A Jesus moment

Up until COVID-19 closed the churches, my choir and my son’s choir were practicing for a combined Easter cantata, one of his childhood favorites. His idea: “Your choir knows this, mine knows this, so we can just do it together at each church. I’ll lead the music. You can take care of the drama, Mom.”

Thanks, Boy.

But I got rolling.

We were one week away from the performance when everything shut down. Will we be able have the Easter production later this year? We don’t know … which reminds me of a complication the first time we attempted this drama about Jesus …

With no Jesus …

*******

Once upon a time, I started college to major in theater arts. I’d performed in plays all through high school, which lead to community theater. That’s where I met my husband. Never got that degree … a story for another day. My husband went into the ministry two years after we married and my love of theater took the form of small church productions.

Which grew bigger.

And bigger.

One year our choir director asked if I would help her look for an Easter cantata with a play: “People don’t come for plain old cantatas anymore. They’ll come if we add a play …”

We found a cantata we loved, but … only narration, no acting.

“Can’t you write one?” the choir director wanted to know. “I’ll handle the choir if you’ll handle the play.”

I opened my mouth to say No! but before I could speak it, something tugged on the sleeve of my mind (that is not a mixed metaphor, it’s what happened) and so I said, in a teeny-tiny voice:

“I’ll try…”

I listened to the songs over and over; they happen to form an ideal sequence for the last week of Jesus’ life. As I listened, I wrote the scenes as they materialized in my head … no speaking parts, just stage directions based on lyrics while the choir sings. Beginning with the busy streets of Jerusalem, people greeting one another, lining up with palm branches as Jesus walks through—Hosanna! Hosanna!—moving into the Last Supper with the twelve disciples, the garden scene, the betrayal, the arrest, the Roman soldiers gambling for the robe, the mourning of Mary the mother at the Cross with John, the distress of Mary Magdalene, the tomb, the Resurrection, Jesus reuniting with his disciples, even a scene of martyrs for the faith and a grand finale …

I figured out set pieces that would have to be made. Props that would have to be acquired. I came up with a head count of people—twenty-five!— seventeen of them men—Why were there SO MANY disciples?!—and asked if any ladies at church would be willing to make all these Bible costumes. Six of them took it on. Everything fell into place. I cast the parts …

All except for Jesus.

Which is kind of a problem.

My main issue: I didn’t want a fake-looking Jesus. If we had to put a wig and beard on some guy … it was going to detract. It would cheapen the whole thing. And: Who was going to be comfortable playing this part, anyway? In such a case, how does a church go about finding a Jesus? A believable one? It’s not like you can put an ad in the paper: Wanted: Church seeks Jesus … people would read that and purse their lips: “Tsk tsk, you church people, you oughta have Jesus already …”

I grew more nervous with each passing day: We still don’t have a Jesus

And then one Sunday, from my vantage point in the choir loft, I spotted visitors out in the congregation. A woman and a man.

A man with long brown hair.

And a beard.

He was kind of olive-skinned …

When they came back the following week, I could have sworn he was wearing sandals.

I said to my husband: “Give me that guy’s number off the visitor’s card.”

“He’s only been here twice! How are you going to just call him up and ask him to be Jesus in this thing!”

“I am just going to do it. The worst he can say is No.”

And so I called. The conversation went something like this:

“Um, hi, I know you don’t know me, I’m the pastor’s wife at the church, we’re glad you and your wife have been joining us recently … welcome, welcome … I have sort of a question for you … see, we’re preparing to do an Easter production and it’s all set except for one little thing … we, um, don’t have a Jesus … when I saw you last Sunday, I knew you’d be perfect … was wondering if you would help us … there’s no lines to learn or anything, it’s really easy and fun, just reenacting the last week of Jesus’ life while the choir sings …”

He chuckled. “Okay, sure.”

“Wha— I’m sorry … did you say yes?”

“Yes, I’ll do it.”

