On Tuesdays I bring my guitar to a food distribution ministry that takes place at a church building in the Castro district in San Francisco. I sing worship songs (interspersed with Beatles and James Taylor tunes revamped with Jesus lyrics) on the sidewalk while the couple hundred people are waiting in line for groceries. On a purely human level, the music has a calming affect on the edgy clients waiting in the hot sun or, as the case may be, in the cold wind. They can get pretty antsy and pushy at times. The simple music itself can calm the crowd a bit. But, it seems to me, and others have testified to this same conclusion, that there’s a spiritual dynamic that occurs when God gets worshipped. It brings a palpable sense of his presence, which has zilch to do with my skill as a musician or singer. I play the right simple chords and usually sing on key, but it’s the Spirit who responds to these praises with heart-invading infusions.
There’s a ton of biblical precedent for us to expect the Spirit of Jesus to show up when we sincerely and avidly praise him, everywhere from the glory of God arriving at the inauguration of both the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon to the jail cell doors crashing open when Paul and Silas, hands and feet bound, sang hymns of praise in the midnight darkness. God likes it when we agree with him about his worth. He takes our praises as an invitation to come to the party!
One of my favorite times and places to sing his praises is during the several street ministries with which I participate. When you worship God in public, especially in some of these least favorable environments, the battle lines become clearly drawn, and you see what’s really going on behind the scenes. If you choose to genuinely connect with God in praise (especially in places like depressed urban streets) you’ll have to marshal all your mental and spiritual attention onto him and his worthiness. It requires a focus less necessary in more welcoming environs. That you upset the dark forces when you reflect the light of his glory is unmistakable. For me, this tends to be a more intense experience (and sometimes an even more enjoyable one) than worshipping in a warm, comfy sanctuary with people who agree that God deserves this kind of attention. Good music, nice friends, comfortable seats, with only petty personal distractions with which to contend (“I wonder who’ll win the world series this year…” “If my boss yells at me one more time this week, I’ll…” “What is she thinking, wearing such a skimpy dress to church?”) is almost too easy. Sometimes I sing worship songs where drunks are passed out on the sidewalk, where the concrete reeks of urine, where people sitting next to me are smoking weed, or the guy in front of me is having a vociferous conversation with himself. In such places it doesn’t take lots of spiritual discernment to “see” what’s going on in the more real place. It alerts me to the interchange between that place and this, and reminds me that I can actually be a viable conduit for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done around me as it is up above me.
At long last, this is where the “condom” comes into the story. “Terri,” a decidedly uninhibited 40-something woman (sporting tattoos, piercings and wild hair) comes each week for the groceries that we give out in the Castro. Having been a member of the choir in the church of her youth, she’s drawn to the music (and I think to Jesus too). Upon arrival she always plants a big kiss on my cheek and joins me in song – as best she can as she gradually becomes familiar with the songs from week to week. A recovering alcoholic and proudly self-proclaimed bi-sexual, Terri has a fondness for Jesus. But her regard for spirituality is matched by her disregard for “organized religion” (I keep telling her that we’re not that religious or organized). I like it when she sings with me because she her accompaniment makes me sound better than I am, plus I’m hoping that the words she’s singing will steadily sink in as she sings them.
Of course the preponderance of street musicians play for tips, and thus put their guitar cases or buckets out in front of them, sometimes accompanied by signs – “I Play A Little And You Pay A Little” “My Music Is Free But My Rent Is Not.” I display no such sign, and I learned that, though my music is not all that good, many people are accustomed to throwing something in the receptacle. But since I’m not there to make tips, instead to make friends with and for God, I always put my guitar case behind me to discourage would-be tippers. Until I did so, if someone dropped something in my case, unless they got away too quickly for me to return it, I’d express my sincere gratitude, but since I offer my songs about God for free, I suggest they give it to someone who needs it more than I do. But some people insist, at which point I thankfully acquiesce and then give the money to one of the many individuals that I encounter on my way home who are more needy than I.
Terri is one of those insistent donors, but her offerings aren’t cash – instead she slips me some other item in her possession. She either lays it beside me while I’m singing or hands it to me between songs – salad dressing, bags of chips, some plumbs that she thought I might like. Once, while in mid-croon, she draped a necklace of gaudy purple plastic beads over my neck! Since then, she likes it when I wear it when I’m there singing my Jesus songs. But none of this prepared me for the gift with which she presented me one day. I was already strumming and singing when she arrived. She planted her customary kiss, and when I concluded the song, she handed me her honorarium for the day. I like to express my gratitude to people for whatever they give me, however inappropriate I might find it to be, and so I was in the process of saying my thank you’s when I opened the small once-folded cardstock leaflet and eyed the prize she’d thoughtfully brought me – a condom! I’d already tendered my thanks, and though I don’t often find myself speechless, I paused with a gulp, a flood of thoughts passed through my mind. “Wow, it’s a condom!” I said. When you don’t know what to say, I guess you just blurt out the obvious. After the shock subsided and upon further evaluation, I noted that the card to which the prophylactic was taped was an invitation to a fundraising AIDS walk – a cause, regardless of one’s opinion and orientation, is a worthy one, but one about which I was unprepared to celebrate in my present state of panic. I guess I just didn’t wake up that morning with the thought, “I’m gonna get a condom for singing today!”
It only got worse when Terri responded to my brilliantly deduction, “Wow, it’s a condom!” with a sincere, “You could use it with either a girlfriend or boyfriend as the case may be.” OK, now my head was about to explode. I’m not insecure about my sexuality (which, by the way, is decidedly heterosexual), but I’m just not oriented to assuring people of it in such a public place, and particularly with a condom in one hand and my guitar in the other.
“Oh, if I were to use this,” I said unequivocally, “which I don’t plan to any time soon, it would definitely be with a woman.” (How weird to be having this conversation right there and right then with this person I hardly knew!) I thought about saying something about my conviction about sex outside of marriage, but it occurred to me that this discussion was not going anywhere near the direction I’d hoped, and I had to land this thing before it crashed and burned altogether.
“But anyway, thanks. I’m gonna sing some more…” I put her gift in my pocket and with less than a quarter-note rest, I strummed a chord and started a song – the only song I could call up in such an uneasy moment.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.
I heard a nice voice in near sync with mine. It was Terri singing a beautiful harmony.