The Sunday school movement in
Virginia Mennonite Conference had an uncertain beginning 150 years ago. In 1869
seventeen Virginia ministers barely got the 2/3s majority needed to pass a
resolution allowing for Sunday schools. Only one of the three bishops in that
1869 Conference meeting supported Sunday schools.
Fortunately, that supporting bishop presided over Emanuel Suter’s church. The Sunday school initiative in Virginia Conference may have begun around Suter’s kitchen table, in a letter written two years before the 1869 resolution. It’s not an overstatement to point to Emanuel Suter’s 1867 letter to Herald of Truth as the real beginning of Sunday schools in Virginia Conference.
Suter wrote his dynamic letter on a Sunday morning, from his home west of Harrisonburg. He had six children under ten running around while he penned his thoughts. In a stirring letter to Mennonite readers across the United States, Suter called on believers to use their gifts for God’s kingdom. That’s exactly what Suter did in the last four decades of the 1800s.
Emanuel Suter (1833-1902), not ordained, had the wisdom, leadership skills, and organizational abilities to lead the Sunday school movement in Virginia Conference. Until his passing in 1902, Suter worked tirelessly to establish Sunday schools, likely remembering those children underfoot at his kitchen table.
Those opposed believed that Sunday schools might allow non-Mennonites to teach their children, Sunday schools would allow women to teach publicly, they followed the fashions of the day, and the Bible did not mention Sunday schools. About 15% of Middle District Mennonites left Conference in 1901, partially over the Sunday school issue.
By the mid-twentieth century, Sunday schools had grown and thrived in many Conference congregations. At Weavers Mennonite Church, for instance, the average attendance for Sunday school in 1961 stood at 268. Sunday schools met the needs of Bible teaching and faith formation.
Minister Paul Glanzer and his wife Isabel, along with their disabled son Jerry Glanzer, came to the Zion Mennonite Church in 1985. For about twenty years Paul taught a Sunday school for his son Jerry and others like him, with a van load of attendees in Paul’s class from Pleasant View, Inc., in Broadway. Paul helped the disabled adults to sing, pray, and learn about God from his teaching.
Today, 150 years later, Sunday schools are still vital in the lives of many Virginia Conference churches. It takes dedicated leaders and teachers to conduct a Sunday school program. Laura Suter Wenger (1873-1959), for instance, daughter of Emanuel and Elizabeth Suter, taught Sunday school for forty-five years.
Two weeks ago, this writer saw a photo taken from the back of a Sunday school class at Lindale Mennonite Church. A lay member of the congregation led a large group of children in prayer. The attentive children had their heads bowed and were learning how to pray. This writer’s three-year-old grandson sat in the front row, with his head bowed in prayer. For those of us who care about teaching Scripture and faith to children, Sunday school continues to be a great place to shape Christian faith.
Out of conviction, I voted no on a
popular resolution at the MC USA Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. I’ve been
challenged by some, while others have supported my vote. I wanted to raise my
hand and cast a vote in the affirmative for the resolution against the abuse of
child migrants. The word “condemn,” however, used twice in the
resolution, led me to vote against it. My table spokesperson graciously went to
the open microphone and explained my rationale to nearly 500 delegates before
the vote. With only minutes for me to decide on the revised resolution that
landed on my delegate table on Saturday morning, July 6, 2019, I went with my
gut instinct and conviction. I cannot vote to condemn anything or anyone.
Theologically, I believe Scripture reveals that God is the one who may choose to condemn, not believers. Jesus warned against condemning others in the same breath as he warned against judging others (Luke 6:37). In principle, I thoroughly support the resolution aimed at the abhorrent abuse of child migrants. The weight of Scripture, however, seems to me to speak against the use of the word condemn. Though I only had a few minutes to decide on my vote, and my recollection of scripture was imperfect, my conviction led me to vote against the resolution, which twice used the word “condemn.”
Historically, I can find no MC USA
resolutions that include the word “condemn.” Not even the 2005 MC USA
resolution against the Iraq War contained the word. Previously, we in MC USA
have found ways to speak forcefully to the powers with language that has
avoided the harsh word “condemn.” The Editor of Gospel Herald spoke
out strongly against the U.S. government’s indiscriminate carpet bombing raids
in the Vietnam War during Christmas, 1972. I remember that editorial because I
turned eighteen at the end of the war and was next in line to be drafted.
