Occurrences at Delaney Street: Was the Spirit speaking on WOBR

What happened at the Delaney Street Church is so remarkably fascinating and yet unsettling that it's impossible to understand the phenomenon without a summary of the initial events. Please, allow me.

Pastor Smithson is a fine man. If humility is the first of virtues, one could call him a saint. He's neither a showman nor a shaman. And believe me, he doesn't enjoy controversy.

What's more, the beautiful sanctuary the Delaney Street congregation recently built was not something he dreamed up. It was our doing—the congregation's. We wanted something big and attractive, and I guess we got it. It sits, Monticello-like, on the end of Delaney Boulevard. You must have seen it on the road to the airport.

But mat's another story What I was explaining was what is now called, almost reverently, "the first occurrence." It happened on the fourth Sunday of our worship at the new sanctuary and, when it occurred, the cause was no mystery at all: the new mobile mike system simply picked up some radio or television transmission. Everyone knew that. But knowing what caused the "malfunction" didn't diminish its affect on us.

Pastor Smithson's sermon that Sunday dealt with—how should I say it?—God's power and magnificence and our unwor-thiness. He was just moving to the second point when words suddenly emanated from the giant speakers. And they fit so perfectly into the weave of the sermon that—well, what can I say? The event was mystifying, the effect miraculous.

James C Schaap is a professor of English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

"I don't understand hozv to explain that musk is beautiful," the radio announcer said. "Its a taste for wanting to understand why things are the ivay they are and where they came from." The voice was clear and resonant and lyrical. "If you don't have the taste, talking about it can't give it to you. Most people, I believe, have that taste because most people are fascinated with questions of origin. Asking those questions gives us a sense of discovering exactly what kind of drama we're actors in. I don't knoiv how anyone could not want to know that."

Then the transmission stopped. Smith-son paused, pursed his lips, then smiled and tilted his head almost eagerly and nodded, as if what we'd all heard had punctuated his sermon perfectly. And it did. Had he arranged just those words to be transmitted via the new and expensive sound system, he couldn't have chosen better. That's why no one laughed. The coincidence was enough in itself to make an atheist jump aboard the doctrine of providence.

"We have this hunger," Smithson ad-libbed. "It is in the marrow of our bones, this desire to know God. You and your neighbor too. We all deeply desire to listen to the music of the Almighty."

Joy—how else can I express it, other than by that word? What Smithson had done was incorporate the sentiment of the radio voice perfectly, as if it were God's own voice. That moment, "the first occurrence," is remembered today with a kind of joy a magic that people reserve only for things profoundly mysterious and thus almost holy. You can secure a tape recording of that sermon, but you have to take your place on a long waiting list.

The effect was so powerful that when, on Monday, the men assigned to control the system from the glass-front booth in the back of the church talked about getting out the kinks, Smithson balked just enough for them to put off the job.

The "second occurrence" a few "weeks later was much shorter. The sermon topic that day was the dynamic nature of love. Smithson stressed how difficult it would be to be a Christian and not live in community with others. Our profession of faith, he said, needs to prompt a kind of activism. Suddenly another male voice came over the speakers: "If you Biink of the true pleasures of life," the voice said, "very few of them involve the isolated individual Even reading is a shared activity—you are sharing with an author who has the capacity for getting into you and grabbing you."

"Exactly!" Smithson said immediately, pointer finger raised. He never missed a beat in that sermon, whose concluding paragraphs some people can recite yet today, months later.

Something happened with the "second occurrence." Because its place in the process of worship was so seamless, few parishioners even questioned the coincidental nature of the "radio event" when they left the sanctuary What had happened, the collective mind of Delaney Street Church reasoned, was that God Almighty had steered a radio conversation from local station WOBR right into our brand-new sanctuary to highhght the truth. Needless to say, such special favor has immediate rewards.

The "third occurrence" was even more remarkable—probably because the radio voice was much less "fitting." The subject of the sermon (the occurrences all have happened at approximately the same time in the service) in this case is immaterial. Smithson had trouble starting, as he sometimes does. He was looking for the right impulse, much like a pianist looking over the keyboard and flexing his fingers before beginning in earnest.

