Sunrises, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and My New Piano

Sunrises. I love sunrises. For many years I have been too tired to get up and enjoy them. Nowadays, though,  I am driving my kids to school early every morning and during the winter I have been enjoying a lot of sunrises. My kids’ school is only about two miles away. It takes us maybe five minutes to get there. Part of the drive to the school involves going up a big hill and then we crest at the top and suddenly we have a big view of mountains and mist and red orange light peeking through the clouds. It’s amazing. Every morning I can’t stop myself from exclaiming to the kids, “Everybody look at the sunrise! It’s amazing!” And the kids have learned to oooh and aaahh right along with me. Thanking God for the sunrise is part of our morning prayers. I have always imagined God standing at an easel, throwing paint on left and right, painting the sunrise every day. God the Creator. The Creative One.

The other day as I was driving along, enjoying the beautiful colors, I thought about how we are created in the image of God. I’ve always wondered about that, what it means exactly. I thought about God painting the sky every morning, making art and it occurred to me that when we create things, make our own art, we are, in a small sense, being like God. We were made to create because we were made in the Creator’s image.

I thought about music. I love music, but I have struggled with music over the years. As a teenager I used music as an emotional outlet. A way to vent, a way to express emotions, a safe place to feel emotions. As life got more and more complicated, harder, I found myself shying away from music. As I look back, I can see where I struggled to keep depression away, and one of my solutions to not dealing with depression or anger or a bunch of other unresolved feelings, was to shy away from feeling any emotion. Just stay neutral. Calm.

The only problem with this approach is that when you don’t allow yourself to feel bad emotions, the really good emotions go away as well. I don’t think you can fully live in joy if you don’t also allow yourself to mourn. You can’t have peace if you don’t go through the conflict first. You can’t have happiness if you don’t deal with the anger. I think that as I shut myself down emotionally, I also shut down music. I just couldn’t do it. Music was too closely tied to emotions. I could sometimes sit down and play through some Bach or Mozart in an attempt to make my brain feel orderly, but I wasn’t feeling it. And so I mostly avoided it.

Lately, I have been looking at getting back into music. My husband, excited that I was showing an interest again, went out and got me an old 1935 Wurlitzer Baby Grand, for a really good price off Craig’s List. I went with him and helped him move it. It’s a perfect fit for our house.  It’s got some history, apparently it’s original owner was a violinist with the Knoxville Symphony and she died after a long happy life at the age of 103. It’s also a bit dinged up and scratched here and there which means we won’t have to freak out if our kids add another scratch or ding. I rearranged our entire living room so that I now have a Music Room at one end. I have started practicing a bit every day. Scales, warmups, old songs I played in high school. Just easing myself back into it. I have really been enjoying myself, but I’ve wondered about the emotional side of it. Can I relax enough to let myself play with feeling? Can I let myself feel the sadness in the song? Can I let myself feel again? I’ve been a bit worried that maybe I can’t any more. Maybe that part of me is gone. 

Today I was working on getting my piano music moved to a different bookcase and I found a piece of music that I didn’t even know I owned, “Pie Jesu” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s REQUIEM. My copy was a vocal duet with piano accompaniment. It’s a beautiful, simple song written in latin. The English translation that is written on the music gives the words as this:

Merciful Jesus, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest.

Oh Lamb of God, who takest away the sin of the world, grant them eternal rest.

I sat down and started to sing it and play along. Alas. I am not a talented soprano and there was no way I could sing that high. My voice couldn’t bring justice to the beauty of the song. I stopped playing for a minute. And then I remembered my piano teacher, Ms. Wong, telling me to make the notes sing, make the melody sing. And I realized, I can’t sing the song, but I can make the piano sing it. And I did. And my fingers made the melody sing and it was beautiful. When I finally finished I sat there, feeling fidgety, like I needed to get up and do something. I stood up and went over the other side of my living room where I was still rearranging other books onto a shelf. (Moving my living room around created a couple projects I hadn’t been anticipating.) I was putting books back onto an empty shelf and I picked up my old Bible from years ago. I flipped it open and found myself in the book of Job, and I suddenly just wanted to read this chapter. Job 9. In this chapter Job talks about how powerful God is and how unworthy he, Job, is. In verse 33-35 he says,

“If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him, but as it now stands with me, I cannot.”

