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It had rained with biblical proportions for days. Roads were washed out...yards were flooded. Pools of standing rain could be seen everywhere. Local meteorologists repeatedly urged people to refrain from using the highways and byways. The clarion call was “stay home.” However, a workshop and concert offered by an internationally renowned musician, liturgist and songwriter had long been planned and organized.
Wonderment was rampant. Would flights still be available so the speaker could arrive on time? Would U.S. 17 be passable? Would participants venture into the darkened, rain-soaked roads?
With modifications, including a hectic two-hour rehearsal, the show went on. Parishioners and friends soon learned the concert was to be a participatory event. Resplendent in a suit he pressed half an hour before taking his place in the sanctuary, Tom Kendzia smiled encouragement as he informed us no one was excluded from singing.
Now was the time to learn singing was not a practice for the elite. It was not the job of the choir, no matter how professional they were. It was the privilege of the community. There were no wrong voices, only prayerful ones. All were welcome and a great surprise awaited us. As one person told me, “Just wait. You’re in for a treat.”
The sanctuary came to life with the sound of music. What is more important, it was our music, sung as only we could sing it; toe tapping and clapping of hands included. Accustomed to the more formal organ music, we were led into the world of music uniquely North American—the Negro spiritual.
I recalled the comments offered by one of my college professors some 51 years ago: “Negro spirituals are the closest expression of the Gospel you will ever find.”
Those words were deeply imbedded in my being, though I was not aware of it. I considered them new information to be stored away for future use. Tom Kendzia brought them to life and gave them a newness that went far beyond information and knocked at the door of transformation. He spoke of the power in the words of those spirituals. There is power in their simplicity, power in the emotions they evoke, power in the physicality they encourage. Hands cannot keep from clapping nor toes from tapping when those songs enter our spirit.
The repetition of words is like a hammer pounding a nail into thick layers of wood or a knife peeling away onion layers to get to the innermost core. One or two words echo endlessly until they reach the heart of our being to take residence there in the sweet harmony of God meeting humanity and humanity greeting God.
Syncopated rhythms caused rigid limbs to relax, even to sway with the music. Clearly our bodies and minds were engaged and found companionship with our spirits. We were caught by and in an unexpected and enthralling theology, one that slowly introduced us to the wonder of transformation. This was the Gospel, God’s spell, in song and we were singing it.
A simple translation of words, one that came closest to where we lived, demonstrated the transporting potency of song. The familiar “Kumbaya” was translated into “Come by here” and it made all the difference. Singing really was praying, even praying twice as the old adage proclaimed. As a vocal community that recognized its own impoverishment, that knew its own failures and powerlessness, we begged: “Come by here, O Lord, come by here.”
Come by here to help us as we help the mourners...the sick...the disabled...the poor. Come by here as we laugh with the joyful and cry with the sorrowful. Come by here to give us strength to continue when we are ready to stop trying, ready to resign ourselves to failure. Come by here to remind us that we are loved more for our efforts than for our successes. O Lord, just come by here.
The music was not confined to Negro spirituals. They were both appetizer and dessert to enhance and make more real the typical fare of church music. Both organ and piano, singly and together, provided the background for hymns sung with gusto.
For me, the highlight was a song entitled “Now is the Time.” Words and music entered my heart. Belief deepened. I was drawn into the reality that we have but one time in our lives, the present moment. We have now and none other. Now is the time to seek God’s presence, to ask for the intensity of God’s grace and spirit.
In prayerful song, a whole community sought the presence of God, asking God to take hold of our hearts, minds, and whole being. We asked for the Spirit of love, hope and light to join us in the sanctuary of our lives. We interceded with and for each other to have God make us God’s own, not that God had not already done that but that we would recognize the divinity that dwelled in us.
More than a concert or workshop or interactive presentation, Tom Kendzia offered the congregation a renewal experience. In words and music, he taught us that being renewed is a joyful time, a time of peace and love in the midst of conflict and pain. He taught us, not by preaching but by engaging us in the process. He taught us with his own enthusiasm, his own spiritual presence.
Totally unaware of the passage of time, I could have remained in the sanctuary forever—clapping, singing, flooded with God’s presence in me and all around me. Like Peter, James and John, I would have liked to be tented with God in that place. But, the music impelled us forward and outward. It graced us with faith that commands action. So we left that holy place to enter the holiness of all creation. We left uplifted and encouraged to experience new awareness, to find God everywhere. We left knowing that now is the time to let God take hold of us entirely. Now is the time to be holy by being wholly human. Now is the time.