Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why do we do this anyway?

A number of years ago a church member asked me to find her after church for a moment.  She said she'd meet me in the front of the sanctuary by the piano, and I told her as soon as I put a few things down I'd get back with her.  I headed out of the sanctuary and up to my office, where I was sidetracked by a number of things...and I never got back down to her.

Later that week the church member passed away.  I remember her face.  I remember everything about her.  I remember that she wanted to see me.  She probably waited on me for a while before deciding I wasn't going to make it.  Her last experience with me was probably one of frustration.  But I'll never be able to find out.  I'll never be able to apologize.  Because whatever business it was that diverted my attention became more important than the people I serve.  That was a mistake.

In the years since, I have made it a point to keep my focus on people rather than ministry, which sounds like a paradox, but it really isn't.  There are so many details and widgets and gizmos that need attention.  It's easy to get lost in the minutia of ministry and lose track of the very reason we exist in ministry in the first place: people.  People who need people. [Editor's Note: If you just sang that song out loud or in your head, you lose 100 points.]

Time and space have dulled my regret over that mistake.  New relationships.  Deeper relationships.  New people and new faces began to crowd out her face until one day ministry again got the upper hand, and I once again find myself regretting that ministry stole my focus with similarly tragic result.

Bob Fleming, long-time choir member and ardent lover of all things choral, retired from our Chancel Choir some time ago.  He and I shared an eclectic taste in choral music, and we shared the joy that comes from making music together.  After he retired, he moved a short distance away.  Short enough that I could go visit, which I did once or twice, but not as much as I should have.  I found out a number of weeks ago he was sick, and I reached out to him to set up a visit.

The next week was a busy one for this reason or that.  Minutia of ministry.  And I never showed up.  Never followed up.  Radio silence.  And then, just yesterday, my friend Bob passed away.  I had still not been to see him.

How many of the things I've done in the last eight weeks would I trade for just five minutes with Bob?  Five minutes to tell him how much I enjoyed making music with him?  How much I enjoyed his joking?  How much I enjoyed his encouragement (because he always encouraged me and was never critical of my work)?  There are so many things I can look at and say, "John, you really could have done without that..."  So many things I would trade if only I could.  But I can't.  And Bob will never know.  

I will never be able to ask for his forgiveness, never be able to say that I am sorry.  This has become a part of me that I will have to carry.  When I think on these two, I will forever feel the ache of regret and a longing for the impossible do-over.  In my mind's eye, his face is something of a collage with the church member of yesteryear, both of them reminding me of the importance of people, calling me away from the minutia of ministry.

When my children say "I'm sorry," I remind them that saying you are sorry is the easy part.  Saying, "I'm sorry," actually means, "I will do better next time," and it's the doing better next time that is really the more important part.  If I really believe that, then perhaps all hope is not lost.  I will never be able to look Bob in the eye and say, "I'm sorry."  But I can do better next time.  I can answer his call to ignore the minutia of ministry when people need me.  I can remember why I do music ministry in the first place: to care for people like Bob.  And when push comes to shove, when something has to give, I can make sure that it is not the people who give, but the minutia.

For what it's worth, I am sorry Bob.  I will do better next time.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Final Post of the 2016 Youth Music Mission

The Day's Events

Today is pretty straightforward.  We got up and left the hotel at 9:00.  As I mentioned before, there was no power when we left...and yet we managed to leave on time.  Once again, we have been plagued by worse-than-expected traffic, which you'd think we would expect by now.

We stopped for lunch, and I ate at a place called Cookout.  You might know the place, but I had never eaten there.  It was a pretty good burger.  When we got back on the bus and kept going.

More traffic.

We stopped for our final devotional, where we wrote postcards, evaluated the trip, and had our final devotional, in which we covered verses 4 and 5 of the Summons.

Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I'll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I'll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

These verses are my favorite.  They talk of embracing who we are, even if we'd rather hide some of it.  They talk of acting out of love rather than fear and reshaping the world around us (which went really well after we watched Pay It Forward this morning on the bus).

