The Atheist Who Couldn’t Sing

[From the archives.]


Evensong at Canterbury

I was an atheist.

Raised in a liturgical church, by the time I finished up college in California and went overseas to study in England, I was an atheist. Still, I sang a lot of hymns along the way and had even sung in the choir back home for a while. I enjoyed those hymns even after deciding God didn’t exist.

I was traveling around England on Christmas break with a couple of young women from California that I had recently met. They happened to be Christians. They talked a lot about Jesus. I talked a lot about atheism. They wanted to go to the Evensong service. I wanted to hang out with a couple of cute girls. So off we went.

This place is a cathedral, and it is huge. Only a few people showed up, though, and the folks running the show had us all sit in the choir loft. The three of us Americans made up about 25% of the attendees.

The choir at Canterbury Cathedral. I - along with about a dozen other people - sat on the right side. This is a small portion of the entire area for the congregation to gather in the Cathedral for worship.

The choir at Canterbury Cathedral. I sat in the second row on the right side. This is a small portion of the entire Cathedral, viewed from the much larger space where the congregation would gather for large worship services.

Evensong has lots of singing, as you probably surmised from the name of the service. I was looking forward to that part. As we went from one hymn to another, I sang out, even moving off the melodies to take a harmony here or there. I’ve been told I have a good voice so I felt sure I was contributing to the richness of the songs.

Behind us and to the left was an older man who also wasn’t staying on the melodies. He wasn’t hitting any of the harmonies either. He blared out the words to the hymns without regard to any of the hymn writers’ original intentions for the tunes. The man had gusto, but that was about it.

I left that night thinking I had done more to contribute to the service than he.

I was wrong.

The Faithless Noisy Gong

God gave lots of abilities to people in this world. It’s all part of the common grace Jesus spoke of when he pointed out that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45.) Being able to do something well doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to please God, though. Here’s why:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6.)

Pleasing God is impossible without faith. And what was I at the time of that Canterbury Evensong service? Without faith. I no more pleased God with my singing than I pleased him with my atheism.

So what was I really doing at that service? I was a noisemaker:

            If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1.)

That was me, a faithless noisy gong.

The Loving, Approving Father

I get the impression that the older gentleman in the choir loft that night had faith in Jesus, had the love of Jesus, had a belief in the truth that God exists. What did I have? Nothing.

So to God, his voice that night sounded infinitely better than mine.

If you feel reluctant to sing in church, fearing you can’t sing well enough, remember that God loves his children. He thinks they sound wonderful, whether they hit the right notes or not. Just as it is impossible for those without faith to please God, it is impossible for those with faith to come under his disapproval. (Romans 8:1.)

He thinks you – and your singing – are beautiful.


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14 Responses to The Atheist Who Couldn’t Sing

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    This message was on key, in sync, well tuned and in harmony with the Creator.
    Thank you.

  2. Jeannie says:

    Beautiful, Tim! I don’t remember this post from before, but I like it. I can’t help thinking of Mr. Bean, though, muddling his way through a church service and lustily singing the “alleluia” part of “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” because that’s the only part he knows.. 🙂

    • Tim says:

      I’ll take a comparison to Mr. Bean any day. Everyone likes him, right?

      • jean47 says:

        Tim, believe it or not…
        Not everyone likes Mr. Bean!!!!
        I certainly do!
        Thank you for this post.
        I’m sure I’ve “stunk up the place” with my very on-key singing, paired with a lousy attitude.

    • jean47 says:

      Jeannie, it’s been a while since I watched Mr. Bean! I love Mr. Bean. I own the DVDs…
      My favorite has to be the New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day episode.

      I also enjoy the moment you refer to- Mr. Bean, singing the one line he knew! I can hear that “ALLELUIA ! ALLELUIA!” even now!

    • We have a young man in our house who loves Mr. Bean. I love the one where he’s in church!

  3. Christine says:

    So true. And it brings to my mind thoughts of my lovely grandma. She couldn’t carry a tune if her life depended upon it, but she loved Jesus. And she sang out the hymns in church that she knew by memory in praise to Him, every Sunday.

  4. I’m left wondering if the man behind you, singing with gusto in misharmony, was my future husband. He has a lovely deep bass but thinks singing in harmony happens by randomly choosing a note other than the one the composer intended. I find it very endearing. Reckon God does, too 😉

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