Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Singing Outside of the Comfort Zone (Mar-Apr 2002)

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by Sarah Stone
March – April, 2002

I guess you might say I was underprivileged. Oh, I wasn’t lacking in any of life’s necessities growing up, but there was something impoverished about my spirit that I did not know until I was an adult. I became a foreign exchange Christian in a Baptist church choir in order to fill a life-long need.

There were few opportunities to express an appreciation of music in our family. My father, the music lover, tried to expose us to music when he could. Pop at times was the song director at church. At home Pop did enjoy getting out the song books to sing hymns in four-part harmony when the family gathered on holidays. His collection of records included beautiful classical music and popular tunes. Now and then he would play his old wooden flute.

Mom was of strong German roots with no place in her heart for frivolity. She rarely joined in any of the family singing events and never tagged along when Pop took a group of church members to sing at a nursing home. That was just not her thing. Her seven children were not encouraged to participate in many extracurricular activities, but were allowed to join school pursuits that took no extra time. So when I chose choir in junior high, that was fine. Mom came to my concerts at the PTA meetings and made sure I had the proper outfit. But I was not allowed to take a choir trip out of town. This partly explains why I didn’t take high school choir, even though I loved to sing. Still, I appreciated all kinds of music, and when I went to nursing school, I helped organize a
chorus which was directed by a young musician I now feel was sent by God.

Why this background information? I want to describe some of the factors that God put in my life that laid the groundwork for a richer relationship with Him: the deep-rooted love for choral music; love for my conservative church that sang only a cappella and congregationally; the lack of opportunity for formal training; and little tastes of what I was craving, given to me several times over the years.

Years after I became a nurse, Fred, the same young man who had directed the little student nurses’ chorus, was the director of a large Baptist church choir. He placed a small announcement in the newspaper stating that any interested persons in the community would be welcome to join his choir in performing a musical. It was called Celebrate Life and it would be presented in about two months at the local Baptist university. I went—stomach butterflies and all! It was reassuring to know at least one familiar face—Fred’s—would be there. But I was certainly stepping out of my comfort zone.

I had to invent a description for myself as I plunged headlong into this new adventure. I didn’t know anyone else singing in a choir at one church while maintaining active membership at another. I suppose many people have done this, but at the time I was not aware of anyone who could join me in a support group. It struck me that I was like a student traveling to a strange country to study. I had to go to a building unfamiliar to me, taking “baggage” I didn’t know I was carrying. I had to learn a new dialect of the Christian language. I decided I was a foreign exchange Christian.

Only a few times in my sheltered life had I had a taste of the Baptist way of doing things. My nursing school was in a Baptist hospital, and we were required to attend weekly chapel services. Living in a city sometimes called the “Buckle on the Bible Belt” meant there were Baptists all around me. In fact, the same church which had opened its doors to others in the community for this musical had been putting on an Easter pageant at the local civic center for years, and I had attended a few times. Many of my friends in school and at work were Baptists. Generally, though, my spiritual life was centered in the conservative Churches of Christ.

Fred welcomed me to the first rehearsal, then handed me over to his assistant to get me placed in the alto
section. I had so hoped to be able to sneak in the back door and get a seat on the back row, but there was no back door there–that is just not the Baptist way! I was introduced to all the friendly ladies on the row and given a seat that probably was usually someone else’s. The rehearsal started, and the whole room reverberated with the music of not one, but two pianos—quite a shock to my a cappella system! I wondered how anyone could hear the choir over the instruments (and I still do, sometimes). Anyway, the hundred-plus singers made a joyful, beautiful sound that was surely heard by God… and my hungry heart.

I think one of the most surprising qualities to me as an outsider was the great fun and camaraderie the choir members shared. I was used to a much more staid and strait-laced approach to music—perhaps because in my
experience in church, we did not “rehearse” the singing we did in worship. But in the midst of all this fun and
stopping and starting over again, Fred would never let us forget our purpose—the One for whom we were singing. We were seeking to give our best to the Lord. The rehearsal itself was our gift to the Savior.
The rehearsals were a challenge and a joy. I gradually began to feel less like a tourist in a foreign country. My new friends helped me remember how to read music and always greeted me warmly when I came for another Wednesday rehearsal. We had a lot of fun practicing our singing while moving around the auditorium and stage during the final rehearsal for Celebrate Life. At one time, my “buddy” and I became separated in the crowd moving about the stage. When she found me again, she said, “Oh! I thought the Rapture had come and I got left behind!” It took me a moment to translate that statement from “Baptist” to my language. Sharing this joke between us was one of the bonding times that eventually made me feel I had a second church home.

