I don’t know who the guy was. I can’t remember his face or name. And that’s probably for the best. Through God’s grace he was fairly forgettable. Except that he will undoubtedly go down in the history of our congregation as The Best Worst Organist we’ve ever had.
I know I am spoiled. Over many, many years I’ve never known my church to have a really bad organist on staff. Ever. Some of them were even sterling. A couple of times we had Masters of Sacred Music students from SMU and they were always good. Our current organist is a member of the congregation who has a soul for music. Margaret is not only artistically great but she knows our “congregation’s personality.” She likes her music the same way we do: short and snappy. Play the music, have fun with it, play it loud and don’t hit the wrong keys. I don’t think this is asking so much.
The guy last week wasn’t so horrible. I mean, he hit all the right notes—mostly. It was his tempo. It was like he has just now seeing the notes for the first time or maybe he learned to play the organ in a vat of jello. Every beat was about a beat slower than it was supposed to be. And, as if that weren’t enough, he played far too long. Short and snappy he was not.
He wasn’t bad enough to feel sorry for him. And he wasn’t good enough to be mad at him.
The youth timed the prelude at 14 minutes but I really think it was more like 20. Mind you, this is a one hour worship service. Maybe this guy is used to large funerals where it takes a while to get everyone seated. Maybe he thought he was going to get paid by the note.
When it looked like we would never start worship I pulled out my cell phone and started looking for someone to chat with on facebook. I was kind of surprised when none of the youth were on-line. There they sat like angels and nary a cell phone in sight. My God, these people text everywhere they go! What were they doing over there when I needed a diversion?
One friend sitting in the back of the church commented on my status so I know I wasn’t the only one checking facebook. I was too scared to look back at her because I knew we would both burst out laughing. Then I got a reply from a Jewish friend sitting at home who said it was verboten to text during worship at her Synagogue. They obviously have better substitute organists.
An invisible aura of conspiracy spread throughout the Sanctuary-- unspoken yet clearly understood: this guy was not what we were used to. And we weren’t going to be able to change anything. We were all going to have to just sit there and suffer together. The message spread throughout the Sanctuary through ESP as much as eye contact and body language. We are a church family and family can read each others’ minds.
And it wasn’t just the prelude. Everything the poor guy played was wrong. The Doxology was too slow. The Kyrie was unrecognizable. The ushers were totally flummoxed by his playing and didn't understand what their cue should be. There were unsure fits of starting and stopping with the offering. With each musical part of worship it got only worse. Some people just stopped trying to sing; others tried to sing over him, as though you might lightly flick the whip over the horse’s back. Nothing worked.
The Music Director wasn't any help, either. She was in the choir room practicing another song because the guy told her he couldn't play the song she had originally planned to sing for the offertory.
The last hymn finally arrived and, as before, he was about one beat behind the rest of us. I found myself swaying over to the right as if to urge his hands along. I looked over at Gail, my pew partner of 30 plus years. She was as frustrated as I was. Then we noticed with horror that there were two optional verses of the hymn. Margaret always includes all the extra verses -- Margaret always plays every little bit of each song, the joy of music being what it is under the right conditions. These weren’t the right conditions, not at all.
I scooched over to Gail’s side of the pew and we consulted behind our hymnals. We decided our only recourse was to pray earnestly that he would skip those two verses. And he did, Praise the Lord. The last verse ended appropriately enough with the word Alleluia. And we were out of there.
Word spread like wildfire. Wherever she was, Margaret almost immediately knew something had gone wrong. There were countless OMGs on facebook and autopsies of the service. The following week when Margaret returned to the organ her first song was so fast I wasn’t sure we could keep up with her. It felt great.
The redeeming feature of it all was that it brought our congregation together like nothing else can. There was no tragedy or death. Nobody got hurt. We still worshipped God but in a different way. For the next week that’s about all we talked about. Any short phone call or email inevitably included a comment at the memory of the Organist from Hell who brought us Musical Molasses. I can’t remember the last time our congregation was so united.
SNAFUs in church are a common guilty pleasure. If you started a conversation around the campfire circle about snafus in church you would probably be there all night, until the last ash dimmed at dawn.
Presbyterians have a little mantra: We always do things, “decently and in order.” And we mostly succeed. We succeed so much, in fact, that we are sometimes called “The Frozen Chosen.” So when we have a little foul-up it is delicious: a triumph of humanity and frailty shining through like a beacon. “See!” we silently say, “We are human and God still loves us.” It’s like dodging a bullet holding only Grace in front of us as armor.
A lot of congregations have found themselves divided by politics, both government and church politics. And we don’t like the way it feels. It was nice to be united for an hour with a common enemy even if it came in the form of a well-meaning musician doing his best to help us worship God
Thank you, God, for the best worst organist ever.