Friday, June 12, 2020

Virtual Music Mission Day 5: The Final Chapter

I had all good intentions of writing this last night, but I didn't close our final meeting until midnight.  So here we are.  Yesterday, Thursday, was the final day of our Virtual Music Mission.  It began, like every other day, with a do-it-yourself waffle.


Back to the churro waffle, but I added butter this time, so I'm counting that as a different topping.

I had a little more preparation to do for our final day.  I had to prepare the awards and get a few things organized.  Thursday is a very important day on the mission.  It's senior night, and it's a time of goodbyes.  VMM day 5 did not disappoint.

We started by gathering for "senior dinner."  I asked people to make their own meal in keeping with an Italian food theme.  Most everyone did (I know because I asked them what they were eating).  Chris and Curt showed up in their orange and blue Dumb and Dumber tuxedos for the event.  I had imagined making lasagna or some such, but we wound up with pizza at our house.  We chatted about things over dinner while people arrived and ate.  It actually felt quite a bit like our meals on tour, which surprised me.

After dinner we talked about concerts again.  I had a number of emails and a couple of videos to share.  I so appreciate everyone who took the time to send us feedback.  The act of recording for this project was...isolating.  It's so difficult to make compelling music when you're singing into a camera.  We've talked many times in the past about how a reactive audience can make a concert more fun while I stoic audience can make the concert very difficult.  No audience at all is even worse than a stoic one!  People who took a few minutes to let us know about their experience provided a breath of fresh air and helped us see the good we were doing.

We moved on to awards (just as we would in real life).  I awarded a rookie of the year, which goes to a first-time participant who seems to grasp the most what we are doing and participates enthusiastically.  That went to Anna, who has been great all week.  I made several Director's Awards, generally based on how emotive they were in the videos.  Those went to Owen, Erin, Brooke, and Issabel.  I also make awards for attendance, which comes in 3 categories: Excellent Attendance (missed only one required event), Perfect Attendance (missed no required events), and Uber Perfect Attendance (missed absolutely nothing at all).  We had five people achieve uber perfect attendance!  To be fair, that may be because I stopped counting when shelter-at-home happened.  But still...worth acknowledging their great attendance!

I thanked the chaperones and gave them a chance to say a few words.  These guys.  They're fantastic.  They're generous with their time, and they really do a good job of connecting with the youth.  I think I've already said it, but just in case I didn't...I had 11 chaperones signed up for VMM before I had 5 youth.  Such good people.

Then it was time for senior recognition.  We have one graduate this year, Katie.  I have ordered her a tshirt and written her a letter, just as I do for all seniors every year.  I talked about her time with us--how great she has been as a leader--and how much we will miss her.

Then I told everyone it was time to get on the bus!  That's what we would normally do.  Except of course we couldn't get on the bus because we didn't have one.  Except that WE MADE IT HAPPEN!


That's Katie on the bus.  Monday morning, she and I met Mark up at the bus yard.  He opened the bus, cranked it up, and turned on the mic.  We have a mission tradition...on senior night, the seniors are allowed to use the bus microphone to say whatever they would like to say.  This is the only time youth are authorized to touch the bus mic.  So I sat a safe distance back and recorded Katie's senior night speech.  And then, on zoom, I played it back for everyone.  It's like we were there.

Katie had a few more things to say after the bus video, including some fantastic gifts for me (I really shouldn't brag,but I'm about to be the proud owner of a personalized deck of cards that includes all of the shirts from her time in choir on them as well as a scrapbook she's been working on).  Also she had handed me a box when I saw her Monday, and she told me to open it on Thursday.  Inside was a deck of cards from every place she had been that had ever caused her to miss a choir rehearsal!  SO. THOUGHTFUL!  This is why we will all miss Katie.

Over the years, we have from time to time said goodbye to chaperones on senior night as well...the ones who have served for a number of years but have decided it's time to hang it up.  Last night it was my turn to say goodbye.  I had written a letter, which I took a picture of and put on the screen for them as I read it.  I won't put the whole thing here, but here are the last couple of paragraphs...