I stopped reading and thought about how horrible that would be to have the full burden of your sins on your shoulders and no way to approach God because He is too Holy. And I suddenly realized that the song I had just played was an answer to Job’s predicament. Jesus takes away the sin of the world, and grants us rest. He removed God’s rod of punishment from us.

I went back to the piano, stared at the music again, and with fresh wonder, played the song again. And while I played, some tears fell, and I felt just a bit like my ice wall around my emotions started to crack a bit more. And I felt hopeful. Excited. I have missed music and I hadn’t even realized how much I missed it.

Here is a link to a recording of “Pie Jesu” if you’d like to hear it.

“Pie Jesu”

Let’s Talk Christmas Music!

Let’s talk Christmas music!

For me, celebrating Christmas is all about the music. The day after Thanksgiving is when we officially start doing Christmas: music, trees, decorations.. An explosion of color and lights happen at our house. It truly is The Happiest Season of All.

When I was a kid there were several Christmas albums my parents played every year that just became part of the traditional backdrop for Christmas. I mean, it really wasn’t Christmas if we didn’t get to hear those albums. I carried on the tradition when I left home and now my children will hopefully think that, it’s really not Christmas unless we hear this music… That’s my hope anyway.

All the albums I’m going to talk about can be found on Youtube if you are just curious about them…

So, to start off we have  “Carpenters Christmas Portrait”. I would say my favorite song is “Merry Christmas Darling”. If I have to choose a favorite. Honestly though, I just love the whole album.

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Next on the list we have “Christmas Album with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass”. And my all time favorite from this album is “The Bell that Couldn’t Jingle”.

Christmas_Album_(Herb_Alpert_album)

Of course we have the classic “Bing Crosby White Christmas” album. I think my favorite from this album is Silver Bells.

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This next album didn’t join our family till I was a teen but it stuck. It is Take Six “He is Christmas”. Take Six is just fun. I love “Little Drummer Boy” and of course the awesome rendition of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” which becomes “Twas Da Nite”.

He_Is_Christmas

We did have some more classical type music thrown in. Of course, every year we have to listen to Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”. As a kid I loved to dance around the living room, pretending I was a ballerina. Now as an adult I love watching my kids do the exact same thing.

nutcracker

We also have to add A Mormon Tabernacle Choir “Christmas” with the amazing choir singing the older, less known carols like “Pat-a-pan” and “Fum Fum Fum” (which when we were kids my brother and I thought they were singing “bought it at the five and twenty, fum, fum, fum!”) (that’s not what they were singing) (it’s actually “On December 5 and 20, Fum, fum, fum) (I’m still not sure what the Fum fum fum means) (but it sounds fun) 🙂 ….

I don’t have any pics for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir because I listened to several different albums and I can’t remember which ones. They’re all good!

My children have added on new music to the family tradition. We now listen to a lot of Piano Guys Christmas songs, and a lot of Trans Siberian Orchestra Christmas. Which I love!  Incidentally, my parents are taking three of my teens to the Tran Siberian Orchestra Christmas Concert this weekend. I am so excited for them. Andy and I went to one of their concerts several years ago and I was over-the-top euphoric. Classical meets rock. It is the perfect fit for me.

Well, those are my favorites. I’d love to hear about some of your favorite Christmas Albums,  maybe I can add something new to our yearly line-up!

