It has been almost a week since I last posted. I was very excited to post about my PLTS Chapel experience last Wednesday, but I have been busy preparing for classes, and when I did have time, I lost my motivation. I suspect it has something to do with being eager for this week to be over because I am heading home this weekend!! I am SO excited to see my hubby and pets. John and Pebbles are in the “feature” picture above, and Bamm-Bamm and Carmel are below. My heart literally aches for all of them. I need some serious snuggle time.
I did, though, want to tell you a little about Chapel last week. As I mentioned in a previous post, we Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) students are required to attend Chapel every Wednesday with the seminarian community. I have joined the choir here, and we sing during service. People were very excited about last week because we were expecting a couple guests who are well known by the community here. I kept hearing about how much the choir enjoys singing with Donnie, and how much the community enjoys Pastor Jim’s sermons. I didn’t know anything about them, but I gathered that the music would be gospel. I stereotypically pictured both Donnie and Pastor Jim as African-American. Donnie is. Pastor Jim is not.
Pastor Jim and Donnie were here from Los Angeles where they serve at their own church, Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. Everyone was right…I was in for a huge treat. As I entered the chapel around 10am (service was at 11), the choir was just getting started. Donnie is the choir director at Holy Trinity, and was playing piano, helping us run through one of the songs. Now…this was the day after 9/11, and I was feeling a bit morose. I had been surprised that PLTS didn’t do anything special in memory of 9/11, and no one had really spoken about it. I think this is a basic difference between east coast and west coast…west coast folks don’t feel that tragedy the way east coast folks do. Although I was in Seattle on 9/11/o1, I had previously and briefly worked in the World Trade Center when I lived in New Jersey, I knew/know people in NYC, and I felt it deeply. Anyway, suffice it to say that I was feeling down. Looking back, I think I really needed an outlet to mourn.
The music that Donnie was playing was a Medley that Donnie had arranged. It included parts of “O Beautiful,” and was a patriotic tribute to the United States. It was upbeat, though, and… well… evangelical; this was just what I needed. The problem was, the choir’s energy was NOT matching the music or Donnie. You see, one of the things that seems to be pretty common among most Lutherans is our stoic nature. Our services are very traditional and formal. You don’t hear people yelling, “Amen!” in response to the Pastor (or anything, really). When my home church choir sings, we joke about the inability of the choir to move in time with the music. We just don’t “loosen up” the way I’ve seen some Evangelical churches loosen up. I’ve always envied that.
Donnie was singing a solo throughout the song (Donnie’s voice is INCREDIBLE) and had that gorgeous gospel sound. The PLTS choir… didn’t. But we practiced, and I started to get it… a little. I really wanted to open up and just let myself go with the gospel feeling and emotion, but I was very conscious of the people around me… I rarely enjoy bringing attention to myself and besides, what would others think? We finished rehearsing, and then gathered for a group prayer circle. As part of the prayer, everyone is invited to share any specific prayers/intercessions they have. As a few people entered their own personal pleas, I gathered up the courage and added my prayer for all the people affected by the tragedy of 9/11 eleven years ago, and I heard Pastor Jim respond with, “Mmmm-hmmmm.” Hearing him helped me realize I was not the only one there thinking about NYC, DC, and all those lives lost. We ended our rehearsal, and people started entering for service.
The service began with some hymns for the entire community. But here’s where things really got interesting. As we sang the first hymn in typical straightforward, stoic, “Lutheran” fashion, Pastor Jim had us pause. He proposed that we sing that verse again, but slowly, allowing all of us to really feel the music, and sing from the heart. What was nice about slowing it down was that I didn’t need to look at the music. I could glance down to see what was next, and then put the book down. I closed my eyes, and I felt the words, the music, and the emotion flowing through me. The hymn was Sweet, Sweet Spirit, and I finally began to release. Pastor Jim had us sing that first verse over and over. Each time, with each repetition, influenced by Donnie’s gospel lead, the entire group loosened up a bit more. By the end, there were harmonies being sung, ad hoc responses thrown in, and every voice raised with its own emotion ringing through. It was amazing; I was tearing up from all the emotion while singing.
When the beginning hymns were over, Pastor Jim greeted everyone, and then we began a Song of Praise called The Lord is Blessing Me. Now, this was another song that the choir had rehearsed that really needed a little soul, and we had failed miserably. The plan was for the song to begin, Donnie to start, and then the choir to get up from the seats (we were scattered throughout the community), and come up on the chancel (the front of the church that’s elevated by a few steps). As the song began, I got up, and I felt nervous, but also still full of all the emotion from the opening hymn. As I walked up to join the rest of the choir, singing as I walked, I forced myself to move a little… just a little swaying at first. As I began to move, my body continued to loosen up. I closed my eyes and pretty soon, I found myself singing, swaying, clapping, and smiling without any concern or regard for what the people watching me would think. I finally let myself go, and it was such a sweet release!! I noticed Donnie smiling up at us, and the community in the chairs were all beaming, and clapping along. We all just fed off of each other, and pretty soon, that church did NOT feel quite so stoically Lutheran!! Now, to put this in perspective, we were NOTHING like this gospel choir singing the same hymn we sang, but it was marvelous just the same.
And it wasn’t just the music, that sermon ROCKED! Pastor Jim is amazing!!! I wish they had recorded it so I could share it with you. Pastor Jim’s gospel affinity flowed through his words, his intonation, and somehow, we were all saying, “Amen!” in response. He talked about the tragic events of 9/11. He talked about how often we do not follow the path God has laid out for us; and how God always gets us in the end. He talked about the call that Jonah had to preach to the Ninevites; a people who were considered dangerous enemies, and Jonah’s reluctance (to put it lightly…think “whale”). He asked us… who are our Ninevites? Who does God call us to embrace, and yet we resist because they are the enemy, they are the threat. He reminded us that God tells us to love above all else, and that means to love even when it’s hard, even when it hurts and we don’t think our Ninevites deserve our love. After all, if we are worthy of God’s love, then (God knows) our enemies deserve ours. Speaking about this need to love our enemies really hit home in the context of 9/11. It hit home even more when I read the news the next day.
There is no way for me to do justice to this experience. It was emotional, soul-filling, and tension-releasing. There is no doubt in my mind… Jesus was definitely in that place. Amen!