A Christmas Story

Making Lemonade from Lemons

by Robin Bonner

It Was the Best of Times. It Was the Worst of Times.
I love Christmas. But I knew Christmas 2009 wasn’t going to be great for me. Daughter Amie would be in Chicago with husband Todd, spending Christmas with his family. I don’t begrudge the Wesleys—it’s only fair that our kids alternate their holiday destinations. Amie and Todd being there isn’t the problem. Their not being here is, though. Our small family’s Christmas has such a hole in it when half of our kids aren’t here. Sure, younger daughter Sarah tries to be everything to us at Christmas to fill the void (I know what she’s up to), but I still need to put a brave face on things.

I learned all of this two years ago, the first Christmas Amie wasn’t home. What can I say? I cried a lot. I found I couldn’t listen to Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s (TSO’s) CD Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Are you familiar? The lyrics tell of a girl on the streets of New York City not able to get home for Christmas, then finding a way (via an angel and a reluctant bartender). In the end, her father belts out the happy refrain “She’s coming home this Christmas Day!” The first year Amie wasn’t home, listening to this CD would unexpectedly send me down an emotional spiral staircase, whereas otherwise I loved it—happy that one girl found her way home. Our daughter was not coming home this Christmas Day, however. In fact, that first year, I found myself at a TSO concert crying my eyes out there in the dark. The concert tickets were not money well spent that year. And, I immediately stopped listening to the CD.

After going through it once, though, I vowed that next time things would be different. I would distract myself enough to get through the holidays cheerfully. It was only fair to Sarah. After all, it was her Christmas, too, and I didn’t want her to watch me moping around. Last time, I was blindsided with the new situation, but this time I had no excuse. And Christmas 2009 would be that second time. As December approached, I began to plan how things would be different.

It’s All About the Music
Music is an important part of my Christmas, and this year would be no exception. For many years, I played guitar and sang in one of my church’s folk choirs. However, as vital as my music is to me, I quit the group this year because of disagreements with the group’s managers, and how they treated people in the group. That complicated my musical life. However, it also opened up the space to do some different things. So I talked to Sarah (my partner in artistic endeavors). What did she think about doing some caroling this year? Her answer in the affirmative set my wheels in motion: In October, plenty early, I arranged for us to sing on December 26 at a local seniors’ residence. The manager was enthusiastic. We’d get a small group together. It would be fun. Step 1: Do something different this year. Step 2: Do something to make other people happy. Step 3: Do something musical. Bingo for all three. I was on a roll.

As much as we now had set up a musical high point, a musical low point also presented itself. For years, Amie, Sarah, and I provided the music for one of our church’s Christmas Day Masses. This situation came about because the group I belonged to had commitments on Christmas Eve (their kids were in the children’s choir singing that evening), and no one wanted to have to be there again the next day. Consequently, the organist had three Masses to do on Christmas Day. My girls were older and no longer in the children’s choir, so I volunteered to take one of the Christmas Day Masses. It was “The Bonner Family”: Sarah on lead vocals, Robin on guitar and vocals, and Amie on flute and vocals. In recent years, of course, it was sometimes just Sarah and Robin. Until this year. I found out in November that our talents “wouldn’t be needed” this year on Christmas Day. My old group would be doing one Mass, and the organist, a good friend of mine, would be doing two. I was crushed. No longer playing with my group during the Advent season, I had been looking forward even more to doing the Christmas Day Mass.

As I coped with this news, we forged ahead with our normal holiday rituals. Sarah came home from New York City twice to help with the baking. We attended a holiday party with Gary’s relatives—a first for us. As always, we enjoyed shopping for Christmas gifts. We spent a day in Philadelphia, taking in the holiday sights while also fitting in a successful day of shopping, finishing up at Le Beau Monde, near South Street, with wine and crepes—always a magical experience. I managed to get Amie and Todd’s box packed with gifts and cookies, and out to UPS in time for them to receive it and open it before leaving for Chicago. In fact, they opened it while on speaker phone, so we could (at least audibly) enjoy their reactions to the treasures we had sent. It proved the next best thing to being there.

Something Different
The third week of December, I began to mull over what to do about Christmas Mass. I still wanted to attend one, but the question was, where? There was no reason to go to our parish church. I couldn’t picture myself at any of the Masses there. I was too upset about not being able to play at one of them myself. It would kill me to sit in the pew. Should we go to a neighboring church? In a spirit of ecumenism, maybe we should try out a different denomination altogether. Wait! What about Covenant House, in New York City? I had been intrigued with them for years. Each year, I received their “Christmas appeal” to help street kids and runaways with blankets, clothes, and food. And each year, I sent a check, glad to help and thankful that my own kids never found themselves on the streets.

