its a suit but I forgot the coat and tie. And other times I’m wearing everything just right—except I forgot my pants. Just after the panic of finding out that I’m not dressed right, I wake up short of breath, twitching, and relieved to find out again that it’s only a dream.
I could go on. I’ve had these dreams for twenty-two years. Sometimes I overslept and missed church. Other times I arrived to discover I had forgotten to plan a service at all! And yet other times something horrible happens—like an earthquake that empties the whole congregation onto the parking lot in the middle of a musical. These dreams are not fun. They are all too real. But I have come to accept them and manage them as a part of my calling in life.
Well today, I had another one of those dreams. I’m sitting off to the side of the platform enjoying a wonderful Christmas day service. The choir has sung. A children’s ensemble has sung. Congregation has sung. And now we are enjoying a teen ensemble. It was awesome service so far! Then, right on cue, I step up to lead the congregation and ensemble in the song “I Heard the Bells”—a classic Christmas hymn. (My favorite line—”God is not dead nor doth He sleep… the wrong shall fail, the right prevail… with peace on Earth, good will toward men.) Yes, it’s a great, albeit unfamiliar Christmas hymn—unfortunately.
The congregation stood and belted out the first verse with great unity! The spirit of the day was electric with excitement! Everybody is thrilled to be in church on Christmas morning! And so far, it’s been a WONDERFUL service!
It was at this time that the dream became a nightmare. The words on screen were not the second verse that I was singing. The congregation stared, wanting to sing on, but not having a CLUE as to the obscure words of this once Christmas poem.
PANIC! Do I keep singing, hoping that words soon appear? ETERNITY seemed to pass… still no words. Two thousand people stared at me. This was not good. Somebody wake me up! The teen ensemble behind me stood anxiously awaiting. Still no words.
So, in one “gulp” of a moment, I stopped the music, looked at the church family and said, “That’s what we call a train wreck. There are a few versions of this song…” They laughed. I laughed… nervously desperate for a PLAN B. Then I noticed the hymn number at the top of my photocopied song sheet—152!
It’s ok, I thought… we can use the books! “Everybody grab a song book and turn to page 152!” Foolishly I thought the moment was salvaged. Little did I know, it was only beginning!
Just as we were about to resume singing the second verse again, I was mystified by the puzzled look on all the faces. So, I stopped the music again—train wreck number TWO! Must be my fault, I thought. “Did I give you the song number? One-five-two.” This time I even held up my fingers to be extra clear.
It was then that a kind voice from the front row said, “It’s not in our hymnal…” AWKWARD pause… painfully long half-a-second… uh-oh—I’m toast!
PANIC TEN-FOLD! Heart attack level this time! This was when I realized that my song sheet was photocopied from a different hymnal. One-five-two was NOT “I Heard the Bells” Train-wreck number THREE! This was the worst night mare I had ever had!
It was at that moment in this nightmare that the congregation really laughed hard—for the third time. Why didn’t I just call for a different song—one we all know by heart—like “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”— or even “Jingle Bells” for crying out loud! But no… with mindless determination I tried leading the second obscure verse by calling out the words one phrase at a time.
Major life-lesson here—that doesn’t work! Two-thousand people tried to hear what I was saying while singing what I said a moment ago. It was not pretty. It wasn’t even worshipful. It was down-right scary.
Finally, trying to strain some last semblance of meaning for this moment, I skipped verse three and read the fourth verse out loud. Then I invited everybody to give it one more shot “from memory.” The teens behind me were, at this point, relieved that never in their young lives could they ever match this level of stupidity—especially in front of so many people.
Never has the end of a congregational song taken so long to arrive! And never was it such a welcomed friend! If the platform had an ejection button and parachute, I would have launched it. A gong—I would have gonged it! A trap door through which to drop—I would have pulled the lever. If only someone could have called down fire from Heaven to consume me—this would have provided welcome relief! This dream was too bizarre—worse than any before it! Somebody wake me up quick!
And then I realized. This one is real. This is no dream.
This was my Christmas Day 2011 series of worship service train wrecks.
As I proceeded to my seat with both feet in my mouth and humble pie smeared all over my entire body—I glanced down with a relived sigh—Whew!
At least my pants were on!
PS—Dear Lancaster Baptist Family—Thank you for laughing and recovering, even though I dropped you on your head three times in a row… thank you for laughing both WITH me and AT me! Thank you for not letting that horrible moment ruin an otherwise wonderful service.
Dear Song-leader—take hope. This was about as bad as it ever gets. And God still worked in our service this morning. It’s just not about us! (Thank goodness!)
Dear Projection Team—let’s go ahead and add all the versions of “I Heard the Bells” to our lyric files in the computer. (And Jingle-Bells, just in case.)
Dear Lord—Thank you for taking pleasure in our worship, even when we mess it up by human standards. Thank you for being a perfect Saviour!