Stories From My Journey to Worship

I think one of my favorite journeys that I have been on is the journey of learning how to worship God through music. As a child my family sang a lot. My father had in fact been in a musical group all through his growing up years with his siblings, performing on the Christian Radio Station where his parents worked, performing for churches in the states when his family would come back on furlough (usually a year long break from the mission field, a time spent visiting supporters and speaking at many many churches and events). Music runs pretty deep in my family. My father plays the guitar and my mother sings alto and my brother and I quickly learned how to sing the melody while our parents harmonized and then later learned how to harmonize ourselves. I loved to sing for the sheer beauty of it. As a teen my brother and I and our friends formed a tradition, whenever we were driving in a car together, coming back from a trip to the beach or some other type outing, we would sing together. We would sing worship and praise songs and hymns, and usually the songs had parts and we would split into parts and it was the perfect way to end the day, driving home, tired, making beautiful music.

As I got older I slowly started focusing a bit more on the words that I was singing. I think I started doing this at the suggestion of a worship leader or pastor, and it kind of stuck with me. When I went to Biola University I was exposed to a lot more of the modern style of worship: words printed on a screen above the stage, all electric instruments with a good set of drums, easy, repetitive type songs that never quite have a clear melody line. It was the kind of music that you kind of spaced-out a bit when singing. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the music. It was just very different from what I was used to. But I started noticing something when I attended various worship sessions. There seemed to be a different attitude in the people who were singing. Like, it wasn’t so much about whether your voice sounded perfect or you played a really good solo, or sang a song that was technically difficult. It seemed to be more about disappearing into the song. What I mean, is that the song, the words of the song, who they were about was the focus, not the music that was being created. I enjoyed this new way of singing, I enjoyed the feeling of peace that was in the room and I slowly started learning how to turn my focus on God instead of the music.   

One of my big moments on my worship journey happened when I was twenty. I attended Biola for two years and then “took a break” (that never ended) and went overseas for a year. I spent my first four months in Haiti. I lived with Laurie and Jules Casseus, my old piano teacher from Haiti. I was kind of crashing emotionally and trying to figure out what I was doing with my life and Aunt Laurie ended up doing a lot of listening as I poured out my troubled thoughts. I was staying with them over Christmas (my first Christmas away from home!) and I was quickly caught up in all the Christmas Music performances. Aunt Laurie has a beautiful voice and she had been asked to sing “Oh Holy Night” at a church function in the nearby city of Cap Haitien. She asked me if I would accompany her on the piano and so I dutifully practiced with her and we quickly got it ready to perform. The night of the performance we drove into Cap Haitien to a large concrete church that I had never been to before. My hazy recollection of the church is that it had a large balcony that went around the entire upstairs with the section in the front of the church becoming part of a large stage-like area where the pastor preached, people sang, and I don’t know what else. My memories for architecture aren’t that great though, so I might be a bit off on that. I do remember that I was shown to a little alcove where there was a small, inexpensive keyboard, jury-rigged to a questionable sound system. There was no sustain pedal for the keyboard and so I quickly looked through my music, figuring out how to accommodate to a much smaller keyboard without a sustain pedal. I’m not a big fan on being the center of attention so this particular set up was a dream come true. I was sitting back, kind of out of the way, there were a lot of different people on the stage, and I was simply accompanying, so the focus was on Aunt Laurie. I had this. Aunt Laurie was singing in French. The words to the French version are actually not translated directly in our English version. We’re actually singing something pretty different when we sing the song in English.

Here is a literal translation of the final verse from French into English which I found handily on Wikipedia:

The Redeemer has broken every bond:

The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.

He sees a brother where there was only a slave,

Love unites those that iron had chained.

Who will tell Him of our gratitude,

For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,

Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

So, here I am accompanying on my little keyboard and Aunt Laurie reaches the final verse. She’s singing and suddenly the whole church rises to their feet and starts singing along, “People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,” and suddenly I’m not accompanying one person, but instead I’m playing along with hundreds and hundreds of people. But it didn’t matter because I was singing along too and I think I may have been crying a bit because what happened felt like Jesus had suddenly walked onto the stage and everyone saw him and they all stood up and started worshiping him and no one wanted it to stop. I think we ran through the chorus several times, I’m not sure.

