Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
Like the shepherds, I’ve had angels visit me. Unlike the startling heavenly hosts in Luke’s gospel, however, I’ve felt the presence of angels in the harmonies of great songs. One that stands out is called “Angel Band,” a song that has helped me through difficult times and has sparked moments of sheer joy and delight.
First story: In my classroom at Eastern Mennonite High School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, students come after lunch every Thursday to sing gospel bluegrass music. The joy in performing time-tested and well-known gospel songs with my students has enlivened my classroom.
There’s no credit for students to attend, no requirements and no tryouts. They just show up and sing or bring a mandolin, guitar, banjo, upright bass or violin. For a dozen years I’ve done this. We sing old gospel songs, over and over, and they light up, relishing the chance to sing or play a break on their instrument.
Just about every week my angel band will sing an old favorite, “My latest sun is sinking fast.” I look forward to this high point in my week, and it thrills my soul with great joy when students sing and perform. Our little angel band is unpolished and does not compare with the fine music performed elsewhere on our campus, but for the weekly angel band of singers in my classroom, it lifts me near to heaven.
In the third verse, there’s a humorous but haunting phrase when the song writer heard the “noise of wings.” My mother taught me to listen for the noise of wings, to look for angelic visits and not to discount the odd or extraordinary ways God meets us through angels. The kids who sing in my room each week bring me deep joy. I have my dear mother to thank for helping me see angelic visitors, right in front of me, every Thursday at the end of lunch.
Second story: A few years ago a young leader in Harrisonburg passed away. In his prime, a great musician, and involved in a number of kingdom enterprises, our community mourned his early death. I took off school to attend his mid-day memorial service at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg.
The “Angel Band” song brought tears to my eyes and caused me to weep. Performed by outstanding musicians, I will never forget that moment of being drawn into an angel band of mourners and musicians, all attempting to make sense of a death that we found hard to comprehend. Deep joy trickled into my soul amidst great loss, borne on the wings of an old traditional song with simple lyrics. In that moment of loss, an angel band of great musicians with lilting harmonies bore me away on snow white wings, helping release the grief so deeply embedded in my soul.
Third story: On Oct. 21, my congregation held a Sunday morning worship service to embrace our grief and loss. In the past 14 months six adults have passed away. We’re not a large congregation, and these deaths have impacted us. One of those, my father-in-law, passed away seven months ago, and to help me cope with his loss, I chose “Angel Band” as the offertory song. At his funeral, his 16 young adult grandchildren sang “Angel Band.”
During our recent service on grief and loss, I may have learned how the shepherds felt when they were “sore afraid.” It was at the end of the second verse of “Praise the lord, sing hallelujah,” that I forgot whether we had sung the last verse. The refrain is long, and I had been working on dynamics and tempo, and the congregation followed my directing. Enraptured by the soaring sopranos and the strong bass lines, in the last two measures I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t remember if we had sung the last verse. With my directing arm raised and poised, everyone stopped. Embarrassed, I had to ask, “Have we sung the last verse?” With smiles and shaking heads, they made it clear that we had another verse to sing. I have a new affinity for the terrified shepherds.
Leading music at church gives me great joy in spite of my mistakes and foibles. Usually I am surrounded by excellent musicians who cover my average musical skills. I am grateful for the weekly “angel band” at church who enter in with joyful songs, ready smiles and sincere affirmations.
Join me in looking for angel bands all around. They are not mysterious, ephemeral or ghost-like. Angels are those in your world who sing heartily, laugh and listen to you, or who help you deal with the loss of a loved one. Heavenly visitors are near if we can see them, just like the shepherds who saw some sort of an angel band so very long ago.
Elwood Yoder teaches history and Bible at Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and attends Zion Mennonite Church, Broadway, Virginia.
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