"...VMM gave me something to work for in my final weeks.  It gave me purpose, and it gave me a final memory--not just with you, but with the church.  The pandemic has taken away so much.  From all of us.  But your time and effort and caring and laughter gave some of it back.

So as you might have guessed, this has become a thank you note.  Thank you for these five wonderful, strange, fun days.  Thank you for a year of making music together--or many years, for some of you.

Thank you, most of all, for being great friends.  I've so enjoyed getting to know you.  I've enjoyed our time together.  And I will miss you so very much.

Thanks and Love in Christ,
John"

With that, I made some announcements and split everyone into rooms of 6-8 people.  I went to check in with them and visit for a while.  Then folks started leaving, one or two at a time, over a period of a couple of hours.  The last of us...about 18 or so, finally ended the meeting just after midnight.

And it was over.  Virtual Music Mission 2020...in the books.

Except we have one thing left!  Sunday is homecoming.  The youth choir will be providing music for worship, and I will be preaching.  I hope you'll plan to join us!  Here's the link:
https://vimeo.com/event/24696  I hope to see you there!!!

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Virtual Music Mission Day 4: Wednesday

As happens on live music mission, the nights have been creeping longer throughout the week.  Last night several of the youth were on until 11 (and I was with some of them), so I didn't write the blog when we wrapped up.  Had an errand to run this morning, so I'm just getting to it.  Rest assured, dear hearts, that I will try very hard to get the blog for today posted tonight, our final day.


Another day, another waffle topping.  Powdered sugar for Day 4.  My mom would tell you this is how I do pancakes and waffles.  It's definitely my go-to.  Much preferred over fake syrup.  I would add here that much of the family has been benefiting from my waffle compulsion.

Wednesday was a special day for the Virtual Music Mission.  We streamed our concert live.  I showed it to the choir while it was streaming.  Unfortunately we had some technical limitations on that front, so their experience wasn't great, but it was enough to get the gist of what was going on.  If you haven't seen the concert and you'd like to, you can find it here: https://vimeo.com/425719670

After the concert Cindy offered a devotional.  She talked about our journey from more than 30 individuals into one choir, referencing Corinthians along the way.  This really resonated with me, because I took all the individual videos, one at a time, and grouped them together.  So in a very real way they went from individuals to a choir right in front of my eyes.  I heard the sound change when I added each voice to the mix.  I heard how it grew and filled out--what each person added.  What really bakes my noodle is realizing that this exact phenomenon is what happens every time we step into a room and sing together.  We just do it without thinking; we have no idea how miraculous it really is.

Several people had offered feedback about the concert, so we spent some time talking through those messages.  One person wrote us a handwritten note and then sent me a picture of the note!  I shared the picture with the choir via zoom so they could see it.  Gosh, there is something about pen and ink, isn't there?  Time intensive and personal.

Following the sharing time, we had a wonderful virtual tour of St. Louis.  Katie (superstar senior, choir president, and all around wonderful person) put together several videos of important sights and places in Saint Louis as well as doing some research on the details of those places.  It was, in some respect, a reminder of what we were missing.  But it also took us there.  And in some cases it allowed us to see and experience things we wouldn't have been able to see due to time or financial constraints (or because, in one case, it was an exhibit that closed two years ago but was just so awesome we had to see it!).  Great job, Katie!

When the virtual tour was over we started writing letters.  I'm frustrated that I can't read their notes and offer suggestions about their writing.  I'm not even sure if they are doing the writing this time around.  But I've tried very hard to create the space and invite them into it.  I know at least some of them were writing because they left their video running while they did it.

We split into rooms next, as we have been.  Instead of doing roommate groups, I randomized the groups like I did the night before.  This flexibility has proven more effective, I think.  We'll probably do it again tonight.  Nearly everyone goes to a room for a minute...at least until I drop by.  Then usually a few will leave after I leave the room.  But we have about 15 or so that will stay absolutely as long as I will leave the meeting running.  I can see there are important connections being made, even at a distance.  These connections aren't made of electrons, either.  They are durable.

