Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘church’

flowers lilies windowsill church tulips brookline easter 

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins…

Easter at Brookline: gold-foil-wrapped pots of flowers lining the deep windowsills, tulips and lilies and hyacinths, bright splashes of color against the white walls. When you pull back the glass-paned double doors at the rear of the church, the scent hits you like a wave. It smells like spring, like hope, like resurrection in the face of impossible odds.

We set up two long tables behind the back pews and pile them with food, a rough division of sweets and savories, plates of sandwiches and mini quiche and cookies galore. Sarah brings the traditional cake frosted to look like a lamb. Sierra makes her cherry-center cookies dusted with powdered sugar. Early on Easter morning, the hubs slices avocados in our kitchen, a sturdy apron tied over his pastel-striped church shirt. The guacamole is a reliable crowd pleaser, even if we eat a lot of it ourselves.

And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains…

I didn’t walk through Lent this year the way I sometimes do, with an urgent, pressing awareness of the story. After a blue-skied Ash Wednesday, which fell incongruously on Valentine’s Day, a thousand other things demanded my attention. Even Holy Week felt fragmented: we were on the West Coast seeing friends on Palm Sunday, then jet-lagged through the days leading up to Easter, busy with to-do lists and the demands of everyday life. I wasn’t quite able to quiet down and listen.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power…

On Friday night, we pulled together the worship order for Sunday, sitting in our living room, discussing hymns and Scripture readings, updating the prayer list. J suggested we begin the service by singing an old hymn, just the two of us and his guitar. We sang and he strummed, and on Sunday morning, we stood up in front of the community we love, and did it for them.

Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more…

This was our eighth Easter in this place, with these people, and as I looked out over the pews, I saw faces I love deeply and faces I’d never seen before. I saw the couple with their toddler son in his seersucker blazer, who are days away from welcoming their second child. I saw our friends who moved up from Texas three summers ago, on little more than hope and a sense of adventure. I saw our church treasurer, Dale, with his tall Jewish wife and daughter, all of whom had prepared and hosted a Passover Seder for us at the church the night before. I saw the couple who moved here from California for a year back in 1967, who have never stopped serving this church.

I sang to all of them, for all of them, my voice rising over the lines I know so well, and I saw how so many of them smiled back at me, how they could not help but sing along.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day…

I’ve been humming this hymn on and off since I read the second Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mystery, which shares part of its title. In the book, Clare is unnerved by the song, but I’ve always loved it. It belongs to the canon of hymns we sang when I was a little girl, the ones that put the cross front and center, that remind us of the ways this story is visceral and real.

And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away…

You can’t have a resurrection without a physical death first; you can’t have a true redemption story without it getting very, very dark. A fountain filled with blood is a gruesome image, maybe, but in my mind it has always been linked to hope and grace.

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply…

We listened, that morning, to Amy reading from the gospel of Mark, recounting how Mary Magdalene was first baffled, then afraid and – at last – amazed. We listened to Dasha, age 12, reading the words of Psalm 118: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. We listened to Colette, nine months old, adding her voice to the congregation’s chorus as we sang the familiar hymns.

christ the lord easter hymn sheet music

We listened to Landon reminding us of the hope of the resurrection, the fierce gladness that has endured for all these years. And when I got up to speak over the communion table, I said: today we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, and the certainty that we are loved beyond what we can imagine.

Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die…

Those are my favorite lines from this hymn. Those of us who have believed, who have made this story our own, are called to tell it, to keep singing this song for our whole lives. We have witnessed redemption and joy, light beyond the clouds of the darkest, most bitter night. We have been rescued from grief, from loneliness, from pain: we do not get to dodge it or avoid it, but we are assured that there is something beyond it, that God is making all things new. This story, which at times baffles and confuses and even breaks our hearts, is the story we will wrestle with forever, and the story we will tell until we die.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Easter.

Read Full Post »

turkeypalooza 2017 friends

It began as it always does: with a look at the calendar in early November and a collective how is it time to think about that already? It continued with a sign-up sheet online and a swirl of hurried conferences after church services to make sure we’d have all the essential Thanksgiving dishes.

The list (of food and attendees) started small, then grew in size as it does every year: from a dozen or so people to around 20 adults, five kids and two babies. From turkey and sweet potatoes and cranberry relish to Korean fried chicken, baked ziti, a tempting tower of salted caramel apple cupcakes.