With Covenant House’s annual appeal, I would also receive an invitation to their Christmas Eve “Donor’s Mass.” I always thought it would be lovely to go—a Mass said specifically for and attended by Convenant House donors and Convenant House kids. But I never seriously considered it. After all, we had our own Christmas traditions, and traipsing up to New York City and back on Christmas Eve wasn’t one of them. But this year, I decided to look into it. Why not? We had no reason to stay in Spring Mount.

I talked to Gary and Sarah—they were both game. My brother Mike and his family were scheduled to cook Christmas dinner, so nothing to worry about there. Maybe we could fit in a little jaunt to New York (about two hours from our home in Pennsylvania). I called Covenant House to find out about the Mass. “Yes,” the receptionist answered, “Father Placid is in charge of it. I’ll connect you.” Father Placid. Nice name! Well, he wasn’t in, so I left a voice mail message.

About 20 minutes later, the phone rang. It was Father Placid (as in “Lake Placid,” he told me). “We are having a Mass this year—we didn’t last year, you know. We were doing renovations. And, we moved the time from midnight to 8 p.m.” Great! I was feeling better already. Father Placid’s voice was friendly and soothing, just like his name. This would be an adventure. New York City on Christmas Eve. He told me where Covenant House was located and where to park. As we were about to hang up, as an afterthought I asked, “Father, what kind of music do you usually have at these Masses?” He replied, almost apologetically, “Well, a Covenant House staff member usually plays the piano or violin, but I don’t think anyone can make it this year, so we’ll probably play CDs.”

You can probably see where this is going.

I didn’t even think about it. “Well, Father, actually, maybe we can help you out. . . .” I explained that we were parish musicians and that our church didn’t need our services this year, so that’s why we were thinking about attending the Donor’s Mass. I told him we weren’t professionals, but if he was interested in two voices and one guitar, we could do the Mass adequately, from soup to nuts. (The ritual of the Catholic Mass contains a lot of prayers that can be sung, and they usually are sung at Christmas. We were familiar with the rituals; we could do them with our eyes closed.) He jumped on my offer. “Wow, this is an answer to prayer! I had music for the Donor’s Mass on my list of things to take care of, and here comes your call.” Hmmm. “Father,” I said, “Listen, you don’t know us from Adam. Why don’t you talk to your staff again, think about it, and give me a call back tomorrow if you still think this is a good idea.” I didn’t want him to feel obligated if he gave it some thought and wanted to reconsider. I guess I also started wondering about what this might be like for us—how professional a level of music would they expect? After all, we’d never been there. We weren’t familiar with the congregation or the setup. I suppose you could say that I began to immediately get cold feet.

About 24 hours later, Father Placid called back. The staff at Covenant House told him to do whatever he’d like to do about music for the Donor’s Mass, and he decided he wanted us to do it. So, we were on. And at this point, Christmas Eve was eight days away. Father Placid emailed us the program from the previous year, so we could get an idea of what they’d done before and suggest changes. He would like us to prepare a few “prelude” songs to play before Mass. No problem. Sarah and I got together briefly, on a “baking day.” I suggested a few changes to their program and added the words for the new songs and our sung acclamations. I even edited the program itself, standardizing the formatting, for which he was grateful. (Always an editor…) Then, I gathered my music together and began working to build up the calluses on my fingers (which had softened a bit over the months).

About this time, my brother called. “The floors in the living room are all torn up.” He had been out of work and was replacing floors in his own home, when other paying work came in for him unexpectedly, and he had to leave his own household projects unfinished. “Christmas Dinner is going to be tough to do this year.” “No problem,” I said immediately. “We’ll do the dinner. See you at 3:00.” So, I was also doing dinner Christmas Day. No small affair.

I tried not to think about it all too much, but as each day passed, my anxiety grew. At the same time, I felt that a gift had been given to me—the gift of music I had wished for, and at Christmas, too. I was not going to blow this chance. It was an opportunity to contribute in a more meaningful way than ever before. One of my arguments with my old group was that I wasn’t given the chance to contribute, that I wasn’t supported in my efforts. Well, Father Placid put his faith in Sarah and me—unknowns—to provide music for their Christmas celebration, and by golly, we were going to do it, and do it well.

