The Christmas trees were on the stage, the drapes covering the sky high windows to block out the distracting sun; the poinsettias dotted across the bottom of the stage. The kids were decked in their Sunday best, ready to earnestly belt out songs slightly out of key. And this year, the choir was back for the first time in a while. We all had our festive red shirts and black pants and, two services into the three, were into this thing, having fun singing traditional favorites and timeless hymns and songs about joy.
Yes, Beethoven would have loved this...our rockin' rendition of Ode to Joy, that had the congregation standing and bopping. I nearly wanted to laugh while singing. Everything felt so alive. Praise to the Lord the Almighty? Only my favorite hymn ever (our pastor's too), and we got to sing it with gusto.
After the second service everywhere there were old friends greeting and hugs and laughter. Dan told me stories about dressing Chloe up at home only to have her get into the flour on the counter and dust herself and the kitchen.
They said their goodbyes and someone said the pastor wanted to speak with us all downstairs. I thought maybe we were going to get some gentle advice on a lyric we'd been singing not quite right or a time we walked on or off the stage at slightly the wrong time. Only, no. He had called us down to tell us we had lost one of our own.
We've attended our current church for about 12 years. Eight years ago, a dear couple, Tyren and Tiffany, and their children began serving as missionaries in Mozambique, with the church's support. Over the years they had returned at various times to rest and recharge. I tried to always catch up with them. Tiffany and I had done Bible studies together and served in the nursery. I loved to chat with her, because her faith was so strong. Everything about her was authentic. She lived what she believed. She wasn't one to just talk.
On that day, as we celebrated Christmas at church thousands of miles of away, she had helped rush her husband to the hospital. He had become deathly ill -- they didn't have real answers as to why. And, our pastor shared, he had just learned Tyren had passed away.
The air got sucked out of the room.
"And now," he continued, "You have the monumental task of going back up there and singing about joy after I share this news with the congregation."
For a moment I felt as if a boulder had been dropped on my shoulders.
All I could see in my head was Tyren holding one of his littler children, standing in the back of the church near where we usually sit.
As we began to walk out, peace descended. We could do this. Just not in our strength. We could sing and rejoice even while we mourned.
Peace, hope and joy to the world
Our God has come
Heaven and nature sing
A child is born
To save us, to show us redeeming love
We weren't just there to sing songs. We weren't just there to put on a performance. We weren't even there to "move" people. We were there to sing Truth. This was no longer a Christmas service, this was a question: Do we believe it?
A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
I thought Elisabeth Elliot, the missionary who lived for years among the tribe in Equador who had killed her husband. I thought of Tyren and Tiffany, who were living their faith, who were touching lives and reaching the poor and the lost rather than just talking, complaining, looking inward. Faith expressing itself in love. What kind of love is this? What kind of story that broke into history, turned the world upside down? We sang a hymn and as always when we sing hymns I thought of the voices over hundreds of years that have echoed the same words, fellow believers who also had trials but looked upward.
Praise to the Lord, who over all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
As we reached that last song, our joyful, exuberant conclusion, I realized that if we held these truths in our hearts then we could indeed explode with joy...but not a feeling, not goosebumps and shivers and an overflow of happiness that all was right in the world. No. Something more solemn and steadfast. A thrill. A promise. A deep well from which to draw. Gladness. Peace. Assurance. Hope in something far greater than this world. Emmanuel. God with us. Always.
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee
God of glory, Lord of love
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee
Opening to the sun above
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness
Drive the dark of doubt away
Giver of immortal gladness
Fill us with the light of day!
I knew then, as we sang, that Tyren, that mighty man of God full of faith and love, would want nothing better for us than to, even as we mourn his loss, give God the glory. That was all he lived for.
What are we living for?
Church of the Living God
199 Deming Street
Manchester CT 06042