Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Why I'm Going to Hell

(aka: Why I Can’t Go to the Congregational Church in My Hometown for a Christmas Eve Service Ever Again)

When I was growing up, my family belonged to a church. It was a Congregational Church, and we went every Sunday. Looking back, I remember it more for the sense of community it gave me for any Biblical learning that took place.

When my family moved to Maine, my parents looked to find a church right away in an effort to get us better connected to our new community. We started at the Congregational Church, but found that the ministers weren’t as engaging as we’d like. We tried the Unitarian Universalist Church, but felt it wasn’t as denominational as we’d like. Then we tried the Methodist Church, and felt we had found a winner. The Minister was engaging and gave interesting sermons (even for those of us who were in 7th and 3rd grade) and the music was wonderful.

People greeted us with smiles and welcomed us to the church that first week... and the next week… and every week after that for 6 months. And finally we decided that we weren’t going to find a new church that gave us the same sense of community and belonging as our old church, and we stopped going. This worked out well for my sister and me, as we weren’t too keen on getting dressed up on Sundays to go sit in church and listen to someone talk (even if he was good at it). Even though we no longer attended church regularly, we still went on Easter and Christmas Eve. However, when the minister at the Methodist Church moved away we lost the very weak ties we had to that church, and realized we might need to shop around for another church for Christmas Eve services.

We ended up at the Congregationalist Church again, and found the service to be decent. The minister was the father of a schoolmate of mine, and there were always a few highlights such as the “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” sung by the youth choir (song that is linked to is an approximation of the arrangement actually sung by the choir – not quite the same tune, but definitely in the same spirit) and the singing of “Silent Night” by candlelight at the end.

Over time, however, the Christmas Eve service went from decent to bad. It was a gradual process – so gradual that we didn’t notice it right away. It began with a few obscure Christmas songs being added into the service. Now I’m all for introducing the congregation to new songs, but I believe that at a Christmas Eve service, people want to belt out their favorite hymns, and not new ones. The musical director at this church apparently feels differently and likes to use the Christmas Eve service as an opportunity to introduce new and never-before-heard-by-anyone-in-the-congregation tunes.

The congregation always dutifully trudges through whatever obscure song has been chosen, while the choir sings loudly in an effort to help us find our way. That method worked ok for a few years, but the choir has shrunk over time, and is now down to 13 people. Additionally, the youth choir is no longer in existence, so the singing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is now done by the “Youth Choir Alumni,” so depending on the year, this can either be impressive, or… not.

Which brings us to tonight…

On our way to the Congregational Church, we joked about finding a new church for Christmas Eve service, because the obscure musical selections had gotten so painful, so I guess I was primed for a breakdown before I even knew it.

We arrived at church a little later than we usually do, and ended up in the back row. We sat down and looked through the program and found the youth alumni choir and some Christmas classics such as “O Come All Ye Faithful” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.”

…And then there were the not-so-classic tunes such as “Watcher, Tell Us of the Night” “Jesus, Our Brother, Strong and Good” and (I am not making this up) “Sheep Fast Asleep (Japanese carol sung in English).”

Well, we got through the Processional and the Invocation with no trouble, but this is where the wheels began to come loose. The choir (made up, I remind you, of 13 people) sang an anthem that either needed to be sung by many more people or by people who had confidence in their singing skills, because there were a good many points in time when the piece was actually painful to listen to.

The First Lesson was fine, followed by our first obscure hymn “Watcher, Tell Us of the Night” which the congregation managed to plod through acceptably. The Second Lesson was also fine, followed by the choir singing an anthem that was actually almost sweet. The Third Lesson was fine as well, but it was followed by the obscure “Japanese carol sung in English” and that, dear readers, is where I began to lose it.

It started with the music when I went to look in my hymnal and found I couldn’t read the words. My dad saw my confusion and pointed to the bottom two lines, which were written in English. I giggled, then got ready to sing. Except when it came time to sing, the congregation just couldn’t do it. There was a lot of soft humming and words kind of coming out, and I’m sure everyone really was trying, but no one seemed to be able to get the tune, and the choir that was only 13-strong couldn’t sing loud enough to lead us (or weren’t all that confident in their ability to sing the song either). And so despite a fine effort to keep singing, I began to laugh. Not an out loud laugh of course, but the quiet, to-yourself kind.

Except that everyone knows that keeping a laugh in only makes it bigger and stronger, and no matter how much I tried to breathe slowly and contain my laughter, it just kept coming. By the time the second verse began (thank goodness for everyone involved that there were only two verses), I was shaking in my seat from my laughter and because she was sitting next to me, watching me struggle to contain myself, my mother had joined me.

I was crying because I was laughing so hard, and leaned over and asked my mother for a tissue. She was also bent in half laughing, but managed to find a pile of tissues in her pocket. However, when she pulled them out, it became clear that they had changed consistency since they were originally put in that pocket. You see, while tissues that have recently been placed in a pocket come out in one piece when grabbed, tissues that have sat in a pocket for a time actually crumble when removed. Which, of course, is what happened when my mother reached for her tissue supply. So instead of handing me a tissue, she handed me multiple shredded pieces of a few tissues.

Which, of course, got us laughing even harder. Which, of course, got us crying even harder. And all the while, Dad on one end next to me, and my sister on the other end next to my mom dutifully struggled through “Sheep Fast Asleep.”

The above story was embarrassing enough, kind readers. Though we didn’t have people sitting behind us to see our hysterics, we did have the ushers standing in the back and they were sure to have seen us. I pulled myself together by the end of the song, but the story does not end there.

Of course it doesn’t.