Editor Drescher’s scathing essay challenged the U.S. government to cease the
wanton killing, but he did not use the word “condemn” (January 16,
1973). As a descendant of radical 16th-century reformers who were
condemned by political and religious authorities, it gave me unease to vote in
favor of condemning.
Culturally, I hesitated at the tone
of the MC USA resolution on my table at Kansas City 2019. I teach high school
social studies classes, and I encourage clear thinking, well-developed
opinions, and carefully constructed essays. But I will challenge my students,
from the left or right, not to “condemn” another who disagrees with
them. Argue and debate, is my teaching approach, and speak clearly, but avoid
condemnation of another. We live in an age of vast cultural and political
divides, with strident language often used in an attempt to destroy one’s
opponents. I think a peace church should speak up against injustices, but avoid
harsh and divisive language.
I wanted MC USA to offer its delegates a resolution against the abuse of child migrants without using the word “condemn.” Then, instead of voting no, I could have offered my delegate vote in support.
From the opening hymn sing to the contemporary songs in worship, my heart thrilled to the music at Kansas City 2019. As a delegate and long-time convention-goer, I understand that things have changed for MC USA. Our music, however, is a welcome constant, and it helps to unify and build us up in God’s Spirit. For me, singing in worship with thousands of others provided the highest value in attending the convention.
Our music helped create unity amidst diversity. My cordial table of delegates came from seven states. We were not alike, and we had different perspectives. But when we left our meeting room and joined with three thousand people in the joint worship services, our diversities paled in the glory of praise and honor to God. Let’s sing even more MC USA; it just may help us find a renewed unity that celebrates our theological, cultural, and geographical diversities.
Singing together in the big hall expressed our deepest convictions. When the band started, when the chorister led a time-tested hymn, or when we learned a new song, we confessed lyrics about the most basic beliefs of our faith in God. I am amazed at how poets and musicians can express heart faith in songs that are God-honoring. With rows and rows of high school kids having fun behind me, the singing and clapping energized me even more.
Great convention singing frees our voices in the arts. Our drummer wore a t-shirt that said, in large letters, “The Drummer.” He got into the beat, and the audience loved to watch him do his thing. Our songs at convention ranged from time-tested “Come Thou Fount” to a fantastic break-out medley featuring “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Every member of the praise band brought just the right volume, intensity, and rhythm to help free our voices in the God-given wonder of music. Let’s keep emphasizing singing in our churches, conferences, and at the biennial convention.
Our songs at convention helped to unify the generations. This year older attendees sat next to and sang with youth. I liked the joint music and worship services. Years ago, my wife and I sent our three teens to Mennonite Youth Conventions, with thousands of youth in attendance. Our numbers were down this year, compared to earlier years, and I do ponder why attendance at convention has declined from previous years. All the more reason, I think, to emphasize our music. Years ago, at conventions, adults and youth stayed in different auditoriums for their music–an intergenerational belly laugh with three teens after our first day’s joint worship service is one of my highlights from MennoCon19.
I hope great singing stays front and center for future conventions. Leaders in MC USA should find ways to get our people singing, often, and in ways that draw us together. After a discussion at my delegate table left me tense, I shed tears of joy afterward in worship when the praise band broke into the tune “Days of Elijah.” For me, the great music at convention made it worth the time, energy, and money to attend.
When the Dry Fork River, W.Va., rose to record levels in
November 1985, the Riverside Mennonite Church flooded, and the church suffered
much damage. Randolph County, W.Va. got over a foot of rain in two days, and the
40-50 Riverside members needed help to clean up and fix their building.
At flood stage, the meetinghouse and parking lot, three miles
north of Harman, W.Va., were in danger of being swept away by the roiling
river. Water came up to the window sills, and the benches floated inside. What
probably saved the building was a large number of trees that floated against
the building and kept the structure intact.
The Shenandoah Valley Mennonite Disaster Service organization
responded immediately, but not until roads were passable were volunteers
allowed to begin cleaning up in the area of Riverside church. After that,
volunteers went to the Harman area to help. Students from EMHS and EMC went out
by the van load to help clean up and fix up. One group of EMHS students pulled piles
of dead turkeys from a field, some of which had already partially decayed.