After the service we drove home in silence, through the dark, unlit night. We got to the top of the small mountain pass that was close to our home and the driver pulled the car over at Aunt Laurie’s urging. The car stopped and the motor turned off. We climbed out of the car and stared out at the valley below us and then looked up. It was the most clear I have ever seen the Milky Way. It was like we were surrounded by stars and they were dancing in the sky in their own form of worship to their creator and I experienced the meaning of the word “awe”. We just stood there in silence and my heart felt like it was going to explode, it was so full.

The memory of that night has stayed with me, I think because it was a rich experience of worship through music in a way that I had unknowingly always been longing for. Focusing on Jesus, using the music to communicate my love for him, my awe of him, my longing for him. The music was just the conduit. Worship. It’s about focusing everything on him and saying, You Are Worthy.

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A Little Trot Down Memory Lane

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I was a missionary kid who grew up in Kentucky, Haiti, and Alaska. I was born in Kentucky and then moved to Haiti when I was 2, back to the Kentucky when I was 6, stayed for 5 years, then back to Haiti when I was 11. I lived in Haiti from the age 11 to 15 with a 9 month break when I was 13. And then when I was 15 we moved to Alaska. It’s confusing. I know. I don’t expect you to remember all that.

I’ve been remembering the 11-15 yrs old stage when I was in Haiti. We lived for a year in Cap Haitien and then moved to a mountaintop home that had a view of the entire Northern Plain of Haiti, including a view of the Bay of Acul, a place where Columbus was reported to have landed. The house and its surrounding property was a child’s paradise. The house was a concrete block, 2 story, flat-roofed home with a balcony and a narrow ledge that went around the entire house on the 2nd story. There was an abundance of fruit trees. The driveway had been cut out of the mountainside and so there was a high cliff on either side of the driveway, and the peak of the mountain above that which was covered in tall grass and scattered with large boulders. There was a patch of jungle/woods/forest that had a wonderful old cashew nut tree in it, it’s branches all twisted and curlicued, making it an awesome climbing tree. There was a separate building a little farther up the hill from the house that housed a generator and there was a bench next to the that little building where you could sit and stare at the ocean off in the distance. It was an amazing home. The windows were all covered in metal grates and so we could easily climb up the windows, and get up on the ledge that surrounded the 2nd story. From there you scooted carefully along the narrow ledge till you got to the railing around the balcony, you could then climb onto the balcony. On the balcony was a ladder that took you up to the flat roof.

Occasionally my brother and I would get home from school before our parents and occasionally we wouldn’t have the keys we needed to get onto the property or into the house. We would first climb over the tall, locked,  wrought iron gate that went across our driveway, go down the driveway and then we would climb up on the balcony or roof to wait for our parents.

During that time period in Haiti there was a lot of political upheaval and the infrastructure of the country was not good. There was an electric company, but the power was rarely turned on. We had a generator but later, when Haiti was put under an embargo by the US, there was little fuel to run the generator. We had a well that gave us good clean water, but the well required an electric pump. By the end of our time in Haiti, we were turning on our generator every 3 days for about an hour during which time we would fill an entire room full of buckets and containers of water to hold us over for the next 3 days.  We would quickly run some laundry through our agitator/wringer washing machine, and then quickly turn the generator off to conserve the fuel. I took a cold bucket bath every morning before I headed out to school, mastering the skill of making a 5 gallon bucket last for a complete bath, including washing and conditioning my long hair.

My teen years in Haiti were spent going to school, attending a Haitian church on Sunday mornings, and then an English church on Sunday evenings. The occasional Saturday was filled with going to the beach or getting together with friends. During the summer I would accompany my mom into Cap Haitian for a day of shopping the market places, getting in a supply of basic groceries. We regularly visited friends. A big chunk of my time though, was spent simply at home, left to my own devices.

