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From bulletin: St. John Passion service, Bethany Lutheran Church, March 29, 2015

From bulletin: St. John Passion service, Bethany Lutheran Church,
March 29, 2015

Sunday’s experience singing Bach’s St. John Passion felt more than a little surreal. Other than on the songs when I myself had to join in on the hard work of singing, I often felt as if I were somehow inside a recording of the music I’ve been listening to over the past several months. The 40 songs on my phone that are now so familiar provide so much more music than the choruses and chorales our choir has been rehearsing. For one thing they come accompanied by an orchestra, not just our choir accompanist playing on the piano a small portion of the completeness provided by the various instrumental parts. And for another, we practiced our own songs but had little or no exposure to the arias in ordinary rehearsals.

In fact, because what we were doing was only part of the complete work, that is why I decided to start listening to those 40 songs in order—no shuffling allowed. This winter whenever I plugged my ear buds into my phone, I selected Bach to accompany me as I pushed my snow blower or ran. My purpose wasn’t to focus on the music but to let the songs—mine and those of others, transitions, and accompaniment seep into me. Last week, before the dress rehearsal with the other musicians, I would have told you I wasn’t ready to sing my parts—despite seven months of group rehearsals and practice on my own.

But with those musicians? Wow—just wow. Oh certainly, I didn’t have everything down just perfectly, but it helped so much to have the support of such high level instrumentalists as well as the professional soloists who also sang with us. At Saturday’s dress rehearsal there were moments when I would hear the other sections of the choir sing and think, “Is that sound really coming from us?” It was so much easier to sing up to a new standard surrounded by all that excellence as I sat and stood immersed in something that sounded a whole lot like what had been coming into my ears all winter long.

For the few hours of Sunday’s service I was transported into an almost ethereal space where I even forgot sometimes how hard I was working.

Because of that I could really hear the message and sense just how passionate this passion was—our God was put to trial and forsaken. The heavenly music told a tale of oh-so-earthly human failures. No wonder so many of the faces I faced as I sang that the final number—including not just those of those in attendance, but also of our director—were either close to tears or had tears escaping—as is also likely true of my face and of those standing with me in the choir. How could we not “get” the story when told as Bach intended?

Indeed—what a way to put the holy into Holy Week.

(Note: in order to listen, access the link embedded above and go to the worship archives for March and click on March 29, St. John Passion.)

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(c) 2014 Trina Lambert

(c) 2014 Trina Lambert

Music is one of my first languages—and I know it had a big role in how my brain first developed. Music is also one of the best ways for all people to keep our brains healthy as we get older. But when I joined the church choir after my kids left home, I didn’t do it for my brain. I did it because I missed practicing music within a group. Yet I am sure my brain appreciated the regular exposure to learning and singing demanding music, just as my heart appreciated the words we sang.

I had only sung in the choir for two years when our long-time and excellent director retired. Everything old seemed new again under the direction of Dr. James Kim—for many reasons, but especially because he is a passionate scholar of J. S. Bach. Thanks to Dr. Kim’s focus on Bach and the messages in his work, all our brains have stepped up the mental workouts while also growing in understanding the whys behind the sacred music Bach left behind.

This second year with Dr. Kim, our brains should be even healthier. He has challenged—and guided—us to sing J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion—and in German, too. Together (and on our own) we have been learning words in a new language and delving into complex musical patterns since late last summer. Oh, sure, some of our members are accomplished singers who have extensive musical training and who have sung in or do sing in performance choirs. But in the end, we are a church choir and as such anyone is welcome to join us. There are no auditions or requirements—except maybe for the desire to sing for the glory of God.

Bach was a church musician—not your average church musician, neither then nor now—who was most concerned with how his works glorified God. No doubt he strove to strengthen the health of souls through his words and notes, but I am also grateful for how they have also benefitted my brain health at the same time the words have been written into my heart.

Tomorrow on Palm Sunday afternoon at 4:00, under the direction of Dr. James Kim and accompanied by guest instrumentalists, the Bethany Lutheran Church Chancel Choir, along with accomplished soloists, will present the St. John Passion as an extended church service.

The complex and beautiful music by Bach that has challenged and developed me simplifies the difficult task of opening hearts. After so many months immersed in such exceptional words and musical notes, the spirit is willing in each of us participating in this offering to the congregation and community—may our flesh (and brains) also be strong enough so that all who listen—young, old, and in-between—hear the glory to God that Bach intended.

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

When I took the Strong Interest Inventory about 20 years ago, some of the results indicated I might like to work in a church. Since I didn’t feel any calling in that direction and since I also like my weekends free from job-related tasks, I eventually put the suggestion down to a cultural bias. Just because I answered as a person of faith doesn’t mean faith-based work was my vocation. Perhaps I am just called to think and act as a person of faith in other professions/work settings. Nonetheless, I’m betting it was my “I like singing hymns” response that most directed that particular result.

