by Pastor Phil Christensen
I knew what God wanted.
The Lord hadn’t sent me a registered letter, but even a dense worship leader like me couldn’t have missed That Voice. Like Jonah, I understood what God was saying, but didn’t like what I heard.
He wanted the congregation to sing a hymn called “In the Garden.” I balked at such sappy, dated fluff. The 1920’s waltz had unfathomably awful lyrics like, “and He bids me go, through the voice of woe… ”
We had been doing only “cool” praise songs, and this little anachronism – on a par with “Daisy, Daisy” – was anything but cool.
Maybe, I reasoned, God had gotten His wires crossed.
And then I did something I would never recommend. I disobeyed the Holy Spirit.
In the first week of my disobedience, it seemed like the whole world was obsessed with “In the Garden.” At the grocery store, I heard a woman humming it. A young man I visited in the hospital told me it was his favorite hymn. A friend volunteered how much he loved the song.
The Holy Spirit turned up the heat as I carried my quiet rebellion into the following week. My wife, Mitzi Christensen, told me she wanted to start a garden. My Bible opened randomly to stories about Eden and Gethsemane. My mother decided to plan her own funeral; she asked that “In the Garden” be sung.
The final straw came in a package from Mitzi’s sister (Lori Wever Christianson). It was a dried floral arrangement set over a gilded hymnbook. Glued permanently open, that hymnal would forever display one song… “In the Garden!” Of course!
So I gave in. I’d like to tell you I was gracious and humble, but it wasn’t so. I handed out charts to our worship team, grumbling about the hymn and complaining that God had pulled rank on me.
The songs for the week also included the children’s piece, “Jesus Loves Me, ” which we’d sung often in worship.
Sunday morning arrived, and it was time for “In the Garden.” The congregation stared blankly at their tattered red hymnals while the band dragged lamely through the dated little waltz. The vocal team bravely tried not to giggle as they crooned, “and the voice I hear, falling on my ear…”
Pastor Mike salvaged the time by reviewing his sermon notes.
Then, as if our journey to the Throne wasn’t already a train-wreck, something unimaginable happened.
In the fourth row, an apparently drunk visitor began bellowing out “In the Garden” with the gusto of a German drinking song. His thundering voice was a cross between Jerry Lewis and Gilbert Gottfried. Between lines, he yelled things like, “Oh! Oh! You guys are great!” Not so much singing as shouting, he danced and jumped from floor to pew.
The whole morning was a mess, and I was anxious to end it. We closed the set with a simple version of “Jesus Loves Me,” but this seemed to really set off our visitor. He yelled, “Wow! This is for me!” He flailed about wildly, bawling out the lyrics as if he were the only person in the world. In a way, he was; everyone else in the auditorium had stopped singing and now watched me in amusement to see what I would do.
After stumbling through an awkward closing prayer, I set my guitar in its stand, and slunk from the platform into the fellowship hall. In the background, I could hear our wild man still clapping and whistling for more.
I just really wanted a cup of coffee and ten minutes to massage my mangled ego. My relationship with God – at the moment – was not particularly stellar.
My friend Glenda hurried to meet me in the kitchen; she apologized for “that noisy man,” and told me his name was Roger. Glenda’s son Brady was Roger’s therapist, and the family had brought him to church that morning.
My heart softened a bit as I learned that Roger had been institutionalized all of his life, and this Sunday’s worship service had been his first excursion into the outside world. Brady had been working with Roger for two years.
What I heard next, though, absolutely leveled me. Part of Roger’s therapy had involved music, and Brady had taken a full two years to teach Roger just two songs.
Those two songs? “In the Garden,” and “Jesus Loves Me.” Today, God had arranged for Roger to sing his entire repertoire of praise.
When the man had shouted, “This is for me!” he was absolutely right; the morning had been designed – by the hand of God – to connect with Roger’s heart.
Glenda thanked me for my sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, and when she left, I could only cry. Often I’d asked God to use me to draw people to Him, but today, He had worked in spite of me. He’d factored even my rebellion and pride into His sovereign intention to touch Roger.
Ashamed, but astonished, I fell to my knees in repentance and I worshiped.
“What kind of God are You?” I stammered, but He had already shown me: He is the kind of God Who turns heaven and earth upside down just to lift the chin of one disabled fellow.
The hymn-writer said it well. Ours is the God Who walks with us, talks with us, and tells us – in ways too amazing for words – that we really are His own.