The emails and texts flew back and forth in the week preceding the day. Amy picked me up from work on Wednesday in the pouring rain, and we drove to the church to set out plates and goblets and turkey napkins, and hang half a dozen strands of twinkle lights.

On a bright blue Thursday afternoon, we feasted. And gave thanks.

turkeypalooza plate food thanksgiving

I woke up on Thanksgiving morning humming Nichole Nordeman’s “Gratitude,” a song that perfectly captures the day for me. Listening to it earlier that week, I choked up on a line I’d never really noticed before: Surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid.

The song explores our constant need for reassurance and blessing, the asking we do over and over again, even as we rely on the gifts that come down to us from a place beyond ourselves. As I stood in my kitchen on Thursday morning, listening again, another line leaped out: We are blessed beyond what we could ever dream, in abundance or in need.

It has been a difficult year in many respects: for me, for many of the people I love, for my country and the world at large. I’ve written about how gratitude feels complicated, how joy seems sometimes out of reach. I have often focused on the need – my own and other people’s – instead of the abundance. But the latter narrative is also true: we have so many reasons to give thanks.

On Thursday, we had abundance of all kinds, beginning that morning when some friends came over to watch the Macy’s parade and a couple of Friends Thanksgiving episodes. We ate scrambled eggs and scones, and cracked up at Joey getting Monica’s turkey stuck on his head. Then we drove to the church, where abundance was definitely the word of the day: three long tables set end to end, goblets sparkling next to every plate, tea lights and pine cones and autumn leaves making the place feel festive.

As the afternoon went on, the basement grew crowded with friends old and new.

kids table turkeypalooza thanksgiving

We had so much food, as I had hoped: mashed and sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, baked ham, homemade crescent rolls. We had cupcakes and cookies and four kinds of pie. Before the meal, we gathered to sing “Give Thanks,” as is tradition. I looked around at this group of people, all of us transplants from far-flung places, all of us finding a home here in some way, with each other. Then I led the prayer and borrowed a line from Amy: we are so grateful for all that we have been given.

This was the 11th annual Turkeypalooza, our name for the potluck, everyone-is-welcome feast that means Thanksgiving to our church community. This was my eighth Turkeypalooza, and I am deeply grateful: for its existence, for the slightly wacky name, for the hard and loving work that went into every bit of it, for every face around the table that day.

turkeypalooza foam turkey

I am grateful for all the details: for the kids filling glasses with ice cubes before the meal; for Sierra’s meticulously labeled cherry-pie cookies; for the foam turkey Eaoin made at school and brought to share with us. I’m grateful for Charles making multiple trips back and forth to coax a recalcitrant turkey into doneness, for Nik running to CVS for coffee creamer, for little Adam running around telling everyone, “I’m going to be five tomorrow!”

For the caught moments standing in the kitchen, chatting with whoever happened to be in there. For Matt, quietly scraping plates and expertly loading the dishwasher. For the babies, Colette and Abraham, who happily submitted to being passed around all afternoon. For bear hugs from a dozen or more people, for the voices raised in song and then in laughter. For the sunshine slanting through the windows, and for the many willing hands that helped cook and then clean up.

I’m still humming Nordeman’s song this week, and realizing its truth again: the blessings we have may not be what we expect, but they often outshine our wildest dreams. I could never have dreamed up Turkeypalooza if I’d tried. But it surprises and delights me every year.

If you celebrated, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Read Full Post »

turkeypalooza table

For three long tables set end to end in a tiled church basement, covered with red-and-white cloths and decorated with gourds and tiny pumpkins and sparkly wooden leaves.

For a dozen strands of Christmas lights twinkling overhead, and mellow acoustic music via Spotify providing the soundtrack.

For breakfast at Abigail and Nate’s on Thanksgiving morning: Friends episodes and French toast, link sausage and apple slices and Evie toddling around trying out her two newest words – “Kay-kee” and “Miah.”

katie abi nate jer

For a husband who peeled and chopped sweet potatoes to save me some time (and labor) the night before. For the sweet potato casserole-cum-dessert I make every year, topped with brown sugar and pecans.

For a mix of beloveds and new faces around the table: half a dozen nationalities and at least as many languages.

For the pause to say a prayer and sing “Give Thanks” a cappella before the meal, and Evie clinging to my hip as the mad scramble for food began.