“You—you will? Wow! Thank you! That’s awesome! I think you’ll enjoy it. I mean, we wouldn’t, like, really hang you on a cross or anything …” <relieved laugh>

Another warm chuckle: “It would be okay if you did. I’m full of nail holes anyway—I’m a carpenter.”

Empty church

Here’s the church

here’s the steeple

open the doors

see no people

We went anyway, my husband and I, on this dark Sunday.

Sanctuary silence. Stillness. Social distance.

But still a sermon, for social media.

A few friends, who filmed.

Here’s the preacher

in spite of the scares

here he is

saying our prayers

No hymns, no music, no choir except birdsong beyond the hallowed halls:

I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m fre
e

An ill wind moaning under the eaves, an unseen person pulling on locked doors:

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world below
There is no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright land to which I go…

I went to see. Found no one but me. The sky so moody, the day so broody, like forces dark. Sickness makes its mark. It lurks nearby and that is why—no immunity, no community, Day of Prayer, no one there. In the shadow of the steeple, no people; it’s safer to be home. The Vatican says there’ll be no Easter services in Rome.

Penitents without one plea. Lenten lament, mourning this morning.

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

The songbirds sing, the recorder runs, Scripture is spoken.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Only an interlude of isolation. Will be our preservation.

My husband, the preacher, prays without his congregation.

I bow, and feel a sudden warmth from the stained-glass.

The sun, at last.

Illumination.

Quotations: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple” nursery rhyme, adapted; John 8:12.

Hymns: His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Wayfaring Stranger, Morning Has Broken

Photos: J. Pearce. 03/15/2020.

Homecoming

I live in the country, where I hear a rooster crowing every new morning, where mists rise like swirling specters from glassy-surfaced ponds reflecting the pinkening sky. Where geese fly over my house so low sometimes that I hear the rustling of their wings as they call to one another in that rusty honk honk honk.

I think together together together. Home home home.

On Sundays I drive past fields, dilapidated tobacco barns, fences, pastures, goats, ponies, donkeys, horses, chickens, and peacocks that like to stroll along the roadside as if they own this pastoral kingdom. Around the bend are mules, cows, woods. Eventually I reach a clearing. The church, nestled between the fellowship hall and the graveyard. Gathering places. The place of worship connects the place of eating and celebrating life with the place of the dead, remembered and still very much loved.

This Sunday, the fellowship hall was crammed with tables laden with casseroles, salad, friend chicken, ham, deviled eggs, cakes, pies. This Sunday, family, friends, and former church members returned to celebrate their ties to the church. This Sunday, I rejoined the choir for the first time in many weeks, singing a song of gratitude to God.

This Sunday, my husband — the pastor — returned to church after four heart bypasses, four stents, two hospitalizations for nineteen days, two heart attacks, one cardiac arrest and one resuscitation. Thinner, slower, easily tired but gaining strength with each passing day, he came for Homecoming. To honor the life and legacy of the church. To celebrate his life being given back to him. To his ministry. To thank our oldest son, who filled the pulpit and even conducted a funeral in his father’s absence.

And to tell the church that this boy, who was seven when we came to serve here, who was baptized here, who grew up, left home, and returned to go to seminary in his father’s footsteps, has just been called as pastor of another church on the other side of the county. That this boy, now a man, is simultaneously getting married and becoming the father of three-year-old girl. She looks up at him with adoration, a big bow in her hair, so excited that they’ll all be able to live together. Their first home will be a parsonage.

Together together together. Home home home.

As his father returns, our son leaves to build his own life and legacy. To establish his own home. I think, as people cry and smile and hug, that for every homecoming is a homegoing.

Home. It is tied to place, yes, often in the context of where one grew up; but home is ultimately about love, about belonging. I heard an educator speak about his childhood. He and his brother were abandoned by their parents, spent their lives moving from one foster home to another. At seventeen, just as he was about to exit the system, his last foster parents adopted him. He went to college and one day, on coming home, realized that “success isn’t about leaving home, getting a good job, making a lot of money.” He understood, as his adoptive mother opened the door and threw her arms around him, that success is about living and loving well. It is about caring and helping and trusting and sacrificing. It is about family, about belonging. About carving out home.

