Friday, January 13, 2012

pulling out the stops

let me start off by saying i am not an overtly religious person. being a cradle Episcopalian, i am not at all comfortable talking about God to people i don't know. but i pray every day, i go to church every week, and i understand that God does work in my life all the time. even when i don't ask Him to. and even when i least deserve it.
i've said before on this blog that i work at my church. and i love my job. it allows me to do everything i have learned in 30 years as a writer and even to learn a few things i didn't know before. and i love the people i work with.
people who don't work for churches might think that in every day there are moments when God is just about everywhere as you work. that may be true for some, but a lot of the time, i've found a day's makeup to be much like i imagine that of the secular office world — things like yelling at the office copier for not printing things right (ours is apparently post-menopausal) or not understanding how the phone system works. or having people stop by asking you to do things that aren't in your job description or emails about all the typos you make during a given week. (that would be a lot).
sometimes, though, you do find God moments, and not necessarily when you're sitting in the pews on Sunday trying to listen really hard to the message and not think about the mess you left on your desk just down the hall or the work you have to get started on the next day when you come back to work.



one thing that probably doesn't happen much in the secular world is having organ music waft down the hallways. real live organ music, not some recorded stuff, emitting from thousands of pipes that are just getting used to their voices. and it's loud and sweet and moving and oh, so, like you think God's voice would sound like, if you could actually hear it.



a God moment happened this week, and it began with music. my boss heard it first and wandered down the hall toward the church as if drawn by the pied piper, and i followed. we've recently installed a new organ in our nave, (well, i lifted nary a pipe) and it is not unusual for us to hear our organist, Kevin, practicing for Sunday. but this, well, this was different.



once inside the almost empty church, i chuckled as the theme from Star Wars shouted from the pipes. then my eyes moved toward a small cluster of women gathered in the pews. one sat in a wheelchair, and as i drew closer, i recognized her as one of our parishioners whose body is waging a battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease. i last saw her two years ago when she came to have her picture taken for the church directory. dressed in a sweater as blue as a bachelor's button, she was beautiful, and i told so. she tried to speak, but had clearly lost her voice, and i asked if she had laryngitis. she wrote on a pad and handed it to me, explaining that the disease was talking now. 

today she can no longer walk, though she can grip the pad and as she sat next to the pew, she wrote down the music she wanted to hear Kevin play for her own private concert. 

i sat in a pew across the aisle and listened, as Kevin played 'Silent Night' and 'Amazing Grace' — in ways i'd never heard them in all my years of listening. i pulled out the prayer book and said a few silent prayers for another parishioner and friend in the hospital. (and a couple for myself.)

and then Kevin said: now i'm going to pull out all the stops.

from the moment he played the first notes of Bach's "Toccata in D minor"  (having no real classical music knowledge, i know it as the organ music from Phantom of the Opera) the change in the room was palpable.

i watched Kevin play, wishing i was sitting behind him so i could see the movement of his fingers and arms as he worked at the console, pulling out stops and playing keys and pedals, giving his new console a real workout. then suddenly i felt the music wrap itself around me, and i just closed my eyes, hearing each organ note, not only with my ears but within me, transported, as he played, to somewhere i had not visited before.

and he played on. and on, notes i had never heard, like a new parent coaxing this infant instrument to speak up, and clearly.
photo: graham rountree of rountreemedia

when i did open my eyes, they were drawn upward, toward the pipes themselves, their powerful notes blending as they shouted, whispered, shouted again. i have not yet found the adjectives to adequately describe what i heard. but it was beautiful.

finally i looked at the clutch of women gathered around their chair-bound friend, and they were weeping. 

Kevin played more softly then, and my boss and i slipped quietly out and back to the work at hand, but the moment hasn't left me. Kevin's playing was meant as a gift for a woman who can rarely, if she ever will again, hear music played in the church she loves. yes, the gift was hers, but all of us present received it, too.


for the past few years i have reported on the progress as our new organ was being built. and in august last year, when the first pipes began to arrive, i started taking pictures — hundreds of them — to record this historic moment in the life of our parish. i've climbed up in the pipe chamber, learned that pipes are made of wood and steel and range in size from the height and breadth of a fledgling oak to some the size of a golf pencil. they are round and square. and the keys that make them work are crafted of polished bone and rosewood. i've listened as the organ builders refined the voice of each of those thousands of pipes to fit our space. 

but in that moment, i came to understand just how an organ is so much more than a collection of pipes and wood. it's a breathing thing.

i've written and rewritten that last sentence a dozen times now. it just sounds so over-the-top, clich├ęd to call a musical instrument a living thing. well, it was an over-the-top moment for me. it felt to me like God's voice got down from the lofty place we often put it and sat in the pew with me. and with the woman in the wheelchair. i don't know how she feels about her disease, but i can imagine how i would feel. I would want to roar as loudly as those pipes, saying 'can't you hear me? i am angry!', and then i would probably cry softly for a little while.

if you think about it real hard, maybe what happened on monday of this week, was that our new organ gave God a voice to speak to a woman who won't ever have a voice again and He said i am angry too. and i am crying with you. but despite all, there is still great beauty in the world. and she — we — all understood what He was saying.


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