Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Easter Revelation

“Page NINE!” he mouthed in desperation while flapping his arms. That is what it took for me to relax and enjoy what will probably forever be my most memorable Easter “performance”.

As many of you who read this know, I attend Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, Iowa, and have since its inception 16 or so years go. I like to consider myself the “original” child singer of the church J and have grown up as part of worship ministry in one form or another. One of the things I love to do most is connect people to God through a song.

Anyway, if you know Hope, to say Easter is a celebration is a bit of an understatement. I know this style of service is not for everyone, but for some 18,000 people this past weekend, it was their church of choice to celebrate the resurrection. And while they might not have realized it, some 4,000 or so of those 18,000 witnessed an Easter miracle right in front of their eyes.

I am very fortunate to almost always be involved in Easter services at Hope in one way or another. This year, I was asked to sing a duet with my good friend, Bridget, at all of the services, and we readily accepted. Revelation Song is just one of those songs that, once you hear it done by a certain person or people, no one else can do it justice. For example: John Cheatem and Amazing Grace. Or really anything he sings, but he’s an exception. I’ve never really had a song like that before, but I would say Revelation Song, when sung with Bridget, comes the closest. Sorry Philips, Craig, and Dean, but you got nothin’ on us :)

So there I was, ready to start the “marathon of services” as we like to call it, at 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon. We would be singing at six services that weekend, and the first is usually a little bumpy because, well, it’s the first time we see the entire service unfold. This year, however, we didn’t have a bump in the road: the San Andreas Fault opened up right in the middle of the service. And somehow I was charged with bridging the gap.

Last month, we Iowans, specifically West Des Moinians, had the delight of watching Hope’s own Kaitlyn Epperly make the top 24 of American Idol, season 9. As an on-and-off watcher of the show, it was nice to see one of the very people I always thought could do well on the show actually make it. When Kaitlyn was prematurely and surprisingly cut from the show, she became available to sing at Hope for the Saturday evening Easter services. She would sing “Call on Jesus” with our church choir, which she had done a few years before, at the 4 and 6:30 p.m. services.

She showed up for rehearsal, did her thing, and left for a couple hours to get ready. Thankfully I caught the end of her rehearsal, although in hindsight, I sure wish I had paid closer attention to what she was singing! The 4:00 service rolled around, the service started smoothly, and we were off and running.

After the opening songs, I left the worship center and was chatting with Bridget and Chris Petrick. We were just hanging out when the music began for the offering piece, “Call on Jesus”. I was subconsciously listening to the music: I think mostly because I wasn’t expecting to hear that song. I thought Kaitlyn was only singing at the 6:30 service, so I was a little confused, but immediately dismissed my confusion and went back to my conversation. Until I heard where she was supposed to start singing, and noticed the introduction loop back. I said to Chris, “Something’s not right….Kaitlyn missed her cue or something, she should be singing right now”. We both went into the worship center to see what was going on, and realized that while the choir was in place, the pianist had started playing, and the offering plates were being passed, there was no Kaitlyn on stage.

The details past this point get fuzzy in my mind. I don’t know if it was the speed at which the next things occurred, the adrenaline, or simply God taking over that caused the fuzziness, but I will do the best I can to relay how the next five minutes transpired. Somehow I figured out that Kaitlyn had not shown up. I’m not sure if someone told me, or I just figured it out or what, but when I realized what was happening, I didn’t even pause for a second to think, I just heard “GO!” in my head, and I went. Somehow in high heels and a dress that didn’t exactly allow for long strides, I ran backstage. At some point I thought, “This is dumb, just stay out of the way and let someone else figure it out. It isn’t your problem to deal with and you will just delay the solution.” But yet my feet kept running. I opened the backstage door and found a wide-eyed music director trying to figure out what to do. I quickly approached Perry and before I even knew what I was doing, I said, “Do you want me to try it?” The look on Perry’s face was priceless: it was a combination of fear, hope, and skepticism all rolled in to one expression. He asked if I knew it well enough to do that, and I said I wasn’t sure. He handed me a microphone and we walked to the stage curtain. I asked if there were words; if I had words, I would be fine. He said no. I peeked out of the curtain and met our choir director’s intense gaze as he was desperately looking for some form of rescue to come through that curtain. I remember thinking, “What else are they going to do?!?!” So, I pointed to myself and with a flick of Mike’s wrist, my feet were walking once again.

I walked across the stage and planted myself somewhere toward the middle-left of the stage. I think maybe I felt less conspicuous back there than front and center, which sounds silly really, but then again I clearly wasn’t thinking straight. I knew I had the first words ok, so I started in and away we went.

