By Janis Fontaine
Is it too soon to call the coronavirus a gift?
For Charles Milling and millions of others, life slammed on its brakes a year ago. Today, Milling says the pandemic lockdown helped him rediscover his creative passion and gave him time to devote to his family and newborn son.
As the musical director at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Boynton Beach and the creative director of the Christian band Live Hymnal, Milling had a packed schedule.
“Pre-COVID, Live Hymnal had more gigs than we could handle,” he said. “I was working 100-plus hours a week. Work in the ministry is structured for burnout. It took a toll on my life and my health.”
Then the pandemic shutdown hit.
There were no Easter services. Live Hymnal’s gigs were canceled. The band wasn’t allowed to participate in services at St. Joseph’s.
Milling, 43, worried that the church wouldn’t be able to sustain itself without contributions from its parishioners and he’d lose his job. His wife, Julie, a teacher, was eight months’ pregnant with their first child.
“Over the following months, we were astounded at the way people rallied to make ends meet at our church,” Milling said. “Where some had to stop giving, others stepped up and gave more.”
In April, Julie went into labor and gave birth to Ellis Hyde Milling on April 19 at Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach. Milling was grateful to be allowed at the delivery, but despondent when Julie contracted pneumonia and, two weeks later, he had to drop her off at the emergency room door.
He held his newborn son and turned to God.
“I didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again,” he said. “I never cried so much and prayed so hard in all my life. I couldn’t accept help from friends, and we have no family here. I was drowning in worry, dread, and had no clue how to take care of a baby. Eventually, Julie’s mom put on 65 masks, bathed in Purell and took a flight down to rescue me. I hadn’t slept for days. You have to weigh bad with bad and make the best bad decision in times like that.”
Julie was in the hospital for 10 days. She got stronger every day. Ellis was thriving.
“COVID taught me to be present,” Milling said. “COVID gave me ‘me time’ and family time. I got to focus on the parts of my life that set me on fire, and to rediscover my artistry. Like Elizabeth Gilbert says, creativity is capricious. You have to dance with it when it shows up, and the more you dance with it, the more it shows up.”
As the months went by, Milling found a new rhythm. He started getting up at 4 a.m. to practice and write. “You have to be strategic about it,” he says.
He has two rules: Don’t wait until later. “There’s always something more important that shows up. You have to put your artistry where no one can interfere with it. The other rule is never, ever listen to your inner voice in the first 10 minutes.”
It’s hard, but the rewards are worth it. “Inside that time, I find the greatest joy,” he said.
After breakfast with the family, Milling puts in eight hours at the church.
“I’ve had time to remind myself, this is why we do what we do,” Milling said. “I’m a songwriter and so much of my spirituality comes out in my music, but I was so busy, I’d lost sight of that.”
Time for reflection rejuvenated Milling’s passion for music and his goal to make a real contribution as a Christian musician. Besides producing and arranging, he’s a professional guitarist and bassist and does some vocals, drums, piano and mandolin.
There’s an occasional dip in Milling’s optimism. “My friends think I’m a downright Pollyanna,” he laughed.
“Charles is one of the most positive people I know,” said Father Marty Zlatic, St. Joseph’s rector. “His joy is in his smile, in his voice, in him. He just has a magnetic effect on people, especially kids.”
Milling believes in lagniappe — the Cajun philosophy that life gives us unexpected gifts. He says he saw those gifts materialize during the pandemic.
When St. Joe’s floundered technologically, gifted volunteers stepped up to modernize live-streaming capabilities. The great lawn became a place to hold outdoor services. Armed with plexiglass dividers, a reservation system and a setup that discouraged mingling, Zlatic and Milling succeeded in convincing the diocese that outdoor services were safe.
In his native New Orleans, Milling’s father was a helicopter pilot who played jazz piano each night to unwind after a tough day, so Milling heard jazz in the womb. He remembers devoting himself to both God and music around age 7.
“Before I ever picked up an instrument, I asked God, ‘please let me do music with my life.’ By 12, I was playing gigs every weekend.”
Milling studied humanities at NYU before transferring to Berklee College of Music, but he knew he’d found his calling when he realized “the only meaningful gigs I was playing were church music.”
His love for Christian hymns, some centuries old, has injected Live Hymnal’s music with a depth and authenticity that is missing from contemporary Christian music. The lyrics are more meaningfully themed from an Episcopalian perspective, Milling said.
The lockdown was a gift, reminding him why he started playing music, Milling said. “And more, it gave me the time to restructure my life so that I could live more into the heart space of what I do.”
Live Hymnal provides music during the outdoor services at the church on Wednesday evenings. Worship in your pod beginning at 6 p.m. Reservations needed. Call 561-732-3060. Visit www.livehymnal.com.
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.