And then the last verse.  It is important in my call, and every time I sing it I am reminded of my own call.  And this week.  We have walked together.  In walking together, we have walked with God and followed in the footsteps of Christ.  It has been a good week.

We sang the song from beginning to end.  I've done music-based devotionals for which the choir didn't really sing.  But every time we sang in devotional, the choir sang...and it sang well.  Very rewarding to be a part of it.

Back on the road, with any luck we'll be back at the church around 9:45pm.  Stepping off the bus, this one will be in the books (except of course for singing at 11am on Sunday...when you should really come to the sanctuary).

Final Thoughts

As the week went on I became more and more aware that our program this year paralleled our mission perfectly.  It began with a call to action.  It continued by acknowledging the struggles and difficulties of taking that action.  It ended by celebrating that we don't walk this way alone.

You know how I am.  I'm not really satisfied with "You'll never walk alone."  It's not specific, and it's ultimately not helpful when we talk about walking with Jesus.  What does that mean anyway?  Has Jesus ever put His hand in mine?  Has he ever picked me up when I have fallen or carried me through a time I could not stand on my own?  If you're thinking about the guy in the robe with the red sash and beard, well, no.  No He hasn't.

And yet all this week, He has.  Some of you have written me and asked how I do it.  Long hours, little sleep.  Constant demands.  Part of the answer is that this is the only week out of the  year I drink Coca Cola.  But more than that, the youth and chaperones on this trip carry me.  I feel His touch every time they give me a fist bump on the way off the bus.  He picks me up when I mess up and they make it work anyway.  And when it gets really hard, when I am afraid I can't keep going, He carries me on their shoulders.  That may sound melodramatic, but it has happened this week.

The truth is that this week reminds me why I do the work I do.  It is a week during which I can focus on ministry.  I can see how we are making a difference.  I can enjoy building relationships.  With the choir.  With the chaperones.  With the folks we meet.  And through all that with the Divine.

Decatur First, you can be proud of your youth choir and chaperones.  They have done great work this week.  And now that we've crossed into Georgia and I'm looking forward to seeing my family, I'll say one last time...

Cowden out.

Day 5: Thursday: The Day Things Got Real

It all started innocently enough...

We hopped on the bus and headed for Richmond.  We drove by the Benjamin Franklin center on our way, just to round out our National Treasure experience (we've now been to most of the places from the movie...and will not have to watch it next year!).

Look how precious.  Aw, Amanda and Vince!  In all seriousness, it's awesome to me that a married couple would subject themselves to this nonsense.  They really have a heart for the youth (as do Cindy and Paul, who you've no doubt noticed are not with us this year because of work commitments.  Have no fear; they'll be back).

Just so we're clear, a ratio of more than 1 person to a seat is fairly common on the bus.  It's like they like each other or something...

Another common sight: finding odd ways to catch a nap.


I know you've always wondered what we do on the bus before we go in.  Wonder no more.  Katherine picks up all the cell phones from the kids.  She keeps them with her in the bag.  Assuring them their phones are safe is the only way you can pry them out of their hands...but it does keep them more engaged in the concert and (more importantly) the visiting afterward.

When we arrive, I take Mitch, one chaperone, and one youth with me to scope out the venue.  Mitch and I figure out where we'll sing and what equipment we need.  Then we send the chaperone (Curt this year) and the youth (Adrian this year) out to bring the youth and equipment in, and the youth lines up the choir.  Here are Adrian and Curt about to hope off the bus.

Final Concert on the Road

We've sung at this venue before, but last time we sang down in the social hall.  The chapel was a little warm, but the sound was fantastic.  The choir really sang to their potential.  A solid concert from beginning to end.  Easily the best of the week.  They sounded like I hope they will on Sunday when we sing our homecoming concert at 11:00am in the sanctuary of DFUMC, your chance to hear what we sound like after a week of singing concerts.  This is a not-very-subtle hint, folks.

I realized I haven't put many action shots of the youth singing, so I thought I would drop a few in here.  Watching them sing when they are really engaged (as well as interacting with them) is one of my favorite parts of the concerts.

 And of course the visit after...