For two turkeys, 15 pounds (!) of mashed potatoes, a table crowded with casseroles and one crammed with desserts. For apple-pomegranate salad and cranberry relish, pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting and three kinds of pie.

dessert table

For mulled wine and ice water, sipped from goblets gathered from three different kitchens. For stacks of paper napkins and so many dishes, and lots of willing hands to wash and dry them afterward.

For my favorite twins, so grown up now (they’re 10), trying to spell “facetious” and bombarding me with questions about Harry Potter.

For little Adam, who turned four on Thursday, and the chocolate cake and joyful cacophony of “Happy Birthday” when it was time for dessert.

For dominoes and chitchat and so much laughter. For inside jokes and old stories, budding friendships and brand-new memories.

simpsons smiles thanksgiving

When you do something once, it’s a novelty. When you do it two, three, four times, it becomes a habit, a ritual. When you’ve done it seven times, it’s a tradition.

This year’s Turkeypalooza – our name for the joyous, chaotic, come-as-you-are feast at our church – is in the books, and it was a good one. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be on Thanksgiving Day than with these friends who have become family.

How was yours, if you celebrated?

Read Full Post »

Remembering George

 

water clouds light

“Why is it so hard to acknowledge that we all walk through life with grief for which there is, today, no compensation?”

I read these words on Christie’s blog last week, at the end of a summer that has held chaos and change and all sorts of upheaval. Transitions are difficult, no matter the kind, and they bring with them their own, often bittersweet grief. But Christie’s words also came as I, and many people I love, are mourning the death of our friend George.

I always find it hard to write about these losses, not only because of the sadness, but because it feels impossible to convey the life, the spirit, of a person through a handful of sentences.

I could tell you that George was the music minister at my family’s church in West Texas for 23 years. I could tell you that he was a talented, accomplished musician, always willing to highlight and encourage others’ gifts while modest and humble (to a fault) about his own. I could tell you that he had four children, a wife he adored, five grandsons and dozens – no, hundreds – of friends. But all that would go a short way toward honoring the memory of the man himself.

George came back to Midland to work at our church (where he had grown up) when I was in the fourth grade. His son Wade is the same age as my sister, and they became firm friends. George directed the Sunday morning choir, in which my mother sang; the youth choir, in which my sister and I both participated; and the sweeping, elaborate Easter pageants that were a formative part of my teenage years (and which came to involve my entire family).

For years, George led worship at youth retreats and Vacation Bible School, at candlelight services on Christmas Eve and at four services every Sunday: three in the morning, one at night. He managed pianists and organists, praise bands and orchestras, pastors and PowerPoints, thousands of details no one ever knew about. His fingerprints are all over that building and that community: quiet but indelible, the definition of the word faithful. But my favorite thing about George was this: he always had time for everyone.

“A friend told me he had the greatest capacity for love [they had] ever seen,” George’s wife, DiAnn, wrote on Facebook recently. “He belonged to everyone.” And it’s true: George had as many things to do as most of us (maybe more), but I never saw him turn away anyone who had a question or needed a smile. During all those rehearsals for summer musicals and mission trips and Easter pageants, I never saw him lose his temper. If I close my eyes, I can hear his clear tenor voice and see his practiced gestures, guiding us through ancient hymns, nineties praise songs and soaring choral anthems with his signature humor and grace. He loved his work and he loved his community, and I am – we are – so grateful that he was ours.

“Time is cruel because it carries us so far from the people and places and things we have loved and lost,” Christie wrote in that blog post. In a certain sense, George is far away from us now: death has a way of creating distance. It feels final and inevitable, and I know it will come home to me again, some Sunday when I’m standing in those familiar pews and he isn’t there. We grieve, and we are right to do so: it means we have loved.

Grief is complicated, and so is faith: I don’t pretend to have any answers about what happens after we die. But I believe, and hope, in a time when everything will be made new: when, as Christie wrote, “all the fragments of our lives, all the broken bits and pieces, will be gathered up.” I know George believed that too, and I hope to see him again one day.

Rest well, good and faithful friend. I am grateful for all the songs you taught me, and I will keep singing them until we meet again.

Read Full Post »

nate evie small group

On Sunday afternoon, after a day of rushing around from church to lunch to the grocery store, my husband and I hopped in the car and drove across the Boston metro area, under an already-darkening sky.

