During the three years that I lived in Milwaukee while completing my Ph.D. studies at Marquette University, I made some additional money beyond the pittance I earned as a teaching fellow by serving as the organist for Grace Presbyterian Church. I studied piano from age four, thought until my senior year in high school that I would be a concert pianist, realized that I would not be (I was good, but was not that good), then taught myself the organ in my mid-twenties after observing that I could make a bit of money by playing Sunday services for various congregations. Over time I played in churches ranging from Catholic to Unitarian, Baptist to Episcopalian, frequently noting that I was a “church tramp”—I would attend any church that paid me to do so.
Grace Presbyterian was a small church, with no more than 100 or so in attendance each Sunday. In addition to playing the modest pipe organ, my duties included being responsible for their choir, which consisted of five people—one for each of the four parts with an extra soprano thrown in. And they were trying to sing pieces in four-part harmony, often pieces that would have been a challenge for choirs three or four times larger with well-trained voices.
Which they were not. Three of the five could read music reasonably well; one of the members who could read music was also tone-deaf. They sang with gusto, but the quality of their product was well below the energy they brought to it. So, I introduced them to some material that I thought, musically speaking, was more appropriate for their abilities. My wife Jeanne had a singing career during her twenties before we met in our early thirties; one part of that career was being a minister of music and cantor in several Catholic churches in Brooklyn where she grew up. Jeanne introduced me to the music of the Saint Louis Jesuits, music whose deliberate simplicity in either unison or two parts is intended for congregational singing—or for choirs such as the one at Grace Presbyterian.
Anyone familiar with folk masses will recognize some of the tunes from the Saint Louis Jesuits: “Be Not Afraid,” “Here I Am, Lord,” “You Are Near,” “The Cry of the Poor,” and more. Simple, straightforward, boring, and downright offensive to many. But they are singable, easily memorized, and can be handled by a congregation unused to participating in corporate song. Just perfect for my choir, in other words—and they loved the new tunes. Of course, I did not reveal to the choir they were learning Catholic worship songs until the new pieces became such a basic part of their repertoire that they were willing to look past their controversial source.
As we approached Easter one year, I taught them “I Am the Bread of Life,” by John Michael Talbot, another important contributor to Catholic renewal music since the 1970s. The song is a setting of passages from John 6, a bit more challenging (but not much more) than the Saint Louis Jesuits’ tunes. The choir took to the new song like ducks to water, until someone paid close attention to the text they were actually singing. The first verse is lovely:
I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me shall not hunger;
he who believes in me shall not thirst.
No one can come to me
unless the Father draw him.
And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.
And so is the next one. Then we get this from John 6:53 in the third verse:
Unless you eat
of the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink of his blood,
and drink of his blood,
you shall not have life within you.
After rehearsal, Judy, one of the sopranos (who was also the pastor’s wife), pulled me aside to express her theological concerns. She confided in hushed tones that “We Presbyterians don’t really believe that business about eating flesh and drinking blood.”
I admit that the text is controversial. John tells us that a number of Jesus’ followers complain at this point that “this is a hard saying; who can understand it?” When Jesus responds with a few more of his patented cryptic remarks, we read that “from that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” These are not just hangers-on or fringe bystanders, looking to be entertained by another miracle. These are disciples, people who have been following Jesus for some time and have been witnesses to and recipients of the vast range of what the man has to offer. And they’ve had enough. This is just too weird.
But in the moment, I was not charitable enough to agree with Judy that the text in question is controversial. Instead, I said somewhat snarkily that she should take it up with the author of the gospel. “I didn’t make this stuff up,” I said. “It’s right there in the text. The whole song is straight out of John 6.” Now, under similar circumstances, I would probably say “shit” instead of “stuff,” but thirty years ago I was not quite that uninhibited, especially within the walls of a church.
My response reflected a frustration with theology built on “cherry picking,” choosing which texts we are comfortable with and which are too disturbing to be considered seriously. But I wasn’t defending the Catholic literal reading of this text. Most deeply I was expressing my frustration, one that has grown stronger over the years, with the amount of time Christians waste debating about and hair-splitting over doctrine, precious time that could be spent living the gospel in the world.
Because, truth be told, many of the things Jesus is reported to have said are “hard sayings.” From selling all you have being a prerequisite for following him and letting your enemy smack both sides of your face while giving him your sweater to go with the coat he stole, to letting the dead bury the dead and hating your father and mother if you want to be his disciple, Jesus is full of “hard sayings.”
Small wonder that Christians, lacking the guts to simply walk away, often water down and systematize the radical elements of the gospel into manageable directives. These reduced commands require behaviors and commitments that, although burdensome at times, can be carried out by any reasonably dedicated and sincere adult. For many of us, “this is a hard saying—who can understand it?” is not really a question of understanding at all. For we understand the hard sayings all too well and conclude that they are just too much.
As I recall, in the interest of not causing too much Presbyterian distress on Easter morning, we deleted the offensive verse from the choir’s performance. But do I similarly get to delete the “hard sayings” from my halting attempts to follow Jesus? Jesus apparently demands everything of me, which is far more than I can give. I can’t love my neighbor as myself. I can’t love God more than I love Jeanne. I can’t sell all that I have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. It’s too hard, and I’ve grown tired of pretending that a lukewarm, watered-down version is sufficient. Maybe I’m one of those who should “walk with Him no more.”
But that’s not an option for me. I identify with the remaining disciples who asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So, where does that leave me? I want to follow. I can’t follow.
And a still small voice offers a bit of hope. “Of course it’s too hard. Of course you can’t do any of these things. That’s the point. I can, and I am in you.” If divine love has indeed overcome the world, then perhaps it can even overcome me.