Because it was in the Fourth Lesson that something that might not have been funny if I hadn’t already been on the edge, became hysterical. The Fourth Lesson is Luke 2:13-14 “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests’”

Well, that’s what the Fourth Lesson would have sounded like if the minister hadn’t coughed when he got to the “Glory to God…” part. He stopped and cleared his throat and tried again. Same cough, same place. He excused himself and cleared his throat and took a drink of water and this, gentle readers, is when you learn why it is that I am going to hell because when this minister was struggling to read a passage from the BIBLE – the Holy Book – and he kept coughing at the exact same place over and over again, I laughed.

Yes, I laughed. It was a quick, loud burst of noise, which I immediately attempted to cover with a few coughs, but I didn’t fool anyone. I re-focused and tried to calm myself, but (you can’t make this stuff up) it happened AGAIN. Third try – same cough, same place. I was doubled over, shaking, clutching a crumbled, useless tissue to my face, but I did find some comfort in hearing the rest of the congregation let out a few nervous giggles.

So the Minister turned the Fourth Lesson over to the Associate Minister, who managed to read the passage with no coughing interruptions. We got through the Fifth and Sixth Lessons and their Carols and Anthems and were back on track to finish the service with no more losses of focus, until The Offertory Anthem, as sung by – you guessed it – the Youth Choir Alumni.

Last year, there were at least 8-10 young adults who got up to sing, but tonight there were just 6. And after the first section where there are many high notes and long phrases, it was clear that no one had practiced this song since they last sang it a year ago, and they knew it. And so while four of them diligently sang on, two of them worked hard to sing while suppressing giggles. Which of course made me lose it again.

I once again pulled myself together for the Doxology, and then my favorite part – the lighting of the candles. The church lights get turned down and everyone stays seated and holds a lit candle in front of them. As the notes from “Silent Night” faded away, we listened to the prayer and benediction, and then the congregation stood up to sing the final hymn (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”). I had managed to quiet my laughter at this point, finding some calm by focusing on the beauty of the familiar songs I was singing, so I wasn’t prepared when I heard my sister whisper to my mom, “Mom – Wait! We’ve still got a song to sing!” and turned to see my mom putting on her jacket and getting ready to leave instead of standing to sing the final hymn.

Again, a fit of giggles. Again, I got it together to sing the hymn. The organist began the Postlude and I have never seen people leave a church so quickly as we did. It was very nearly a run to the car, and when we got in it, we collapsed into laughter. Yes, it was embarrassing to have reduced to a pile of laughter and tears in the middle of a Christmas Eve service, but there was something to pure and so joyful about that emotion - and about sharing that moment with my family - that I don't regret it. Not one bit.

All the same, we think perhaps it might be a good idea for us to try a Christmas Eve service at another church next year.

Friday, December 14, 2007

When the World Gives You Snow, Give the World Cookies

First, let me say this: I AM DONE. DONEDONEDONEDONEDONE. No more classes for a month. It still has not set in that I won't be in class every night of the week, but I already feel the weight of the 6,000 papers that have been handed in is off my shoulders, and I'm looking forward to a day in the not-so-distant future when the fog of exhaustion has also lifted. Soon.

Second, I will say that as exciting as it is to be done, it is also a bit anticlimactic, since our final two classes were cancelled last night because of the snowstorm that swept through. Now I'm all for snow days (especially since I haven't had one in over 10 years), but to have one on the last night of class with a professor I really like and who I may not have again next semester was kind of a let-down. (Nerd alert: I'm also bummed to have not gotten my final papers back from her, because I would have been able to know my grades)

That said, I managed to have a most excellent adventure last night with three other friends from school. We went out for a celebratory dinner, and then headed back to a friend's house who lived nearby. From her apartment, we could look down on the street below where the cars were not moving. At all. For 30 minutes we looked down at the chaos below, and cars didn't move.

And so we four social workers started feeling bad for the people stuck in their cars, and decided that we would make cookies for them. So off we trekked to the supermarket a few blocks away (stopping to help push a minivan into the parking lot on our way) to buy a few tubs of ready-made Tollhouse cookie mix and some candy canes, then back to the apartment to make the cookies, and then out to the street to spread our cookie-love.

It was fun. There were many drivers that ignored us, or rolled down their windows, heard that we were offering free cookies, and then shook their heads and rolled them back up. But there were even more drivers who got big smiles on their faces and thanked us. One man said he'd been in his car for 3 hours, and he had only come from 2 miles away. Another woman said she'd been in her car for 9 hours trying to get home. These people were exhausted and though we couldn't get them home any more quickly, we could at least give them a moment of happiness with a chocolate chip cookie or two.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Dangers of December

1. Lack of sleep. This lack of sleep can come from the increase in studying and papers due, or from the inability to sleep due to a freezing cold bedroom. If you're battling both, forget it.

2. Anxiety-provoking Patriots games. I'm glad I was in the library and away from the television for most of last night. In the end, though, the Patriots (and my lucky underwear) came through.

3. Icy sidewalks. I walk a mile and a half each morning to the hospital. Usually this walk takes me 30 minutes. Since the snow/slush storm yesterday, and the subsequent plumeting temperatures, the sidewalks on which I walk to work have become trecherous, and my walk time has increased by at least 15 minutes. I am forced to do the funny penguin walk in an effort to keep from slipping. (Sidenote: Dear Trader Joe's, You know how much I love you, so please love me back and de-ice the death traps that are your sidewalks. Thanks! -Fibby) And as if icy sidewalks aren't trecherous enough, today I faced...

4. Wild turkeys. Yes, it's true, Brookline has wild turkeys, and they hog the sidewalks and make awful noises and look like they're going to charge at any minute. Always fun to be on guard against a wild turkey attack first thing in the morning.

A longer post later on the excitement that was my weekend (hint: it involved electricity and the fire department), but for now, back to work...