But, hey, I do like singing hymns. In past centuries much of the best music was written for the Church and I’m into singing good music. Beyond that, though, part of why I am musical is because I was raised in a strong German-American family. The German-Americans where I’m from had traditions such as playing instruments together in family bands and meeting up often to sing—which included singing many of the hymns that came from the German chorales.

Even as teens and young adults in the 70s and 80s, my cousins and I had great fun doing this. It never occurred to us just how nerdy our singing hymns might appear to the general population. However, we didn’t sing just hymns—I remember singing songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” or pieces from musicals such as Pippin—but we always sang in at least 4-part harmony. The youngest cousins started as page-turners for my mom’s piano playing, learning from the bench before they were old enough to join in. When we reunited in song at Mom’s and an uncle’s services, it was as if we were doing what we had always done but with cousins moving into the places of director and accompanist.

My own music lessons began with piano and clarinet, but picked up vocally when we moved to a new town when I turned 10. With our family back in a Lutheran church again, Mom began to teach my brother and me—Sunday service after Sunday service—how to read and sing harmony from the liturgy and the hymns. So much of what I know about choral singing comes from first honing my sight-reading skills while singing hymns. Hymns have also helped me practice singing almost weekly since 1972, even during years when I do not participate in a choir.

Thanks to Mom, I always had an opportunity to sing while growing up, whether at home, in church, or through some group she was directing for my brother and me and our friends. Of course I also sang at school, but only through my freshman year in college. The hymn-singing is what has remained most constant for me.

And when I can, I sing the harmony in those hymns, week after week. Over time I’ve noticed the patterns of particular organists. For example, the organist playing for the church I attended in college always changed up the harmonies on the third verse while my church’s current organist usually varies the final verse. Until I joined the choir at church again in 2011, hymn-singing has been one of my only opportunities in adult life to sing harmony besides the three years in the 80s in another church choir and an earlier year (1990) with my current church choir. Singing harmony with hymns is to singing in choir as doing warm-up jogs are to running races or as writing in a journal is to formal writing—it is a very good way to practice skills even when you aren’t performing, so to speak.

As our society has transitioned to a post-Christian one—a society where a person who likes to sing hymns might not just be considered an average churchgoer but instead someone who should work in a church—so has the Church’s desire to be welcoming—as it should if it wants to remain relevant to all who hunger for God. We need to remove barriers that make others feel unwelcome. Yet at the same time we are also losing traditions, some strongly tied to eras when our ethnic traditions carried into how we “did” church services. Nonetheless, what feels inclusive to me most likely feels exclusive to someone raised outside my tradition.

I get it, but that doesn’t mean I like musical changes in the church service such as (only) the words of hymns being displayed on walls for us to sing or our hymnals showing just the melodies for many songs. For me so much joy has come from communal singing—in harmony.

Which means I better keep singing in a church choir. Trust me, though, when I say no one is going to pay me to do so as a profession. As Bach wrote at the bottom of each of his works, “S. D. G.”“Soli Deo Gloria” or glory to God alone. To get to sing to God—in harmony with others—is enough.

(c) 2009 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2009 Christiana Lambert

The winter of my son’s discontent has begun to thaw thanks to—his Grandma Mae’s accordion? Really. These long days and nights of waiting for his post-concussion syndrome to subside have left him with time on his hands since he is still banned from doing his martial arts—the activity that previously filled his evenings and provided an outlet for the excessive energy that runs through his body whether or not his head is aching. Winter’s low light, his restrictions, and his pain have led to a massive case of cabin fever, especially as he has no idea when his healing will pick up. He needed something (safe) to do and we needed him to have something do when he wasn’t at work—which was more often since he’s still not released to work a full schedule. Who knew the accordion really could step in against the face of doing too much of nothing?

Not I, but I was getting desperate. If you don’t know, people who are concussed (mini-rant: when did that become a proper term?) get pretty irritable. Plus, any brain challenges a person has get exacerbated—which means my son’s rant gene (we’re pretty sure there must be one in our family including in his mother) has ramped up the monologues around here. What could he do that would grab the attention of his brain while having a physical component? I thought he’d try out my LEGO suggestion but instead he grabbed onto the accordion idea, especially after I pointed out he could start learning by using the Internet.