From 1932-2017, Riverside Mennonite Church had been a part of
the Middle District (later Central) of the Virginia Mennonite Conference. The
Middle District Council authorized a generous donation to help in renovating
and rebuilding. The church ordered new hymnals, new pews, a new rug, replaced
some aluminum siding, and needed significant dozer work on the parking lot. Riverside
pastors Joe Mininger and Woodie Sites waited a month before calling Sunday
morning services again. Volunteers Paul and Nancy Showalter gave substantial
time and energy in leading the renovation efforts.
By August 1987, the church’s renovations were complete, with a new kitchen, Sunday school rooms, and indoor toilets. The building project was finished debt-free, and a celebration service took place at the church on August 30, 1987. A church bulletin from that era carried the banner “Spared for a Purpose.” It took the concerted efforts of MDS resources, local help, community volunteers, and young people from Harrisonburg to help Riverside Mennonite Church recover from the devastating flood of 1985.
In 1952, Samuel O. Weaver’s high
school English teacher insisted that he learn how to diagram a sentence. Sam saw
no need to learn how to diagram a sentence, and he told A. Grace Wenger, his
EMS teacher, that he intended to return to Newport News and milk cows for his
brother. She replied to Sam that he didn’t know where the Lord would call him
and that he should learn how to diagram a sentence. Sam graduated from high
school, college, and earned a Master’s Degree, though sixty-seven years later,
in a 2019 interview, Sam laughed and admitted that he still does not know how
to diagram a sentence!
In spite of not being able to
diagram a sentence, God used Sam in a mighty way during his twelve years as
principal of EMHS, 1969-1981. A. Grace Wenger was right—Sam didn’t know where
God would lead him or in what capacity he would serve the church. It was in the
late 1960s that Sam was called to lead Eastern Mennonite High School as it
sought to become independent from Eastern Mennonite College.
Dr. Myron Augsburger, President of
EMC, needed a high school principal with financial and marketing skills. So he
hired Sam Weaver to head the high school in 1969. To lead the high school, Sam needed
training in education, and he enrolled in a Master’s program at James Madison
University. In the meantime, Weaver relied on dependable teachers already
working at EMHS, like James Rush, David Mumaw, Lois Janzen, Harvey Yoder,
Marvin Miller, Ron Koppenhaver, Gloria Lehman, Esther Augsburger, Sam Strong, and
Vivian Beachy. In 1977, Sam hired Ernest Martin to develop the academic program
at the school. Knowing little about academics, Sam acknowledges that “Ernie
saved my hide,” by establishing increased trust and reputation in the community
for curriculum at the high school.
In the fifteen-year process of
creating an independent high school, Dorothy Shank ably chaired the EMHS Board,
1974-1981. In an era when few women served as leaders in the Mennonite church,
Dorothy prayed about the decision, and then said she would help the school as
the first woman chair of the Board. It was Dorothy, in an interview, who stated
that we all stand on someone else’s shoulders and that it is important to
recognize God’s faithfulness in launching a strong and independent EMHS in the
Eastern Mennonite School began as a
high school in 1917, but it soon added junior college classes. When the junior
college grew into a four-year program and earned accreditation in 1947, it
created an identity problem for the high school. By the early 1960s, with
enrollment growth in the college, visionaries in Virginia Mennonite Conference
got busy and built a separate building for the high school in Park View, first
used in 1964. Over Christmas break in 1963-1964, students and teachers picked
up books from the college library and moved them to the new high school campus
nearby on Parkwood Drive.
A few years after the high school
moved into its new building, the EMC Board wanted the high school division to
support itself, and according to the college’s business office, EMHS was
operating at a deficit. In 1967, according to EMC accounting methods, the high
school deficit was over $69,000. The Executive Committee of the EMC Trustees,
which presided over the high school, asked the high school to balance its
budget within five years. With Sam Weaver at the helm of the high school, the
school reached a balanced budget by 1973. While Sam was the Principal, he gives
credit to people like Daniel Bender, Dwight Wyse, Shirley J. Yoder, and Glendon
Blosser for helping to set the financial ship of the school in good standing.