In the end, this will be a memorable experience.  Maybe one of the more memorable ones.  I won't call it our finest hour or anything like that...because that wouldn't be true.  But we were dealt a garbage hand, and these youth have played it about as well as it could be played.

Our last day is Thursday...Day 5.  We have a lot in store, and I'm super excited about senior night dinner!  Then...on to homecoming Sunday!

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Virtual Music Mission Day 3: Tuesday

A new day, a new waffle topping.  Today I went with real maple syrup.  I'm trying to make the most of not being at the Hampton...the waffles are great, but the syrup leaves something to be desired.  I'd say I wonder what I'll be having tomorrow, but I'm writing this after I've already eaten Wednesday's waffle!  A mystery to keep you coming back to the blog, perhaps.


Because if I've learned anything from Facebook it's that people have nothing better to do than look at pictures of food other people have taken?

We got right into the meat of VMM on Tuesday.  After about 10 minutes of gathering (it takes a bit for everyone to get into the meeting), I welcomed everyone and then asked Cindy to offer a devotional.  Cindy is a rock star...the Bon Jovi of chaperones (a compliment she will no doubt enjoy).  I make it a rule not to put up pictures of zoom conferences, so here's her picture from a previous mission doing exactly this...

This is a good opportunity for me to say a word about the chaperones.  Like the youth, they signed up for this trip when it was a bus trip to Saint Louis.  That in itself is something of a miracle.  But when we decided to do a virtual music mission, and I sent out an email to ask if they wanted to participate, I had 11 chaperones before I had 5 youth sign up.  I'm guessing it isn't because they love buses or riding in a van for hours chasing buses (or, in this case, sitting on zoom for 3 hours each night).  It's because they have their own mission, and it's based on loving these youth.  Some of them have served in this way for years, and each year I've come to rely on them more and more.  I remember vividly the year they took over checking the tape in the morning, which earned me an hour of extra sleep each morning!

I received another video response to our music mission, which was great.  I shared it with the youth, and we talked about the difference between doing a live concert and a virtual concert.  These video responses gave us some good discussion points, because in addition to pushing our own content out, we were able to think about how it is different for *us* to experience getting to know people by a short video rather than an in-person visit.  The videos and comments we have received so far have been fantastic.  I really appreciate those who have taken their time to make them for us.  It has filled in a critical gap in the virtual music mission.  For the younger singers, they are anxious about talking with and getting to know our audience.  For the older singers, it's their favorite part.

I asked the youth, at the end of our discussion, if they feel like we are making a positive difference in the world.  Nearly everyone responded (through the Zoom poll) that they feel like we are.  I asked because I've been struggling with it myself, and since well before this week.  Do we really make a difference?  Against the backdrop of such upheaval and struggle and suffering, does our little effort even matter?  

How I answer that depends on the day, but today my answer is to remember that the purpose of mission work isn't to change other people.  It is to change ourselves by serving other people.  When I listen to the youth talk about the music mission, it's clear to me that along the way they come to understand the value of being present for others--the value of listening to others.  And right now, well, people who look like me need to do a whole lot of listening.

We also talked briefly about whether it makes sense to release our concerts virtually every year.  It's something I've never even considered before.  I have wondered what ways the pandemic may leave permanent marks, both for better and for worse.  Here's one of the ways we can be better!

After our discussion, I got them started writing their letters.  Typically these would be thankyou letters for people who have supported the music mission, but that proved logistically impossible this year, so they are writing...whoever they want.  This is the part of the mission I think is suffering the most.  If I ever have to do it again, I'll try hard to find a way to make it better.

When we started planning this whole thing, I asked the youth to tell me what was important--what was really at the hart of music mission.  We agreed that movies on the bus was part of it.   And each year, I make it a point to watch one movie in particular.