So, together with cutting down and decorating a Christmas tree, shopping for and wrapping gifts, baking holiday goodies, and holiday food shopping and meal planning, I added “master all music for Christmas Eve Mass” to my list for the coming days. Sarah would come home only the night before Christmas Eve, and she and I would need to fine-tune harmonies and intros, and run through everything, then give my sore fingers a chance to rest. Working them the day of The Mass was out of the question. We would need to do all our practicing before the 24th.

The Big Day
Christmas Eve morning, I awoke with a start. Today’s the day! I felt as though I were having an out-of-body experience. But, there was no time to daydream. I had a long laundry list of things to do: First, gather together stuff for the trip: Guitar? Check. Music stand? Check. Music? Check. Directions to Covenant House? Check. Dress clothes? Check. I also needed to prep for Christmas Dinner and deliver our family’s “Christmas pound cakes” to the neighbors. Focusing on much of the dinner was impossible, so the amaretto cheesecake made it from the oven, to the cooling rack, and finally into the refrigerator, but the Christmas bread and candy cane cookies would have to wait. And, maybe they wouldn’t get made. Oh, well. Although we certainly weren’t going to starve, this year wasn’t going to be about the food.

I insisted that we drive up to New York in the early afternoon, so we’d have time to deal with any traffic snarls. Then, as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel, I thought it would be a good idea to find the Covenant House building (which should not be far from the tunnel), so we wouldn’t have to find it later, in the dark. The plan was then to drive out to Sarah’s apartment in Queens, dress appropriately, have dinner, warm up our voices (and my fingers), then head back across Manhattan, to arrive at Covenant House at 7:00 p.m., per Father Placid’s instructions. That was soon shortened to arriving at Sarah’s asap and ordering Chinese take-out. The adrenaline flowing through me as I anticipated our evening wasn’t conducive to digesting food. It was conducive to doing what needed to be done, though. I felt like an athlete before the big event. I went over everything in my mind as we drove. Sarah was cool as a cucumber, which was very reassuring. She is an actor, and auditioning all the time toughened her up. For her, this wasn’t an audition. I envied her but was very glad we were doing this together.

We carried through as planned—Chinese food, change of clothes, a little warm-up; then we packed everything back into the car.

As we head toward the Queensboro Bridge, Simon and Garfunkle’s “59th Street Bridge Song” (aka “Feeling Groovy”) ran through my mind. You really notice things at a time like this. It’s amazing how serene, almost surreal, everything looks. The New York City skyline is crystal clear, and time seems to move forward in slow motion. Did you know that the Empire State Building sports red and green lights for the holidays?

Over the bridge, left on 2nd Avenue, right on 57th Street. Bad move. We are hitting every red night. The clock ticks away. A green left arrow onto 9th Avenue, thank goodness. And then the green lights—a whole string of them. Gary picks up speed, passing cabs. We have about 5 minutes to cover 16 blocks. By the time we make our right onto 41st Street, John McCutcheon is banging out the Hallelujah Chorus (via our car stereo) on (can you believe it?) a hammer dulcimer. It’s my favorite song on that CD—very different, but powerful, as Handel’s music always is. I figure it’s a good sign. We pull into the Covenant House parking lot at exactly 7:00 p.m.

Covenant House
As we get our things together in the parking lot, a young woman asks me, “Are you here for the party?” I reply, “No, we’re for the Mass.” “Oh,” she says, thoughfully, “I think the Mass is the Party.” “Great! Well, we’re here for the party, then!” I tell her. We are, indeed. She smiles. I smile. We head inside. We tell the security guard we’re here to see Father Placid; we’re here for the Mass. “Just a moment,” he says. He checks with the desk. He says, “Follow me.” Inside the door, we see smiling faces representing what seems to be every race and ethnicity. We’re the minority here. We smile, too, broadly, and head down the hall, led by a Covenant House staff member. So, we’re here. The Pennsylvanians. I never felt like that before. It’s funny when you think about life a lot but don’t find yourself in the middle of it very often.

