Monday, June 24, 2019

Music Mission and VBS: Is It Worth It?

The last two weeks...were a lot.  They always are.  I guess you could read that two ways.  "A lot" in the sense that they are a lot of work (I worked something like 180 hours in the two week period).  But also "a lot" in the sense that they are full of rewarding ministry--full of the things that make me want to do ministry in the first place, which may or may not include the joy of coloring my hair for Jesus.

In fairness, I do enjoy the limelight, and rainbow hair has a way of attracting attention.  We can unpack later whether that's healthy, though I'd say you can't do this job without at least a little desire to be in front of people (as long as that isn't the only reason you do the job!).

But my favorite part of VBS isn't the stage or the Bible stories.  It's not the epic guitar solos or even singing Space Oddity (though full disclosure here: that was awesome).  Believe it or not, it isn't even the snack room.  Well, it isn't and it is.  Because my favorite part of VBS is watching relationships grow.  Relationships between the kids as they find new friends.  Relationships between the youth and adult volunteers.  Relationships between everyone and the Divine.  Yes, I want kids to learn about the Bible, but what I really want is for them to learn about Christian Community.  That's what I see in our VBS.  Top to bottom.  And it's inspiring.  I love being a small part of such an amazing effort.

As is often the case, there was one song lyric from VBS that kept coming back to me.  It was from "Safe Inside Your Love."  "Wherever you lead me is where I will go.  I'm safe in your arms. I'll hold nothing back; I surrender control.  I'm safe in your arms."  It probably resonated with me because I had just returned from Music Mission.  There's a lot of planning involved in the mission, but in the end the pieces tend to fall into place on their own; I often think of that as the work of the Spirit.

Sometimes when the hours get long and the nights get late I find myself wondering if it's really worth it.  It's a massive investment, not just for me but for so many.  As I sat back at the church in the afternoons of last week writing thank you notes to everyone who made our mission possible, I was struck by just how much people have given.  Funds, sure, but more significantly their time and attention and effort.  It's staggering.  Why should we put so much into a single week?

I've said before that music mission has a few purposes.  We spread the love of Christ by listening and sharing with our audiences.  We build community with each other.  We make great music.  And if we've done everything right, we help the youth experience the world just a little see past their phones and the thin veneer that covers life into the dentin of existence.  Each night on tour I asked the youth to write about something that moved them sometime during the day.  It was not unlike the "God Sightings" of VBS.  I reread those sheets just now.  Let me share a sampling (in their own words).

