Vah-sayers invited to the table

A service of Holy Communion in Tripoli, Lebanon, January, 2018.

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” – Matthew 26:26-28

Last evening we gathered at West Hills Church for a solemn Maundy Thursday service. It’s Holy Week, and this is the reminder of the table we are invited to on this day between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. I say it every year: we can’t get to Easter without this in between time of suffering, loss and grief. We come to the table and remember who did this great sacrificial thing for us. And then we walk through the Friday we call “good.”

Last night was special because the choir played the role of those who called for the death of Jesus. We sang Dubois’ beautiful “Seven Last Words,” and marvelous soloists took the parts of Jesus, the Father and the Mother. But the choir took the part of the crowd yelling “Vah! If thou art king over Israel save thyself then!”

Because we are the crowd. We yell like that all the time when we choose to not see Jesus in the homeless man: Get off the sidewalk! Quit panhandling! Vah! Or in the grieving high school students whose friends have bled out in front of them: Don’t walk out of class! You are too young to preach about gun control! Vah! Or in those seeking refuge from war and poverty: We don’t want you here! You’re not like US! Vah!

We come to the table spread for us by the one whose bread/body is broken for us and whose wine/blood is spilled for us. And even though we cry “VAH!” he still…

…takes

…blesses

…breaks

…gives

All over the world his actions are repeated in churches big and small. And we remember that it is Jesus who invites the broken, sinful, vah-spewing mob to his table of forgiveness. May we be taken and blessed and broken and given in his name and in his memory to love like he showed us to love.

This is my prayer for Holy Week.

 

Birthday season: Choir

It’s Wednesday night and for the last fifteen years that has meant choir practice.

Here is the 2000 West Hills Church Germany team. We were not the choir but we sang like one!

Here is the 2000 West Hills Church Germany team. We were not the choir but we sang like one!

Advent, 2000, I decided to take the invitation at our church to join the choir and sing for the season. Four Sundays, two services each. Christmas Eve, two services. I think it entailed five Wednesday nights for a total of ten hours of practice to sing Christmas carols and anthems for ten services. And this year, 2015, I will be singing two Christmas Eve services for the sixteenth time.

I’ve said it before that my favorite place (after the spot next to Steve) is in the middle of a choir. It is a glorious spot! All those voices blending in sweet harmonies, minor or major keys, pianissimos and fortissimos and the mezzos in between, leading a congregation or other audiences to a place of musical and heavenly bliss.

Ah, the heavenly chorus!

Tonight it hit me so closely what this particular choir – the West Hills Church chancel choir – means to me, and especially at this season.

It is Advent. And it is my birthday season which follows the same calendar. That is not hubris. That is just the way I experience this holy season and always have. It is hard to not associate your birthday with Christmas when your birthday is December 19th and your father told you years before that your birth was induced so you would be able to make an appearance at the family Christmas Eve gathering at the home of your grandparents. All month long there are lights and music and bustling. Surely, the fact that you have a late December birthday must be special. It could have been Christmas!

So fifteen years ago I started singing in the choir at West Hills Church and tonight it struck me deeply that in all those anthems and carols and Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, Maundy Thursdays and Easters, the eves of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the cantatas, the madrigal dinners and the occasional retreats, one of the very best birthday gifts I have ever received was to stand in the middle of this heavenly chorus and blend my voice with theirs.

In my fifteen years we have seen Dwaine retire, David lead us to Germany, Matt fail to lead us in the Hallelujah Chorus on Easter, Jared humbly try to lead but also to sing in our Gospel choir and Michael to lead us in a new season of real ministry as director.

We watched Cliff struggle with Alzheimer’s and every week take a new copy of each piece of music until his folder bulged and we always knew where to find a piece to supply someone else.

We sang with Mary – who loved the low, low alto notes! – and gathered at her funeral service when cancer took her.

We sadly let Barb and Virginia retire to the pews to listen to us instead of sing with us.

We prayed for Stan earlier this year when his father died and just this past week as he lost his mother.

