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
It is the music that makes it feel like Christmas to me. To the chagrin of my family, I turn on the Christmas stations and put in the Christmas CDs and hum along with the songs piped in at the mall. I am positively impossible at Christmastime.
But this year is not like previous Christmas seasons. Because I have a law student living at home studying for exams. She wants it quiet. So, out of respect, I have silenced the stereo. “Use your headphones, Mom,” she says. Because this is what all young people do, listen to their own music through their own ears, so as not to disturb anyone.
This is respectful, I guess, but it’s not Christmas. Because I like to sing along. And, different from all other songs in all other seasons, at Christmastime I know all the verses. Perhaps this is because I have sung them since childhood. Or because they are the same songs, year after year. I don’t bother much with the new ones; I like the old favorites. They’re embedded in my memory banks. One verse just flows out after the other.
And of course, there’s the aftershock…After I hear them and sing them, they keep playing in my head and I keep right on singing. Ah, yes, my family dearly loves this.
I broke all the rules last night and pulled out the old hymnal, playing the tunes…Joy To the World, What Child is This? Away in a Manger, Angels We Have Heard on High, on my heirloom baby grand piano. And lo and behold, my daughter the law student applauded and asked for an encore from the other room where she was still studying. I played Silent Night.
There is just something about Christmas music. The tunes, yes. The timing, yes. But I think that the very sneaky or very wise God planted a message in the music that speaks to us in a unique way. It settles deep and stays with us. So that even I can remember the verses. Not just the melody in the first verse, but the message all the way to the last.
I am reminded again of this as I sing and hum to Away in a Manger.
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes;
I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
and stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.
The last verse is a special favorite. It calls back to mind many, many tender bedtimes when I sang this with my youngest daughter, then so small. Bless all the dear children, indeed. And fit us for heaven – shape us just right for the ever after you have planned.
Some of the “updated” versions sing “bring us to heaven.” Perhaps bringing and fitting are the same thing to some folks, but not to me. I prefer the old way. Making us fit for the Kingdom seems a lifetime in coming. “Bring us” seems so…passive, on our parts. It is the end of the song, but is the end of the story? the beginning? or somewhere in between?
In a manger 2000 years ago, a baby was born. He’ll be born again this Christmas. In me. In my daughters. In my household. In my world. What a merciful Savior we have. To help us remember to the very end of the song.
- After the scrumptious meal
- After the company leaves
- After the last note sounds
- After the riveting movie
- After the compelling book
- After the lights go down
Our hearts and senses are left to fend for themselves. To remember, but not with our minds exactly, more with our spirits. We no longer have the crutch of words or explanations or analysis. We can no longer touch or taste or see or hear. But we still feel. Something remains.
What is that?
It’s real because it returns. When circumstances bring it back to mind. It is like the last time – like before, like the other. We compare it to something we know but could never display. A thought, a memory, a sensation, a feeling. These have not gone; they are still with us. Undeniably present and called upon by the moment’s experience.
My pastor speaks of the blessings of God for which we tremble. I repeat the word over and over as I was taught to sing it, in a choir loft long ago. Rolling the last consonants, as if they were bumping together, quaking, quivering, rattling, rumbling, settling. The dictionary is far, far away. I stand two rows up, eyes fixed on a makeshift manger to which we sing. I have imagined the baby Jesus. We…tremble…
Why would Jesus come as a helpless baby? Crying, cooing, needing, cold, trembling…
I glimpse a young woman from a wasteland who is isolated, devastated, alone, being held by the man who has stood by her. He can comfort and support but not rescue her. This is a present day and not just long ago story. It still resonates. Perhaps because it speaks to a place deeper than words. Where, trembling against all odds, we discover that what is in us can save us.