And, just because it's here, a very cool picture of Maya and Matthew in front of an amazing stained glass window.  [Editor's note: I'm working on this blog while Princess Bride is playing on the TV, and right as I got to this picture, I heard the line "I'd sooner destroy a stained glass window than an artist like yourself."]

Wrapping up our concerts, in total we sang for almost 400 people.  And, in another tour first, we also sang for one dog.  Not bad for six venues!  That's 400 people who have experienced the love of Christ.  400 people who may walk just a bit taller today.  One small corner of our world made better.

Then it started to get weird.

We checked in to the hotel and then headed out for a baseball game.  The home team in Richmond is the Richmond Flying Squirrels.  It seems Andrew and Jerry purchased flying squirrels costumes online a few days ago and had them shipped to our hotel.  I think they were hoping to get on the jumbotron or something.  Maybe I should have told him the ballpark had no broadcast cameras of any kind...  Nah.

It was pretty funny, though.  When the male and female mascots (Nutzy and Natasha) came out, they yelled, "Mom!  Dad!  Why won't you pay attention to us?"  I may have paraphrased that.  Still, I've never had youth costume to match the mascots when we've gone to a game.

Marshall joined us for the game.  And gosh, Nathan, that's a nice shirt.  The game was a lot of fun.  Steven's in the picture below wearing green.  It was his birthday!  So we had them announce his special day!  Woo!  Happy birthday, Steven!

They weren't bluffing.  They wore the costumes to the game, and they went nuts.  Which I think was the idea, since that was the mascot.

The weirdness was only just beginning.  Late in the game, a foul ball came over the visitor dugout, bounced a couple of times, and caught Owen on the right cheek.  We was attended to by stadium staff, both mascots, our own chaperones, a couple of our youth, and a nurses on staff at the stadium.  Everyone agreed he was in good shape, though he was definitely shaken up.  Here's a non-exhaustive list of everything Owen received:
A ball autographed by the player of his choice.
Attention from the mascots.
A wicked awesome looking injury.
Several other small items from the team.
A great story to tell every year from now until he graduates (and even beyond).
A great way to woo the women (because who doesn't love a good injury story).
What I mean is, I'm glad he's ok.

Speaking of baseballs, Marshall wound up getting one.  If you've followed us in the past, you may remember that last time we went to a minor league game, in Charlotte, he got a ball at that game as well.  That was pretty great.  I feel confident Olivia will be jealous when she sees this.

The weirdness just keeps coming.

They cancelled the fireworks after the game because of inbound severe weather.  We got on the bus just before the bottom really fell out.  And once it did...yikes.  Made me think of "Hold On" ("Noah, Noah, let me come in!").

We were in the bus when everyone's phone went off: we were 20-30 minutes away from the hotel and under a tornado warning.  Seeing no tornado in our immediate area, we continued toward the hotel.  And then this happened...

If you're wondering what that is, it's a tree in the middle of the road blocking both of our travel lanes.  Mark (our bus driver who has pretty much won our hearts this week) didn't even hesitate.   This was too big for Curt and Tait to get out and move (which is our default action when there is an obstruction).  In yet another tour first, he took the bus off-road, crossed the median, drove on the wrong side of the road for a moment, and then crossed back.  It. Was. Awesome.  So cool, calm, and collected.

We got back to the hotel still under warning, so we gathered on the first floor inner hall and waited it out.  Once the danger had passed, I handed out thankyou notes, and we finished those up.  You'll notice in the picture those are the emergency lights in the hallway.  Did I mention that the power was out at the hotel when we got there?

And did I mention that the power didn't come back on until...well, it had not come on when we left this morning!  The youth did a fantastic job with all this.  They followed directions and made the best of a challenging situation (you can imagine with no air conditioning this hallway wasn't the most comfortable place).

I'm sitting on the bus on Friday morning now, heading toward home.  We have more to do today, and I'll post that for tomorrow.  But I'll leave you with an email I received from one of our hotels just now.

"I just wanted to sincerely thank you for having your students stay with us this week. They were truly amazing and well mannered. We had serval staff and in house guests compliment how well behaved they are."

