"I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." - Philippians 1:6
Last weekend, Sarah and I went back up to our Alma Mater, Alma College (somehow it seems redundant), to participate in the wedding of two wonderful friends. We laughed, some people cried, we played music, we danced, we talked with old friends. The weather was beautiful, the sky a bright blue, the temperature warm enough for sleeveless dresses and cool enough to forestall sweat. After the happy couple left for their honeymoon cruise, we helped the wedding party clean the reception hall. Then we went to chapel.
Alma's chapel service, if you haven't been, starts at 9:00 at night on Sundays. It's a rather odd affair: drums and guitars and piano blaring out the good news to old teens and young twenty-somethings dressed in everything from pajamas pants and slippers to khakis and nice shirts. Sometimes the soon-to-retire sixty-something-year-old president of the college attends with her husband, a professor at a seminary in Detroit. She smiles and shakes hands during the boisterous passing of the peace, where some people hug, others give high-fives and folk run around to greet each other with such energy that the worship leader always has to call them back with a shout. Chapel worship is robust and energetic, with clapping and singing at the top of lungs. The music ranges from spirituals, folk songs and old hymns to straight up rock. The preaching is done by students and professors and local ministers. It can also be reflective, with prayer and silence, and sometimes weeping. It is not an experience for the faint of heart. Or perhaps it is, because through it your heart might be strengthened. It certainly expands hearts and opens arms in fellowship.
It was not always this way. Ten years ago, long before I attended Alma, the Chapel program was dying. I heard, from Alums, that Chapel attendance once consisted of the chaplain and five students listening to hymns recorded on tape and played on a stereo. Two years before I landed a few students decided to change that. They formed a small band and started playing more upbeat music - live. To advertise the change, they played at the college's annual song competition. A few people took notice and attendance rose to fifteen or twenty people. The chaplain, who was supportive of this, was also nearing retirement. So, the year before I came to Alma, he retired.
I came to Alma at the same time as a new chaplain. Having lead worship at my church for a few years, I knew that I wanted to participate in any way I could. The band leader at that point, one of the founders of the chapel band, was in his senior year. The band needed a keyboardist, and he felt like he could train someone to replace him leading the band on guitar and vocals. I took up the charge and played every week. He bolstered my guitar skills, playing for hours after every service with me. Soon I became confident enough to sing and strum at the same time, if not often in rhythm. Sometimes I slowed down. Other times I sped up. The rest of the band at that time (all extremely competent musicians who either had separate bands of their own or who were part of our college's award winning percussion ensemble), dealt with the transition as well as could be expected and taught me a lot about how to lead a band and how to work with people. They also taught me rhythm (mostly). Other part-time folk were brought into the band as well, and we developed a rotating roster of singers and keyboardists and guitar players. We added occasional flute and violin and harmonica and tin whistle too.
The then out-going worship leader was also the chapel intern. He worked ten to twenty hours a week at the chapel, helping the chaplain with whatever she needed and developing the worship life. He knew that not every Alma student would want to take over the position of chapel intern, but the program was growing. They started an Alternative Break program that year, in conjunction with the college's Discovering Vocation office. Worship attendance had grown to an average of thirty people per week. And more and more students seemed interested in Christian leadership. So the chapel intern and the chaplain devised a plan. They divided the work of the intern into six areas with twelve positions: music and worship, technology, clerical, liturgical, worship and the arts, and hospitality. Then they hired twelve students, including myself, as test pilots for a new group: the Student Ministry Coordinators. Half of us were considering some type of graduate work in religion, the other half were very dedicated chapel goers, or people who had worked sound and other things with the chapel program.
Over the next three years the roster of SMCs changed, with a core of five or six of us. The chaplain broke her leg and was out for half a year, then moved on to a position at a Seminary. We went through a year with an interim chaplain, then found a new one for my senior year. Ever year seemed in flux. Sometimes we were barely keeping ourselves upright. We fought each other. Divisions flared up. Some people who came into the program were just looking for a campus job. Others had problems at home. We were all over-busy, over-stressed and sometimes over-worked. Sometimes all twelve of us (thirteen including the chaplain) came to meetings, sometimes less than half. We changed the order and style of worship over and over and over again. The only constant was the worship. Sunday after sunday. Rain or shine. Sometimes there were only ten people in the pews. Sometimes there were almost sixty. Somehow, in all of this turmoil, by the grace of God, the program grew. Three chaplains in three years. Twenty-or-so over-stressed students. Varying quality of music (often my fault, sometimes because no one came to practice). Yet, by my senior year, our average attendance had grown to over sixty people per week.
