By Alex Stayer-Brewington, Associate Pastor of Youth & Their Families
Our Christian faith is a simple religion concerned with ordinary objects. Animals, tables, and books. Bread, wine, and water. Wood and nails. The items that inhabit our holiest stories are also the stuff of everyday life. Communion bread comes from the grocery store or somebody’s kitchen, and the water in our baptismal fount comes from the same sink where I rinse out my coffee mug. Through and despite their humble origins, these elements become vehicles for the miraculous to occur.
I was reminded of this on Rally Day last Sunday when about 200 of you (not including dogs and a cat) drove through our church driveway to wave and say a quick hello. In our brief interactions there were no profound theological debates and the skies didn’t open up to reveal any heavenly choruses. There was only the simple pleasure of looking one another in the eyes and smiling – connecting face-to-face with the most elemental and profound of human gestures.
Simple though it may be, our faith is built on nothing less than the promise of God’s presence when two or three of us are gathered together. It took several long months of pandemic isolation and then seeing you again in person last Sunday to remind me of the fact that being with other people is fundamental to who we are as Christians and as human beings. Thank you to everyone who came out. Your presence was a sacred gift.
By Marietta Wynands, Director of Christian Education
For many years, a small plaque created by one of my sons during a long-ago VBS graced the wall next to the entrance to our home. It reads, “…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Much like a mezuzahthat some Jews place on their doorposts, this plaque served as a reminder coming in and going out that God was to be at the very center of our lives. These words, spoken by Joshua to God’s wayward people the Israelites, were a call to the community. They served as both warning and invitation to a people that Joshua knew to be easily led astray by the lure of other gods or the challenges that confronted them. Joshua’s vow to remain faithful to God encompassed his own household and he challenged the community to do the same.
As we launch a new year of Christian Education, we too are in a time of testing. Yet the invitation remains for me and for you and your household. Will we serve the Lord in these challenging times? Will we turn to and rely on the Spirit of God and the community of faith? Despite our weariness with Zoom and our exhaustion with all-things-online, will we seek to connect with our God and to our church family, staying true to our covenantal promises to serve the Lord as we seek to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?
Here’s another plaque that presently welcomes friends and neighbors to our house. It reads simply, “Welcome, Friends.” Welcome is a core Christian practice. Many of our classes, but especially our new CommUNITY Groups, are a wonderful way to make and deepen friendship. I invite you this fall to make a promise to God and to yourself to connect and nurture faith in CommUNITY, together/apart.
By Cherrie Barton Henry, Associate Pastor for Congregational Care & Mission
He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!
― Edwin Markham
I taped this pithy little poem into the blank blue flowered “quote journal” that was given to me by a member of my congregation when I graduated from high school in 1979.
All these years later I still think on that little poem from time to time.
Watching God draw big circles never gets old for me. The poem, like the stories in Genesis – and all throughout the Bible really – reminds me that given the freedom to do so, we humans are prone to drawing small circles. Tight-hearted, cramped circles; circles that cut off not only others, but even whole parts of our own selves. After all, there’s a bit of a heretic, rebel, and things to ‘flout” in each of us. But heretics and rebels and flouting things also have much to teach us. When we shut them out, we miss out on their lessons.
When I read a story like Joseph’s and his brothers, I for one am glad that it is God’s wit – God’s intellect, compassion, wisdom, and strong abiding love – that wins out. I’m glad God draws BIG circles. Circles that again and again draw all of me and all of you and creation with us, in. Spacious circles where love, joy, and freedom come to us anew.
By Cherrie Barton Henry, Associate Pastor for Congregational Care & Mission
It was hot one recent Wednesday at Iglesia Presbiteriana Emanuel. We were all working hard. The line of cars seemed endless, the sun relentless. The humidity made it feel as if we were living inside a very sweaty terrarium!
I slipped in to cover for Christina to watch the parking lot entrance while she took a brief break for water and shade. This day was a slough; we had to take turns or we wouldn’t make it!
At the parking lot entrance every car is asked, “Baul listo?” “Is your trunk ready?”
A ready trunk means that it can be popped open to receive groceries that has taken many months of effort to grow, harvest, gather, sort, and bag so this team of youth, college students, and some not-so-youthful adults can place them in it at the end of the parking lot.
I was just doing my job when I noticed the woman in the white truck was crying. I was not very in touch with my own or anyone else’s feelings at that point. We were in the “will-this-ever-end” arc of our weekly shift pushing cars through – a large, sweaty, tired bucket brigade of grocery delivery that makes one feel a bit like a robot. But the woman’s crest-fallen, tearing face yanked me back to our original purpose.
“Are you okay?” I asked motioning her to roll down her window.
Initially she waved me away.
“I’m a pastor,” I persisted. “Roll down your window.”
She relented then and rolled her window down.
“What’s wrong?” I pried. “Did you get some bad news?”
I couldn’t see the obvious. That’s when she crumbled.
“No,” she said, shaking her head and tearing up even more.
“It’s not that. . .it’s that . . . I just . . .I never thought I’d be in a line like this.”