Good job, guys.

Cowden out.

Late Post for Thursday

Holy smokes!  You can't wait for the post about Thursday.

We had a youth hit by a foul ball.  We had a tornado warning.  We went offroading in the bus.  We had no power in the hotel (still don't).  Today went absolutely bonkers.

And yet we still had a good time.

All are now well and in their rooms.  I'm going to shut this down so my phone can charge in case the power doesn't come back on.


Cowden out.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

ACME Richmond arrival post.

We're back on track, by which I mean we were a bit late for our concert in Richmond.  Stupid I-95 traffic.

But we made it, and the concert was outstanding.  Really, really good.  We got to our hotel in plenty of time, and now we're about to head out to the ballgame.

I handed out notes from church members to the kids.  The notes were encouragement for our mission work...and also a very welcome gift of $10 to purchase food at the game tonight (it's impossible to overstate just how welcome this was for some of the youth who need a little work on their money management skills).

Also happy to see Marshall Tumperi at our last concert!  He came to the concert and will be joining us for the game tonight.  Nice to catch up with him.  And of course I can't believe how long ago it was that he was singing in the choir with us.  Proud of that guy.

Anyway, it's about time to head to the bus.  So until tomorrow morning...

Cowden out.

Day 4: Wednesday. All the details.

Right out of the gate...

We tried a new strategy for concerts this year, and it seems to be paying off.  Generally speaking we're doing concerts at 10:00am.  This has meant we have been able to leave the hotel at 9:00am most days, yielding more sleep for most of the choir.

It also means that our first thing on many days is a concert, which is less good if you don't do a warmup.  But it can happen.  So here is our first concert.  The venue is the oldest Methodist "home for the aged."  You can tell it's old because of the name!  The outside of the building is beautiful, though you'll have to take my word for that.

Another new thing for this venue: my contact there asked me if the youth would mind helping to bring down the residents.  It was touching to see them pushing the residents into the room prior to the concert.

And of course continuing to let the love of Christ be shown...

Independence Hall

Those readers who have followed before may remember a story about the Washington Monument.  It was a harrowing and amazing tale of intrigue and heroism.  If you want to reminisce, you can find that story here.  Well it turns out Independence Hall works much the same way, and we needed tickets.  However, there were a couple of key differences.  First, if they had a letter on church letterhead, one person was allowed to get all the tickets for us, meaning we didn't have to dispatch a group of nine.  Second, and really more importantly, the required arrival time to secure tickets was not 6:00am.  So when the bus got us to our venue, Tait and Chris Ubered their way down to the hall to get our tickets and were waiting for us when we got there.  Thanks, guys!

A couple of fun pictures of walking...

Here it is.  Independence Hall.  This is where it all began.

The tour includes two main rooms: a courtroom and the signing room.  There is a third room, the first you go into, where a ranger orients you to the history involved.  Our ranger actually reminded me a lot of Cliff Claven.  I mean, his voice wasn't right at all, but he was very clearly proud of his uniform and also the amount of general knowledge he has in his head (which he assumed most of us did not...and in absolute fairness to him he's probably right a good bit of the time).  That said, I think he needs to brush up on his knowledge of open container laws in Louisiana.  Look, man, it's not open as long as the straw is taped to the cup.

In any event, the rooms were very cool.  The signing room is much smaller than I had imagined.  Much smaller than it looks even in the picture below.  Most of the furniture inside is period furniture, but the presider's chair in the front is original.  That chair was in the room when the documents were signed.  George Washington sat in that chair.  Imagining the history swirling around it is mind blowing.

We ate lunch at a food court nearby rather than going to the Reading Market.  While walking around, a couple of folks found interesting things.  First, Amanda noted the US Mint and wondered if we could get some more Cowden Bucks printed.

