From the time of my birth until my seventh grade year, my family attended a Pentecostal church. For those of you who may read this and are unfamiliar with the expression and service structure in charismatic Christian congregations, we had Sunday School and worship service on Sunday mornings (this generally went from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.) and then a Sunday evening worship service from 7 – 9:30 or so. Then, Wednesday evening worship service and Friday Missionettes and Royal Rangers (youth programs). Church was the all-encompassing component of my social world. It defined my experience, my family, my values, and my identity.
The structure of worship services included a series of songs and choruses, interspersed with people standing up and giving testimony to the works of healing and praise experiences in their lives, followed by preaching, an invitation to the alter for renewed salvation, healing prayers and experiencing the physical manifestation of the holy spirit through such outward signs as speaking or singing in tongues and being “slain by the spirit” which involves falling, dropping, and sometimes losing consciousness under the physical power of divine energy. At least, this is how I now can understand and explain the experiences that to me were simply the way in which we worshiped.
I have quite a bit of difficulty writing about this time in my life, actually, because there are deeply painful memories that co-exist with my intellectual explanations of my early religious experiences. But, today’s story sources itself from within that time and place, serving as a sort of testimonial of its own about the power of light and love, and the value of learning. It comes from a tiny corner on the upper story loft of the sanctuary where I sat during Sunday night worship, along with my clarinet (which I was just learning to play) and a book full of gospel choruses and hymns. It comes from a time of purity of spirit and belief where the world was concrete and I knew no other form or expression of spirituality. It comes from a time before I was confronted by exclusion and darkness. It remains one small point of light.
My clarinet and I met each other in the fourth grade. It came in a green case with a big dent in it because we bought it used. I squawked and squeaked, learned my notes and fingerings, played in my school band, and strategically scheduled my school music lessons so I could miss as much gym class as possible. All good. I was a better music reader than instrumentalist, actually. Notes on the page were easy for me to see and grasp. My fingerings and lip positions were more challenging. My reeds often cracked and broke. I still squeaked often. But, after two years of learning to play this instrument and occasionally playing along with my Sunday school class, one day an older gentleman in the church we attended invited me to join the church orchestra.
Now, let me explain. This was a church of about 80 congregants, the pastor’s wife on an electric organ, and anyone who had ever touched an instrument (about 8 or 10 people) who sat upstairs in the loft during Sunday evening services and spontaneously led the worship service in songs announced by first line or number by either the pastor or on request of a member of the church. There was a trumpet, a couple trombones, an occasional sax player, a guitar, and drums. We called each other “brother” and “sister” in this church, so when “Sister Sue” would shout out a request for “This is the day that the Lord has made” the orchestra members would leap into action, hopefully flipping through our song books to find the piece if we hadn’t already memorized it. The songbooks were written for piano and organ. Thus, the instrumentalists needed not only to read music, but to be able to transpose it in their heads and play in the correct key for our respective instrument. Since the clarinet is a B flat instrument, I had to transpose the written music down a half step, mentally adjust the key signature to the appropriate number of sharps or flats, then play notes that sounded out in the same key as the organ.
Suffice it to say that my first few weeks playing in the orchestra were not melodic. I would take home my books and practice transposing the familiar choruses into B flat clarinet key signature. My orchestra brothers and sisters would give me tons of encouragement and pointers in doing this, both during and after the service. No one ever had a harsh word for me in the orchestra. I began to get past my insecurities and make a joyful noise on my instrument more times than not. It required intense mental energy, and I liked that. My seat was to the far right side of the orchestra, under the sloped ceiling of the loft. I could lean my head on the wooden slope of the ceiling. I could look down and see the goings on of the church members. I could count the knot holes in the wooden beams. I could also mentally lift myself out of the emotional intensity of the service and focus my mental energy on my notes and fingerings between requested pieces. Occasionally, I even sounded like I was making a melody.
When I look back on this time in my life, I remember orchestra fondly. In my little chair up in the loft, I had the first inklings of wonder about my own spirituality. I wondered about things I heard, assumptions people made, the error into which humans interpreted divine knowledge, why bad things happen to good people, and whether heaven and hell were real places or figments of the imagination. I noticed that sometimes people spoke in tongues the same way every time, yet other people “interpreted” what they said differently. I formulated questions I wanted to ask about, although asking them never went well. I tried very, very hard during those years to be a believer. But, just like my clarinet, I was always about a half-key off. So, I would transpose until it sounded like it fit with the larger melody and feel relief in my gut. Things would remain on key again, until the next sour note.
Now, I feel like this view from above and my musical journey provides a metaphor for my spiritual life. Our spiritual song is written for us when we are young, and we learn to sing it back the way that we sing a familiar lullaby. Some of us will keep that melody and find peace in its familiar refrain and teach it to our own children. Some of us will riff on the melody and make it our own, adding a flourish or nuance that makes it more real. Still others of us will need to transpose into a different key entirely in order for the melody to resonate with our soul.
My clarinet and I grew closer as I learned to transpose. I learned that playing the notes exactly as they were written would end up with me sounding out of tune. I learned to play in a different key, and I learned it by trial and error along with a mix of encouragement and advice from those who had learned to transpose on their own. Most of all, I learned that the music that I made sounded best when it came from my heart and my soul along with steady and dedicated intellectual energy.
For me, God is present in the music of the spheres. And I am grateful for the persistent presence of the divine as I have learned to transpose into my own key.