Spread the Love of Christ by Listening and Sharing with Our Audiences
I talked to the sweetest lady and we had a genuine long conversation and it made me happy.  When I first joined choir I dreaded visiting with people and I wanted it to stop.  I now realize how it can be beneficial and fulfilling for both people.  I hope I can continue to meet incredible people and learn more about these peoples' stories.
 A woman told me I reminded her of her granddaughter who also sang so I was glad I could bring a little piece of her family to her.
The guy that talked to me at the end of the second concert really moved me since he shared his great story with us.  Also he wanted to hear my own story which really made me feel good.
When the concert was ending and people slowly trickled out of the room I saw this one lady blocked by some chatty people so I went over to talk to her.  She was crying and I could see the tears running her cheeks.  She grabbed my hands and held them and she was shaking.  I could tell there was something.  She told me I was a gift from God and that she could feel God's presence in me. 
 I met a lady today named Nancy.  She told me and Erin a story about how one day she had asked, "Lord have you anything to say to me?" When we asked what God had said in return she began to recite a beautiful poem.  She started to tear up, and me, Erin, and another lady named Emogene were also close to tears.  It was sweet.
After the second concert, I spent almost the entire time talking to the same woman.  At first I was concerned because she kept going on and on and I couldn't think of much to say, but then I realized that maybe she just wanted someone to listen to her.
After our second concert today, one of the ladies I talked to gave me a hug and then saw that there was someone else wanting to talk to her and was like "NEXT" and gave them a hug too.  It was funny but also nice to get a hug instead of just complements.
A lady said that were were given a gift and that it was our job to share it.  She said that we were doing a wonderful job of sharing it and that she saw God in each of us.
Today we talked to a guy who was a veteran.  he immediately started telling us about his life and experiences and asked us many questions about us.  he told us about how he coached Neal Armstrong's kid in little league baseball!  He was so sweet! 
Today I met a couple, they were high school sweethearts and married for 63 years.  And the lady in the blue shirt kissed all of us on our heads and gave us a hug.  But we don't know her name and did not have time to get a pic with her.   
Build Community with Each Other
I saw God in my bestie--for always making us laugh and keeping it real.  "I cry when I look at rollercoasters." "What?  I don't eat bugs."  "Why do you call him tape?"  I love being around such an honest and real person.  Thank God I got to know her. 
I had been struggling with finding who I was going to go do different things with and where I fit in the groups of our church.  But today I let God guide me and I end up having an amazing time with people I probably wouldn't have been with.  I felt comfortable and loved.
I feel close to God by my friends making me laugh along the way.
Today hasn't been super amazing for me.  I've been in a lot of pain, and I've also just been overwhelmed, so by the time bowling came around  I just wanted to be by myself.  Then I had to wait forever for my food and they got my drink wrong (well, not was just gross), and I just had to take a moment so I pulled an old trick outta my hand and hid in the bathroom.  Basically the people that noticed I was upset moved me. 
Everyone coming together as a team and sharing the moment when we were bowling.
Talking amongst ourselves and playing games. 
Today I was in awe because of how the [high school] seniors felt so strongly about choir.  I started thinking about how quickly I'm going to be moving on to high school and college.  But because of what Hanna and Anna said, I really feel like everything will be ok.
Make Great Music Together
Today I was moved by the way the whole choir sang together as a team and the baritone section singing in full unison.
Something that moved me today was at the beginning of "Hush."  I could hear our voices echoing int he room and I thought it was pretty special.
I loved the new version of the concert today.  What really moved me was a couple of things.  The guy in the Jesus T-shirt closed his eyes and started to hold his necklace when we started singing Stand By Me.  That was really powerful to see him be fully into the songs.  Also during Total Praise I reached won and held hands with my friend because that songs fills both of us with lots of emotion.  It was kindof like we were supporting each other and saying we would be there. 
Stand By Me changes the whole feel of the concert.  I think the mood switches from an "Everything will get better becasue God/Jesus" to a "we will support you through whatever/we stand with you."  The religion lessens but the community feel grows. I like the community message more.  And I feel like the audience today felt it more.
The way the choir worked together singing.
 Experience the World a Little Deeper
While walking about I got to see the sun setting, oh, and it was stunning.  Huge reflective glass buildings with a golden sun that sparkled on the river.  A gentle, rolling, lush green hill that led to where the water met land.  There was a refreshing cold breeze from the was a perfect peace. 
At Jump Off Rock I thought the view was so pretty and made me reflect on how we need to take care of our planet to enjoy the sights given to us. 
It was so special that we got to go and do a mini-concert at the fire station tonight.  I have never been to a fire station before.  It was nice to do something special for them because of all they do for the community.
Today I was moved by the world outside the bus window.  I usually don't pay attention to nature, but the way the water droplets were on the window, the blue-gray clouds, the trees were almost completely black, but it painted me a picture and it was beautiful.
What moved me today: taking the time to look out the bus window to see the sun set perfectly.  It gave me hope that everything is okay. 
Something meaningful that happened to me today were all the little interactions I had with strangers around me.  I generally don't like strangers, but something about having a shared experience, like the zoo, makes it a little better.  Here are a few examples that I enjoyed: A guy saw a diaper in the bushes and pointed to it saying: "Look, a wild diaper!"  It cracked me up.  Another was a lady looking at the lion exhibit.  She said she wanted to dip in the water really bad and I said me too and we laughed.  I usually feel very disconnected from the rest of the world, but moments like these make me feel more like a part of something. 
Something that moved me today was the fact that when we started singing it was raining and when it ended it wasn't.  This meant to me that God was present and heard us singing.
Today I went on my first upside-down roller coaster, or my first "real" roller coaster.  As I went up the track, about to fall 40 feet, I looked around and saw the entire park.  Individual people having their own lives, facing their own obstacles.  People who have lost and gained.  It was such a crazy feeling.
Today when I was talking to a lady and she was so interested in our choir tour.  This made me realize how lucky I am to be on this tour with my friends and how I had previously taken it for granted.  I believe this was a message from God to stay grateful.
I never realized what it meant to be homeless.  While singing I saw people with ripped pants, clothes that were too small, and someone who could not stop smoking.  This moved me to see the reality.  Not all people have a warm place when it's cold.  It helped me to see how much my eyes weren't open. I know this is supposed to be happy, but it's what moved me...and now my eyes are wide open.  
And lest you think all of these must be the older kids...this from a 7th grader on her very first music mission, which sums it all up nicely...  (You'll need to know that one of our seniors, Anna, was not able to come on tour this year, but she used a phone to participate in our senior night activities)
Well...something that moved me was Anna's speech.  It really touched me because she really cared.  I mean, she was at summer camp and cared so much she called us and spoke through the phone.  She could have been watching Netflix or whatever but she chose to talk to us and contribute to tour...even though she couldn't be there.
Also...once again the mountains moved me.  That was a really cool place to stop.  I could have stayed there forever (Katie agreed).  But as I mentioned last night those things don't last.  Oh, this one lasted longer than the deer or mountains on the roller coaster or maybe even the duck but it came to an end like all good things do.  Like how these seniors will be leaving but I'm grateful that it happened.  It's better that choir, the mountains, the deer, the duck, meeting all of these people, happened because even though it all comes to an end the only alternative would be that it never happened at all.  It is something to be grateful for.  I went on a loop roller coaster, I met Kelsey and Courtney, I got to hang our with Katie, Sarah, Brooke, and Kathryn, I had an amazing birthday.  We had a good time.  And even though people are leaving and that is heart breaking, there is always next year, and it's not like these people and memories are gone.  They are still there, and I will still see them. it worth it?  I have to believe it is.  For the children and youth.  And for our audiences.  And, if those aren't enough, for me.  For the two solid weeks of Music Mission and VBS, I get to be a part of it all.  I get to make my own the ones they shared.  And in a sort of inception mind-bender, their memories become mine as well because they share them.

