Church Music is really not a dangerous job, but there are hazards that nobody thought to warn me about when I was preparing for this journey. They are the same hazards you face in your own work if you happen to be in the business of serving other people.
These are the beautiful burdens we receive when we agree to actively engage in community life with other human beings. You cannot avoid these things. You will love people. You will be devoted to the care of people. Things that trouble those that you have come to love will also trouble you. You will feel concern. You will feel grief. It will happen. You can't stop it.
These things are not written in my job description. They most likely aren't written in yours either . . . but if you have love for other people, they are yours just as they're mine.
This morning I took pictures of the dew on the grass. I watched the sun come up over the hill. And I thought to myself, "This world is so beautiful that it's going to break my heart."
Truth is - my heart's been broken for a long, long time. And it always will be. I wrote about a woman I loved very much last week - sweet Miss Peggy. Her passing taught me something about the nature of serving others in the midst of a faith community. I learned about grieving within a community. I learned about receiving difficult news in the midst of a body of people who believe (or claim to believe) that there is Hope in the world. I learned that the idea of Hope is a comfort - but it does not mean that we get to skip over the human grieving process. Or that we get to bypass fear of obstacles ahead . . . things unknown . . . . medical or spiritual.
I heard some bad news today.
There I was, thinking about the grass and the sunshine, and singing joyful songs . . . and then the bad news.
I watched a bunch of good, loving people gather up close to each other for courage and comfort.
It's miraculous. Do you realize how miraculous it is that we have the ability to share bad news with each other? In a society so fearful and prideful, it is absolutely astounding that we find the strength to draw together and share our own doubt and our own difficulty with other human beings.
When I was in college I had lots of friends who wanted nothing to do with a faith community. Some of them had been running from it for years because of negative experiences. Some of them were so intelligent . . . so brilliant that the watered down theology of the popular Christian culture made them cringe. Hence - no church. No prayer. I would go so far as to say that a few of my buddies thought it was naive.
I had many conversations about faith and the big "WHY?" . . . . "WHAT?" . . . . "WHAT FOR?!?" during those 8 semesters.
One such conversation came after bad news.
I had been playing piano in a small church. We had a dear man named Walter who came there with his wife. Walter had cancer. He'd been fighting for a long time and the word finally came from his doctors - This is the end of our road together. You need to get your affairs in order.
He had been away receiving treatment and came home unexpectedly. We were a small church of 8 or 9 people at the time. Walter asked us to pray for him. To lay hands on him.
did not grow up in a church where we laid hands on people.
The 8 of us there that day gathered around Walter and laid our hands on him. We thanked God for him. We lifted up his life. We said out loud all of the things that we hoped and feared on his behalf. We talked about our love for him - this tall, strong old man who walked and talked like a tough guy. We yielded our need for answers and promises into God's hands. And we left it at that. Acknowledging that when we say the word "healing" we don't always know what it means.
Walter passed away.
A good friend of mine was doing a research project about prayer. He wanted to know if prayer really did anything for people. He didn't grow up around people who prayed. The only impression he'd ever been given by a faith community had been negative . . . fake. And that's unfortunate. But it's out there.
He asked me one day if I prayed for specific things.
I told him, "Not as much anymore."
. . . "I think it's because I know that it's not important for me to know the answers."
"Well what does it do for you, then?"
"It makes me peaceful."
"But you don't ask for anything specific?"
"I think the best thing I can do is say 'Thank you' for this life and then admit that I am still trusting it to happen as it naturally will."
"Do you believe it makes a difference? You know . . . in your life?"
I told him about Walter and how we'd prayed for our friend. How some people said specific things and others didn't. But that the feeling in the room was Peace.
My friend said, "Did he live?"
I answered, "No . . . but yes. His life was beautiful. His last few days were beautiful, too."
We celebrated Walter's life.
It was a small and meaningful service - just the few of us who came on Sundays. It was just as it should have been.
More recently, I was privileged to be in the room with someone I love very much as she said goodbye to her best friend. I loved him very much, too. They both became my encouragers on my first day as the choir director at Ooltewah United Methodist Church. They often came early to choir and lingered a moment late to tell me uplifting things. And, just like me, they both shared a love of the truly old European hymns in our UMH. We talked about music a lot. They brought me CSO pamphlets at the beginning of each concert season.
Being present for the greatest, most dramatic transition in someone's human life is terrible and beautiful. And everything is different after that.
Death is a natural part of this life. I remember visiting my great grandmother as a little girl and asking my mother why she was so weak. My mother said, "Her body is a tent and it's worn out. Everyone's body is just like a tent . . . our spirits get restless when it's time to go. Grandma Pearly has had a good long stay in her tent. She might move on to a new camp ground soon."
"For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands . . ." 2 Corinthians 5:1
It goes on to talk more about the nature of our human "tent" and how we are temporary beings. Then it says this:
" . . . we do not wish to be unclothed, but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."
We are "Swallowed up by life" the moment we realize how big God's life truly is. God's life is so big that it swallows up our idea of human death. It creates a space for human death and mortality to become natural and peaceful. Even when it is ugly.
We sat in the E.R. for the better part of a day and prayed. We held hands. We sang. We were intentionally silent in one another's presence. And I know that God was there in the room.
I. Know. It.
I don't care if it sounds foolish and I don't care if I've got no proof to back it up - God was in the room.
God was in my car on the way home. And I know that at the exact same time, God was also still sitting in the hospital with my dear friend as she made final arrangements for the love of her life. I know it.
And it is absolutely AUDACIOUS to feel Joy at a time like that. But we did. Grief and Joy at the exact same time. Thankfulness - at having been part of the life of another human being.
And it was clear that we needed each other.
Listen to this song.
I am so torn up today, friends.
I wish I could tell you that I feel Joy right now, but I don't.
Hey - it's ok to believe and hope . . . and still to feel sadness. It's ok to believe and hope, and still be torn up. And when the Peace and the Joy make themselves known in the midst of our sadness and our brokenness, those are ok, too.
Remember this: It's a miracle to be in the midst of a culture like ours and to still be accepting of community life. It's an absolute miracle to share our pain and our grief with other human beings. The Peace of God does not have an explanation. It is a mystery. We find it expressed in each other - a river running straight through us where there should be nothing but dry bones.
It's a miracle even when we don't know what "healing" means.
Peace and Goodness.