That senior year we realized that most of us SMCs were...well...seniors. We had grown up together, shared our lives together, cried and laughed and struggled together. But we were moving on. What would the future hold? Should we disband the SMCs? Should we pare it down to only six? How do you pass the torch? We put out a search for first and second year students to join us, to apprentice us. We left as much information as we could in their hands (I sent six CDs full of music back so the new band leaders could listen to most of the songs in our catalogue). Still, two of those we were training were going to be in semester over seas programs, and our chaplain was going to go on sabbatical for a year. It seemed that the program was going to be in flux even more than before. And the elusive stability that we had sought, the stability that we thought we could provide by being there, was going to be lost.
Would the chapel program survive us? (I admit this is a prideful and obviously stupid thought. I wish I could say I'm a better person than one who would think that, but I can't.) The six or seven students in whose hands we were leaving the SMCs had a huge mountain to overcome. Not only were they small in number and newly trained with another interim chaplain with whom they must deal, but the expectation of those who had come to chapel regularly and who would still be attending the next year was like a thick fog in the air. It's always hard not to compare. I could understand if the students buckled under the weight of it all. I could understand if many of them gave up. I almost had several times. Life is much easier without stress.
I paint a dire picture of course. But, in talking with several of the SMCs the year after I left, I discovered that they were having a difficult time. Attendance had dropped. The interim chaplain was sometimes hard to deal with. Some of them did end up quitting.
And yet. It is a testimony to God's strength and grace that the Chapel program survived. And not just survived. Thrived. After the initial drop in attendance, a quiet revolution began. The SMCs knew what all good torch-bearers know, what all those running a relay know. When the torch is passed, you can only run as you can run. You can only breath as you can breath. If you think too much about imitating the previous runner, you're sunk. If you think too much about how desperate the situation is, you're sunk. If you dwell on the past instead of running into the future, the race is already over. You must run the race you've been given and set your eyes on the finish line. The SMCs made the program their own. They found their voice.
By the second year after I graduated, average chapel attendance was edging close to one hundred. I came back to preach in January, the first Sunday of the second semester. During my tenure as an SMC, first Sundays of second semester were notoriously low. Something about the winter cold and coming back from break and the rigors of the first semester that always depleted our attendance usually brought down the numbers to just between fifteen and twenty. Certainly not sixty. Certainly not eighty. Certainly not one hundred. But that January night I preached to one hundred people. On a low Sunday.
And now back to last weekend. Sarah and I walked into chapel early. She went downstairs and I stayed up in one of the pews to listen to the new chapel band. Only one of the members had even been a student at Alma when I had been an SMC. But they sounded good. Different. They had their own style. And yet there was something familiar about it. I even heard one of the worship leaders ask after a song: "Any questions, concerns, or problems?" which is a slight variation on something I used to say: "Questions, concerns, comments, queries?" I guess I'm more into alliteration. Slowly the chapel started to fill. Sarah and I were expecting low numbers. This was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, after all. Although many first year students were already on campus, upperclassfolks didn't have to start until Tuesday. Monday was a holiday. Labor Day Sundays were notoriously low. But the chapel filled. And filled. Eighty-nine people, not including the six or seven SMCs who were there (some of them hadn't come back to campus yet).
Worship was exhilarating. The music was uplifting and just as flawed as it had been when I was leading the band. I discovered during my four worship-leading years that the time when the band was the least prepared and when the music often sounded the worst was the time when I reached out to God the most and found that I was truly worshipping. So I rejoiced that some songs were too fast and that you couldn't always hear the singers. Worship is never about the band anyway. It's about God. Passing of the Peace was even more boisterous than I remembered; the fellowship more deep. The college president even gave me an informal hug and asked how I was doing with a bright, cheery smile. The SMCs had added a ministry to worship. Some of them stayed in the back afterward to offer anyone who needed it a shoulder to cry on and a hand to hold in prayer.
And the message. The message was prayerful and heartfelt and chocked-full of scriptures and genuine. The student who preached gave a message about Growth. And she used the scripture passage at the head of this blogpost. She talked about how growth was hard, but how God was with us. And how God had a plan, even if we could not see it. And as I sat in that pew, some of the doubts about what I'd done in college faded away. Some of the tension and emptiness slipped back to the darkened corner of my mind from where, someday, they might creep back again. But for now, they were silenced and gone. And I got a glimpse of that elusive plan of God, that stretches all throughout history and is more like a woven blanket with an intricate pattern of warp and woof than a simple straight line. I saw that God had used me despite me, and that God was growing the chapel despite me too. I saw that it was true that the good work that God began at the Chapel among my generation, and even before us, was being carried on to completion. I saw that sometimes this means that God will complete something started in us, even when we are no longer there. The verse is ambiguous about this, of course. It doesn't say that we will complete the work, or that the work will be completed in us, but that God will complete the work that was begun in us. Nevertheless, this confidence that God was completing a work that I helped to inaugurate gave me confidence for my own life. If God could complete this, surely God can complete me.