Beautiful music has always had the ability to bring me into the presence of God.
One of the most poignant memories from my childhood involves music. My family usually sat in the balcony of the Pacific Union College SDA church in which I was raised, next to the choir loft, and from the time I can remember anything, I remember being mesmerized by the anthems that choir sang. I remember thinking that nothing could be more heavenly than to be in the middle of the choir, singing with them – to have the music all around me, to be part of the beautiful sound. Even at age six, if I could have figured out a way to jump into the choir loft, I would have been singing with them!
I joined a children’s choir in 2nd grade and continued to sing in choirs for most of my elementary, high school and college years. In fact, the choir I belonged to my senior year of college had the distinction of being one of the first groups to tour East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down in 1990 – an incredible experience both culturally and musically.
As an adult, I stopped singing in choirs. By then, I had a job, a growing family, and virtually no spare time. And anyway, as an adult, I was finding that religion was much more difficult than singing in the church choir. As devout Seventh-day Adventist Christians, my husband and I had been raised with a clear set of guidelines and expectations, and a complex, precise approach to the world – an approach which seemed more legalistic and cumbersome to us the older we got.
It seemed that as SDAs, we spent so much time trying to be different than the world that we had little spiritual energy left over to make positive connections with it. As our faith grew and developed, it looked less and less like the 27 Fundamental Beliefs of the SDA Church. This created a huge conflict inside us, since the SDA church was the church in which we were raised and we were afraid many relationships would be broken if we left.
In spite of our fear and misgivings, by 2005 JD and I felt so stifled in the SDA Church that we became “closet Methodists,” going to a nearby Methodist church early every Sunday morning before our Adventist friends were awake, but also attending our SDA church every Saturday morning. We absolutely loved the Methodist Church, with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit, a vibrant, connected faith community, and, above all, its social gospel. I found out that my approach to faith – for example, working in underprivileged communities and starting a health clinic to care for those forgotten and left out by the system – was actually very Wesleyan. For the first time in a long time, I looked forward to going to church, and felt connected to the people there. I remarked to JD that I felt like a Methodist waiting to happen.
Leaving the SDA church was one of the hardest things we have ever done, and I will not go into all the details here. Suffice it to say that it was painful – for us, our kids, and also, I suspect, for our families and friends. I will admit that we were hurt by the SDA church, although I’m sure that was not their intent. Why were we leaving? Nobody understood. Even I did not fully understand, but both JD and I felt more strongly than we had about anything for a long time, that God was calling us to join the Methodist church.
For four years, we were actively involved as members of Bethpage United Methodist Church, and our faith took on new dimensions which were challenging, exciting, and fulfilling. The church supported me wholeheartedly in my ministry at Hope Clinic, and they supported JD wholeheartedly in every avenue of ministry he pursued. We both became certified lay speakers and began preaching when asked. JD joined Agape, the church’s praise band, and became a Sunday School teacher. We made many new friends.
But our new church was not immune to problems. The United Methodist Church’s pastoral appointment system did not serve our church well: in four years, we had six different pastors, all with very different leadership styles. A church that had once been vibrant and strong suffered from the many changes in leadership, and many of our friends left. And, while I liked the theological openness and freedom of the Methodist Church, this meant that it was possible for pastors to have a wide range of views which they could impose on the church.
And within our family, the switch to a different denomination caused its share of stress. Our oldest daughter Ellie had never been happy with our decision to leave the SDA church, and at age 12, made the decision to be baptized into the Highland SDA Church. We were incredibly proud of her and grateful for her decision to be baptized. But having a family with members in two denominations was often difficult – especially two denominations that went to church on different days.
In the summer of 2010, when a pastor was appointed to Bethpage United Methodist Church whose theology and leadership style I strongly disagreed with, I could no longer continue to go there. JD wanted to stay, but also did not want our family to be split up at different churches. After much discussion and prayer, we decided to start attending McKendree United Methodist Church, only 10 minutes away from home.
We began attending McKendree and enjoyed it, but to be honest, as we moved toward the Christmas season this year, I was really struggling with the whole idea of church. As I looked back at our experience, it seemed that the one organization which had hurt me more deeply than anything else during my adult life was the church. No matter where we went, big problems came up which were painful to deal with.
As I thought back over all the relationships that had suffered or been broken, all the struggles in the SDA church to meet the standards and all the struggles in the Methodist church to keep our church family from falling apart, and even all the hurt and strained relationships within our own family due to the fact that we were now bi-denominational, I felt sick. Reflexively, I wanted to run away from all of it. I wanted the companionship, warmth, and spiritual support of a church, but I was afraid to commit to relationships within the church, or to become involved in the life of a particular church, because I knew inevitably what would result: yet again, I would be hurt, and the cycle would continue.
It was at this time, about 3 months after we started attending McKendree, that church organist Pat Empson invited JD and me to sing in the annual Christmas cantata, a joint enterprise of McKendree Methodist Church, Highland SDA Church, Oasis SDA Church, and Highland Academy, an SDA secondary school which is JD’s alma mater. I really didn’t have time, but Pat continued to enthusiastically invite us, even dropping the cantata book and CD off on our front porch one evening. I must admit that the thought of singing in a choir again, after almost 20 years, was very tempting, and both JD and I began going to the rehearsals.
It was interesting singing with four organizations, all of which were, or had been, part of our faith experience. We quickly found that McKendree and Highland were already close to each other- in fact, as one McKendree member described it, “Sister churches.” Their choirs had been joining forces for many years to perform a Christmas cantata, so the choir members and other musicians enjoyed a warm relationship with each other. It was strangely refreshing to be surrounded by people from both of the faith traditions which had shaped us, who obviously respected and cared for each other.
This morning, we performed the cantata at Highland SDA Church. The combined choir and orchestra, 70 members strong, filled the entire stage, and about 700 people filled the church and balcony. The church was decorated for Christmas, with reds and greens, twinkling lights and candles. As the church filled up, the joy and expectation were palpable.
The orchestra began to play and the choir sang, “Lift up your heads O gates, and make the highway straight, prepare to celebrate the coming of the Lord!” Sitting right in the middle of the choir, surrounded by the beautiful voices, part of the music, I remembered the way I felt as a child listening to the choir. It was so simple then - no doctrines, no denominations, no guilt or hurt feelings - just the beautiful music and the presence of God.
As I was singing and thinking these thoughts, I had the strangest experience. I was aware of all the people around me, representing separate strands of my church experience, and the music coming from all of them blending in the most amazing way. And all at once, something happened in an instant which I had not been able to accomplish in years of trying. What was it? It felt like a combination of forgiveness, peace, and healing, a sense that all the disparate pieces of my church experience had come together again. Suddenly, it all seemed so simple…just the beautiful music and the presence of God.
This morning Pastor John, the Adventist pastor who baptized our daughter Ellie, led the congregation and choir in a song called “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” As I sang it I sensed its truth in a new and surprising way. My membership is rooted not in one denomination, creed, or church, but in the family of God! We are human and we fail, we hurt each other, yet we are brought together each Christmas to worship and to sing, to join as a family and celebrate the coming of the Lord.
And when we do, everything else fades away, and all that is left is what really matters: the beautiful music and the presence of God.