Posts Tagged ‘worship’

January sunrise pink clouds gold blue

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song
The joy of my heart and the boast of my tongue…

A few Sundays ago, I walked into Church of the Cross, a low-key, welcoming Anglican congregation in the Fenway where I’ve visited off and on. It’s friendly, but not overbearing; people are kind, and a few of them remember my name by now. I like the mix of spontaneous prayer, raised hands and the rhythms of ancient liturgy. It reminds me, in this and other ways, of St Aldates, my beloved church in Oxford, where I still am at home.

Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last
Hath won my affection and bound my soul fast…

A small praise band provides the music: classic hymns, newly minted praise songs and some that fall in between. Inevitably, there’s a song or two I know, and a handful that are wholly new to me. I’ve learned the notes of the Alleluia before the gospel reading, and the later proclamation: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here
Sin would reduce me to utter despair…

On that Sunday, I looked up at the screens to find a song I had totally forgotten about: a lilting, joyful tune written by Sandra McCracken to a set of lyrics from the 1770s. I learned it years ago, from an orange-covered Caedmon’s Call album that I think I still have somewhere.

But through Thy free goodness my spirits revive
And He that first made me still keeps me alive…

I thought I had outgrown this song and most of its kindred, or set them aside, long ago. My faith, these days, is complicated and shaded by doubt more often than pure joy. But I realized that day, as we sang this one, that I still know all the words.

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart…

That song kept me company for days afterward, running through my head as I brushed my hair in the morning, as I walked to and from the train station, as I ran errands on my lunch break or after work. It wasn’t in there every moment, but it showed up often enough that I had to admit: it’s still mine.

‘Tis all by Thy goodness I fall to the ground
And weep for the praise of the mercy I’ve found…

One of the gifts of my Southern Baptist childhood – probably, of being steeped in any faith tradition for a long time – is the steady repetition of the same words that carry and embody deep truths. Lots of memory verses and hymns still rise to my recall, sometimes without my conscious effort. Some songs immediately take me back to youth group, or college chapel services, or those Easter pageants I loved so much. And though I am far from the places and the person I was then, the truth of them is still in there, knit deep into my soul.

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son…

It’s not always easy for me to believe the truths I know: that God loves me, accepts me for who and what I am, sees all my flaws and mistakes and loves me anyway, wants the best for me. I have no trouble reassuring my loved ones that grace and love are real for them, but I have a much harder time accepting that for myself.

All praise to the Spirit, whose whisper divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine… 

This song is still with me, weeks later, lodged in my heart like a bird on the wing. Some days it’s a declaration, some days it’s a prayer, some days it’s a desperate hope. Some days it’s all three. And always, always, it is true.


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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.

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“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.

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When we told our Abilene friends we were moving to Boston, everyone who had lived, worked, gone to school or even traveled here said the same thing: “You’ve got to try Brookline.”

Nate and Abi, who arrived a month before we did, were already plugged in at Brookline by the time we arrived – and so we took little convincing, on our first Sunday in Boston, to come to the tiny, adorable church in the heart of Brookline:

I’ve been at big churches all my life – the last three churches I’ve been a member of have each had more than a thousand members. Brookline is tiny by any standard – just 30 or 40 souls in the pews each Sunday. And yet I love it. It’s a tightly knit community, people of all ages, races and backgrounds coming together to sing some hymns and share communion, to listen to a sermon and then thoughtfully discuss it. The singing is a cappella, a nod to its Church of Christ heritage, but there’s some liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, which reminds me of my beloved St Aldates Oxford. There’s always a prayer for the church and the world, which I love because the church can never afford to forget about the world, and each Sunday night a bunch of us gather at Amy and Ryan’s for dinner, singing and fellowship.

Don’t get me wrong: I miss Highland deeply. I miss singing on Sunday mornings and looking out over the congregation as part of the praise team; I miss standing next to Jeremiah as he leads worship (though of course we stand next to each other in the pew). I miss eating doughnuts, giving and receiving hugs, listening and laughing in Sojourners class. I miss our Lifeteam every day, but especially on Sunday nights. I miss my coffee ladies – oh, how I miss them. (Thank God that sweet Abi is here with me.)

But I love Brookline already. This feels like a thoughtful, compassionate community dedicated to seeking out God’s work in the world. We’ve been welcomed in with open arms; we have a place to come, to worship, to serve, to be nurtured, to be loved. And I am, above all else, so thankful.

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