I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.

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All flesh shall see it together

Last night, due to the cancellation of coffee shop gig by a local Celtic family band (more on them later, hopefully), I had the unexpected joy of attending a community choir’s performance of the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah.  I always have something of a beatific experience when hearing Messiah live–I’m usually one of the first to spring to my feet when the Hallelujah chorus begins.  This time, however, I had the additional pleasures of a beautiful setting and good companions.

The performance took place in a lovely old church, the kind that when you go in the front door, you walk directly into the sanctuary.  This architectural feature implies two things: first, the emphasis is on worship, and second, a visitor shouldn’t have to wander around looking for the service.  We sat over to the side, so I had a little trouble seeing the choir, but I had other things to look at, like Christmas trees, banners, and stained glass, as well as other things I enjoy seeing in churches, if only because of the novelty of the old: pews and hymnals.

I also got to look at people, one of my favorite activities.  The sanctuary was nearly full, and not just of older people who look like they attend a lot of cultural events; there were numerous children, only a few of whom looked bored, and–how do I say this without sounding like a classical music snob?–well, we parked next to a car with a NASCAR bumper sticker.  I also enjoyed watching the people who sat on either side of me in the pew: the two friends I had come with.  The one on my left had never heard most of the Messiah; the one on my right is an experienced singer who had participated in performances of the oratorio before.  The one on my left pulled out his phone and took a video during the Hallelujah chorus; the one on my right did interpretive hand motions (which I think were at least partly intended to make me laugh one of those awkward silent concert laughs) during at least one of the recitatives.  I have no doubt that they engaged in these activities not because they were bored, but because there is something about Handel’s masterpiece that makes everyone want to be an active part of it.  (I felt the same way.)  At one point, I watched both of them conducting with their hands in their laps.

What struck me perhaps most of all is that this was not a particularly masterful performance of the Messiah.  The choir and orchestra were perhaps too small to really nail some of the more “epic” pieces; the soloists were clearly amateurs.  And we did discuss some questionable interpretive choices in the car afterward.  But something about those old melodies and even older words can redeem even the most mediocre performance and draw everyone in, from a Handel newbie to an often critical seasoned performer (and, somewhere in between, Penelope Clearwater, who sings along with the Messiah CD in her car).  The Messiah is for everyone.  And yes, there’s a double meaning in that sentence.