The years of Sam Weaver’s
leadership at EMHS, 1969-1981, were tumultuous years in the United States, with
the Vietnam War, an era of rebellion and protest for youth, and rising
inflation driven by rising oil prices. Still, students kept coming to EMHS,
from as far away as Pigeon, Michigan, Sarasota, Florida, the Tidewater region
of Virginia, and northeast Ohio. By 1977 the high school had 277 students, with
a waiting list. Sam’s Christian education philosophy relies on ownership of a
student’s education from the home, the church, and the Christian school.
Students tested Sam’s leadership, to be sure, but the school grew in many ways
and earned its charter in 1982.
Dorothy Shank remembers that during
her tenure as Board Chair in the late 1970s she worried when good teachers left
EMHS for other positions. She prayed God would send the school good replacement
teachers. She especially worried when Marvin Miller, an outstanding music
teacher, 1966-1981, left EMHS. “But,” Dorothy rejoiced in the interview, “God
brought in Jay Hartzler,” another exceptional music teacher.
In a 2019 interview with Sam Weaver
and Dorothy Shank, they noted the excellent support for the high school from
Virginia Mennonite Conference churches in the 1970s. Sam visited Districts and
churches and encouraged support. Consequently, churches in Virginia Conference
stepped up and supported their high school, through a Congregational Aid Plan
formulated by Glendon Blosser. Sam notes the way Conference Districts sent
delegates to the Board meetings, like Robert Mast from Chesapeake, Va., and Ike
Oberholtzer from Newport News. In return, the EMHS Touring Choir began a spring
circuit of singing in many of the supporting churches, leading them in worship
Programs and buildings seemed to
spring up in the 1970s, attracting many students to attend. The school built a
new fine arts addition in 1972, and while Dorothy Shank served as Board Chair,
the school added a gymnasium, finished in 1976. In Park School, a former public
school located next door to the high school that EMHS used as early as the
1960s, the high school set up an Industrial Arts program and Art program. The
college set aside rooms for high school students in Maplewood dorm, and to the
present has not charged for the use of Lehman Auditorium for the annual high
Dorothy Shank remembers that the
tone of moving toward separation was tense at times, but by 1982 the two
schools went different directions on amicable terms. And Sam Weaver, the
balding principal who established the financial and church-based foundations
for the school, decided it was time for him to move on. In 2019, an EMHS faculty
member publicly recognized Sam at the annual National Honor Society Induction,
when his granddaughter, Julie Weaver, joined the society. As Principal during
the 1970s, Sam had signed all of the Honor Society documents.
It is not by our power, as Dorothy
asserted, but by God’s grace and faithfulness, that EMHS moved toward
independence from the college in the 1970s. There had been those at the college
who entertained ideas on what to do with the building should the program be
discontinued. With good leadership, EMHS became a viable church school, a
process that began in the 1960s and culminated with a charter in 1982.
In God’s mercy, when I crashed on my bicycle, I fell away
from the busy highway and into the guard rail. On a Saturday ride for exercise,
March 30, 2019, I fell and broke three ribs, bruised a lung, and suffered a
dozen cuts and bruises, but God spared my life. New rumble strips on a familiar
road surprised me and took me down within seconds.
In God’s mercy, the two cars following right behind me both
stopped. One woman whom I didn’t know laid hands on me and prayed aloud, while
the other called 911. Within a minute, a sheriff stopped and kept me propped
between the steel guardrail and his leg to prevent me from falling or
collapsing into the four-lane highway.
In God’s mercy, a former student served as my nurse in the ER
and a doctor whose children I teach reassured me but said it would be 4-6 weeks
until I healed. My ER doc, a very recent medical school grad, thought she saw
7-8 broken ribs and a punctured lung, and with too much trauma for the local
hospital to handle, she sent me by ambulance to UVA Hospital.
In God’s mercy, I received excellent care in Charlottesville,
Va., though on a Saturday night, with the University of Virginia in a March Madness
basketball game, and patients in the ER in much worse shape than me, I waited.
Eighteen difficult hours after the accident, alone in my room, I stopped the
young doc who came on her 8:00 AM shift. I asked for answers and clarity on my
injuries. She halted her usual routine and talked to me, showing me broken
ribs, #6, #8, and #9. I had a bruised lung, she reported, not a punctured lung.
