Thursday, November 27, 2008

5. The Gifts of God, for the People of God

Many years ago, as I was running away from my Southern Baptist background, I was attracted to the Episcopal church. Its liturgy and deliberate emphasis on the Eucharist were like a beacon to my theologically confused soul. I began attending a local church and even sang in its fine choir for several months. But as I fell into my work as a church musician I kept getting hired at Methodist and UCC churches. Finally, in November of 2005 I fulfilled a long time dream and began working for an Episcopal congregation. It wasn’t many months later that I became an official member of the parish, receiving the Bishop’s anointing on my forehead.

I am intrigued with the idea of communion, as we called it in more “Protestant” churches. In the Episcopal church, as in Catholic and Lutheran churches, the Eucharist is paramount, the whole “raison d’etre.” Not the sermon, not the music, nor the social aspect of going to church: it’s all about the taking of the Body and Blood of Christ.

At my church I arrive each Sunday morning just as the first service, with no music, is finishing. If the sermon or scripture readings have been a bit long the early crowd is still in the midst of the service in the chapel. I quietly sit down in the church with a bird’s eye view of the small group of worshippers. It is very quiet: the sounds of shuffling feet, of the priest’s voice saying “the Body of Christ,” the “amen” responses. I like to watch the people as they return to their pews and sit or kneel while considering the sacrament they’ve just received. .

Recently I attended the Church Music Conference at Sewanee TN, which is specifically for Episcopal musicians. And I had the great privilege, and responsibility, of being a chalice bearer at one of the morning eucharists. Normally I don’t get this opportunity as I am doodling something on the organ during this part of the service. Even after receiving instruction from the priest on how to hold the chalice and wipe it with the white linen cloth, I was very nervous. Would I spill the wine down someone’s shirt? Would I drop the chalice? Would I forget my lines? “The Body of Christ; the Cup of Salvation.”

I was mesmerized: the humility, the need, the hunger of those who came to partake of the bread and wine. The power and mystery of these sacraments. The emotion welling up in me as I repeated my lines 50 or so times.

I have noticed this power with the children in the choir as they anticipate and take communion, too. Even though part of their excitement is related to tasting a drop of wine on their wafer, they also sense something deeper than their encounters in everyday life. Already it is the pinnacle of worship for them.

Several years ago, when I was working for a UCC church, I invited an Episcopal friend who was visiting the area to attend “my” church on Easter. “It’s going to be great!” I said, “Brass, majestic hymns, even Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. We’ll pull out all the stops!” She thought carefully for a minute, then replied, “That all sounds lovely, but do you have communion?” “No,” I answered, “that makes the visitors uncomfortable and the service too long.” Slowly she answered that on Easter she really must partake of the Eucharist. I was rather hurt and didn’t understand.

But now I do.

Eternal god, heavenly father,
You have graciously accepted us as living members
Of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
And you have fed us with spiritual food
In the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
And grant us strength and courage
To love and serve you
With gladness and singleness of heart;
Through Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

4. Leaving Lubbock

I have just returned from helping my mother and dad sort thru their belongings in anticipation of a move to a retirement community. I am weary of this chore…this is probably the third or fourth time I’ve gone to help them clean out their house of forty years. But this time it looks like they will really move; the plans are made for a moving truck and my sister has found them a nice place to live in the Dallas area, near her family.

Most likely this was my last trip to Lubbock until someone dies, and it was a bittersweet time for me. The house there has been an important part of my life since I was 13 and my mind is full of memories of all that has taken place there. One of the best of those memories is the smell of turkey roasting in the oven with a big Christmas tree overflowing with packages. When I think of that house the first thing that comes to mind is a crowded dining room table with a card table extension, and the generations coming and going: my grandparents, parents (my mother constantly running back and forth to the kitchen, never really having a chance to sit down), Aunt Dot, my siblings, their spouses and children, my husbands, and Emily. I wear a beautiful diamond band that was my grandmother’s 50th wedding anniversary gift: my grandfather gave it to her at that table during a special celebration.

I have “come home” to Lubbock under so many varying circumstances, and that house was always there, my base. My first husband and I would excitedly return there from Baylor, and before many years passed I was coming back alone. I remember some very difficult nights in my room then, unable to tell anyone what I was going thru. And then I brought Bill there and before long a new, precious baby. Even when our finances were extremely tight during our first years in Maine I managed to scrimp and save so that Emily and I could always go back at least once a year. And then there was the year I made that trip 5 times, due to my parents’ illness and my brother’s death.

To live in the same place for 40 years is in some way a great gift. To have a Christmas party with the same friends for decades, watching them age and struggle, watching their children grow up. To see your community change, and yourself with it. To know your plumber and appliance repairman on a first-name basis. To attend the same church for years, watching pastors come and go, witnessing babies baptized and friends buried. These things have not been a part of my experience. I have been so restless in my adult life, moving every few years to a new job and location. But knowing that the family home was waiting for me has been, in hindsight, a comfort.

On this trip I went to all the places that have become routine for me on my visits “home”: El Chico restaurant, Tom and Bingo’s barbeque, Mrs. Camp’s bakery, the sprawling South Plains Mall, and Barnes and Noble (in my mind, the intellectual bastion of the area). I walked every morning thru my familiar neighborhood, looking at all those ranch houses and their perfectly manicured yards for the umpteenth time, and drove thru the Tech Terrace area, where I would want to live should I be in Lubbock. I marveled once again at the vast campus of Texas Tech University and its beautiful southwest-inspired architecture. And this time I appreciated and enjoyed the big sky, refusing to let it pin me down, subdue me.

For the first time in years I visited the cemetery where both sets of grandparents and two great grandmothers are buried. These were all Lubbock pioneers in its formative years.

My mother broke down as I was leaving, grasping at any straw to stay in the house. “But we have been so selfish! What about you and Amy? You won’t be able to come back here anymore!” I told her that she and daddy were giving us a gift by not dying in the house and leaving it for us to clean out afterwards. I remained stoic as I got in the car, but as I pulled out of the driveway huge sobs rose from deep within and enveloped my entire body.

Goodbye, Lubbock.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

3. Requiem

Last Sunday afternoon, October 26, my choir performed John Rutter’s Requiem. We did the small ensemble version, with flute, oboe, ‘cello, harp, timpani and organ, and had 21 singers. The performance was beautiful and heartfelt…not perfect, of course…we made it successfully thru the chaotic introduction but dragged at times in Out of the Deep. The Sanctus was exciting and the ending of Lux aeterna full of hope and peace. I could tell that many in the audience were moved by the music.

I am not sure why I tackled this ambitious project as it made much extra work for me. But I knew the choir would ultimately love the piece as I do and would become a better ensemble for having worked on it. We had four “guest” singers who filled out our sound and indeed at times that sound was glorious.

Although I often dreaded the intense score study necessary and the drudgery of going over voice parts yet again, I began to relish the intimacy with which I came to know the music. And the feeling of standing on the podium, baton in hand, all eyes on me, is powerful. I love leading others to communicate a piece of music, to opening their souls to its meaning.

This experience of all our rehearsals and the performance last week has once again made me aware of the unifying force of music. My choir consists of rabid Republicans and Democrats, well-to-do and struggling, young and old. Yet here we were, together, making music. In this time of daily disastrous financial and world news, working on the Requiem soothed our souls and helped us focus on the spiritual. And I believe that we gave that same gift to our community.

Thank you, John Rutter, for Requiem…and thank you, choir and orchestra, for your beautiful, expressive performance of this music.