We make ourselves at home. We set up our music on the lectern. Out comes the guitar. Oh, that must be Father Placid! Tall, kind smile, white hair. His quiet voice on the phone belies his experience. He welcomes us with that same meek and friendly voice. We shake hands all round. He’s happy to see us; we’re happy to be here. He introduces us to a young man—from Russia. Can’t stay for the Mass but asks if he can listen to us practice. Sure, we say. What to do? How about “Away in a Manger”? Beautiful harmony, effective finger picking. He thanks us warmly, then wanders off to his evening appointment. We continue our warm-ups. Father Placid’s back, and he’s not alone. Crew cut, sports jacket, ready smile. It’s Jerry Kilbane, executive director of Covenant House New York. “Happy to meet you! Thanks so much for coming!” he says. More hand shaking all around. No, it is our pleasure. We thank him in return. “Please don’t play until about 20 people are seated,” Father Placid instructs us. “OK,” we agree. But at 7:45, 15 minutes before Mass is to begin, there are still only about 10 people there. Reverend Andrew Buechele, a Piarist Father, is coming from Catholic University in Washington, DC, to concelebrate. We can’t start without him. We wait.

At 7:50, Sarah and I just can’t take it any longer. We begin with “O, Holy Night.” I pick slowly in 6/8 time, add an alternating bass note with the second verse, and strum the refrain, building it. On the last refrain, my voice drops out, but I keep playing—I let Sarah carry the high note, to end it. Nice. Second is “Jesu Bambino,” a bear to pick on the guitar, but Sarah’s vocal specialty. If I begin too fast, I can’t get to all of the notes. If I begin too slowly, Sarah glares at me. I strive to hit it just right. Sarah has a cold and it’s her most challenging song. But she pulls it off. My few errors are easily overlooked.

“Do you see Father coming yet?” “No, do you?” “No.” We begin “Night of Silence/Silent Night.” This is complicated. We do two verses of one, building it, then two verses of the other, adding harmonies. Sarah sings harmony to my melody on the third verse of “Silent Night,” which is not according to plan. To make up, she then improvises, singing the first verse of “Night of Silence” with my first verse of “Silent Night,” although we hadn’t practiced it that way. I hang on to my melody line, trying not to get sucked into the harmony she’s singing right into my right ear. No one knows we’ve changed the order of things. The song ends. “Is Father coming yet?” “No. Um, yes!” Father Placid appears in the doorway, vestments on, Father Buechele at his side. It’s time to begin the Mass. By now, about 60 or 70 people have gathered.

As the priests make their way to the altar, we begin “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Everyone joins in the singing. After the Kyrie, Father gives the cue, and we begin John Foley’s “Glory to God.” This is my personal favorite in our repertoire for a Christmas Mass. It is sung only on Christmas and Easter, so we wait all year for a chance to do it. In the program, we’ve asked everyone to be seated; it’s a long one. The congregation sings along on the refrain, “Give Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Sarah and I sing the verses, building each one: I strum softly, then more powerfully; we sing solo, then in two voices, adding harmonies. People are singing along; they’re into it. Success!

You never know how sung acclamations will be received—especially long ones—and these people come from a variety of parishes, so although everyone knows the words, the may be familiar with different arrangements. In short, they may not know the one you’re doing. If it’s catchy, they’ll get up to speed quickly and sing along. If not, and they don’t know it, they’ll just stand there. You want to engage the congregation as much as possible, so it’s enjoyable for them.

The “Responsorial” (a psalm sung between two Bible readings) throws me a curve: Sarah and I have prepared to sing this one all the way through, doing the verses as a chant. But the lector begins to read the verses. Okay. I quickly abandon my “chant strum” and begin picking softly to back up the reader. The ”Alleluia” (sung before the Gospel reading) goes off without a hitch. We chose it from the Celtic Mass. We stand for the Gospel reading, which is Luke 2:1–14. I realize it’s the same one that Linus recites to Charlie Brown in the Christmas TV special, and the words also match the “Glory to God” we sang earlier. It occurs to me that I want to have all of this etched in my mind, indelibly, but as each minute unfolds, details already begin to fade.

Father Placid gives an enthusiastic sermon, his now more powerful voice adding to the surreal, sharpened experience I’m having once again, now that I have a chance to sit down. He talks about Christmas being a time of great expectations, of a manger as a “feed box” for the animals and how Jesus as God nourishes us still. How the Hubble telescope exposes the relative insignificance of planet Earth in the cosmic landscape, but that this Earth has “love,” nourishment sent by God. Like the shepherds, we come with our gifts, and we receive great gifts in return. I let my mind wander over his words. Amen to all of it.

We stand and recite the Nicene Creed and Intercessions. Covenant House, instead of taking up a collection from the congregation, has a “Blessing of the Manger.” Here, Sarah and I choose to sing “Away in a Manger,” to honor the children who find themselves cared for at Covenant House, and the staff of Covenant House who do His work: “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care…” We try our best to avoid singing “Away in a Feed Box.”