I was hot and tired. We all were. I knew that for her part, she had gotten into that line for groceries well over two hours before she ever got to the point where I would ask her “Baul listo?” Creeping along in that snaking 300+ car line she’d had a lot of time to think about it all, time to let everything sink in.
The grace in it was that her letting it sink in allowed me to see the glory of her side of the line in a way I hadn’t before. For she needed something and – despite its clear difficulty for her – she had gathered the courage, the strength, the light, the trusting faith to get in line for it. She had gotten in line for God’s grace in the form of groceries, and it would not be denied her. And she wasn’t the only one; there were more than 300 others like her that day.
COVID-19 has put us all in lines we never thought we’d be in. On one side and the other we are all called into work that honors our common humanity — sacred work where everyone must be ready to open their trunks, to find the grace to take or to give as we are in need and as we are able. It’s true always, but every Wednesday now, I am reminded anew.
I’ve been thinking about the spring concert we were planning for the first weekend in May which, sadly, is one of the losses we must take in stride due to the pandemic. Two of the pieces from that program were to be choruses from Handel’s Messiah: “Since by Man Came Death” and “Hallelujah.” Our spring concert is always one of the highlights of our season. We absolutely love having our friends from Westminster’s vibrant community join us in our beautiful and very resonant music room for a delightful, interactive evening of music-making!
I know our choir would have enjoyed singing these together and performing them for you! But instead of that, I issued a fun challenge to our choir in the form of a couple of YouTube sing-alongs. The link below takes you to a wonderful performance of “Since by Man Came Death,” where singers can follow along on the screen and sing their parts together with some spectacular musicians. You’ll see the many other choruses from Messiah also available (see the sidebar), and I hope you’ll jump to “Hallelujah” and any others you are interested in as well.
If you own a Messiah score, you may want to use it; but the beauty here is that you don’t need a score. Simply follow along with the score on your screen. If you have never sung in a choir, consider trying it now. You never know…you may find a fun new hobby during these times of being mostly confined at home.
Singing along here serves a threefold purpose: (1) whether or not you are a singer, singing is lots of good fun, with no strings attached, and with no hidden agendas; (2) exercising your God-given voice is a good thing – it keeps your voice strong, active, and engaged; (3) singing also exercises your brain and helps you realize quite directly the amazing healing power of great music/art. As you sing along (or even as you simply listen), imagine yourself singing with your friends in our choir and with music lovers around the world.
Some general background information about Handel’s Messiah helps put this delightful exercise in context. Handel’s musical genius is legendary, of course, but one aspect of his genius bears special attention, in my opinion, given our current crisis: Handel was infinitely flexible and adaptable to circumstance. Ever pragmatic, Handel found ways around any and all musical obstacles. There is a lesson in that for our times, I believe.
Here are a few fun facts about Handel’s Messiah. Enjoy!
The German/British composer G. F. Handel (b. Halle in 1685; d. London in 1759) wrote Messiah [“the” is not included in the title] in 24 days (August 22-September 14, 1741); while remarkable and somewhat unbelievable, this wasn’t unusual for Handel (or for many other composers—they moved quickly toward specific and often very practical goals).
Messiah was first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and received its London premiere one year later.
The text is by Charles Jennens and is taken from the King James Bible and Book of Common Prayer.
Handel was well-known and much revered in his lifetime. Before Messiah’s composition, he was known primarily as a composer of Italian operas. He had lived in England since 1712 and turned to the writing of English oratorios in the 1730s, mostly in response to a change in musical/theatrical tastes. This is but one example of Handel’s pragmatic flexibility.
Messiah is in three parts: The first deals with Isaiah’s prophecies and takes us through Advent and Christmas themes; the second covers Christ’s Passion, ending with the Hallelujah Chorus; and the third covers the Resurrection and Christ’s reign in glory, ending with the powerful Worthy is the Lamb/Amen chorus.
Messiah was originally written for modest vocal and instrumental forces, with optional settings for many of the individual pieces. It was originally scored for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, a viola, and basso continuo.
Handel made many revisions to his score even before Messiah’s premiere. Between 1742 and 1754, he continued to revise and re-compose individual movements, sometimes to suit the requirements of particular singers. This again shows the pragmatic flexibility I was referring to earlier: Handel never met a problem he couldn’t solve.
Messiah was first published in 1767, eight years after Handel’s death.
After Handel’s death, Messiah was continually adapted for performance on a much larger scale, often with gigantic orchestral and choral forces. While this remains true today, much more emphasis is currently placed on historically informed performance, namely, performances on a much smaller scale and closer to what Handel originally had in mind. There is much for musicologists and performers to argue about, and this will definitely continue!
The Musick Hall in Fishacre Street, Dublin, where Messiah was first performed. Photo by Pat Gunter
No matter the details of a Messiah performance, Handel’s amazing work remains one of the most beloved and often performed works of all time. It has inspired millions and continues to have an extremely devoted following. This is unlikely to change. Take heart in the powerful gift of music and allow yourself to be inspired by Handel’s resilience and excellence.