We head that way several times a month, to a house in the western suburbs where our friends Ryan and Amy live, with two kids, two cats, one dog and a general atmosphere of cheerful, friendly chaos. On Sunday nights, when we can, about a dozen of us come over for a potluck dinner, sitting around the long table on mismatched chairs, eating, laughing and catching up on our lives.

This fall, we have struggled to gather on a regular basis: soccer games, illness and travel have kept one family or another from joining in. But the minute we stepped inside the front door to be greeted by Telly, the resident dog, we were home.

telly dog

We piled jackets and handbags in the front hallway, carrying the food we’d brought through to the kitchen. Ryan stood at the stove, flipping pancakes, while Nate turned sausages on the griddle he’d carted over from his house. There were hugs and hellos as the kids raced around underfoot, and baby Evie, befuddled by the time change, tried to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Eventually, we all gathered around the table in a ragged circle, Evie bouncing on my knees, to join hands and hear Amy say grace.

It’s the simplest and sometimes the most difficult thing in the world: inviting people into your home, letting them be a part of your family’s life. I have missed it this fall, while we’ve all been tugged in our opposite directions, and that night, it was loud and imperfect and crazy, and just right.

Perched around the table, we dug into stacks of pancakes and munched on crispy bacon, and exclaimed over photos of the kids in their Halloween costumes: a pirate, Scooby-Doo, Princess Leia, a “zombie skeleton scientist.” We listened to snatches of a cappella songs (sung by Nate and my husband), told stories, cracked jokes. We refilled the kids’ glasses of milk and our own mugs of hot mulled cider. Telly padded around underfoot, and Nate carried a massive skillet of scrambled eggs out of the kitchen and spooned them onto everyone’s plates.

Later, I stood in the kitchen and tried to explain Daylight Savings Time to nine-year-old Michael, nearly dead on his feet after two soccer games that morning. And still later, we drifted into the living room to sing a few songs from battered hymnbooks, Abi rocking Evie slowly to sleep, the younger kids looking wide-eyed at Richard Scarry picture books while we sang “Be Thou My Vision” and “Mighty God.”

We left later than we intended (isn’t that always the way?), with bear hugs and “see you soons.” J and I were exhausted by the time we got home: we’re both introverts, and Sundays can be challenging. I was out of words and out of extrovert. But I also felt full, and grateful. This community, this warm, chaotic, nourishing thing we do on Sunday nights, saves my life over and over again.

Where do you find community in your life?

Read Full Post »

sunflowers

Here we are in the middle of ordinary time, that long stretch of the church year between Pentecost and Advent.

Although the high liturgical seasons – especially Christmas and Easter – tend to steal all the attention, the truth is that ordinary time takes up nearly half of the church calendar. The long sequence of Sundays after Pentecost includes the whole summer and most of the fall. During these Sundays, the weekly lectionary texts prod us to think about how to live.

I go to a tiny, semi-liturgical church that has adopted the lectionary and the church year as a way of ordering our communal life. We are part of a denomination that traditionally resisted such things, but we have come to love the quiet rhythms (weekly and annual) that help give shape and focus to our time together.

Many of us are refugees from big evangelical churches that emphasized emotion over thoughtfulness; others came from church communities that prized rationalism over mystery. The liturgy – the Lord’s Prayer, the communion table, the cycle of the church year – helps us make space for all these things.

Although summer is a set-apart time for many people (especially in a city like Boston, which takes its cues from the academic calendar), it always coincides with deep ordinary time. In the midst of school vacations, travel plans, warm weather and looser schedules, we turn back to the Epistles and the Gospels, asking every Sunday: what kind of people are we going to be?

I like ordinary time as a metaphor for our lives. I have a friend who used to slip up and call it “mundane time.” It can sometimes feel like that, but it’s also where most of us live, most of the time. All of our lives contain high moments of joy and low moments of grief and fear, but we mostly live in between. It’s the same at church: while many of us relish the excitement of various holidays, most of our sermons and services, and the issues we discuss, are linked to our everyday, walking-around lives.

Here, in the longest and quietest (in some ways) season, we are called to live faithfully, to consider our instructions (and the story we find ourselves in), and decide how we are going to live. The altar color of this season is green, for new life and growth. If we are faithful (and sometimes lucky), we can experience growth in ordinary time.

I will always love the anticipation of Advent, the starry-eyed wonder of Christmas, the drama of Holy Week and the bursting joy of Easter. But I am developing an appreciation for ordinary time. The beauty of the everyday is particularly present in these weeks, as spring slides into summer and then summer turns toward fall.