After the first two days he had already played the thing for eight hours. His bored (yet bruised) brain sang with joy—or at least his fingers did. Pretty soon he was researching how the accordion was put together and how to fix the stuck buttons. He knows the background of his accordion’s brand and has a good idea of its age and value. He can tell you about different styles of instruments and accordion-playing traditions across different countries and over several time periods. I’ve become used to falling asleep to the sound of an accordion—which is fine since he most often chooses to play with a sweet tone—it’s almost as if I’m rocking asleep in a boat in Venice. Almost.

At first our dog Sam ran from the music. Something about the vibrations or the movement of the bellows scared him in a way that our playing other instruments hasn’t. Thankfully Sam’s made a truce with the instrument because I don’t think it’s going away any time soon—and that’s a good thing because this personal music therapy has done more for our son than anything else has over the past three months.

Perhaps he’ll become the next Lawrence Welk? When I first said that, I meant it in jest, but after finding a really old video of the Bubble-master playing his accordion, old Lawrence is much redeemed in my eyes—I’ve yet to forgive him for all those dull shows of his I had to watch while visiting my grandparents, but if he’d played his accordion that way in his later years, he would have kept my attention.

Maybe my son had to get hit on the head to find his true calling—or not. But thank goodness the accordion is a friend when he needs it to get through this overly long healing period. Even if his music didn’t sound so sweet, that alone would make it enough for me. How sweet it is indeed.

P.S. Check out Lawrence Welk’s playing–it’s well worth a listen.

(c) 2014 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2014 Christiana Lambert

How many of us have attended weddings where we listened to Bible verses read from 1 Corinthians 13? The passage that begins with “Love is patient and kind” introduces one of the most detailed treatises on love in the Bible. The Apostle Paul did not set out to address the love between partners or even friends or family, but instead spoke of agape love—which is divine love of and from God. Still, many of us think of these verses when we think of romantic love and commitment. These words model godly love as an example of how to behave toward all people whom we love, yet we, who are human, most need them to remember how to treat the most constant person in our lives—and thus the frequent reminder at wedding ceremonies.

Why is the person who is most precious to us—and the one who puts up with our failings so often—the one we find so hard to treat with the respect and love he or she deserves?

Everyday life intrudes upon the drug-like euphoria we feel when first falling in love. When we begin to know someone, we can’t imagine acting self-seeking or rude to them. That person is a perfect fit for us. And yet no one really is a perfect fit—it’s more a question of what we can live with or live without and what we must have in order to continue together happily enough.

In other words, if love is a drug, what benefits must a person receive and what side effects are too much? For example, look at stimulant medications used to treat AD/HD—medications that are often abused illegally. Contrary to popular beliefs, when properly prescribed, these medications aren’t supposed to give a high or create a life filled with peaks and valleys. Too much stimulant can leave a person feeling anxious and irritable even if it might give the focus to pull all-nighters. The appropriate dose and type of medication for the AD/HD patient is the one that brings the person into the moment and that provides a sense of calm as well as confidence that the person can find balance in life and manage necessary matters in his or her life, including relationships with others.

Some love seems more like the stimulants abused just to feel the highs—even when the lows are simply caused by a mismatch in the needs of the individuals in a relationship.

When I fell in love that first time, I couldn’t imagine coming down from that high. But when the lows came, I didn’t want to recognize just how much I was trying to force what we had just to get back to the highs. And the more I forced, the less my own love acted like that 1-Corinthians-13 love, even as I tried to let those words be my guide. All I wanted was more time with him, but what he needed was time for sleep, sports, schoolwork, and helping others. Our love was like too much stimulant—incredibly high and energetic until it became irritating and fragile. Despite his desire to live out a 1-Corinthians-13 love, he could not do so with me any more than I could with him—trying harder to follow these tenets would not make it happen. The side effects of our drug of love were too numerous and too damaging to continue together.

On the other hand, when we’re compatible with someone, it’s not as hard to have a 1-Corinthian-13 type of love—assuming we believe in and strive to follow those words. This is what I have found with Sherman, my husband of 26 years. Yes, maintaining a day-to-day love long term still has some challenges, but it is not all-day-and-all-night difficult. With a lasting love, much of it happens easily because we love who they are—with us and away from us. We can be in the moment together and confident that who we are together will be good and will also allow us each to be the individuals we are. For all their eccentricities, we love more of them than we do not. As Sherman likes to say, “You marry the strangest people.” To which I always respond, “You certainly do.”

Though our wedding ceremony did not include reading the 1 Corinthians 13 passage, we see those words as an explanation for how to live out the passages we did choose from John 15 and 1 John 4, including the following:

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 1 John 4:11

If love is at all like a drug, then it’s more like a medication prescribed by God, the healer—don’t settle for one bought from a street dealer. Love is patient and kind—and that also applies to loving ourselves enough to have the patience to wait for a 1-Corinthians-13 love.

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(c) 2009, Christiana Lambert