I look at my son, standing tall and strong beside his worn, weeping father at the altar in the sanctuary, as an invisible torch is passed. The benediction. It pierces me, but not like an ending. It feels like a beginning.

Home. It doesn’t begin with physical place. It’s not external. It begins with finding home within yourself, with who you are, with the love you have to give as well as that you receive. It is about believing. Then it becomes the story of belonging, of rising to meet life each new day.

Together together together.

—Godspeed on your journey home, son.

On his father’s shoulders

‘You were my favorite memory’

BoJangles

New BoJangles at night. Mr. Blue MauMauCC BY

Spring arrives amid a flurry of wings, bird voices rising with the morning sun, daylight hours stretching perceptibly longer, the first warm breath of promise to come.

On such a day, two years ago, my youngest son’s lifelong friend died in an accident.

She was eighteen.

She was one of the prettiest children I’ve ever seen. Big, brown, doe-like eyes in a round cherub face. Musical, like my son. They grew up in children’s choirs at church, were in band together throughout high school. She played the flute. My son occasionally accompanied her and their other childhood friend on the piano during worship services. All three of them sang:

I’ve had many tears and sorrows

I’ve had questions for tomorrow

There’ve been times I didn’t know right from wrong

But in every situation

God gave blessed consolation

That my trials come to only make me strong.

Through it all,

Through it all . . . 

Their voices blended beautifully. Hers was high, clear, pure, almost ethereal.

I wrote to her, told her so. Said that she needed to sing more often.

Perhaps that note was in her things, still, when her mother began going through them after her death. I do not know.

But an essay she’d written in high school was there.

Its title: My Favorite Childhood Memory.

Her mother copied it, sent it to my son and their other friend—for she wrote of them.

I wondered, when I first learned of this essay, what the memory was. Maybe a birthday celebration, as they were all born in August of three successive years. Maybe working Vacation Bible School or Bible Sports Camp together as youth. Maybe it was the time they went shopping and bought two betta fish that my son named after gospel bass singers, or one of the summer beach trips they took, growing up. The three of them even went to the prom together, once.

My son let me read her essay.

She wrote of Sunday nights when the three of them would go with her family to BoJangles for supper, how they told hysterically funny stories, how she laughed and laughed. She said these were the best times of her childhood, that she would always remember them . . . .

She is gone. Her words, her love for her friends, remain:

You were my favorite childhood memory.

It seems almost like a thank-you letter, now.

My son says once in a while, when he’s out walking laps around the church, exercising his body, easing his mind and his soul—he can hear her singing.

It’s two years today, a Sunday. Tonight her family and friends will gather at BoJangles in her memory.

Holy

It is dark, I cannot see.

—Wait a bit, there will be

light.

I  don’t see You, but I’ll trust.

—I made your eyes, they will adjust;

I gave you sight.

So much I see, that should not be.

Be still and leave this all to Me;

it will be right.

 I fear most to see inside of me.

Fear not. Even there I’ll be

to drive away your night.

No darkness is too great for Me.

This I know. It sets me free.

Toward Your light my soul

takes flight.

The storm passes by

Church after tornado 6-18-13

Our phones are popping at the same time:  “Take cover immediately . . . .”

Outside, the wind gusts; objects are striking the building, the windows.

We quickly gather the children who’ve come for Vacation Bible School – there’s about seventy of us in all – and they get down on the floor, balling up with their heads against the painted cinderblocks of the main hallway.

The wind is roaring now. The electricity goes out. The emergency lighting flashes on, bright as spotlights, adding a stark, garish quality to faces and bodies. The fire alarm goes off, a deafening blare, as it’s right above us. A boy with hearing aids rips them out of his ears.

The children are still, silent, as heavy objects strike windows in classrooms – will the windows shatter? For a split second I am tempted to look out and see if Miss Gulch is riding through the air on her bicycle just as she morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West.

Instead I kneel over several children as a shield, leaning my head against the cool concrete wall.

These walls are solid, I think. Safe.

