The Idol I Found in the Pew

hymn board

Hymn Board. Built and Photographed by Rich Lagrand.

If the hymn list included H3 I knew I was in for it. H3 led us to Holy, Holy, Holy! If we were singing that song, I would cry. I’m not talking dainty little sniffles, either. No. I’m talking big, sloppy, bottom-of-the-diaphragm wailing, complete with a snotty nose and shuddering shoulders. The song undid me.

It would happen like this: the congregation begins to sing the words: Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty. Early in the morning our song will rise to Thee. By the time we get to merciful and mighty I’m biting my lip and swallowing. Blinking. Time-traveling.

First Congregational United Church of Christ, San Bernardino. 1964 or so. I’m standing in the “big people’s church,” awed by the organ music humming in my bones. I’m awed by the choir, whom I believe to be angels, dressed in robes and braiding harmonies so precise they could be knitting snowflakes. My mother–my sweet, beautiful mother–stands beside me, holding her hymnal down low so I can share it. She moves her finger along beneath each word, keeping me on course as I navigate the hymn. And we sing:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty. Early in the morning our song will rise to Thee. 

My earliest memory of being in big people’s church centers on that hymn. And my mother. They’re conjoined in ways I can’t describe. 

And Mom’s gone now. Called home to Jesus way before I was ready to face this world without her, even though I was nearly 50.

So when we sang that one hymn, I felt my mother–my sweet, beautiful mother–standing beside me, leading me through the lyrics. A flock of grieflings descended on me then, buzzing  and divebombing like so many angry hummingbirds. I’d bury my face in my husband’s shoulder and bawl.

One Sunday morning, Pastor Robert stood at the pulpit and said, as he always says, Let us worship the Triune God.

Friends, it was a forehead-smacking moment. We sang to worship God. And yes, of course I knew that. But on that morning a truth unveiled itself:  I’d been sinking into grief–for my sweet, beautiful mother– instead of turning my heart over to worship.

I’d taken my grief for my mother and made it into an idol. And on Sunday mornings, when H3 was on the hymn board. I wasn’t worshiping God.

I was worshiping that idol. 

The next time I encountered H3 on the hymn board, I scolded myself until  the lyrics overcame me:

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who wert, and art, and evermore shall be.

Can you see it? On a good day, I almost can: Saints throwing down their crowns in the presence of the real King. God’s heavenly honor guard collapsing at His feet.

Those words are not about me missing my mommy. My grief is real, yes. It’s a facet of love, God’s gift to us, yes. But when I allow mourning to step between me and God, fanning out its showy tail like a peacock decoy, then it’s not just grief anymore.

It’s an idol. 

A month or so ago, two of our grandlittles stayed the weekend. And Sunday morning, I stood in the pew and held the hymnal down low, pointing word-by-word under the lyrics so little Carly could sing along. And when her sweet, clear, slightly off-key voice met and mingled with mine, I saw a picture. From 1964.

A sweet, sweet memory. A powerful memory. An important memory.  But I wasn’t created to worship a memory. 

rabbit conga

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name give glory
Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth.
Why should the nations say,
“Where, now, is their God?”
But our God is in the heavens;
He does whatever He pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of man’s hands.
They have mouths, but they cannot speak;
They have eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but they cannot hear;
They have noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but they cannot feel;
They have feet, but they cannot walk;
They cannot make a sound with their throat.
Those who make them will become like them,
Everyone who trusts in them.

Psalm 115:1-8 (NASB)

rabbit conga

On Tuesdays, we’re talking about families and the joys and challenges that arise when we stretch across three (or more?) generations (child, parent, grandparent). The conversation began on January sixth  and we’ll continue until we run out of things to say. Everyone is welcome, and I hope to hear from each generation’s perspective.  Being family is by turns effortless, impossible, blessed, challenging, hurtful, joyous . . . . Let’s talk about it.

Please join us. Also: respond to a survey for a chance to win a $75 Amazon gift card! 


  1. This is so wonderful. I really enjoyed reading it and visualizing the words, as if I was there too, standing next to an old wooden pew.

  2. “I wasn’t made to worship a memory.” Wow, Sheila, powerful.
    Music and singing are my second language. I’ve thought many times about the power a certain worship song will have to move me to tears in such and such a way and think, “We should sing that song again, I know if I hear it, God will touch me.” It’s like I’ve made an idol out of the song instead of touching God.
    Those songs can be altars we build to remind us where we’ve been, maybe, markers of when God moved and touched us. But He is a living God and He keeps reminding me He’s all about doing a new thing in a new way. Even with an old song.

    • Jody, thanks for your kind words. I’m going to be thinking about songs as altars . . . or ebenezers? Thanks for a provocative (in a good way!) comment.

  3. Powerful, thoughtful piece here, Sheila. I think it’s such a fine line, don’t you? I mean, I have to think that God delights in the fact that worship music draws us close together, and draws us even to a memory, to a memory of someone else who carried the imago dei. I adore your heart, and can just picture you there, helping your grandchild with the words.

    • Thank you, Jennifer. Yes, indeed, a fine line. It was really a heart-check thing for me, and after prayerful consideration, I was left with the sense that the tears were distracting me from worship, not a part of my worship. I’ve begun focusing more specifically on the words as we sing in general, and that draws me closer to the Audience.

      I am still in the process of grieving well for my mom, and I reckon I will be until I see her again.

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