The “Holy Holy” that we do just before the Consecration, or most formal part of the Mass, is another favorite of mine. It’s from the 1970s and has fallen into disuse during the regular Sunday liturgies, but when we include it on Christmas, people always seem to remember it and sing along enthusiastically. Maybe it strikes a chord for them, as it does for me. Our “Memorial Acclamation,” sung about midway through the Consecration, is by Joe Zsigray. We punctuate the Consecration with an “Amen” that merely adopts the tune from the “Holy Holy” and uses the same descant. Sarah pulls this off without a problem. We seem to be achieving our goal: to add to the celebration without drawing attention to ourselves.

Even while Sarah and I discussed what clothes to wear that night, we had that one thought in mind: Dress appropriately for the occasion, but blend into the woodwork as much as possible. I chose an winter white skirt, brown boots, and a gray sweater over an off-white turtleneck. Sarah toned down her original choice of a red sweater to a black sweater with a burgundy skirt. It’s about the audience celebrating Christmas; it’s not about us.

After the Consecration comes the universally known Our Father (the Lord’s Prayer). We’ve chosen not to sing it, as it follows the “Amen” directly, and we need a break here. So, we recite it with the congregation. At the Sign of Peace, everyone turns to his or her neighbor, shakes hands, and says, “Peace be with you”—reminding us that wishing peace for our neighbors is the first step in achieving it. Sarah and I exchange light kisses and murmur to one another our wishes for peace. We wave to Gary and to others nearby. (We’re not close enough to shake hands, and anyway, we’re preparing to begin the “Lamb of God,” the last sung acclamation before Communion.) All of a sudden, a bald, bespectacled fellow in pink shirt and tie comes toward us from out of nowhere. He folds each of us, in turn, into a big bear hug and says, “Peace be with you! Thanks so much for doing this!” He is gone as quickly as he appeared, and Sarah and I exchange glances, eyebrows raised. Who was that? This evening is full of surprises!

We take Communion and begin “Silent Night.” I’d say that this is my all-time favorite Christmas song, but I’m sure I’ve said that about many of them. All right, I’ll risk repeating myself: It’s my favorite. When Sarah and I sing this together, me with the melody and she with her harmonies, I forget where I am. I almost forget to put in the little base run that I added and I so like to do. (Trust me, I’m not the most savvy guitarist on earth, so when I think of some different rendering, I try to remember to do it, to keep it interesting.) During the third verse, we exchange glances. The priests have finished distributing Communion but have not quite put things away. There isn’t enough time to end this song and begin a second one, but ending “Silent Night” after the third verse would leave too much “dead space,” or silence. Sarah points to the first verse, and I nod. We do the first verse as a fourth, Sarah singing harmony this time around, and we end it perfectly. Everyone seems happy with that.

Father Placid says a closing prayer and introduces a Mr. Kevin Ryan, who offers the concluding remarks. We see in the program that Ryan is president of Covenant House International. And he is also our Mr. Pink Shirt from the “Sign of Peace.” Someone must have filled him in. Sarah and I exchange looks again, and smile. Ryan, a talented speaker, engages the congregation with stories of his “kids” at Covenant House and how important it is that he has the resources to help them. Either the kids have no families, or their families don’t want them and throw them out on the street. Covenant House is their family. Ryan, who has six kids of his own, hammers home his point. He wants the donors to realize that their money is not wasted. He focuses on the Covenant House motto: “Sometimes God has a kid’s face.”

Indeed. I am sitting behind him and to his left; I am sure he is reading from notes, but then I realize he’s just fidgeting with a book on the lectern, and that he’s talking off the top of his head. As I mull this over, I realize he’s saying, “And I want to thank the Bonners for coming out and providing the music for our Mass tonight: Robin and Sarah, and Gary, the chauffeur.” The crowd breaks into a round of applause. I try to nod graciously, but I know my face is quite red. Ryan concludes his remarks, and we stand to lead the recessional song, “Joy to the World.”

And then it’s over.

Winding Down
We pack up my guitar and the music. Gary pulls out a camera, surprisingly, and photographs us with a very gracious Father Placid. We present him with a little gift bag containing one of our special “Christmas pound cakes.” The staff has brought in a light catered buffet for the attendees—cheese and crackers, fruit salad, and dainty Italian butter cookies (you know, the kind with a cherry in the center or sprinkles, or half dipped in chocolate). I’m grateful. Now that the pressure is off, my stomach is back in action, and I am hungry.

