Thursday, April 2, 2015

Practicing Joy

It's Wednesday of Holy Week, and I've been feeling like there's something seriously missing this week -- actually all of this Lenten season.  For my non-churchy readers, the 40 days before Easter are known as "Lent".  It's a time of preparing, of spiritual practices, of getting ready to mark the final week in the life of Jesus, the occasion of his death, and the celebration of the resurrection.  It's a time of reflection for many Christians.  Some people give something up (chocolate, TV, Facebook...) and other take something up (waking up early to pray, paying for the coffee of the person behind you in line at Starbucks,  working at a soup kitchen,  writing in a prayer journal,  etc. ... I even have a friend who decided to trudge through the 108 inches of snow this winter to feed the birds in his yard, as part of his Lenten practice this year.. sort of St. Francis of Assisi, Boston-style).

And my Lenten practice, for more than the last 15 years, has been literally "practice", choir practice that is.  For me, the Lenten season has always involved spending at least one night a week in my seat in the soprano section of the choir, with the words and notes of a major work of sacred music working itself into my every pore.  By the time Holy Week rolls around, the texts of the Latin mass (set by Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven), the English texts of John Rutter's Requiem, or Brahm's German Requiem, Handel's "Messiah", or Haydn's "Creation", to name a few, have become part of my breathing, my falling asleep, my waking up.  I live in the music and the text, sometimes using my drive time (I'm a minivan-driving mom in the Bay Area  I have a LOT of drive-time), to listen to the work that I'm studying; working those elements even deeper into my soul.  

Here's a sample of what I end up meditating on:

 "Out of the deep, have I cried unto you, O God.  Lord, hear my prayer.  O let thine ear consider well, the voice of my complaint"  (to listen to this as it's set by John Rutter, click here.)

"You now are sorrowful.  Weep not.   I shall again behold you and then your hearts shall be joyful, and my joy shall no one take from you. "  (This is my wonderful community of choir folk in 2010, singing the Brahms setting of this text)

"Sanctus, sanctus, santus.  Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tuam... (Holy, holy, holy.  Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.)  (Here's how Beethoven set this text in his Mass in C major)

"I heard a voice from Heaven, saying unto me, 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors... "  (Here's a totally fearless, fabulous soprano, with my beloved choir folks, singing a setting of this text by John Rutter, from his Requiem)  

But it's not just the music and the words that go deep, refreshing and often challenging me in my spiritual walk, but it's the experience of spending that time, drinking-in that music in the presence of about 75-100 of my closest friends -- my fellow choir members.  There is a presence of the Holy Spirit that shows up in the community that is a church choir, particularly the one that I have called "home" for the past 16 years.

We've been led, for longer than I've been there, by a man who has turned a choir director's job into a Minister of Music vocation.  He's been our teacher, our coach, our pastoral leader, our Court Jester, and the father-figure for the lovingly imperfect, sometimes dysfunctional family that is a choir. 

Throughout its existence, our choir has aimed for musical excellence, not for its own sake, but for the sake of what that excellence points to -- an endlessly creative and creating God, a loving and redeeming being who touches hearts and minds and souls through many different routes.  One route, for some of us, is music.  The music has drawn people who might not otherwise darken the door of a church, to start spending time there, either as audience members to our concerts, or as participants in our music-making.  And it's not just singers who are drawn in.  There are a number of professional instrumentalists who showed up for what they thought would be "just another church gig" and ended up having their spirits fed and watered by their experience with us.  I particularly love the story of one such musician who pulled the choir director aside after a concert and handed back his union-scale paycheck, saying that we wanted to donate his time to our concerts from here on out, because he'd experienced something that he could not quite name, something powerful, that made him want to keep coming back.  He has donated his time to our concerts ever since.

But what makes our choir special is not just the music, or even the musical excellence:  it's the love and fellowship that we've experienced in our time together.  We held a post-wedding reception for a choir couple who sneaked off and married eachother after 20 years of being best friends.  We've sung wearing silly hats, tacky sweaters, and jewelry that blinks.  We've sung the Rice Krispies jingle and the Star Spangled Banner.  We've gathered to make a personalized chemo quilt when a choir member had cancer.  We have held baby showers, bridal showers, and a dinner to share remembrances of a member who died suddenly and unexpectedly.  We've celebrated birthdays and sung at memorial services.  We've walked together to raise money for AIDS treatment in Africa, and we've sung a concert to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Two days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, we ended our rehearsal standing in a circle, singing this lovely piece by Mack Wilberg as our benediction, unsure of what our nation would be facing in the days that lay ahead, but counting on the presence and provision of God in whatever would come next.

And during each Advent and Lent, both seasons of preparation, in the church calendar, we've engaged in the Practice of Practice, which for me, has been the practice of Joy. There's an excitement to that final pre-concert Saturday, the rehearsal with orchestra, that for me has always been the highlight of the season.  In that rehearsal, we put it all together.  We singers surf the glorious waves of orchestral sound and experience that coming-together of precision and passion that turns into the practice of joy.  The words become real in a new way, the presence of the Spirit is palpable... and three hours later, we're exhausted but energized.  The following night, we share it with a congregation of church folk and non-church folk who walk away changed in some way, if we've done our jobs right.

But this Lent, there was no preparation for a concert.  It is quite possible that my choir as it exists now, will not exist in the future.  Things change.  I could say more about this, but maybe in these last few days of Lent, I'll practice the discipline of  not saying too much.

I have heard people say that "Life is not a dress rehearsal",  but I LOVE the dress rehearsals.  It's where the performers get to practice joy, in preparation for sharing that joy with others.  Tonight was a regular rehearsal for the choir's Easter morning music, and just before the choir rehearsed, I shot a couple seconds of our director, working with the brass... They're rehearsing, "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee".   Practicing joy, if ever I heard it.

A few weeks after Andre's death, I sang a duet in church with my buddy Laurel (the fearless, fabulous soprano in the video I shared earlier in this entry).... The lyrics feel as true now as they did then: 

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth's lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it's music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness 'round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since Christ is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

How, indeed?                  Sing on, friends.