That will keep you awake looking through pictures to post on the blog when your body craves sleep.  It will push you up the stairs from the assembly to the music room and back again when your legs complain about the trip.  And all the preparation.  Waffle-off's.  Music rewriting and recording.  Staff skits.

And so, like my astute 7th grader, even though the two weeks came and went too quickly, I find myself grateful that it happened.  "We had a good time...and it's not like these people and memories are gone.  They are still there, and I will still see them."

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Friday...Wrapping Up

And...we're home.

I didn't do an arrival post last night, as the parents already knew since they picked us up!  Once I was finished at church, I decided to have some dinner with the family and come home (though I did see one of the youth at Melton's!).

Our day started in the hotel like the other days.  A little later start, though, because our concert wasn't until 11am.  We also had a slight change in personnel.  Two folks headed to the airport early in the morning, and overnight we were joined by Theresa, alumna extraordinaire!  She caught a bus to Charlotte to hang out with us...and we brought her back the with us!

I was amused by this sign on my floor.  Note the description of the alarm...

And...the waffle.  Now this place was interesting.  It had one kind of batter, but 2 different offerings for the waffles.  You could get a whole waffle or the 4 mini waffles.  As if there's any question there.  Come on, man.  This waffle maker also had a timer, so you could see exactly how long it was to glory.  45 of the longest seconds of my life!!!

Our final concert of the tour was at the Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte.  We've sung their before.  A handful of the current singers were there last time we sang.  It's a great venue.  People pass by on their way in and out, and through the Ryan Seacrest studio they broadcast the performance to the entire hospital.

It was another solid concert for us.

I should be a little more specific, perhaps.  This year, in addition to being memorized for the first concert, the choir has been very responsive.  They pay attention to me, and we are able to make adjustments on the fly.  It has, for the most part, tuned fairly well.  The energy level has been pretty good too, even when the audiences were small or less responsive than we might hope.

And worth noting, at the beginning of the week we really had a hard time keeping our hands at our sides, but by the end we had made good progress on keeping them there.  I'm looking forward to tomorrow, when we'll sing this music for the last time in church.

After the concert we dropped by the Concord Mills mall for lunch.  Small world!  We encountered the youth choir from the Shallowford Presbyterian church there.  I had a delightful conversation with the director in the food court.  They weren't returning home until today.  And they left the Thursday before we did.  Sometimes I think a longer tour would be fun, but our church schedule really doesn't allow it to run any longer.  And even if it did...I'd rather come home wishing the tour were a little longer than wishing it had ended a couple of days earlier.

