Even at the grave we make our song . . .

. . . but not during the Paschal celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ–at least in the Episcopal Church.

Sadly, this was my first and most powerful reaction to the first church service I have attended in North Carolina after the long and bleak Lent that began in the spring of 2020 and has continued for over twelve long months. But just as my reactions were mixed, so have been my retrospective thoughts and conclusions over the space of this holy day of celebration.

When I was five years old, my parents began sending me to Sunday school at the First Church of Christ with Ellen Henderson, a family friend. I won prizes for perfect attendance and for memorizing Bible verses, and I loved singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “For God So Loved the World.” I soon began to attend the big-people’s church service every Sunday, where we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Master, the Tempest Is Raging” and “Just As I Am.” I responded to the words of that invitational hymn and was baptized at the age of 10. We were a tiny congregation, so by the time I was in junior high, I was playing those songs and hymns on the the tinny upright piano for Sunday school and sometimes switching off with Mrs. DeVinney, mother of Jody and Donna and Sandy and Randy, and playing at church as well.

After a childhood and adolescence of regular, faithful, and (mostly) unquestioning piety, I became a theologically-bitter 23-year-old graduate student (the parenthetical “mostly” and all that bitterness are the subject for another time . . . or not), I announced that I would never set foot in another church–a vow that I managed to keep for precisely that same period of 23 years. Often during that second half of my life, I regretted my hasty words, but not because I doubted their wisdom. Rather, I wanted to go to church to sing. I could think of nothing that would feel so good as to lift my voice in a room full of others.

At 46 (already an oft-told story), after crying out to God in desperation, “Teach me how to live,” I followed his response, went to St, Christopher’s Episcopal Church, and took hesitant steps though a door labeled “Enter Here in Peace.” I was not planning to enter spiritually, just to provide a moral compass to the child who was temporarily in my care–but I certainly planned to enter musically! What a disappointment was in store for me. That parish–also tiny–had a sometime pianist, a guitar player, a flute player, and a vocalist. They sang few hymns, mostly what I soon learned were called praise songs. And there was no music to read. We had to figure out the tune as we went along because the sometime pianist played only the few hymns.

As those Advent days of 1995 led to Christmas and then Easter and then . . . well, the rest of what I soon learned was called the liturgical calendar, those praise songs entered my heart as the messages I heard from the pulpit entered my soul. When the sometime pianist finally stopped playing at all, I took her place, and I could play and sing to my heart’s desire. Because if we did anything at St. Christopher’s, we sang. And sang and sang and sang.

However, my life in sacred music didn’t really begin until I attended Cursillo, a three-day weekend designed to train lay leaders. During that weekend in November of 1997, my life changed radically through the talks I heard, the discussions I participated in, the Holy Eucharist I received daily, and the healing service I attended–with its concomitant healing.  At the closing ceremony, I tearfully joined my companions on the servant journey as I recounted the miracles I had experienced over the weekend. As my most powerful testimony, I proclaimed, “I learned to worship in song.”

I took that lesson back to St. Christopher’s. By then, or soon after, we had a brand-new Roland keyboard that I was grudgingly honored to play. I soon started selecting all the music for our weekly services, and we began incorporating more music from the hymnal to supplement the praise songs. We even began using the Merbecke liturgical music for Lent and Advent, whose minor strains I played with the sound of an organ on the keyboard. I fulfilled countless other ministries at that little mission church, but none was so central to my existence as the music I played and sang from that unique position facing the congregation in that round nave.

I have now achieved another 23 years, and life–internal and external–has intervened a few more times. I have worshipped regularly at five parishes since one of those life events forced me to leave St. Christopher’s. And I have attended other Episcopal parishes on weekend trips throughout North Carolina, as well as occasional ones in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi. I have never again become part of music ministry, except on an occasional substitute basis. Oh, but I have sung at each one of those multifarious parishes. And often, when the parishes are small, my voice has rung out above all the other voices as I switch from soprano to alto–and sometimes even to tenor during the sung Psalm–just because it feels so good.

For almost a year, I missed those opportunities. Just as I have no faith in the learning that takes place in the virtual classes I am forced to teach, I am unable to worship on Facebook. I have seen one denomination after another open its doors as the Episcopal Church has remains shuttered. Then I went to Texas for Christmas. During that week, I managed to attend Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and–yes–Episcopal Churches. At the latter, we heard the traditional liturgy for the Sunday after Christmas, we sang Christmas carols, and we received the holy Eucharist–in both kinds. No, we didn’t drink from the common cup, but there was wine in small individual cups, given to us as we knelt at our pews. And then we rose and sang “Joy to the World.” My voice, for one, was full of joy as I switched from soprano to alto, with tears coursing down my cheeks.

Today, after the governor of North Carolina relaxed the standards for indoor gatherings, I managed to sign up to worship at St. Stephen’s in Goldsboro. This was one of the five parishes I attended during those long years after leaving my family at St Christopher’s. I knew the music there was good, and I eagerly dusted off my prayer book/hymnal combination because it gives me pleasure to sing from my own book.

But there was no singing–no processional hymn (not even a processional; the priest and the crucifer walked in through a side door), no gloria, no gradual hymn, no offertory (there wasn’t even an offering!), no sanctus. I began crying–and not for joy–when the priest intoned “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and I thumbed quickly though the service bulletin to learn I was correct that there would be no singing. A soloist sang twice, and I confess that I sang a quiet alto under my breath to the last two verses of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”

My sorrowful mood altered a few times during the service. After the initial tears, I was angry–so angry that I was tempted to get up and walk out. But in gratitude for my husband’s good news at the oncologist, I had promised God I would attend. The sermon was wonderful. In it, the priest reminded us that although the women who went to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning were worried about who would move away the stone so they could attend to the body, they went anyway. And then he mentioned the several stones that might cause us to abandon our servant roles–resentment, guilt, fear, repeated failure. And then he closed with the prayer that we, like Mary and her companions, will persevere. Amen.

But before the recitation of the creed, he turned to us and said, almost as an afterthought, that he had forgotten one of the stones that has been in our way this last year: we have not been able to sing together because of the stone of COVID. I would call the stone something else, but my heart indeed felt joy as this man of the cloth acknowledged the pain of being unable to worship in song.

I was sad again when there was no singing during communion, no recessional hymn, no handshaking as we left for our homes and daily lives. But there was something a little more valuable than a handshake. I passed through the crowd outside the door–masked, but not socially distanced!–on my way to the car. The wonderful rector, Alan Neale, had met me once before–on Good Friday, when I attended the Stations of the Cross at the same parish–and had seen my name on the electronic sign-up form for a seat at both services. When he saw me, he said, “Here’s one Vicki, and here’s another Vicky,” Looking at me, he said, “You’re Vicki with an i, I believe,” and my namesake said hers was with a y. At the parish I attended from 2012 to 2020, only two people in the entire congregation knew my name.

I am still of two minds. I would like to do research to see if any of the Episcopal parishes in either diocese in my reach are singing. However, it’s encouraging to know that this man understands what an obstacle the lack of music can be to our ability to worship. And it’s unbelievably humbling to know that he remembered the name of this masked, gray-haired woman he had seen only once–and even remembered the i.

I first heard the hymn linked below when I played and we sang it at the funeral of a dear member of the St. Christopher’s family: “Even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” It touched me so much that I decided I would like for it to be sung at my own funeral. For now, it seems like a fitting way to end this post and this day of celebration. My prayer is that our long strife will soon be over, and our battle against a dangerous virus and an insidious governmental intrusion into our lives will be won.

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