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Thank you for letting us sing to you: Confessions of a choir crasher

You’ve heard of party crashers and wedding crashers, but perhaps you have never heard of a choir crasher. That’s me, the person who, back in the doldrums of September as election campaigns were still in full swing, shorter days and longer nights were just beginning to descend, and when Christmas trees were not yet at Lowes, I began to wonder in earnest … What can I do to make this season feel more like Advent?

A clear and undeniable suggestion came to mind: join the cantata choir.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no solo singer. I have an average voice…a congregational voice…that’s mostly on pitch and works well in a crowd. Harmony is a stretch, but I can make a joyful noise.

So, I emailed choir director, Yoon Nam, who told me they were welcoming seasonal singers for the Cantata and told me to come for the last part of their Wednesday evening choir rehearsal. I did and they were expecting me. My name was written on a sticky note marking an empty seat saved for me.

“You’re an alto, right?” Yoon asked.

“Yes,” I said, as I took my seat, wondering how she knew.

And frankly, I was pitiful. I couldn’t find the notes, couldn’t hear the pitches, didn’t get the rhythms let alone the words, so I spent most the time lost in the music, scanning the pages, frantically looking for the alto line shuffled among the four parts and the piano accompaniment. Oh my, what had I done?

After rehearsal, I thanked Yoon, apologizing for my dismal performance, wrong notes and poor sight reading. Ever honest, Yoon said, “That’s okay. You have other gifts.” Haha! Thank God I do. Just point the microphone away from me!

At the end of that first night of rehearsal, we dismissed from our seats to form a large, hand-held circle to pray. The choir, you see, is actually the largest small group you’ll ever be a part of, nearly 70-strong. Not only do they sing together in worship, but they care for each other, share devotional reading and always, they pray together to conclude their rehearsals.

Yoon prays and the room falls silent:

“Lord, thank you for letting us sing to you.”

That says it all. It’s the reason we’re here, the reason we practice, and the reason we are admonished to take care of our instruments, which in this case are our bodies and, in particular, our voices.

Unfortunately, I immediately realize that I brought very flabby praise muscles. My vocal chords are sorely out of shape. My harmony is hard of hearing. After thirty minutes of singing, I’m hoarse and exhausted. This is ridiculous! What kind of praise is this?

Week by week of Wednesdays, I showed up for just a wee bit of practice with this small group disguised as large, where a chair welcomed me by name, faces smiled when I arrived, and strong, confident voices surrounded me. With Mandy and Erin, the dual Rocks of Gibraltar in the alto section verily ringing out from behind me, all I have to do is open my mouth to let the angels sing!

And Yoon… there’s just no describing singing for her. She is hilarious, mimicking and imitating us in practice, yet, serious about drawing it all together perfectly. As we prepare for what is not performance, but offering, she is generous, forgiving and heartfelt. Her direction is a whole-bodied, whole-hearted, full-minded, soul-filled affair. Notes travel, phrasing moves forward, sound grows and diminishes, and praise, praise, all of it is meant to praise. Yoon teaches us to praise through song.

“Open your mouth like this,” she shows us. Because when we sing reluctantly and without confidence, our lips tighten and the sound is raw and quenched. Opening your mouth lets the note ring beautifully. “Listen to how it sounds. Listen to how it blends. Open your mouth and let the Holy Spirit sing in you.”

The Light of the World is coming and has come. Words just can’t quite say it completely. This calls for singing, as if there is a microphone in every pew, which surely is how God hears us. There’s just nothing quite so true as singing Glory to God, double forte. Oh my goodness! Thank you, Yoon, and new choir friends. It was amazing praising God together.

Lord, thank you for letting us sing to you.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. ~ Colossians 3:16-17

Why do we edit God out?

Just wondering.

Simone Manuel - credit NBC News

Simone Manuel – photo credit NBC News

I watched Simone Manuel finish first in the 100 meter freestyle in Olympic record time then turn to look at the score board and put her hand over her mouth in utter surprise and delight. That girl just performed a miracle as far as she’s concerned, and in her after-swim interview, the first words out of her mouth were…

“All I can say is all glory to God.”

She went on, “It’s definitely been a long journey these last four years,” and as her voice began to break, “I’m just so blessed to have a gold medal.”

What a moment for this young woman! The first African-American to win an individual medal in USA Olympic swimming competition. She knows the weight of her position and the responsibility it holds. She has a voice on the highest platform, to address all those children of color who may now aspire to do what they wouldn’t otherwise have considered possible. All Glory to God, indeed.

So I’m surprised when I watch clips of her interview, shared on tv, online and on social media, that they begin with …”This is significant. You are the first African-American woman to medal … what does this mean to you, Simone?”

“This medal is not just for me…”

And the reporters are off with the story of the woman who inspires, the symbol of a movement, the focal point of a message. All to the good, but why do we skip to the “good” part? Why do we edit God out?

I know journalists do this. We edit for time and space and message. We cut out the fluff so we can focus on the nuggets. But in this young woman’s case, I think we may have missed the first point she was making. God made me as I am, and I’m good, thanks to Him.

Can we please start at the beginning, where she began? where we all began? which is why what she says and does matters and why what we say and do matters?

Thank you, Simone, for your heart for God and your courage to say so.

All glory to God.

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The moment after the masterpiece

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
Psalm 19:1

Temporarily. I mean how long does a sunrise last?

I wandered down the driveway to collect the newspaper this morning, but on the way I knew something special was waiting. I could see the pinkish glow reflecting off asphalt and mailbox and flowers. Even the plastic wrap on the paper was tinted in neon.

I looked up to the East and drew in my breath at the scattered layers of brilliance amid gray shadows of mellow. Amazing. What kind of glow could cause such illumination? Surely I could never look directly into its face. Yet its reflection on the clouds made it even more lovely, and allowed me to look upon it. And keep looking. Trying to etch it in my mind.

Because this moment, this view, this sunrise would be gone in moments. What a waste. That I am the only one who will see it. This masterpiece was painted specifically and only for me.

I wanted to preserve it. To hold onto and keep it. I debated whether to run inside and get my phone for a photo. But that would waste precious viewing moments and, by the time I returned, some of the beauty would have run out of it. So, I stood and traced the view in my mind. Recalling the painting-with-imaginary-paint-brushes that my youngest daughter and I used to do when we saw loveliness like this. I tried so hard to force myself to remember this. To make it permanent.

Alas, my human nature took hold of me, reminding me how prone I am to forgetting things. And yes, I did. I ran in to get the phone and zipped back out only to snap a couple very inadequate photos.

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They bore out two things:

  • I am not much of a photographer
  • It’s a good thing that Peter, James and John did not have iPhones on the Mount of Transfiguration. They would have insisted Elijah, Moses and Jesus smile for a photo.

And then the disappointment set in as the Master drained the colors from His morning. Gradually, gracefully, permanently, in a way that said, “Show is over.” With no “Next show starts at 10.” It was a one time performance for me.

Such is life on earth. Secular. Timed. Measured. Temporary.

Yet, even if it’s not recorded, filmed or documented, it is still memorialized. In the minds and hearts of those who have seen it and been touched by it. We change each other this way. Just as Jesus, Moses and Elijah changed Peter, James and John. None of these moments are ever wasted.

It’s just that our lives are lived, not on the mount of transfiguration, but in the moment after the masterpiece. When we return to our daily, with a lingering sense of gratitude and the youthful expectation that, at any moment, wonder will burst in.

The colors may dim, but the Glory never fades.

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