Working With the Dark

By April 3, 2020

As we all know, the darkness of Good Friday is not an easy thing to face. Ever. And each year we acknowledge this difficulty — and the temptation to rush past it, ahead to the glory and light of Easter.

Good Friday, however, is always about facing the darkness, walking with Jesus, and holding that darkness in our hearts in order to immerse ourselves fully in the love that never ends.

On this Good Friday, this has never been more true. And in keeping with current restrictions that are keeping us safe in our homes from a new darkness upon us called COVID-19, First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth is keeping the faith by providing its annual Good Friday Tenebrae Service — online.

Just as in years past, this meaningful Good Friday immersive experience will begin at 7:00 pm in the Sanctuary. Just as in years past meaningful music selections will interweave spoken readings from our clergy to bring our focus to each meditation, adding emphasis, meaning, and deep resonance to this ancient Good Friday worship format.

And that is where the similarity with years past ends.

This year’s Good Friday Tenebrae Service has been pre-recorded, piece by piece, and then edited together and presented online through the combined efforts of FUMCFW’s Worship Team, Communications Team, and our Adoramus section leaders.

With a result that is as compelling as the process, this Good Friday Service of Darkness is one for the record books — an accomplishment made with reverence, trust, gratitude, and hope, even in the face of its inherent darkness. It is a service meant to underscore both the traditional and the current darkness of this time — and to offer a virtual congregation far beyond our walls the opportunity to revel in their own deep reflections and discover new understanding of Jesus’ journey to the cross.

Creating an Experience — Re-Imagined

“Good Friday is supposed to be experienced,” says Elaine Johnson, Worship Coordinator. “It’s our job to put you in that headspace and really make you feel like you were there — and feel the gravity of what was happening.”

Adding that intensive planning for our Good Friday service had evolved over the past several months, Organist and Associate Director of Music and Worship Arts Peggy Graf says that planning took a completely different direction when we were faced with the issues of Covid-19. “In the space of a few days we learned that our congregation would not get to come and experience Good Friday as we had planned it, and we could no longer utilize the gifts of every member of our talented Adoramus Chamber Choir because of the “rule of ten.” We didn’t want to put anyone’s health and well-being in jeopardy, so we decided to call upon our eight section leaders instead to sing the selected choral anthems and hymns in a pre-recorded presentation.”

Robert Stovall, Director of Music and Worship Arts, says that working out the original Service of Darkness music, following Dr. Bruster’s suggestions concerning the actual Tenebrae and how it could be incorporated while creating, through music, the emotional aspect was something he and Peggy enjoyed.  And then, re-imagining and adapting all this planning to work within the COVID-19 restrictions required a whole new layer of detailed thinking that called in different ways, upon every person involved.

When faced with the challenge of reinventing the whole approach to this service, compacting months of planning into days, Elaine describes the process as reassembling the services like pieces of a puzzle. After considering the whole service as it was originally set, worship the team began to re-structure it, piece by piece. “We realized first that because there was no way to scroll words on the screen, folks at home could not sing along,” she illustrates. “The work that Adoramus had been working on had to be minimized because eight voices could not do all seven pieces.” Solutions came as fast as the questions that brought them and the service was streamlined, simplified, and adapted for home worship on this most somber of Christian observances. “I think we will still achieve this,” Elaine adds, “but it will be up to each person at home to set their mood and surroundings to fully experience this service.”

“Working out these details required patience,” Robert adds, “open minds, and tremendous creative thinking. This service evolved greatly as we then incorporated Elaine’s additions as well as how the readings by clergy could interface with the music. It was a great team effort.” 

Socially Distanced Teamwork

Peggy says that she is thankful that we have a large choir suite and a large choir loft that enabled everyone to stay at least 6 feet apart. “All of the singers have been social distancing and were comfortable being together,” she adds. “It was good to see other humans and to laugh and joke during this stressful time.”

Peggy says that she was especially heartened by the wonderful collaborative efforts of our worship planning team: “Because of the extraordinary work of this team led by Dr. Tim Bruster and including Elaine Johnson, Melinda Smoot, Robert, and me, this service became even more creative and meaningful than we could have ever imagined.  The outstanding work of Austin Patton, Paul Hughes, and Hans Grim to video, record, edit, produce, and promote these services was indeed a laborious job. We are greatly appreciative of their outstanding efforts.”

Describing the experience of pre-recording all the Holy Week services this past week as very emotional, Elaine adds, “The choir started with recording Hosanna, Loud Hosanna for Palm Sunday and the tears came. I was sad and mad and disappointed all at the same time. The reality that there would be no children in the sanctuary on Sunday, no stress of ‘herding cats,’ getting them in lines to process down the aisles in their Sunday best. I cried for them, I cried for me, and I cried for all those who are missing something right now. Then, I sucked it up and we kept recording.”

Elaine says that during a break in the recording, she began to read about the reports of our phone calls to our elderly and shut-ins — the 100-year-old that doesn’t understand why her helper can no longer help her; she thought, too, about the mom who just lost her daughter and can’t have a funeral or memorial service because they can only choose nine people to be there and her immediate family is more than that — and the impact of everything happening right now landed.

They resumed recording, with Robert Stovall singing “Were You There.” “I lost it again,” Elaine relates. “His booming voice and the words were so powerful. In a weird way I think the Good Friday Service of Darkness may resonate more deeply this year than possibly ever before. I hope people will take the time to really experience it.”

Robert says that having the wonderful voices of our eight section leaders singing this adapted service created the emotional aspect originally envisioned.  “Their ability to refine the musical presentation as well as their patience that was required in the recording session allowed for a wonderful result,” he adds.  “And, because of their vocal ability we were able to stand at a very safe distance, both in rehearsal and throughout the recording session.”

Throughout this recording session that lasted more than two hours, Robert says that this ensemble never wavered. “It was truly a positive experience.”

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