We said good-bye to Sherrie as her last Sunday to sing with us just passed. She and Joe are retiring to Kansas City.

We have welcomed the young William and Sherri this year to sing with us and the more seasoned Kevin and Patti.

We have celebrated high school graduations, college graduations and even new grandbabies.

They gathered around me before we sang on Maundy Thursday in 2013, the day after I had learned that my youngest sister Cathy had been murdered.

I wanted them all to know tonight in this my birthday season that they have been such a gift to me! Fourteen years ago tonight was Wednesday, December 19th, my 43rd birthday. Two nights later, Steve gave me the best gift ever when he proposed. The following Sunday the choir was the first group I told and they were over the moon for us.

I have so much family. My siblings. My extended blood relations. My in-laws. My ink family at the print shop. My brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe. My creative Omaha Press Club family.

Tonight I am writing this thank-you note to my sacred and spiritual musical family: the West Hills Church chancel choir. And the note comes in the form of a prayer from God’s word:

I thank my God every time I remember you. (Philippians 1:3)

Mike, Stan, William, Dan, Barb, Ida, Trink, Sherri, Grace, Priscilla, Patti, Jane, Stan, Martin, Bill, Kevin, Michael and Kathy, I thank my God every time I remember you. Thank you for letting me stand in your midst, raise my voice with yours in harmony, and sing to our Lord for his glory.

Three days

Cathy and Mommy's headstones 2014

March 24 was this past Tuesday, and it marked the second anniversary of Cathy’s brutal, inhuman exit from this world. Sally and Susan had asked us Omaha siblings to put some flowers at her cemetery marker that day. Mike, Jana and I, along with Barb, did just that. It was cold and rainy, but we put a beautiful small bouquet in the vase by Mommy’s stone (soon it will be between the two matching stones). Mike brought some of Cathy’s own stones which were precious to her, and some sage, which we burned. I reminded him that in the church when incense is burned, it is a fragrant representation of our prayers rising to God in heaven.

We each prayed in our own way that day. And we took pictures and shared them with Sally and Susan and George. As I have said, we once were seven even if now we are only six.

The picture above is from last year when we began this new, poignant tradition. Year one, and now year two; next year will mark three years.

But standing there in the chilly misty air, I was again struck by the dates on the stones: Cathy’s death was on March 24 and Mommy’s was on March 27.

Three days.

It took me back to 1966, when I was seven years old and we had said good-bye to Mommy at the mortuary as they closed her casket. I can still see Daddy kissing her good-bye one more time.

I don’t remember the funeral at all. But I remember, a spring day after the funeral. Mommy’s rosebush was blooming so it must have been many weeks later, May or June, and not the chilly spring days of late March or early April. The bush by the front door was covered in those tiny pink roses and I picked some. I broke some small limbs off the yews that were planted across the front of the house, and I made a little floral altar where I could pray. I can remember this all so clearly, just like it happened this past Tuesday, but it was 49 years ago.

Genuflecting in front of my little homemade altar, I prayed:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Dear God. You brought your son Jesus back to life after three days. Would you please just bring Mommy back like that?

Here we are now in 2015 coming into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is three days from now. Maundy Thursday is three days from then. And then Easter, three days later.

Three days.

In the hymnal,  it goes like this:

  • All Glory, Laud and Honor
  • O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
  • Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!

And as I look at the twin headstones and see the three days there (47 years apart) separating the end dates of two women whom I have loved and who loved me, I have to pause here in that middle place. I have to get through Maundy Thursday and O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. I can’t leap from the joy of life to the joy of resurrection without walking through the suffering and death of the cross.

Yes, I have to go through. But…I can’t stop there. The deaths of Mommy and Cathy have colored and shaped my life, just as the death of Jesus has. I have mourned, I do mourn and I will mourn.

But oh, that third day – Resurrection Sunday – is where my victory is. And it is where Mommy’s is and Cathy’s is as well. And so I will celebrate their lives and I will find joy there.

Christ the Lord is risen today! The third day.

Amen.