The start of the song was somewhat of a train wreck. I made up some words because I couldn’t remember the right ones; I remember thinking, “Just sing about Jesus and you’ll be fine!” I still have no idea what words came out of my mouth. Then I skipped an entire verse because I had no idea what the words were, and went straight to the bridge of the song. To say that this confused the band would be an understatement. The pianist was lost. The drummer had no idea where to come in. And then apparently it was just a little too easy for them because I decided to skip the second half of the instrumental interlude and jump in with another verse. All while this was happening, I could feel myself shaking, wanting to shut down and just admit defeat, but yet I just had this overwhelming confidence that it would work out. I kept thinking, “If I can just get to where the choir comes in, it will all fall together.” That’s when I looked over and saw him.

As the pianist was frantically leafing through her music, mouthing, “I don’t know where we are!”, I saw our choir director, with his flapping arms directing the choir, “shout” (as much as you can shout in a whisper) to her “PAGE NINE!!”. That was all it took for me to relax and know that we would be fine.

The choir came in on cue and carried us out the rest of the song. If there was a part I was unsure of, I had the choir to cover it and back me up. Once I was past the part where I felt like I was on some frantic lyrical game show, I was able to enjoy singing a song I’ve always wanted to sing with a choir I always love to sing with.

Now I’ll take you inside the story and explain why this was truly a miracle. First, even though I sing quite often, I sometimes get bad stage fright. I let my nerves get the best of me, and it’s something I’ve always struggled with. The longer I have to sit and think about it, the more nervous I get. So, it was truly miraculous that God made all of this happen so quickly because if I had had time to think about it, I honestly think I would have stage fright-ed my way out of doing it. No, I KNOW I would have. Second, let’s consider the fact that I was even there for this service. Had I not been asked to sing Revelation Song for every service, I most certainly would not have been there, and definitely not ready to sing at the drop of a hat. I was not in the bathroom, or seated in the congregation, even though my family and my in-laws were all there. I thought about sitting with them, but decided that since it was the very first service, I didn’t want to risk missing my cues so I would just remain in the backstage/lobby area. And then there’s the fact that I showed up in time to hear Kaitlyn’s rehearsal earlier that day. Had I not seen it, I wouldn’t have been able to pull off as much of the song as I did.

Then there’s the vocal side of this. There’s the fact that Kaitlyn and I happen to have similar enough voices that I could do the song. This part gets a little musically technical, but here it is anyway. People think singing is easy for me, but it’s not. I have to deliberately rehearse what I’m going to sing because I actually don’t have that great of a chest voice range. So to compensate, I often bring my head voice down and make it sound as much like my chest voice as I can, but it MUST be rehearsed. Otherwise, I risk cracking/shouting or sounding weenie in a really powerful moment. Yet somehow this song fit perfectly in my register, unrehearsed. And honestly, I have sung along to that song in my car before: there are notes that I was very concerned about hitting and yet, I hit them with less effort than songs I’ve sung a million times.

Then there was, I would say, the biggest factor of them all: I went. If I had been on my own that day, I would not have gone. I felt little bits of me bubbling up at every crossroad, but God instantly smashed those thoughts with His own. As my feet stumbled and turned away from the backstage door, He righted my path and kept me going in His direction. And as my mind collapsed around the actual words of the song, He gave me words to sing.

As soon as I was done and walked off the stage, my thoughts returned to me and I remember thinking, “What did I just DO….” I would later tell Joel, “Who DOES that? Who willingly gets up in front of 4,000 people to sing a song she doesn’t know?” I can honestly say, not me. Not me apart from God, that is. But with God, he prepared me and gave me the tools for the moment he would call to me and say “GO!”.

The next day, I learned that Revelation Song was being bumped from the sermon. I thought the service felt bit disjointed, but that was not the solution I was hoping for. Perry can tell you, I was more than a little peeved when I heard this. We gave a lot of time to prepare for and rehearse that song and to come to every service, and we are not paid staff members. And honestly, I felt like it was kind of a huge slap in the face after the previous evening. But then I started considering this: maybe the reason God had me singing at all the services had nothing to do with the song I had prepared and labored over for a month. Perhaps it was simply the excuse for me to be present when God came knocking. And while my plan was to sing the heck out of one song, God had a different plan and chose to move through a different song, maybe even more powerfully. Quite a revelation (pun….ha ha) compared to how I first reacted.

Now, if anyone needs proof that God has a sense of humor: a mere hours before this all happened, I was listening to John rehearse his song and I commented to someone that the reason John is so good is that he just feels the music and lets whatever is in his heart come out of his mouth – which is different every single time. I can’t do that, I have to rehearse exactly what I’m going to sing and do it the same every time with minimal improvisation. Little did I know God was preparing me for the biggest improvisation of my life in just a couple hours. And I have to say, it felt pretty good to put all the logistics aside for once and sing only what God orchestrated. Those of us on that stage truly did have to call on Jesus, because without him we were toast. I would like to think that if God had chosen to speak audibly to me after the song, he would have said, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Well done.”

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