We stopped on our way home for some ice cream, courtesy of the Chancel Choir.  It was nice of them to take up a collection to cover the costs...and a few of the youth wrote thank you notes.  [Editor's Note: It's working!!!]

Annnnnnnnnnddddddd...welcome back to Atlanta.

We weren't quite finished when we pulled up to the church.  Years ago I would give the driver a tour tshirt at the end along with his/her tip and thank you note.  With Mark, starting in his second year, I gave him his shirt at the beginning so he could match us.  He is the first driver who ever wore it.  This year he wore four different tour shirts, I think.  At least 3 I can remember.  He really is one of us, and the youth feel it.

On the way in, we were supposed to stop in South Carolina.  We bypassed the stop in the interest of time, but Mark told us it was 4 years ago at that very stop that we gave him his first shirt and, in his words, accepted him into our group.  He's a great guy.  Easy to work with.  And he cares about my kids.

After unloading and picking up the bus, everyone went on their way.

A parting thought for the youth.  I suggested they remember how they have grown together in this week.  Remember how important senior night was for them, or the fire station, or the concerts, or Dollywood, or, or, or...  We don't rehearse for the summer, and it's easy to forget.  But come the first Sunday of August, we'll once again be that place where everybody knows your name...and they're always glad you came.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Thursday: Still More Firsts!

Our day began, as usual, with a DIY waffle.  Still the minis, which isn't the best, and also no cinnamon roll batter, so...  But a waffle's a waffle.

We headed out to our concert venue, which was a community center in south Knoxville.  I send each venue posters with our picture and concert information and a space for them to fill in the details.  I've only seen one other one on this trip...but this one was prominently displayed on the front door!

The audience was a mixture of seniors from the community and boys/girls club kids from downstairs (she said the brought up the "better behaved" ones).  They were perfect angels, and engaged the whole concert.  It was a good audience, both in terms of number and in terms of connection to the tunes.


After the concert the director of the center took the mic from me and talked about her memories of touring when she was younger and a chaperone and how important it was to her and to all the people they met.  She said it is for us to sow the seeds and for God to nourish them.

And...back to visiting after!  Whew.  We were actually spread fairly thin for visiting, which was a delightful problem to have.


And...the folks at the senior center provided lunch for us!  They were so kind.  It's especially helpful because we're getting near the end of the week, which means wallets are starting to get a little thin for some of the kids who spent too much time in Claire's back when we were at the mall.

Across the street from the senior center: our next hotel. It gets a little drafty.

After lunch we headed for Charlotte.  I had asked Virginia to find me a scenic overlook along the way, and boy did she deliver!  We went to a place called Jump Off rock.  It's a bit over 3000 feet in elevation and overlooks a gorgeous valley.  There is a legend that a Cherokee woman jumped off the rock when she learned her lover had been killed in battle.

I'm glad my camera has a panoramic function...

Here's the crew, with Mark again occupying the center.  While were there, I had a brief devotional moment, which really was just to say...when I saw we were going to cross the mountains, I wanted to make sure we stopped on one to take in the view and enjoy it.  Which is really the same thing we've been doing every night when we write about our day...taking a moment to savor the day we've had.  Intentionally slowing down for a moment to see the beauty around us all the time.

We had just a bit of walk around time, and I got some pictures...

I haven't mentioned yet the lack of sticky notes in the hotel rooms that say our room was cleaned just for us.  It's been disturbing.  Not really.  But here in Charlotte they took it to a whole new level.  I know my room was clean because this towel animal told me it was!  Are we on a cruise?!

After a little time to change, it was on to Senior Dinner.  Mary found this place called Mario's that had a room in the back we could use.  They set it up and catered it, and it was AMAZING.  Probably the best senior dinner I've had on one of these.