Here in ordinary time, it is our job to pay attention, to do our best to live thoughtfully and wisely, to walk through this world with wisdom and compassion. To make these things ordinary, even while they remain mysterious and full of grace.

May it ever be so.

Read Full Post »

Celebrating Easter

palm sunday church

This year, the Easter planning happened on the fly.

I suppose it always does, really. Our tiny church, as I’ve said before, has no dedicated, full-time paid ministry staff. Instead, there are four or five of us who plan services and schedule preachers, print bulletins and fill glass communion cups with Welch’s grape juice, and another half dozen who deal with finances and building issues (our sanctuary ceiling has boasted multiplying cracks for years now).

We rarely all end up in the same room together for any length of time. We parcel out the responsibilities, and then we have to trust that everyone knows what they’re doing.

In true twenty-first-century fashion, a lot of the planning happens over email, my husband and I touching base with the folks who teach children’s classes, read Scripture aloud during service, lead prayers, bring snacks for the coffee hour before worship. But during the days leading up to Palm Sunday and Easter, even J and I couldn’t sit down together for more than ten minutes to talk about the services. Instead, we had those conversations when we could: brushing our teeth elbow to elbow in our tiny bathroom, sitting at the dinner table while he ate reheated leftovers after working late (again), pulling on our pajamas to fall into bed after another long day.

We were doing our best to be thoughtful, not to put off the planning until the last minute. But sometimes, the last minute – or a series of minutes, snatched here and there – is all we have. And inevitably, it makes me worry.

What if we can’t have the Easter egg hunt outside? Will the bulletins get printed with all the correct names on the list of Easter lily honorees? Will Bob remember to bring the flowers and Dan remember to make the coffee? Will the kids be so excited and hopped up on sugar that they can’t sit still? Will we have enough food for the after-church potluck? And – this is the big one – will it really feel like Easter?

Our friend Mason, who preached on Sunday, admitted to dreading Easter sermons. It’s like the Super Bowl for church, he said – a day fraught with high, often conflicting expectations, which no sermon can possibly meet. My own expectations for Easter are less about the sermon than about a few beloved hymns and the feelings they are supposed to engender. But it’s still a day with a lot of anticipation. And inevitably, not everything goes according to plan.

Yesterday, we realized five minutes before starting that we hadn’t asked anyone to give the communion thoughts – so I volunteered. Miraculously, the snow that still blanketed the backyard last week had melted – so we did get to have the Easter egg hunt outside. Bob filled the altar with armloads of lilies and the two deep windowsills along the church’s southern wall with tulips and daffodils and hyacinths. Dan did make the coffee, and we had plenty of snacks for the potluck afterward. We stood around in groups, eating scones and carrot sticks and spinach-artichoke dip with pretzels, catching up joyfully – if a little haphazardly – on each other’s lives.

easter flowers brookline

We sang “Low in the Grave He Lay” and “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The older kids gave a presentation on the life of Jesus, standing in a ragged line on the stage, mumbling through their parts or speaking them loud and clear. The little ones were not quiet – they never are – and at times the whole morning felt a bit frenetic, a bit cobbled-together. But this is Easter: a story that takes unexpected turns, right in the middle of our ordinary, messy human lives.

I marvel at it every year, sometimes every week: how the logistics, the details, the words and notes on paper, become a living, breathing thing, a celebration of the story none of us can quite explain, but to which all of us, in our various ways, are clinging. It’s rarely neat and tidy, and it almost never turns out quite the way we plan. But – this week and always – it is beautiful.

If you celebrated Easter (or Passover), I hope you had a wonderful holiday.

Read Full Post »

the empty tomb

We are – suddenly, it seems – headed toward Holy Week, as the temperatures (slowly) rise above freezing and the calendar spins toward April. The first half of Lent (with snowbanks up to my elbows) seemed to drag on forever, and many of those frigid days were simply about putting one foot in front of the other. (Carefully, since the ground was covered in snow and ice and half-frozen slush, not nearly all of which has disappeared yet.)

Holy Week for me, here in Boston, revolves around the two Sundays that bookend it: Palm Sunday and Easter. Palm Sunday means a sheaf of green, spiky palm fronds, waved in the air from every pew as we sing various songs containing the word “Hosanna.” It means planning the service to include glimpses of the Last Supper, the garden of Gethsemane, the long walk to the cross. We end in silence, and it feels off-kilter, unsettled. (As it should.)

