I joined the staff at First United Methodist Church, Bentonville as Director of Traditional Worship and Music in May 2016. On Easter Sunday that year, I was not yet conducting our talented Chancel Choir in meaningful, stirring music. Before taking this position, I was working as a sales specialist at a large home improvement store where I worked for about 18 months.
I had taken the job as a sales specialist, my first job in many years outside the education field, because the one-year teaching position that brought my family back to NW Arkansas had ended and I had been unable to find another teaching position locally. I had been on several interviews for teaching posts outside of Arkansas, but there was a problem. I was a single father and I knew my son, Jon, loved it in Bentonville. He is a talented musician and he loved the outstanding music programs at Bentonville high school. I made a promise to him that I would find work in Northwest Arkansas and we would live here until he graduated. The family had moved almost once a year for several years and I wanted him to have a sense of place; I wanted him to have some roots.
I was hoping to have Easter Sunday off to attend worship that year, but not only was I scheduled to work on Easter, I was also to report for my shift at 6:00 am! Associates were sometimes scheduled to come in early to unpack freight that arrived overnight and get the store in shape for the busy day ahead.
I was not in the best mood when I entered the store just before 6:00 am on Easter Sunday. However, the first person I saw upon arriving was a co-worker named John. John was a good work friend. He had helped me several times with information on the selection of tools available in our store; he was an expert in that area. We had talked about where to find the local greasy spoon café with the best hamburger. He was right about that! And once, after the store had closed, he and I discussed a decision I was facing about my family’s future and he had said to me, “I will pray that the will of God is revealed to you, Ray.” Therefore, it should not have been a surprise that the first thing John exclaimed to me on that Easter morning was, “Christ is risen!” to which I responded immediately “Christ is risen indeed!”
At that moment, John and I, in the words of my grandmother, “had had church” right there in the front of a home improvement store.
That was my only Easter celebration that day. But somehow it had all the essential elements of worship. It was intentional, it was reverent, it was surprising, and it came from a place of love and joy! Most importantly, it transformed my thinking, changed my perspective and made me mindful of the divine and resurrecting presence of a loving God even as I carried on with work in my department that day. It remains a powerful memory of grace and love for me.
This Easter was different for all of us.
I composed a fanfare for the Chancel Choir to sing for this year’s Easter service, based on the liturgical call and response, “Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed.” This piece is dedicated to my old friend, John, in thanksgiving for his witness those years ago. But once again, this was not the Easter for which I had planned or hoped. Instead of this fanfare being sung by our talented Chancel Choir for a packed church, you may have heard me sing it as a solo in a nearly empty sanctuary on Facebook Live. If so, you also heard the hymns, scripture readings, and sermon in your home as you followed along on a virtual bulletin. Be assured, we are having church! This is worship! The truth is, when and where we agree and show up for intentional worship, Christ is there. Christ is risen and Christ is with us! Thanks be to God!
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Grace & Peace,
Ray Wheeler Ph.D.