At Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans in the 1970s, every student from first to eighth grades attended chapel every morning – but Fridays were special, because rather than ordinary church hymns, we would sing “guitar songs” led by parents Carol Roberts and Alice Lees, along with students who were reasonably proficient at playing the instruments. The guitar songs all seemed to have good tunes, and they had a rhythm and a life to them that almost all the students loved.
If I remember correctly, the very first song in our guitar songbook was “I am the Resurrection” by a guy named Ray Repp. “I am the resurrection – and the life,” went the refrain’s first line. “He who believes in me will nev-er-er die.”
While playing the refrain, Mrs. Roberts and Mrs. Lees developed a habit involving a syncopation of sorts (I call it the Roberts-Lees syncopation) in which they would strum the “tion” part of the word “resurrection” particularly hard and then pause an extra, oh, maybe just an extra eighth of a beat. In that pause, a lot of the kids, very lightly, would tap our fingertips on the pew-backs to add a light but noticeable extra bit of percussion. Then, with another, almost imperceptible extra Roberts-Lees pause added to what already was a designed pause after “life,” the kids would do a rapid four taps.
So we’d sing: “I am the resurrection (tap), and the life (tap-tap-tap-tap); He who believes in me will nev-er-er die. I am the resurrection (tap), and the life (tap-tap-tap-tap). He who believes in me will live a new life.”
We kids felt like we were getting away with something just on the verge of maverick-ness. If we tapped too loudly, the headmaster wouldn’t like it and would remind us we were, after all, in church – a place of reverence. But if we tapped in good rhythm and kept it light, he would just smile and let us have our fun. We loved it!
All of which is why I cannot read this week’s standard Gospel passage, which involves the full episode of how Jesus was moved to raise Lazarus from the dead, without hearing, in the back of my mind, the Roberts-Lees syncopation and voices and 300 kids tapping pews in unison.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” — John 11:23-27
Martha “gets it.” Even more than some of Jesus’ oft-confused disciples, she immediately has faith that He is the Christ, and faith in the redemption He offers. She certainly has more faith than many of the Pharisees and their followers, who in the chapter immediately preceding the story of Lazarus threatened to stone Him for blasphemy – specifically because He claimed to be The Anointed One but they disbelieved Him.
As we learn, Martha’s faith joined with Jesus’ healing is what brings Lazarus back from death (John 11:40). It is in turn this resurrection of Lazarus that leads the Sanhedrin to feel so threatened by Jesus’ power (and by how they expected Rome to react to it) that they determine to have him executed. And, of course, that crucifixion in turn led to Jesus’ own resurrection, and to redemption for us all.
For elementary school students raised in the faith, the basics of that story were just accepted as natural parts of the ordered universe – but, especially for the younger ones, in first and second grades, the concepts involved were all still rather, well, fuzzy.
But if you were a parent who decided to attend the chapel service from the back of the church, and you saw 300 sleepy children shuffling into the nave, distractedly rubbing their eyes and looking bored, I imagine what you saw was a mini-resurrection of sorts. Mrs. Roberts and Mrs. Lees and their motley crew would start strumming, and the children would perk up, and then they would start singing more and more enthusiastically. And then, if “I am the Resurrection” were the chosen song, the tap-tap-tapping would start at the expected time, full of a wondrous childish belief and joy.
And you would see, and surely you would believe.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication in June by Liberty Island Media.