In a revelation of how small the world is, I discovered that my remarkably
skilled first-year resident doc is an older sister to one of my World History students
In God’s mercy, my wife, family, and close church friends have
taken great care of me. I’ve been through intense pain and night-time discouragement
about how I landed in such a helpless predicament. Bones heal, however, and in
God’s miraculous mercy, internal pain slowly subsides.
In God’s mercy, students came to visit me in my living room. From
my sofa, they extended kind words, laughter, and a song that I shall never
forget—their presence, like that of angels, encouraged me to get well so I
could return to my classroom. In God’s mercy, I work at a school with
supportive administrators and colleagues who care about me. Many people rallied
around me in my time of need — these gifts I acknowledge as flowing from God’s
abundant mercy. Seven weeks later, in God’s mercy, I am mostly healed and back
to regular work patterns.
I like Abram’s
response when God offered him a covenant (Genesis 15:1-18). Abram’s fear and
questions grew into faith and led to an elaborate sacrifice. Abram’s openness
to the promptings of God demonstrates how to live into our Lenten journeys. I
had a God appearance years ago in the holy land, though not nearly as dramatic
as Abram’s theophany.
As a young
man, I volunteered for four weeks of work at Nazareth Hospital. I had dropped
out of college after my freshman year, and three Mennonite buddies and I
traveled for six months throughout the Middle East and Europe. We were on our
own with almost no communication home for the entire time.
afternoon at Nazareth Hospital, we Mennonite guys, five British fellows, and
four Arab nurses took a walk to see Mt. Tabor, the traditional site of the
Transfiguration. Young men from the local community confronted us and did not
like seeing single Brits and Americans escorting Arab female nurses on a long
walk. It stirred my anger, and though we got through that uncomfortable event
without incident, it took all of my restraint and nonresistance teachings to
refrain from pushing back.
experienced Holy Spirit transformation while working at the international
Nazareth Hospital, visiting Mennonite missionaries in Israel, taking a trip into
the Sinai, and camping along the Red Sea. I had been seeking God’s leading in
my life, uncertain that I would ever reenroll in my Mennonite college back
home. In the womb of supportive Christian leaders in Israel, travels around the
country, and a revelation I received while camping on the sands of the Red Sea
coast, I was transformed. That revelation of faith pointed me back toward
Virginia to finish college, which I did.
This year, a
day before Ash Wednesday, a student asked me if I had considered giving up
anything for Lent. I hadn’t, though, by that evening, I sensed an inner nudge
to give up recorded music. Giving up my music is a big deal. I listen to music
in my study when I research, write, and grade papers. I turn on the radio in my
Jeep when I drive around town, and I listen to favorite tunes when I exercise.
I’ve given up recorded music for Lent, though not live music; my life has suddenly
turned much quieter and more reflective. It’s through a new lens that I read the
gospel narrative describing how the devil tempted Jesus for forty days in the
wilderness (Luke 4:1-2).
To respond to the promptings of faith, I think, means accepting change, remaining open to new ideas, living into creative possibilities, and taking untraveled paths. It’s exciting to stay open to the promptings of faith, to see what new roads lie ahead, and to receive grace-filled blessings, like God’s covenant offered to Abram so many years ago.
What does a letter buried in an Indiana archive have to do
with questions about staying in Mennonite Church USA today? Quite a bit, I’d
argue. The letter, which I found in our denominational archives eight years
ago, reveals that some of the earliest Virginia Mennonite leaders believed in
the value of a church-wide association of congregations. Upon finding the
letter, I had a little party of one by the copying machine in the lobby. Since
then, I’ve discovered more stories confirming that in each era, Virginia
leaders have spoken for, written about, and defended the value of staying with
the denomination. Please consider these brief vignettes that I think provide
significant direction for today.
1853: That thin
and yellowed letter in the Indiana archive came from the pen of Virginia
Mennonite Bishop Martin Burkholder. Thirty-six, he wrote a letter to a
Pennsylvania Bishop friend, and asked that he and other ministers in Lancaster
Conference consider helping him create a general conference of Mennonites. Burkholder
and Bishop Samuel Shank Sr. made several circuit trips to Pennsylvania, Ohio,
New York, and Canada, asking for a general conference to be formed, but to no
avail. After Bishop Martin Burkholder passed away a few months before the Civil
War began, it would be decades until his vision for a Mennonite association of
area conferences came into being. The great irony of my search in libraries and
archives along the east coast, and then finding the letter in Indiana, 157
years after it was written in the Shenandoah Valley, is that having a national archive
is one outstanding rationale for staying with a denomination long term.
