Ever since I was a child, I have felt things very deeply. Back then, there was no name for it, now we call people like us HSPs, or Highly Sensitive People. It’s seen now as a positive attribute, though at times burdensome. I felt– and still feel– things very intensely. When it involves bad things, that’s not great, but when it’s the good stuff… hoo boy!
Every Christmas, it’s inevitable that I remember the worship services of my childhood. I was in Red Bank for the bulk of that time, and everything about that church left a powerful impression on me. It was a large building, with an entire education wing connected. There was a large, high ceilinged fellowship hall that connected the education wing to the part of the building that housed the sanctuary and offices. The sanctuary was a beautiful, colonial-styled worship center, with a long center aisle that led to the chancel, set apart by a communion railing. Beyond the communion railing the aisle continued up a couple of steps toward the altar. There were two areas for choirs on each side of that aisle, and behind the altar was a huge golden cross, looming above us all. The pulpit, as I said before, was elevated above the congregation, like a little cup in which the pastor (my father) stood. There was a light hanging down just above the pulpit, as a kind of spotlight or manufactured aura. On the other side of that section was a lectern for the associate pastor to read the Bible from.
I loved that sanctuary. The ceiling was high and came together in arches, and everything drew your eyes toward the beautiful cross up front. While we were there, the church commissioned to have a German pipe organ installed in the balcony. It was quite impressive (and expensive), but the sound was incredible. I remember often feeling the bass notes of the organ vibrating under my feet as the music encapsulated us all in its strains. Everything lifted our hearts upward as the organ was played.
The center of my worship memories in Red Bank is the Christmas Eve candlelight services. It was a long room, that held several hundred people at a time. There were no fire codes yet that affected churches, so at the end of each pew on both sides were long poles, at the top of which was a lighted candle. Red Bank had a strong music program at that time, so there were several choirs. I made my way up from the children’s choirs into the junior high choir. As children, we processed in with electric candles, but when we got to junior high, we were trusted with our own lit candles. All the choirs were included on Christmas Eve. I remember standing nervously in the Fellowship Hall, all of us, short and tall and in between, robed and ready. All but the children’s choirs held a large candle with aluminum foil at the bottom to catch the wax, and someone was assigned the task of lighting all of our candles before the first notes of the processional hymn began.
I was so nervous those first couple of times with a real candle. I had to hold my candle steady in my left hand and my hymnal in my right, singing and walking forward. I was so afraid I was going to lights someone’s hair on fire, trip and fall into the person in front of me, or forget to step up on the stairs leading into the chancel. Both of my hands were sweaty, making it hard to balance my hymnal in one hand and my candle in the other. But when we got to threshold of the sanctuary and heard the opening notes of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” all of that anxiety turned into awe and nervous excitement. It was like walking into Never Never Land, or HersheyPark at Christmas time. So much light! The organ’s notes made the floor underneath my feet vibrate, and the sound of the organ and hundreds of people’s voices singing “O Come let us adore Him…” was enough to make my heart burst. I tempted fate by looking up as I walked, seeing all the candlelight pierce the darkness of the room as we sang and followed the trustworthy guidance of the organ’s notes. I always managed to not trip up the steps and solemnly followed my choir mates into our pew at the front of the church. We had the best seats in the house to look out at all the people, many of whom only came once or twice a year, packed in while wearing their nicest clothes, with the candelight above their heads illuminating their faces. They looked like angels to me. I was a bit dizzy with the music and the lights and the smell of sulfur as we blew out our candles when the lights came on.
We nervously filed out into the center aisle in the chancel to sing our songs, my hands sweaty again on the music folder. I concentrated on keeping my grip on the music and not losing my place, aware of the heat of the lights and the candles and hundreds of faces starting at us. I always looked around and behind me to make sure there was a pathway for me to exit in case I felt the need to throw up.
The end, of course, was always the best part. They turned all the lights out again, allowing the candles on the end of the pews to be the only light at first. My father and his two associates stood in the center and lit the candles of the ushers, who would then venture out into the darkness to light the candles of the parishioners. I envied my father in that moment. If I ever thought of being a pastor back then, it was to be in that position. To stand up front in the billowy black robe with my big candle, looking out onto all the innocent, clean faces, lit up in the night as we sang. I looked out at the sea of faces as they leaned toward one another to light their candles off of each others’. Even the Church/Easter attenders knew most of the words to the hymn by heart. For a few minutes, all of our faces were lit up in the vast darkness of the sanctuary, the organ playing more gently, and my heart felt like it was beating its way out of my chest. I always worried a bit about passing out from the heat, the close bodies and my racing heart, but for a few moments, I also felt the peace. All is calm, all is bright. No matter what was going on in our lives, in that moment we were all ok. No matter what fears I carried with me daily, what anxieties made it hard for my adolescent body to sleep at night, in that moment everything was ok. I loved Jesus and God and Mary and Martha and Moses and Abraham and Bartholomew and Peter and all those bumbling disciples that I read about in the church library. It was like I could bathe in the light, assured that I was ok, that God loved me just as I was–sweaty hands, racing heart, painfully shy and terrified little me. Like a light came down from heaven and lit us all up and said, “all is calm, all is bright.”
Sometimes, when I’ve felt God’s distance or wondered if God’s answering the phone anymore, I think back to memories and images like that. Sometimes all I need is to go back to the basics. Light in the dark. Music that pierces right through the middle of you and shakes you up and threatens to knock you out. I didn’t have the words for it all back then. But it was Grace. Joy. The Light that will never be put out by the darkness, no matter how dark it gets. The smell of pine and of candles and sulfur and the feel of melted wax on my fingers… all take me back to that sanctuary.
And I remember the Light. And for a moment again, all is calm. All is bright. And that’s all I need for now.