Easter means lots of logistical details: special music, an Easter egg hunt for the kids, finger foods after service (during said egg hunt), lilies for the altar. My husband and I don’t handle all this alone, but we are right in the thick of it, and this year the timeline has caught me completely by surprise. I haven’t had time to think about what it all means, to walk through the story the way I want to. We are scrambling a bit, because Holy Week has shown up suddenly in the midst of our ordinary, walking-around lives.

I was in Texas last week visiting my family, and on Sunday morning I sat between my parents in the sanctuary of the church where I grew up. They’ve stopped producing the elaborate Easter pageant that was an almost annual occurrence from the mid-nineties to the mid-2000s – a huge chunk of my growing-up years. But sitting there, two weeks before Easter, listening to Doris play the organ and George conduct the choir and orchestra, it all came flooding back, the way it does every year.

I remembered stepping carefully down the church aisle wearing gold harem pants, playing a servant of the three wise men (one of whom was played by my dad). I remembered racks of costumes in an empty Sunday School room, presided over by Janice, a calm, white-haired woman who is a genius with a needle and thread. I saw the sets – the stable in Bethlehem, the wedding at Cana, Pilate’s balcony and the long table in the upper room and the bare hill of Golgotha – take shape again, before my eyes.

breaking bread

I remembered so many faces I knew: the people who taught my Sunday School classes and served on committees with my parents, faces I saw in the choir loft every Sunday. Friends of my parents’ and their children; my own friends, and their parents. My mom, helping with costumes and props; my sister, acting alongside me as a servant or a villager; my dad, playing “everyone but Jesus” (six different roles over 12 years). And George, our beloved, infinitely patient music minister, who led us through weeks of rehearsals and performances with kindness and grace. We stepped into the story of Jesus together, in a way that made it newly real and powerful even for those of us who have heard it from the cradle.

This year, I haven’t had time to think about Holy Week – it is suddenly upon us, the way spring is breaking out at odd moments around here. But I have woken up every morning this week humming songs from the pageant. I’m trying to remember half-forgotten lyrics and smiling over memories both onstage and backstage, and seeing the scenes unfold again in my mind.

Maybe I don’t have to think about it so much. Maybe I can simply pause for a moment and remember how it felt: the darkness of Gethsemane, the haunting melody of “Via Dolorosa,” the jarring sensation of shouting “Crucify Jesus!” with the crowd. And the undeniable power and joy of the final, triumphant song – “Hallelujah to the Lamb.”

Maybe I can simply remember – and let the story enter in again.

Read Full Post »

“It feels strange to approach Easter without a pageant,” my mom said on the phone this week. “Even though we haven’t had one for a while.”

They haven’t. The last one was in 2006. But I knew what she meant.

For nearly a decade, the weeks before Easter meant stacks of sheet music and long racks of costumes, palm fronds and orchestra music. They meant weekly rehearsals, then twice-weekly ones, and finally two weeks of piling into the car and heading to the church building nearly every night, for dress rehearsals and then five performances in four days.

It meant stashing our street clothes and backpacks in Sunday School rooms, running up and down the halls between scenes, while my mother (who was there too) fretted about lack of sleep and takeout meals and homework left unfinished. (It never was.) It meant Dad growing a beard so he wouldn’t have to glue on a false one, then pulling out the clippers to shave it off as soon as we came home from the last performance on Sunday night.

This year on Palm Sunday, in our tiny church here in Boston, we stood in the pews and waved our palm fronds as the children marched in a ragged line waving theirs, all of us singing “Hosanna.” Later in the service, we did a quick tour through Holy Week: the Last Supper that became the first communion for the disciples, Jesus’ anguish in the garden as he faced what he knew was coming. We talked about Pilate’s reluctance to sentence Jesus to death, how the crowd clamored for Jesus’ blood and how Pilate capitulated. We heard about the darkness that covered the earth for three hours in the afternoon, the way the soldiers mocked Jesus, the words of the two thieves crucified with him, the slow, quiet carrying away of the body to lay in a new tomb.