1897: A year
before the Mennonite Church got organized in 1898, Virginia Bishop Lewis J.
Heatwole traveled to Elida, Ohio, for preliminary meetings. He and other
ministers like Christian Good and Samuel M. Burkholder went to see what was
happening, and to report back to leaders in Virginia. L. J. Heatwole faithfully
traveled to the early meetings of the Mennonite Church, and kept Virginia
Conference informed about wider church developments. With L. J. Heatwole’s
clear leadership toward participating, Virginia Conference joined the Mennonite
General Conference in 1911.
Virginia Mennonite Conference met a year after World War I ended, it adopted
eighteen fundamentals of faith. Conservative in nature, the articles were
adopted, almost word for word, two years later by the Mennonite Church.
Virginia Conference’s action, adopted at my home congregation in Broadway,
Virginia, October 18, 1919, held significant influence and sway on the
Mennonite Church for nearly two generations.
critical ministers urged Virginia Conference to leave the Mennonite Church
during WWII, Bishop John L. Stauffer reacted strongly. Though some thought the
broader church had become too liberal, Stauffer stated that Virginia needed to
stay and not leave. Bishop Stauffer, then President of Eastern Mennonite
College, had significant church wide experience, and he urged the Conference to
stay in the denomination. Stauffer’s voice, along with others, won the day.
Brunk Stoltzfus waited patiently to speak at the Mennonite Church Convention in
Bowling Green, Ohio. The hot topic was whether women could be involved in
ministry. Her speech at an open microphone stirred many, and helped to create
action in the direction of accepting women in leadership. Virginia Bishop
Glendon Blosser ably and gladly served as Moderator at the 1981 Bowling Green
Conference, the seventh of eleven Virginia Mennonite leaders to serve as moderator
of the denomination.
1997: My wife
and I took our family to Orlando, Florida, for the Mennonite Church General
Assembly in the summer of 1997. While our three young children enjoyed the fun
times for kids and we soaked up the Florida warmth, I served as a delegate from
Virginia Conference. We took our kids to Disneyland after the Mennonite Church
made proactive plans to integrate with the General Conference. Owen Burkholder,
from Harrisonburg, served in 1997 as both denominational moderator and as
Virginia Conference minister, the lead executive staff position.
2019: Today’s issues are different than in the past, but in other ways quite similar. I teach history and Bible to descendants of Bishop Martin Burkholder, whose letter I found in Indiana. I try to help them understand the high value their ancestor held in organizing a general conference. Further, I will take a bit of Bishop Burkholder’s spirited vision with me when I serve as a delegate at the 2019 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City. My reading of Virginia Mennonite Conference history is that at each turn in the road of divisive issues, key leaders in Virginia Conference have spoken in favor of participation in the wider denomination. Such is the direction I would urge today.
On January 1, for the past 117 years, singers from all around come to sing from Joseph Funk’s Harmonia Sacra songbook. On New Year’s day 2019, 360 singers came from six states and Ontario, Canada (see my photo above). We sang twenty-nine songs, led by over a dozen song leaders. Each song was announced in the Legacy Edition of Harmonia Sacra, and the number was announced in the wide-format book.
The Mennonites at this singing came from all kinds of conferences and churches. The three things we can do together across Mennonite boundaries in the Shenandoah Valley include the annual relief sale, working together in disaster relief, and singing together from the 19th century Harmonia Sacra. One can attend a Harmonia Sacra singing once a month in the Shenandoah Valley, they are that popular. Song leaders on January 1 2019 were progressives, leaders in MC USA, and men with plain coats, from the Old Order community in Dayton. In recent years, buggies have been tied outside the church for the singing at Weavers Mennonite Church, west of Harrisonburg.
