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Grace at St. James

Yesterday, Voices In Praise sang at St. James Episcopal Church in Lothian, MD. This is an annual tradition for us and it’s nice to see our friends and neighbors there each year. The VIP Guys sang at the 9am service; the VIP Ladies sang at 11am.

In between the services, Josiah Brought shared the news that his father (Pastor Byron Brought) had been reappointed – and that their family would be leaving Friendship for Bel Air this summer. As you can imagine, this news was tough to take. Saying goodbye to a much-loved Pastor and his family (which includes two awesome VIPs!) is a unique sort of heartbreak that Methodist congregations endure.

There is never really a perfect way to hear difficult news, but the VIP Guys certainly had an advantage. They received the news after worship. They had performed well, and were headed home for the day. The VIP Girls had a worship service in front of them, which included a challenging piece.

The VIP Girls were performing a piece called “Grace” by David Brunner. The lyrics are from a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Thou gracious God, whose mercy lends the light of home, the smile of friends, our gathered flock thine arms enfold as in the peaceful days of old. Wilt thou not hear us while we raise in sweet accord of solemn praise the voices that have mingled long in joyous flow of mirth and song? For all the blessings life has brought, for all its sorrowing hours have taught, for all we mourn, for all we keep, the hands we clasp, the loved that sleep. The noontide sunshine of the past, these brief, bright moments fading fast, the stars that gild our darkening years, the twilight ray from holier spheres. We thank thee, Father; let thy grace our loving circle still embrace, thy mercy shed its heavenly store, thy peace be with us evermore.

As you might imagine, warm-up was rough. Crying and singing is never a good combination, and the girls were really struggling. I was, too – hurting in my own way and hurting to see the kids hurting. But we had a job to do. We were a visiting choir and while being at St. James is like being at a dear friend’s house – where it’s ok to cry if you need, too – we were still responsible for presenting music that would contribute to the worship service.

It was asking a LOT, particularly from some of the girls who were very close to the Brought family. But part of being a church musician is worshipping, no matter what. I also think part of being a woman is learning to hold it together when you feel like falling apart. In both cases, you do what needs to be done even when you’d rather do something else. What a lesson for a Sunday morning.

I shared Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans, I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not harm you. And reminded the girls (and myself) that it would be ok and that God has a plan for the Brought family, the Friendship community, and each of us. As we held hands in prayer, we asked for strength. Courage. Peace. Grace.

Worship began and I was still feeling nervous. During warm-up, we never got through the piece without succumbing to our emotions. But then – something happened. The first hymn began and the whole choir and congregation (led by the powerful baritone, Michael Ryan) sang:

Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed, For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go, The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow; For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless, And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply; The flame shall not harm thee; I only design Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose, I will not, I will not, desert to his foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

There it was – the strength of God coming at us in full volume in verses 2-4 of “How Firm a Foundation.” Brie and I grinned, and I offered my silent thanks to God for the message in this hymn. I looked at the choir… they were standing a little taller and smiling at one another. They got the message.

The service continued and it was time for the next hymn: "Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah." Again God’s message was coming through loud and clear in these words (excerpts from the hymn):

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak, but Thou art mighty; Hold me with Thy powerful hand.

Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer, Be Thou still my Strength and Shield; Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.

With every note, I felt better, and stood there amazed and grateful for God’s perfect timing. As I told the girls, when I chose our music for the day – I had no idea that Byron would be leaving. If given a crystal ball, I am not sure that I would have chosen to sing “Grace.” But as I watched this service unfold, it was so comforting to feel God’s hand at work. Any moment we are given to feel God working in our lives is a moment to be cherished.

And then it was time for us to sing. We had two pieces to offer that day and until a minute before we sang, I wasn’t sure which piece we would do at that point in the service. Do you do the heartbreaker first (and get it over with)? Or do you do the other one – the one you won’t cry through? I chose the latter and the women of Voices In Praise stood tall and with a powerful unison voice they sang:

Have courage my soul and let us journey on

Though the night is dark and I am far from home.

Praise be to God, the morning light appears.

The storm is passing over, Alleluia.

And there was great courage. The music was flawless but more than that – there was power in the message and a strength in the singing.

The service continued and we had communion. It was time for “Grace.” On the back of a bulletin I had written, “Be brave.” But I didn’t need to flash my note. As they stood, I looked at these young women. In their eyes was God-given strength. Grit. Power. Sheer determination. They were ready.

The piece was gorgeous. It was, without a doubt, the best performance they have given. I was proud of their music but prouder still of the grace and strength the young women of VIP demonstrated. Thanks be to God for all of them and for his empowering messages to us.

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