And then there's this, some kind of shrine to Rocky that Michele found.  Actually they just want you to know they have a lot of Rocky merchandise for sale.  Merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made.  I was actually surprised how prevalent the Rocky stuff is up here

2nd Concert in a Day

We're here to sing, right?  So we did our second concert after Independence Hall.  It was on the 4th floor.  That's been a common thing this year: concerts on upper floors (or lower...like at our first concert when we walked in on ground level and they said, "You need to go down to the 6th floor...you're on the seventh.")  Anyway, the bus had to circle a bit because of some construction, so Curt and I warmed up the crowd while Mitch played light background music...several of them are now prepared to vote for Curt for president based solely on his indication that he is running as an independent.

We did most of the concert from memory, opening the books only for "Just a Closer Walk."  Also I had left my book on the bus, so I wasn't quite as much help to them as I might have been.  Nevertheless, it was a good concert.

Of course we did that thing we do, which I keep telling the youth is what sets us apart from a lot of other folks who play in the same kinds of venues.  And I'll tell you, I think the after-concert chatting is as enjoyable for the youth as anything else.  They really are good at it.  I'm usually working logistics, but this time I even got to visit some!

This is another venue that made use of the posters announcing our concert.  Cool pic of the poster with the choir in the background.

Multimedia Experience

To maximize your experience of the next section, click here and wait for the music to start playing.  Then continue.

Next we went to the Rocky steps.  When I get home and can edit the video, I'll put up a video of the entire choir running up the steps together.  Gonna Fly indeed.  We got to the top and did the Rocky sign (as opposed to the Hail Hydra sign...they look similar to the untrained eye).

It was actually really cool to run up the steps together.  I can't really explain why.  Kindof like when we sing together...

[Breaking News]
I'm working on the blog on the bus.  We had stopped to use the restrooms.  All were on the bus except for Tait.  He got back on the bus and said, "I was trying to get our last kid out of the bathroom, you know, banging on the door and stuff....it wasn't one of our kids."  We're currently making our best possible speed away from the Wawa station and praying the state patrol is not in pursuit.  We now return you to your regular blog post.
[/Breaking News]

Actually several of the more energetic folks ran the steps multiple times.  I raced a few of them up myself, and I was pleasantly surprised by my showing.  The rowing is paying off.

I knew from a FB post by Marilyn White, I knew the Rocky statue had been moved from its original location, but I was still mighty disappointed by that.  Nevertheless, there is absolutely no way we would come to Philly and not have a picture with Rocky.

The girls have taken to braiding their hair, so they took this picture.  Mitch has dubbed them "The Braidy Bunch."  He's clearly well on his way to accepting the yoke of the Music Director, which includes as a central responsibility making terrible jokes.

And once again, Curt found Jesus.

Senior Night Dinner

We went back to the hotel for a while, and I was actually able to visit with my family before midnight.  So that was awesome.  We had a little more than an hour to get ready before we left for senior dinner.  A bunch of the youth dressed up.  I've never said we should do that...it's just spreading.  Every year a few more folks are dressed nicely for the dinner.  I guess next year I'll have to dress up.

We ate at an Italian place, and I knew it was going to be good when we walked in and the server said, "I'm gonna let yous get situated and then take your order."  Authentic Philly right there.

Yet another new thing I tried this year: youth planning.  I picked the destination.  Virginia and I worked together on the route.  Then I set up hotels and venues.  She then planned all of the fun stuff.  Picked out where we'd go and when, looked up information and sent it to me so I could make the phone calls and set up payment.  She did a lot of work, and I appreciate it.  So before I got to senior gifts, I gave her an Italian Stallion tshirt.  Great job, Virginia!

And then, the seniors.  This is a great group of folks, and I'm going to miss them.  We graduate five this year.  As I told the youth, our graduates leave a big hole, and while next year others will rise as leaders within the group, they will never be replaced, and we will never be the same choir.  Remarkably I made it through the whole event without crying.

Mitchell Patterson

Matthew Waller

Nathan Tumperi

Sebrina Shelton

Rosie Ronca
The restaurant made us a cake for dessert, on which they wrote "Farewell Seniors."  That was pretty cool...might have to figure out how to make that a regular thing in the future.

These guys take a little piece of me with them when they go.  If nothing else, I hope they remember one thing:

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There's a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone.
You'll never walk alone.

Cowden out.