Union Ridge Church

Thursday, December 15, 2022

by Reverend Dan on December 15, 2022
I love those moments when God catches you off guard and you can feel His presence intensely. When He reminds you that He’s never far away.
For pastors, the Christmas season is exhausting and at times overwhelming. There’s increased counseling, especially for those congregants who have lost a loved one during the year and it’s their first Christmas without that person. Their grief is palpable. Then there are all the extra church activities (Christmas programs, Advent functions, Christmas Eve Service.) There’s pastoral care for the angst before family gatherings and the anger after them. (Fill in your own blank on this one – everyone has a story about what Uncle Bill did at the Christmas family get-together last year and what they’re afraid he’ll do this year.) This year we can throw in a resurgence of Covid and the flu just for the fun of it. And all the while, you’re trying to keep things at home as normal as possible so your family can celebrate and enjoy the season.

As a result of all this, there has to be a release, an outlet, to deal with everything. So, to keep myself sane (no judgments or questioning the psychiatrist, please), I play the piano. It’s my refuge. I hide behind the keys and play out frustrations and every negative emotion the season brings. Last week I received a call from a good friend (and incredibly talented singer) who works at a funeral home here in town asking if I could play for an upcoming funeral. Absolutely – I’ll always help a friend if I can, and playing piano at a funeral is actually a quiet reprieve from the craziness of Christmas. I know that probably sounds odd, finding solace and respite behind the piano at a funeral. And it probably is. I’m just wired weird that way. (Say “wired weird” 3 times really fast.)

But I never expected what was about to happen. I arrived at the funeral home a few minutes early just to make sure Michael and I were in the same key when the songs started, and to see what songs the family wanted for their processional and recessional into and out of the chapel. (I play “by ear” so not a lot of prep time is needed. I read music about like I run these days; I know what to do, but it never turns out well.) Everything was set, and just before the funeral, I greeted the pastor performing the funeral as he walked in. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and it was good to catch up. The whole time I never got up from the piano bench, almost like it was willing me to stay there. When it was time, I began to play a prelude as they brought the casket into the chapel. And at that moment, something happened. This peace, a Christmas peace that really did pass all understanding, settled on me. It was like everything inside me immediately became calm. Like in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special when the lights go down and everything stops, and Linus recites the birth narrative from Luke. I played “Rock of Ages” and it sounded – and felt - like it never had before. Then when the family was ready to come in and John asked everyone to stand, I began to play “Peace in the Valley.” Sweet, precious peace in the midst of the Christmas storm. By that point, something inside me had changed. I was calm, no stress, relaxed. John gave the invocation and some words of comfort and then he prayed, and Michael stood up to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I’ve heard and played it countless times, but this time, something was different. There was a verse I had never heard before and the words were so powerful I could feel them deep down in my soul. I wanted to get up from the piano while John gave the eulogy but was afraid to move. I didn’t want to lose that feeling. So, I sat there, transfixed on the piano and what it seemed to be doing to me. Then I heard John praying, and Michael stood up to sing again. “It is Well with My Soul.” Indeed, it was. John gave the benediction, and as I played, “The Old Rugged Cross” and then “Amazing Grace” for the family to process out, tears were rolling down their cheeks. And mine as well. I had never met the woman whose funeral it was, but her and my God showed up and as He walked her up the steps to Glory, he also reached down to a worn down, tired old preacher that afternoon to remind me of the real reason for Christmas.

At some point I realized everyone had left the sanctuary, but I kept playing. God and I were having a private worship. Finally, I stopped but was in a totally different place than when I walked into the funeral home. Things weren’t so heavy on my heart or in my mind. Christmas had come home. Not the one we’ve created that threatens to send us over the edge of sanity at 100 miles per hour. The one that God brought us so many years ago in a manger in Bethlehem. The Prince of Peace was here. And He came directly to my heart.

Thanks be to God for visits when and where you least expect them. Like that tiny little village in Bethlehem, and behind a piano at a funeral home in Burlington. Immanuel – God with us.​​​​​​​