And new this year, it was a recognition dinner, not just a senior dinner.  We gave out awards for rookie of the year (for someone who was on tour for the first time and has an exceptional grasp on who we are and what we are trying to do: Kayley and Daniel).  I gave out Director's Awards (for the same thing, only for the rest of the choir except the seniors: Kathryn, Brooke, and Addison).  I gave out attendance awards for missing only one rehearsal all year long (Sophia B, Erin, Nisal, Katie, Sophia D, Olivia, Leigh).  That award carried with it an Amazon gift card.  I gave one perfect attendance award.  Sarah has missed nothing at all, not one event, since January.  She received an Amazon gift card as well.

And of course it was senior night.  I had picked up stuffed lemurs at the zoo and a tshirt for them to wear.  I also bought pins at Dollywood to put on their shirts.  And of course I wrote them a letter.  I'm sure going to miss these guys.  I always wonder what I'm going to do without the leadership of my seniors.  Every year it makes me nervous.  They are so important to who we are.

We had a significant quantity of leftovers, and the server asked me what I might want to do with them.  I asked if there was a local place that feeds the hungry we could take it to, and she said all of them were closed, but there was a fire station not far away.  So (for the first time) we went to the fire station and knocked on the door.  It was a 4-person company (which only ties for our smallest audience on this trip!).  We sang them a couple of songs unaccompanied and gave them all the food, which they were excited about.  Turns out Unclouded Day is the captain's favorite song!

They invited us in to have our picture made with their engine (and them of course!).  They were super nice.  We thanked them for letting us sing for them and swapped contact information (the captain said they would like to put us in some of their public relations material if that's ok).

Their insignia (not sure what they actually call it...) is waaaay cool, so I asked if I could take a picture of it, and he said sure, but he could do better.  He gave me a patch!  I'll be hanging that prominently in the choir room when we return.  The youth really enjoyed this stop, and so did I.

Back to the hotel fairly late, but we had notes to finish and postcards to write.  We finished up about 11:30 and headed up to bed.  We could sleep in a bit this morning because our concert isn't until 11...thus far as I'm in the breakfast area now everybody is looking fresh, radiant, and sincere!

Overnight we picked up a singer when Theresa arrived on a bus from Atlanta.  This morning we lost two when one chaperone and one youth flew out of the Charlotte airport.  We're headed to sing at the children's hospital in a few minutes...and then to lunch and home sweet home!

Thursday...we're still in one piece.

Just so you know, we are here and all in one piece.  It was a full and exciting day, filled with yet more music mission firsts.  So many, in fact, that I may not be able to get them all in the detail post I write tomorrow.  But I'll give it a try!  Meanwhile, thank you for your care and support!

~~Maestro Tom

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Wednesday: New Experiences

Wednesday felt like a suuuuuper long day, though admittedly it might be because of the number of roller coasters I rode at Dollywood.  But first things first: this was the view out of my hotel window.  I'm not sure what church it is, though I understand Neil went over there to check it out.

This hotel is great and all, but listen.  I'm not so much into the 4 mini-waffle configuration.  And back to only one kind of batter again, though that's honestly expected.

When I came downstairs, I bumped into Meisha, Leigh's mom.  Unexpected!  Apparently she had some business here in Knoxville, so she dropped by to see Leigh.  She couldn't make our concert, but it was nice to chat for a minute.

We got on the bus and headed to our concert, which was at the Knox Area Rescue Mission.  It's worth a look at their website if you want to know more about them:  The concert was outside, which we have never done on tour before.  It was lightly raining, but the place we were singing was covered, and there were some umbrellas as well.  Just across the street there was a highway overpass, which was tricky for singing, but between the courtyard we sang in and the overpass, there were a lot of people in earshot.

We weren't allowed to visit at this site.  They have strict rules on this.  At the end, some of the youth were asking could we please visit for just a moment, and within the confines of the courtyard and given there was a Knox county sheriff there I was tempted.  But we decided there was probably a good reason the rules exist and went back to the bus.  Several youth would tell me later that they missed the visiting and felt like we were not as connected to the audience as we typically are.  It may be true...but not necessarily.

Given how I stand, I don't get to see much of the audience.  Apparently our audience here shifted over time.  People stopped by for a moment here and there.  A few were there the whole time.  The guy you can see below was there every time I turned around.  His shirt said "Jesus is my savior, not my religion."  We talked about that some at our devotional.  Many of the youth mentioned him in their thoughts for the day.

As we were packing up, a woman came up to us to ask for prayers on behalf of her sponsor, who was going through a very difficult time.  She thanked us for coming and said some prayers of her own.  When I returned to the bus, we said the promised prayer.

