Do you remember before you learned to walk? I do not. There are other things that my memory does not give a “before” context. I cannot remember a time before singing, before singing sacred music even, and I don’t remember a time before loving beautiful buildings, church decorations or those things together with music. These things grew up alongside my faith. I am a woman in a line of church musicians and singers, my earliest memories are of being a toddler in darkened concert halls and churches listening to choral music being rehearsed or of my Nana playing hymns. The piano I learned music on to this day always has a hymnal on the music stand. The memory of looking up at the pulpit in the church where I was baptized, the color and smell of the dark wood, the beautiful Tiffany window of the boy Jesus behind it is so primary and strong it may be part of how I experience my human body in space, how I experience God as larger than anything. The organist and choirmaster of my childhood in that same church was one of my first and most important pastors and remains important to me to this day. My mind and body carry the sounds of individual pipe organs, their sound and feel. Memories of places I have served as a priest are shaped by the way the light comes through the windows at different times of day, the way the floor sounds under my feet in a procession for burial or following the Paschal Candle.
It isn’t memory alone, singing and church buildings and their decorations are part of how I have always navigated the chances and changes of this life, loss and discernment. I paced around my apartment and sang #370 “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” before going to meet for the first time with the Standing Committee in the diocese where I was ordained. I stood shoulder to shoulder with a NYC police officer after 9/11 at Pier 94 as we looked at photos of the missing and lost and both spontaneously began to hum “The Impossible Dream”. I stood in the shower of my son’s godparent’s house before the interment of my husband and sang “my Jesus, my shelter, tower of refuge and strength” until I could manage to face the day. Many times, if I have needed quiet with God, I have gone and sat under or lain in front of altars in church buildings where I have served.
Memory and practice join together even more powerfully in moments of sacrament and community. The dress I wore, and the feeling of kneeling before the Bishop to be confirmed stands out, as does the feeling of his hands on my head. The strange and awesome juxtaposition of kneeling to receive communion at my wedding, and then kneeling in the same exact spot just over two short years later as my husband’s body was laid to rest. Those moments are vivid beyond words, and are experiences where the kingdom of God, and the saints and angels seemed so close as to be able to be touched.
Yet some of those church buildings I will likely never be in again. I haven’t sung in a choir for nearly two decades and I serve 96 parishes now, not one. As life goes on, I have been given the awareness that Jesus alone is what contains my reality in the truest sense, and that it is possible to get up off my knees and move forward into changed realities I could not have imagined. This is not an insight I came to, or an intellectual description of events and circumstances. God has taught me this and has allowed it to become who I am. I have learned that if I have Jesus, that is always enough, more than enough.
This has let me understand and preach that God is always doing a new thing, even in the midst of death and loss. It has helped me to see in scripture that God’s people are always on the move, changing and evolving. We are always called to be God’s people and do ministry not only in all the places of our lives, but also in all the moments. This present moment is truly like no other we have ever experienced, and it has impacted the whole world; there is no going back. We hold onto what we treasure most faithfully, by letting God transform it, by trusting that God holds the past, the present and the future together in God’s boundless being that is the source of life itself.
No one knows what is next, no one knows what all may be lost, or how long it may be until there is the safety of a widely available vaccine and we can sing together again in buildings. We do know that the feeling of being held in time and space as all the sacred moments of our lives unfold was always really from God anyway, we do know that the singing we need is even more deeply the song that is placed in us by the Spirit breathing in and all around us. God knows all of it and is offering us the privilege to move forward into this new time, into new places in God’s worship and service. We will return also in ways, in times, and to places that God holds and transforms in relationship with us. I suspect the “new things” will retain much of what we have loved, however we must spiritually let it all go so that we can take this journey. We must trust that God is always bringing us home, that word and sacrament and song will go with us as we become something new.
I am reminded of a hymn I love, and although it isn’t in any of our hymnals, it has been sung at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church on more than one occasion. It speaks to my heart of the challenge and the opportunity that face us as we move closer to what is next.
Sing a New Church
Summoned by the God who made us
rich in our diversity.
Gathered in the name of Jesus,
richer still in unity:
Let us bring the gifts that differ
and, in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new church into being,
one in faith and love and praise.
Trust the goodness of creation;
trust the spirit strong within.
Dare to dream the vision promised,
sprung from seed of what has been.
Draw together at one table
all the human family;
shaper a circle ever wider
and a people ever free.