My family history in church music began here.
My aunt, Bea Ensley Meeks, is second from the left on the front row. My grandmother, Ethel Ensley (later Harrington), is last on the right in the same row. My grandfather, Ralph, who died long before I was born, is second from the left in the middle row. He served as director of the choir at Fieldale Methodist Church. His pitch pipe and hymnal marker sit on the bookcases in my house. My dad, Gene Ensley, is next to last on the right in the back row. He had to have been only a teenager.
I was 13 when I started singing in the adult choir at Fieldale Church. Here’s my confession for today: I pretty much stopped singing in the church choir about 5 years ago. At first I said it was because of my schedule and needing to take some time away. Then came General Conference of 2012, and other than one funeral, a few Sundays of song leading, and a very occasional anthem or special, there’s been no singing other than hymns. Steve has often asked why. I’ve been unable to articulate a good explanation. Until now.
This journey to General Conference 2016 has already been filled with many challenging moments and experiences. In late December, I decided that I had to find someone to walk along beside me. I must also admit…since I’m in a confessing mood…that I’m one of those midlife Boomers really struggling with the role, if any, I see the institutional church taking to help me and others with what Richard Rohr calls the “second half of life questions.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life)
A few weeks ago, the conversation with my Spiritual Director turned to tap roots of trees. Some trees develop them, others do not. Some of us have them in our spiritual lives, others do not. Our conversation went on to the seasons in our lives when branches must be pruned for new growth to take place. When asked what I had pruned from my spiritual life, “music” came immediately from my mouth. …Sometimes you just need that person in your life who asks the right questions.
That night, I downloaded a playlist of hymns and anthems that have been meaningful to me over the last 15 years or so. The next time I was traveling alone in the car, I sang along with them all…and came to the realization that the reason my heart had not been in singing was the hurt and deep emotions experienced at General Conference in 2012. The songs I had downloaded were all by contemporary hymn and anthem composers and shared common themes: seeing God in one another, seeking to be like Jesus, offering love instead of legalities, putting faith into action, seeking justice. It hit me like a brick that my challenge was in singing the words and melodies that touched my soul while living in the Body of Christ that does not always seem to practice what we say we believe.
I sang along with the playlist again this morning as I traveled to Culpeper. Right as I came to the top of the knoll that offers one of the most beautiful views of the mountains, with all the dogwoods and flowering trees in full bloom, and fields of purple clover stretched before me, the chorus of my favorite hymn began:
“Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow Me.
I will bring you home.
I love you and you are mine.”
(“You Are Mine,” David Haas)
Another David Haas song followed:
“Come to the song, come to the dance,
Bring all you are, and all you can be.
Come with your voice, come with your heart.
Come and journey with Me.”
(“Come and Journey with Me”)
And the tears flowed. No church-bound worship experience could have brought me to the same place this morning. Especially after the last delegation meeting before General Conference. Especially after months of questions.
On the way home, the words that brought the tears were from Shirley Erena Murray’s “For Everyone Born” (“…a voice to be heard, a part in the song…”) and Mark Miller’s “I Dream of a Church” (“I dream of a place we all can call home….”). Certainly not the same type of words that my family sang when they stood for the picture above, but the same love of the church and its people.
The start of General Conference is only 5 weeks away. What song will it cause to be sung… or left unheard – for a day, for a week, for 5 years, forever?