And the whole time, I saw, not the colorful drawings of my childhood Bible or the gritty, blood-soaked images of Mel Gibson’s film, but my own home church, the one I still go back to when I visit my family.

breaking bread

I saw the sanctuary transformed, the pulpit moved offstage and replaced by an elaborate, multilevel set with a black-curtained orchestra pit off to the side. I saw dozens of men and women I knew, hands and feet and faces darkened with stage makeup, the older people walking more slowly without their glasses, everyone but the smallest children wearing head coverings, making them surprisingly difficult to identify.

I saw the story of Jesus made alive by my people, by Robert and Lisa and Shane and Greg, by Diana and Max and Keith, by Ravona and Tracye and Jana and my dad. I saw George, dapper in his black tuxedo, conducting the music and directing the action. And I saw myself – first as a servant of the wise men, later as a musician in the house of mourning when a young girl died, then as the bride in the wedding at Cana. And always as a villager, part of the choir-crowd, observing and listening and singing the songs that took us from Bethlehem to Galilee to Jerusalem to Golgotha.

I saw myself cheering when Jesus raised the girl from the dead, shouting “Crucify him!” with the rest of the crowd, watching wide-eyed as he took his last breath on the cross, hearing the centurion say, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” I saw myself bursting into song with the others when Jesus emerged from the tomb in a glittering white robe. And I saw myself crowded onstage next to my parents and sister, all of us raising our hands for the last chorus of the triumphant final song, “Hallelujah to the Lamb.”

hallelujah to the lamb

They said we did the play as a witness, to tell the story of Jesus to those in our community who had never heard it. But more than anything, we were making the story come alive for ourselves.

I have heard the story of Jesus all my life, through sermons and readings, songs and Sunday School stories. It lives in my heritage, in my very bones. But acting it out, stepping into it as a participant, held a power no other telling ever has.

For a few nights, I left behind my routine of homework and flute practice and school social politics, and entered a different world: a hot, dusty place simmering with political tension, a world of farmers and laborers who were waiting for a Messiah. They and their leaders were divided and confused, but captivated, by this gentle man from Galilee with fire in his eyes.

Each year we make the journey again, from the wilderness to the city, from the upper room to the garden, down the Via Dolorosa to the cross. We realize again the depth and power of the love we cannot explain. Our hearts leap within us when Sunday comes, and we can say: He is risen.

And every year I remember how it felt: the smell of the makeup, the feel of the wooden stage under my bare feet, the sight of Jesus walking among us, healing and teaching. The sound of Pilate thundering, “Whom shall I give you?” and the crowd’s answering roar. I hum the songs, their melodies now inextricably intertwined with that story. And I remember the joy when he stepped out of the tomb and the lights flared into brilliance, and we knew this man was just an actor on a stage, but we also knew in a deep-down-knowing way: He is risen indeed.

Read Full Post »

flowers church advent light

Last Monday night, J and I drove across town to the home of our friends Chris and Hannah, for their annual Advent readings. Every year, they make a pot of mulled cider, buy some festive goodies, and invite friends to join them as they light their Advent wreath and read from the week’s lectionary, and from the beautiful book God With Us.

This was our first time attending their readings, but as I listened to the words of Isaiah and Luke (and Scott Cairns), cradling a mug of cider in my hands, it struck me anew: during Advent, we wait together.

Sometimes the spiritual life seems like a solitary journey, a long, solo trek down a road that’s often dark, as you stumble your way forward, talking to a God who never does answer in the way you want him to. The tradition I grew up in emphasized a “personal relationship” with Christ, which is a valid and beautiful thing. But when I struggle, or feel joyful, or have questions, I also work through those times with my community.

After two years at our wee church in Boston, J and I are part of the team of people who make things happen. We helped decorate the church for Advent, with wreaths and candles, and flowers on the windowsills. We help plan services, choose songs, print bulletins. We answer questions and make announcements and wash dishes after the monthly potluck. Sometimes it feels like a lot of responsibility. But we are never alone, even in our small congregation. We sing and pray, grieve and rejoice, live and love, together.

My memories of Christmas, whether musical or literary or simply nostalgic, are filled with the faces of those I love: my parents and sister, my husband, my extended family, my friends, my fellow expats in Oxford. And as I continue to practice Advent (a relatively new tradition for me), I practice it in community.

We light the candles on the wreath; we read Zechariah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s strange, exhilarating words. We sing all the Christmas carols we can, and we start every service with “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” And we wait for God to come, both as the baby in the manger and as the triumphant King. We wait for his justice and love to break through in our lives.

We wait together. And that is true comfort, and true joy.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »