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Although I spent six years attending a Catholic Elementary School and four years at Catholic University, I never appreciated the Easter Holiday as much as I did this year. I guess, for me, after losing a part of my heart last fall with the passing of Jane and my dad, the promise of eternal life and the Easter story was more relevant and delivered more peace than I knew possible.
My heart was set on attending Good Friday service. I didn't understand it at first, but I was hesitate to attend the service at my church home. And, not because I don't love my church - because I do. My church family is like non-other and very much my home. However, this particular day I felt like I needed something else. And, especially on this particular day I am glad I followed my instinct.
I knew I wanted to go to Alexandria to see a friend that night, so it made sense for me to go to church there. I started by googling ELCA churches in Alex and I randomly landed on the website of First Lutheran Church. I put the address into my phone and decided without hesitation that First Lutheran Church was the church where I would attend this year's Good Friday service.
For many years as a I child, I felt I sat in church because I HAD to, this year I pleasantly sat in church because I GOT to. Next to the two funerals I attended last fall, this may have been the most powerful service I was lucky enough to witness.
It was no accident that I was a stranger in a strange church. Although I didn't realize it right away, I needed a place to grieve alone. I needed a place where I could cry without being seen. And, I needed a message that felt as if it were written just for me. And, a darkened church, a stranger, songs I don't recall hearing before and a very talented artist provided for me exactly what my heart needed.
I wondered into church and found a seat about 2/3 of the way back that was open. As the church filled up, I was starting to wonder if I was putting off some vibe because no one was sitting next to me when it felt as others were crowding by one another. For a brief moment, I was feeling rejected. Until, a woman walked by and asked if she could sit there. Of course, I said yes. She found her friend and together they sat next to me. The two of them, like myself, were not members of the church. She engaged me in some simple and friendly conversation. And for the rest of the service I felt a warmth on that side of the pew. I felt as if I were literally sitting next to an angel.
The service started and I was surprised that the lights didn't go on. The church was dark withe the exception of a spotlight shining on the guest of honor in front of the church. A man, I later learned to be Pastor Paul Oman, stood up in front with, what I estimate to be an 10 foot by 8 foot, white canvas empty of color except for a couple swooshes of purple brush strokes.
The service began with a welcome and then alternated between eight sets of song, scriptures and silence. As I listened to the music and mediated, I watched the stark white canvas transform. At first, I did not understand what these colored "blobs" were going to be. My eyes couldn't see anything that remotely reflected a picture. I was skeptical that this artist would create anything I would recognize. I was convinced we were watching an abstract artist at work ... until, with a smooth stroke of his arm, he turned the painting upside down. And, as the painting swiveled to its new position, exactly 180 degrees opposite of where it was, the congregation let out a collective and unscripted "awe" in amazement of what had transformed before our very eyes. What, just seconds ago was a blob of color, was now three crucified individuals hanging on their crosses while soldiers emerged in the lower portion of the painting.
As I continued to watch the masterpiece develop, I cried many warm tears. And, boy were they bittersweet tears - not just because of the memories that accompanied the tears but also because of the bittersweet taste that touched my lips. You see, in the darkened church that night I didn't have to wipe away my tears. I could let them gently slide down my face, land on my lips or just melt away.
As the tears flowed, I thought about how watching this artist work on the eve of Jesus' death was similar to watching Jane paint her last masterpiece on the day before she died (exactly 7 months ago today). Not only was the situation an eerie resemblance, but so was the type of painting. Pastor Oman and Jane had something in common - and that was the style and the medium with which they painted.
The painting continued to develop and I remember many times looking up in amazement of the image that was developing before our eyes. By the time the service concluded, so did the artist. It was like a very well choreographed dance. The artwork was amazing. It was a beautiful picture of Jesus dying on the cross in front of soldiers and witnesses, while white rays of sunshine shine down, which felt to me like they were the spirit's elevator to heaven. It was a colorful, bittersweet masterpiece. It was amazing.
But, it wasn't just the artwork that captured my heart that night. It was the combination of how First Lutheran Church chose to tell the story in such a unique way. The combination of scripture, song and art was heartwarming. The songs and scriptures were beautiful arrangements and mostly new to me. The first that tugged a little extra at my heart was titled "The Prayer of the Children". A beautiful and comforting song to me as a mom who loved the reassurance that children are special to God. In a way, it reminded me that death isn't a punishment, rather that it is the promise of everlasting life. The gift beyond all gift's.
That set (of music and scripture) was a reminder to me that God does want his children to come to him. Kids are so innocent and so full of love. I often wonder why kids have to die. It was again during these thoughts that heavy tears flowed from my eyes. It was hard to trust in everlasting life and at the same time try not to be selfish and want Jane to be here sitting beside me like we had on so many days of her life.
The link at the end of this paragraph is a very nice rendition of that song, complete with beautiful pictures. I especially enjoy the sketch of Jesus with the children in heaven. It's exactly the way I hope and envision Jane, without the handicap of cancer, enjoying life now in her body complete. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogU48WZV8WQ
I was surprised at myself that the next song and its accompanying scripture touched me as much as it did. The song was "O, Sacred Head Now Wounded." At then end of that set, I sat in my darkened pew contemplating about what Jane may have been thinking in her last hours on this earth. What thoughts were going through her head when she announced she "was done." I tried putting myself in that bed on the September 6th morning and I really struggle with my thoughts about what may have been going through her 8-year-old brain. It scares me and makes me want to cry every time I think about it. Even though we were beside her all night, I really hope she didn't feel afraid and alone. But, in that set, the words "for all who die believing in me, die safely in my love" gave me a blanket of peace because that I know in my heart of hearts that is true. I know that Jane believed.
If I hadn't cried enough already, I knew just by the name of the next song that I would. It was entitled "Mary's song". I know that I am not a rocket scientist, but generally speaking I consider myself intelligent; however, it wasn't until those moments that I considered a completely different thought about Easter. I began to think about how Mary, Jesus' mom must have felt that night. The pain, the confusion, the agony of watching her child die. I had a "duh" moment. "Duh", Jesus had a mom.
I had spent so much time thinking about Jesus and how he died for us, that I was a little shocked at myself when I thought about how at his death, Jesus had a mom watching him die. During those moments, I remember looking up at the artistic masterpiece as if I was right there standing beside Mary. During those moments I was thinking about Jesus' death through a mother's eyes. It was a weird sense of emotions. It was very moving. I know that Jesus' death is not about his mother, Mary. But, I couldn't help but think that she, like many other moms in that church that night and many other moms on this earth, had to trust that death was not the end.
And, then I heard someone read the words: Jesus said "It is finished and gave up his spirit." I clutched my photos of Jane even tighter as I remember the exact moment that Jane too have given up her spirit. I remember the details, the smell, the tears. And, the singing - oh, how I remember the singing. I remember it all as if we were frozen in time.
The beauty of the service was all the little details. The warmth of what I believe to have been an angel in my pew, a painting similar to Jane's style of painting, the song about the children and the song about Mary, the darkness of the church and the bittersweet tears. It really felt like on that Good Friday, God knew what I needed ... I am glad that I listened quietly to my heart that night and found my way to the beautiful church in Alexandria, Minnesota.
I am also very glad that I shared in the Easter morning service at my church home, Immanuel Lutheran Church, in Wadena. I was surrounded by family and friends. I felt at home. And, when the bittersweet tears dripped down my cheeks in that bright and beautiful church on Easter morning, it was okay.
There were so many beautiful people in the church that morning. And, the music and the scripture (especially the kid's sermon) was all so touching. But, what got to my heart the most was all the kids participating in the service.
I was very happy to be sitting next to my sister and my godson, but oh, how I wish my girls, all three of them, could have been sitting beside me like we had sat together in years past. But, in my heart, I know that Jane was celebrating an Easter better than any of us could imagine and my other two girls were celebrating this beautiful day with their dad.
I felt momentarily sad and selfish that, unlike past years, I wasn't getting to watch my girls proceed into church with a flower, or watch them pick up an instrument and make beautiful music at the end of the service. But, then I almost as instantly as the sadness hit, so did the joy. Joy knowing that no matter where I looked in the church that morning - front, back, left, right or UP... I was loved.
This Easter Season was a gift in so many ways. In a way, it wasn't what I was looking for, but when I pause and think about it was everything I needed.