Our Combined Churches Choir has been practicing for a performance of Roger Jones’s Christian musical ‘Mary Magdalene’.
It’s by no means the first time we’ve done it. Nor is it the first time I’ve sung the role of Jesus. In fact on an earlier occasion I had the pleasure of doing exactly that under the baton of Roger himself.
He’s a wonderful conductor. He works with every fibre of his being. Every gesture, every glance, every expression helps bring out exactly what he’s looking for in choir and soloists alike.
And after one performance he invited me to join his group of ‘travelling soloists’, helping out at performances around the country where local choirs don’t feel able to field soloists of their own. I have done that several times, and it’s always been a pleasure and a privilege.
There are two numbers in particular where I need to give my all. One is ‘Let me see your face‘, Jesus’ first encounter with Mary Magdalene, where he’s effectively rescued her from being stoned for adultery. It’s a duet full of the love that only God can give.
The second – ‘All we like sheep’ – is a beautiful setting of Jesus’ last words from the cross.
Today we are going to perform to an audience in the Anglican church in Needham Market. And just three days ago I had my appointment with Mr Alberts. And, for want of a better term, my delayed death sentence.
My fellow choir members already know I have cancer. Now I have to share the latest news with them. And when I do, the wave of support and sympathy that comes back is almost too much to bear. I know they are with me. I know they are praying for me – each in their own way. (As if that mattered.) And I know there’s something I have to do.
Earlier I spoke to Roger on the phone, and that wonderful man, knowing what I would be doing later in the day, prayed with me.
So I approach our choir leaders – Toni and Marion – and suggest something I’ve been thinking about ever since.
‘How would it be,’ I say, ‘if – after the last number – I went to the microphone and gave a testimonial about my situation? Would you be OK with that?’
‘Let me see your face’ goes well. The words aren’t difficult to remember, and in my interpretation the love Jesus expresses in that song reaches out beyond the sanctuary to everyone watching and listening.
‘All we like sheep’, for me, is technically tricky. I’ve been practicing hard, but the start notes for some of my entries are not always easy to find, and accurate timing is crucial, too. I need to focus, and focus hard – especially as we don’t actually have a conductor today. But perhaps because of that focus I’m able to sing each of those phrases with all the emotion that’s been building up over the last three days.
‘God! Oh my God! Oh my God, oh why have you forsaken me?’
‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is finished!’
At the end the audience applaud warmly. I take a breath. Step up to the microphone. And tell them exactly what’s happened to me.
And as I do that I can quite literally feel the wave of support coming from the choir behind me. That, and something else.
Just for a moment, it seems that someone else’s arms enfold me. Hold me. Comfort me. Give me strength.
So I tell them, that, as well. Because I know, in that moment, that He has not forsaken me.