Suddenly, there came a voice, male again, this time pitched dramatically in the manner of someone reading poetry. "THE blackened ash is planted as a covenant with spring," it said, the words on a slow march, "but in its dead bins lies no life but the seed of fire."

This was only the third occurrence, mind you, but the congregation had already become so accepting of the phenomenon that no one exhibited the least bit of annoyance. Rather, all eyes came to rest on Smithson, who understood instantaneously that this third quite unexpected and singularly elusive transmission had become, on the basis of what had happened already twice before, his text. He had to explicate because all of us, and all the new people who'd come to visit De-laney Street—and even Smithson himself—had already convinced ourselves that these transmissions were unique manifestations of the hand of God Almighty.

So, without thinking, he began to move into a detailed analysis he hadn't planned on, delving into what he determined to be the truth of the line so almightily delivered into our sanctuary: that in this world of woe, death is always and only an end, never a beginning; only with Christ can life emerge from death. Or something to that effect. That morning, everyone in the congregation felt assured that they had been in the presence of something more than ordinary.

Soon our congregation outgrew even our own brand-new facility. True believers came from all corners of the city hoping that they would be present when another such occurrence took place. Our new oak pews were full of pilgrims.

Imagine, if you will, the complete shock to all in attendance when the fourth occurrence was no more than two sentences from a woman explaining something about the role played by mythical feminine gods in the lives of some sub-Sa-haran tribe centuries ago. But Smithson never wavered, quickly turning the line into a kind of celebration of the universality of God. He talked about how all human beings are born with an innate God-concept, and how our need for the divine is often temporarily satisfied when we build images of our own imaginations, but is eternally satisfied only when we come to the God of the Bible.

No one in the church that day found Smithson's ideas startlingly fresh. What made that sermon unforgettable was the effect that once again sudden and unexpected voice from outside the sanctuary had created on the service.

The fifth occurrence took place three months after we moved into our new sanctuary A piece of African folk music whose lyrics no one understood became the occasion for a Smithson homily on finding our own unique way to speak to God.

And the sixth occurrence, equally memorable, was some male voice who claimed that politicians of old seemed driven by a sense of public good, not political expediency. It went something like this: "The early leaders were men of committed principle. They were philosophers as well as very practical people. Thats why we had that sunburst of leadership some two hundred years ago" Smithson used it, as you can imagine, to charge us with the necessity of being strong leaders.

Let me point out that no one at De-laney Street Church is hysterical. More than a year has passed since the new church was built, and already we've broken ground for a new addition. Months ago already Herb Rollins determined that the voices that entered our worship so vividly were actually an interview conducted by Bill Moyers on National Public Radio. (Herb has since left us—one of tire very few—for a small Lutheran fellowship in New Brighton.) The point is: no one really believes those voices belong, distinctly to God. We all agree that what we hear is not "the word of the Lord."

And Smithson himself is, as I've said, very sincere. He is no charlatan. But he says, and we know, that the occurrences have made him more receptive to the motions of the Spirit. He's more capable of departing from his text, and he's happy he says, with the kind of spontaneity these radio voices give him.

So we've made this collective and unspoken decision not to fix the sound system, even though we know, technologically speaking, there's no mystery to the sudden interruptions of our worship. And we're growing. That in itself is proof of something, isn't it? More and more and more people from the burbs are coming in and kneeling before the Lord. When we come into our sanctuary today, there's real excitement, because no one knows exactly what kind of occurrence awaits us.

And yet something itches in me. Believe me, I don't want to be a doubting Thomas. After all, couldn't it be that God is using our sound system for divine purposes? No one deliberately wired the system to pick up radio broadcasts (and it's been public radio—not Top 40!). Besides, even if everyone knows it's not God's voice, who's to say it's not God who takes control of the radio waves at exactly the moment we worship?

Sometimes I think we're convinced that today in the twentieth century since Christ, we cannot be oracles. Who knows but that we're dead wrong? Who knows but that my own doubt isn't actually planted in me by none other than the Author of Lies?

Believe me, ever since weVe put up the new sanctuary, we've prospered at De-laney Street. It's been an extraordinary experience.

But I haven't slept well for a long, long time.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.

Reformed Worship 31 © March 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.