But just around the corner in the fellowship hall is a hutch with a large, framed photo of the church when it was nearly flattened by a tornado twenty years ago.  

Minutes are eternal when destruction is banging on the door.

If we die, I think, at least we are in church.

My husband, the pastor, prays aloud.

The wind soon abates, dies away.  

We go outside to find long strips of vinyl from someone’s home strewn in the parking lot. Big pieces of plywood from who knows where are lying against the building. Shingles are scattered about like fall leaves. The trashcans are way across the graveyard – we trek over to fetch them and we see the gap in the woods where the tornado came through. It cut a path through the cemetery, knocking down a line of gravestones. Silk and plastic flowers, little angel statues and other loose memorials left by families for their loved ones are blown everywhere.

The children retrieve and replace them.

Parents begin arriving, alarmed. Others in the community come to see if everything’s okay.

Just as we are leaving, I turn back toward the church – “Look!”

Arcing up from the woods across the street to the woods behind the cemetery, in the sky directly above the church, a rainbow gleams.

All is well.

slice-of-life_individualEarly Morning Slicer

Born musician

piano-window

Piano & window. Alan Mayers. CC BY-SA

Years ago, a woman – tired, seven months pregnant – sat in the front row of a church. The morning sun shone through the stained glass windows, casting jewel-tone light on the baby grand piano, a soothing sight to the weary woman whose busy child was churning her insides. The pianist took a seat and began to play the prelude.

The baby stopped moving. He or she didn’t move again until the prelude ended. After the final notes, the child resumed the high activity.

The baby hears the music, thought the mother, marveling. It was the first of many times she would notice the unborn child’s response.

Around age three, the boy frequently hummed a tune to himself. His mother recognized it: “Amazing Grace.” When he was four, the child started playing cassette tapes of gospel music that had belonged to his great-grandfather. After his fifth birthday, his mother stood in the doorway of his bedroom, watching the boy making tally marks with a dry erase marker on a whiteboard easel.

“What are you doing?” she finally asked.

“I’m counting the syllables,” her boy replied, with a serious expression on his little face. He continued his business, listening to the tape, steadily making marks.

It’s the beats, the mother thought. He’s counting the beats.

When he brought home his “All About Me” book on finishing kindergarten, his parents smiled at this page:

when-i-grow-up

“When I grow up, I will be a qiur drekctr (choir director).”

When he was seven, watching him tinker occasionally on his great-grandmother’s upright piano in the living room,  his mother said, “You love music so much – why don’t you take piano lessons?”

The boy shrugged, something of a disappointment to his mother, who expected he’d be excited. She took him to lessons anyway.

He wouldn’t practice. The lessons were abandoned before long.

His mother was sad.

In middle school, the boy decided to play alto sax in band. He began tinkering with the piano a little more. Then one day, when he was fourteen, he said, “Hey, Mom, listen to this.” And he played a medley of Christmas songs on the piano – both hands, all the parts – as if he’d been doing so all of his life.

His mother stood marveling, knowing, tears in her eyes.

The boy played the medley on the baby grand piano for the prelude at church on Christmas Day, to the astonishment of the congregation.

He played alto and bari sax for marching band throughout high school; he developed a love for jazz. Few of his friends knew he could play the piano as well. None knew he could sing. One of his teachers did, however. She sought him out when she couldn’t find sheet music for a song she planned to perform at Senior Awards Day.

“This is a version of ‘Perfect’ by Pink – do you think you can play it?” she asked the boy.

“I think so,” replied the boy.

He had two days to prepare.

The result:

One week after graduation, he was hired as the director of music programs at a church, fulfilling his childhood desire of being a choir director.

The rest of the story remains to be written, as it is still unfolding.

I am excited to see where the music takes you throughout your life, Son. Keep learning and reaching.

Much love –

Your infinitely proud mom.

Reflect: Few of us know what we are meant to do so early in life. It’s never too late to find out. What are your dreams, the things that bring you the most fulfillment? Pursue them! What are your gifts? Use them to benefit others. Encourage them to do the same.