(photo credit: Newcastle Libraries)
For the past eight Christmas Eves, and the past eight Christmas mornings—except for the year we had that haymaker of a snowstorm, and everything was closed—I’ve trekked out to Parkrose to play the holiday services at the Lutheran church where I am the resident agnostic organist. I’ll be doing it again this year.
It’s a not-quite sketchy part of town, but it’s not Multnomah Village either (and it definitely isn’t the Pearl). There are these quaint little colonial cottages with metal bars on the windows, and chain-link fences enclosing yards where broad-browed dogs prowl around abandoned Big Wheels and Barbies. Down the street from the church, someone once spray-painted the word “SNITCH” in huge black letters on the wall of a carport. I’ve always felt that it’s a neighborhood with lots of hidden stories.
It was just before Christmas a few years back when the pastor I work for finally got the funds to purchase a new organ for his congregation—folks mostly in their seventies, who had been asking for the old hymns the way they were meant to be heard. I had a key to the church, and after the instrument was installed, I would sometimes go at night, when no one else was there, and let myself in to practice. That’s when I discovered that the building that could seem empty on a sunny Sunday morning—since the pews were never more than half-full—felt like the abyss of eternity when it was deserted and dark.
The first time I was in the church alone at night, I turned on as many lights as I could—even the ones that were nowhere near the part I was in. But that didn’t help. It was as if the brightness only invited the ghosts out of the walls. So I turned most of the lights off again, and climbed the stairs to the choir loft, where, after feeling my way to the organ bench, I started playing in the near-dark.
The first things I played on that brand-new instrument were centuries old—from an Advent and Christmas repertoire that had been brought to life under countless fingers before me. “Once in Royal David’s City.” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” “Savior of the Nations, Come.” “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending.” Beautiful, sad pieces, with melodies that were vivid once you blew the dust off. And as I played, and despite my lack of faith—which I prefer to cast as a faith in my own fallibility, or as a faith in the possibility of many truths—the music did what music does. Almost instantly, I felt at home and at peace, sitting there in the gloom, alone and listening.
People keep saying we’re entering a dark time. I try to stay optimistic, but it’s probably true. I think a lot about the work ahead. But for tonight and tomorrow, I’m going to play the old hymns again, with all my might. And I’m going to hope for the best, for all of us.
Happy Holidays, friends.