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How do I calm my raging heart—on any given day, but especially in times such as these when my activities and comings and goings have been pared down in this time period when we await abatement from the virus’ relentless effect on daily life?

Since March 16, 2020—when I came home to work—and the week when everything on my normally busy calendar was erased, my main solace has been time spent in exercise. First, solitary running, and then, bit by bit, electronic classes—both with my regular local fitness teacher and classmates and with sources beyond my neighborhood. And, from time to time, I have ventured out to run close—but not too close—with others.

Still, what was immediately stripped from my life last March was singing in community in my choir and church. The night of March 11, I was engaged in the risky business of going to a Lenten church service (complete with communion!) and singing in choir practice. By the Sunday that followed, church had been reduced to my laptop screen. While my spiritual needs are often met by connecting to the messages from the ministers and other leaders, it’s not quite the same singing harmony by myself along with the sounds projected from the few people allowed in the sanctuary.

My voice has become husky with disuse. Of course, I can sing by myself at home, but with my naturally limited range, I don’t have much of a voice for singing melody. My strength lies in singing harmony. I can—and occasionally do—sing harmony along with music I play for myself. But I miss singing in church—with other people. Almost every Sunday since I was 10 (give or take several during college and in my early 20s) until March 15 of 2020, I have been singing harmony from the hymn book—with others.

So, I asked myself, what can I do to sing, even if I can’t sing in the way I want to sing? Well, for Lent, I’ve broken out my copy of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, and I plan to sing along with Cyber Bass or YouTube. Tonight, I gave that scratchy old voice of mine permission to sing out—badly or not. To tell the truth, I had an easier time singing the notes than I did singing the German words. Sure, I might have scared the puppy a little bit (in all fairness—he’s scared of most everything the first time he experiences it!), but not the older dog, who heard me practice those songs often throughout Lent 2015.

And, you know what? My darkened heart—along with my lowered voice—felt a little bit lighter for singing harmony—even with the tinny background sounds coming from my laptop.

Isn’t it time I stopped keeping myself from singing?

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.)

(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.

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