There was a lot to unpack about this concert, and we came back to it at the end of the day.  Despite a chilly rain and a societal counter-current to our connection, this concert was one of the most moving for our youth so far.

One more note about the concert.  It literally stopped raining when we sang "The Storm Is Passing Over."  I have to believe the Spirit is at work here.

We went back to the hotel to change, and then we headed for Dollywood.  It was still raining, but the forecast was for the rain to stop soon after our arrival, and the storm, once again, passed over in timely fashion.  The rain had scared off the crowds, so the lines were mostly short, and the temperature was pleasant.

I spent the afternoon with Cindy, Paul, and Katherine.  Years ago Cindy and I rode coasters at Six Flags over Texas.  She was at Dollywood not long ago and had some inside knowledge about all the coasters, which was helpful.

If you don't know the Petersens, you should.  I love this picture of them.  Not just because they love each other but because they love our youth.  Actually all of our chaperones do.

This was on our first coaster, right before I secured all loose items.

I like Dollywood as a park.  It feels like a cross between Six Flags and Disneyworld to me.  This was just outside the coaster that simulates a firetruck run, and I love it.  Fighting fires is indeed a noble calling.

And this was in the cue for the soaring eagle roller coaster...

...which looks like this.  That's 2 people on each side.  This coaster loops you 2 or 3 times and does a barrel roll.  It's FANTASTIC.  Reminds me of watching one of those videos where they put a camera on a bird.  Graceful swoops, and intense.  But because you are hanging off to the side with dangling feet, you get this feeling of total freedom.

Because the line was short, the four of us walked around and immediately rode it again, but the second time, on Katherine's suggestion, we took our shoes off.  Holy. Cow.  Good call, Katherine.

I did get some pictures from others now and then.  It looks like they're having a good time...

Also at Dollywood, they rehabilitate injured bald eagles.  You can see 3 in the picture below.

This was the last coaster we rode, and we barely had time.  It's called the lightning rod (hot rod car theme).  It is the fastest wooden roller coaster in the world, and it starts right out of the gate.  Look at that hill...looks like a long climb up, right?  Wrong.  It shoots you up the hill, and you actually accelerate as you go up.  It's. Fast.  Then, on the other side of that hill where you can't see it, all hell breaks loose.  Cindy told me just now if the Soaring Eagle is a graceful bird, this coaster is like in Roadrunner when Wile Coyote gets strapped to a rocket, fired, and then zooms all around out of control.  Accurate.  It felt totally out of control for the entire ride.  So it tied with Soaring Eagle for my favorite coaster, though if I were issuing awards I'd make up two categories.  They are different experiences.

And, in the gospel music hall of fame, Brooke found her great-grandfather!  She is basically famous is what I'm saying.

This was on the Tennessee Tornado.  It corkscrew loops you like 3 times and also sends you through the mountain.  It made me dizzy.  I wasn't sad we had to sit a minute before they let us off the train. If I had stepped off immediately I probably would have walked to the left.

We have a rule that you must travel in groups of 3.  I let them know the penalty for failure to comply would be that if a chaperone found you in a smaller group you'd have to hold their hand.  Curt caught Layton and Will, and this is how they walked to the bus...

After a trip back to the hotel to change, the chaperones went out for dinner with their rooms.  I got a few pictures, mostly at the place I went to eat.  Which means, because it wasn't chicken fingers, I didn't get a picture of the guys.

And there was this guy.  He and his family were all telling us the importance of accepting Jesus because we are all doomed.  I couldn't help but think about the difference in perspective.  We have two very different ideas of what it means to make disciples of all the nations.  He literally yelled and beat his Bible, but we stand on scripture in a very different way.  Some of our youth suggested I should go over and have a chat with him.  I didn't, of course, but I did take the opportunity to talk with them about what it means to evangelize and what it means to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken world.

Hate cannot drive out hate, said MLK.

Devo started early.  We wrote notes, talked about our concert, and shared about our day.  I'd go into detail, but it's time to get on the bus for this morning's concert.  Suffice it to say that the youth really do understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

We ended a bit early, and I wound up in my room for the night just after 11.  I was going to sleep just after midnight, greeted once again by the lovely church across the street.