Why will I go again next year? Because it brings hundreds of Mennonite singers together from among the fifteen or more varieties of Anabaptists in the area. Second, because folks come from great distances, including other states, to celebrate faith through song. I met a woman from Kentucky whom I had only corresponded with by e-mail previously. Third, I’ll go again because my faith is nurtured and bolstered when singers all around joyously proclaim faith through the wonderful art of four-part singing. Fourth, I’ll go again because in our last song, “Fair Haven,” we expressed that in Jesus Christ our faith is one. Perhaps this annual singing, around me whom were basses who made the benches resonate with their low notes, represents a foretaste of heaven itself. At the end of “Fair Haven,” we expressed in music, that “we all shall meet in heaven.” It will be fun when Joseph Funk himself can lead a Harmonia Sacra singing on the other side. I hope to be there for that one too.
Like the shepherds, I’ve had angels visit me. Unlike the
startling heavenly hosts in Luke’s gospel, however, I’ve felt the presence of
angels in the harmonies of great songs. One that stands out is called “Angel
Band” and this song has helped me through difficult times, but it has also sparked
moments of sheer joy and delight.
First story: In my
classroom at school, students come after lunch every Thursday to sing gospel
bluegrass music. The joy in performing time-tested and well-known gospel songs
with my students has enlivened my classroom.
There’s no credit for students to attend, no requirements,
and no tryouts. They just show up and sing or bring a mandolin, guitar, banjo, upright
bass, or violin. For a dozen years I’ve done this. We sing old gospel songs,
over and over, and they light up, relishing the chance to sing or play a break
on their instrument.
Just about every week my angel band will sing the old
favorite, “My latest sun is sinking fast.” I look forward to this high point in
my week and it thrills my soul with great joy when students sing and perform.
Our little angel band is unpolished and does not compare with the fine music
performed elsewhere on our Mennonite high school campus, but for the weekly
angel band of singers in my classroom, it lifts me near to heaven.
In the third verse, there’s a humorous but haunting phrase
when the song writer heard the “noise of wings.” My mother taught me to listen
for the noise of wings, to look for angelic visits, and not to discount the odd
or extraordinary ways that God meets us through angels. The kids who sing in my
room each week bring me deep joy. I have my dear mother to thank for helping me
see angelic visitors, right in front of me, every Thursday at the end of lunch.
story: A few years ago a young leader in Harrisonburg passed away.
In his prime, a great musician, and involved in a number of kingdom enterprises,
our community mourned his early death. I took off school to attend his mid-day
memorial service at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg.
The Angel Band song brought tears to my eyes and caused me to
weep. Performed by outstanding musicians, I will never forget that moment of
being drawn into an angel band of mourners and musicians, all attempting to
make sense of a death that we found hard to comprehend. Deep joy trickled into
my soul amidst great loss, borne on the wings of an old traditional song with
simple lyrics. In that moment of loss, an angel band of great musicians with
lilting harmonies bore me away on snow white wings, helping release the grief
so deeply embedded in my soul.
story: On October 21, 2018, my congregation held a Sunday morning
worship service to embrace our grief and loss. In the past fourteen months six
adults have passed away. We’re not a large congregation, and these deaths have
impacted us. One of those, my father-in-law, passed away seven months ago, and
to help me cope with his loss, I chose Angel Band as the offertory song. At his
funeral, his sixteen young adult grandchildren sang Angel Band.
During our recent service on grief and loss, I may have
learned how the shepherds felt when they were “sore afraid.” It was at the end
of the second verse of Praise the lord,
sing hallelujah, that I forgot whether we’d sung the last verse. The
refrain is long and I had been working on dynamics and tempo, and the
congregation followed my directing. Enraptured by the soaring sopranos and the
strong bass lines, in the last two measures I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t
remember if we had sung the last verse. With my directing arm raised and poised,
everyone stopped. Embarrassed, I had to ask, “Have we sung the last verse?”
With smiles and shaking heads, they made it clear that we had another verse to
sing. I have a new affinity for the terrified shepherds.
Leading music at church gives me great joy, in spite of my
mistakes and foibles. Usually I am surrounded by excellent musicians who cover
my average musical skills. I am grateful for the weekly “angel band” at church who
enter in with joyful songs, ready smiles, and sincere affirmations.
Join me, during this holiday season, to look for angel bands all around. They are not mysterious, ephemeral, or ghost-like. Angels are those in your world who sing heartily, laugh and listen to you, or who help you deal with the loss of a loved one. Heavenly visitors are near if we can see them, just like the shepherds who saw some sort of an angel band so very long ago.