We talk to a few donors and to a Covenant House volunteer. Evidently, volunteers commit to several months of service at a time, and after just two weeks of “training,” they’re thrown into the milieu, doing what they can for the kids. They’re assigned off-site housing and given a small stipend. At the end of the term, they can re-up their commitment. This volunteer clearly loves what she’s doing. We speak with Father Buechele, who is conducting research at Catholic University on ways for the government to store radioactive waste. It’s very interesting, talking to a priest who is also a scientist. Gary, a biologist, is especially loving it.

In the end, we say our goodbyes and head out into the New York City night. We think for a moment about finding an old city bar, and maybe an angel and a bartender, but decide instead just to get our little family back home to Pennsylvania.

. . .

As a rule, I don’t put religious pieces in Empty Nest, as it’s not a religious publication, and I don’t want to promote any particular belief. However, sometimes a spiritual issue—I consider this to be a human issue—presents itself. (I think of the human spirit as the thread that connects us to one another. This is different from the tenets of a particular religion to which we might subscribe individually. ) And as an empty nester, I suppose I’ve had more time to think about my spiritual journey, what it is and isn’t, and this journey has become important to me. Perhaps other empty nesters find themselves in the same situation. I was raised Catholic, and although I have many disagreements with the Catholic Church (and with organized religion in general because of its inherent divisiveness), the Catholic Mass is the religious (and for me, spiritual) expression with which I’m most familiar and so participate in most often. I play all kinds of music, but I’ve found that songs addressing spiritual issues—the human condition, love, goodness, hope, a connectedness with others and with nature—are those that most attract me, whether they’re sung by priests, ministers, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, folk singers, children, or anyone else. The Catholic Mass just happens to be the setting for most of the spiritual music I play publicly—where I have a job to do to augment the service, when given the chance. And so, it is in that setting that my personal Christmas story happened to take place. I’m not trying to convert anyone. If anything I’ve said here helps you, great. If not, toss it.

In fact, I usually begin my day listening to beautiful “secular” instrumental piano music on a CD titled Soul Mates, by the composer Danny Wright. It “lives” in the CD/Radio/Alarm Clock on the hope chest in our bedroom. I stretch, dress, and make the bed to that CD. I find it to be very uplifting, very spiritual. I’ve been doing this for years. Some time ago, though, I recognized track 3, “The Water Is Wide,” a traditional English folk tune, as the melody to one of the songs we did at Mass (a particular favorite of mine), “Psalm 42,” or, as we called it, “As the Deer Longs.” Ever since I first heard it, I’ve especially loved this song, and I can’t tell you why. I never even really “got” the words (sometimes, I’d find myself scratching my head over them)—I just always knew that I loved the song.

When I quit my group last year, I was sad, and I found that singing “As the Deer Longs” in the morning along with Danny Wright’s lovely piano rendition would cheer me up. I eventually memorized the words so I could let go of the sheet music and use both hands to make the bed. I’d like to share those words with you here:

As the deer longs for flowing streams,
So longs my soul for you O, God.
My soul does thirst for the living God.
When shall I come to see your face?

My tears have fed me day and night.
While some have said, where is your God?
But I recall, as my soul pours dry,
The days of praise, within your house.

Why do I mourn and toil within,
When it is mine to hope in God?
I shall again sing praise to him.
He is my help; he is my God.

Danny Wright’s version has four verses, so I just re-sing the first verse, building it with the music:

As the deer longs for flowing streams,
So longs my soul for you, O God.
My soul does thirst for the living God.
When shall I come to see your face?
Your face?
Your face?

Amazingly, singing this song since I quit my choir, I found that the lyrics began to speak to me: In my sadness, I am thirsting for spiritual music—the music in which I always found God. Now I am remembering the beauty, the perfection, and love that is God to me in that music, as I used to sing it in church, and the memory makes me happy in my search for fulfillment, for God. (“…But I recall, as my soul pours dry, the days of praise within your house”). Playing at church had been my only opportunity to lead others in song, to share my joy in music. I had played guitar in church since age 11. Through the years, I played at the funerals of both my parents (and of other close friends and relatives) and at my daughter’s wedding. Where was all this headed, though? (“When shall I come to see your face?”)

Well, "sometimes God has a kid’s face," and this Christmas Eve, Covenant House gave me one answer to my question and to my longing. And that’s enough for now. But as the new year unfolds, you can rest assured that I’ll be looking for new opportunities, new pathways, for me and my guitar.

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about her and this publication, see About Us.

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