At dress rehearsal, people began to talk more and more about the Easter pageant. I began to seriously consider continuing this musical adventure until the next Easter. From October to December we practiced Christmas music, of course, and I was persuaded to sing in the Christmas concert on a Sunday night. Then in the second week of January we began to learn the Easter pageant music. We spent a Friday night and Saturday morning in a local hotel conference room in an intense study of all the vocal music. What a thrill it was! I began to share with my friends at church and at work what I was involved in. I thought about my Pop, who had passed from this life, and I could feel a sort of blessing from him, since, in heaven, he too was singing praise to the Lord.

Weeks of practice, hard work, and fun went by, and God blessed us with another Easter production. I invited all my friends from my home church and received blessings I’d never expected: affirmations from people who appreciated my stepping beyond the usual boundaries, and especially blessings from God. Participation in that musical drama was as close to being at the feet of Jesus as I could have ever imagined. Then it was over… I thought that was the end of my musical/spiritual adventure, but I had started to feel more than just the
fulfillment of a musical dream. God was tugging at my heart, making me realize I needed to draw closer to Him, and that I had found just the right environment in which to thrive.

When the pageant was over, Fred announced that we had all been invited to premier a musical at Music Week at Glorieta. I was clueless. Fred just laughed and said that this was the place all good Baptists from our area hope to go some day, just to be closer to God. I was not sure it would be proper for me to intrude, but Fred and many others reassured me I would be welcome. The first night we were there, we were scheduled to see Truth—whatever that was. Fred patiently explained that this was a singing group well-known in Baptist circles. It was wonderful. Their singing blessed me in yet another new way.

My friends and I were walking in the parking lot in Glorieta and passed the parking space marked “camp nurse.” I was thinking it would be wonderful to stay there longer, wondering if I could be hired as their nurse. “But,” I said, “I guess I’d have to ‘repent and be Baptist’” (see Acts 2:38). Nobody else got the pun. After all… they’re Baptists!

We performed Tom Fettke’s new musical, How Great Our Joy in the same huge auditorium of Glorieta Conference Center two nights later. It was a truly spiritual event; we all drew closer as Christian friends. Going back home, leaving my friends and this experience, was almost unbearable. I felt sure that since I had really had my adventure it was time to go back to my home church full-time. But just as we were finishing this tour, Fred announced that we would be recording a Christmas CD in September! How could I possibly pass up an opportunity like that?

As you can probably guess, by the time we finished the CD in an eight-hour session, I was hooked on choir. I was afraid I would be forced to pull away from this new family of mine due to pressure from my own family and because of vague feelings that I wasn’t supposed to be singing in a Baptist church. There was a lot of
personal history to overcome. If I returned to my old ways there would be no choir. I was torn by strong
emotions, but it seems God was hammering at me continually over that first year of stepping over boundaries to convince me that I was in the right place, doing His will, and witnessing about Him in a unique way.

I’ve stayed five years now. It took a long time to decide I could participate in the choir on selected Sunday mornings without actually calling myself a Baptist. (Because of our church schedules I can do choir and then be with my family at my home church.) And I’m ashamed to say that it took me too long to quit introducing myself in worship or choir as “Sarah—I’m not a member here, and I’m not Baptist”—as if that made me special. The pastor assured me I could sing in the choir without nonverbally making a statement that I agree with all the doctrines of their church. Probably no one in the choir agrees with all the doctrines. I don’t agree with all that is preached in my own church, either.

Not all the blessings flow one way. I like to think I’m giving back some to the choir, as I receive bountifully. I’m pretty sure most of my new friends now have a better understanding of the church of my heritage. I’ve been open to explanations of their beliefs and have tried to defend my own. Neither a cappella music nor instrumental music is wrong; condemning each other for choosing one or the other is. I just love it when Fred has us sing a section of a song a cappella, in an otherwise instrumental piece, so that we can hear each other. I tease him that he’s finally seeing the light!

We’ve been able to exchange songs, too. I took an a cappella song from last year’s Easter pageant back to my home church for an ensemble to present on Easter morning. More recently, I took Fred a song that a
special group had sung at my church. He bought the music so we could sing it for the next Lord’s supper. I was just tickled pink when I came to rehearsal and Fred said he was glad I was there, because we were going to sing “my” song for the first time.

Who knows what the future holds—for me or for anyone else? My plans are to just keep on serving the Lord in any way I can. Apparently He has given me the gift of singing, and a real love for music, especially Christian music–especially choral music. I believe God has given me a unique opportunity to bridge some gaps, to break down some walls. I still look at that Baptist church choir through the eyes of an outsider, but my days of being a foreign exchange Christian are over, I think. Maybe I could be called an interpreter now—I’ve picked up some of the lingo! I want to continue to be an instrument in God’s hand, to bring glory to Him through my relationships with His people. Maybe if we all try to understand each other and see the good in each other, people who don’t know the Lord can better see Him in us!New Wineskins

Sarah Stone

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