My brother was trying to graduate early and so he spent much of his time holed up in his room, working on his high school correspondence courses. My father was out doing his work and my mother was busy doing all the work that is required when you don’t have electricity, or convenience stores, or even well-stocked grocery stores. She also worked in medical clinics a couple times a week, and held medical clinics at our home for people in our neighborhood. I helped my mom with her medical clinics sometimes, wrapping pills in paper packets we made from cutting up magazines, handing her the right pill packets as she needed them.

I need to make something clear. I was not a missionary. I was simply a missionary kid. I did not feel any special calling or burden for the Haitian people. Haiti just happened to be where I lived. My parents did their work and I was caught up with school work and friends and daily life. My grandparents had been missionaries in Haiti for 40 years. My father grew up in Haiti. My mother came from England as a young single missionary, met my father, and they married and had my brother there in Haiti. For me, Haiti was not a mission field, it was simply where my family lived.

While my family was busy with their various pursuits, I focused on reading books, practicing music, journaling, and simply sitting outside, taking in nature, daydreaming, trying to sketch pictures of the view, trying my hand at writing poetry (unsuccessfully). I loved to get to a high perch, stare out at the ocean and just exist. I loved to sing and I would often sing loudly, giving it all I had, confident in the knowledge that no one was listening. I would sing hymns and praise songs, not really understanding the concept of worship, just knowing that the earth around me was so beautiful, I had to acknowledge the beauty and the creator of the beauty somehow. And so I sang songs.

I liked to write in my journal, just putting down the every-day occurrences of a young girl. Which friend had a crush on who, what my current crush had said to me the last time I saw him, stories of my life. Looking back through my journals it’s interesting to see how I gradually became aware that I wasn’t speaking into an empty void. Someone was listening to me. As I grew older my journals started becoming a conversation with God. A prayer. A place to vent and rant when I was upset, knowing that someone safe was listening to me. Through journaling I slowly learned the art of expressing my emotions and then learning how to be thankful anyway. I learned how to turn a complaint into a prayer request, a difficult trial into something that made me think and ponder and grow in my understanding of God and life.

Music took up a large chunk of my time. I was blessed to live close by to Laurie Casseus, who, in a fun turn of events, ended up becoming my aunt-in-law. Laurie was a singer and pianist, a missionary kid who had grown up knowing my father. She had married a Haitian, Jules Casseus: pastor, academic extraordinaire, author, among other things. The two of them assisted in the running of a Bible Seminary/University that was only two kilometers away from us. Laurie loved to share her talents with her community. She took the missionary kids under her wing and taught us piano lessons, voice lessons, had a children’s choir, and had us highschoolers working on duets and quartets and other ensembles. We sang popular songs, spoofs, hymns and classical music. I also had a full-length, weighted-keys keyboard my parents had bought me. My father had it hooked up to a car battery so that I could always play whether we had electricity or not. He also had a little lamp hooked up to the car battery so that I could see my music at night. I played that piano constantly, it was one of my only ways of expressing myself, the emotions I was feeling. I honestly don’t think I would have survived my tumultuous childhood without music. I am forever thankful to God for giving me a musical talent and to my parents for fostering that talent as much as they could and to Aunt Laurie for giving me so many opportunities to learn and grow in my music.  

One of my favorite memories of music was one night when there was no electricity, the entire valley was dark except for the small flickers of lamps and candles. There was a full moon and it was shining brightly on the ocean bay. I remember, in the silence, playing Debussy’s Clare de Lune and the music spoke to my soul. I knew what Debussy meant when he wrote the music. He meant this, this dark, moon lit night, silence, calm, peacefulness. It was a glorious experience to become one with the music and moon and the night. I remember it vividly to this day.

This past week I had been contemplating some of the more difficult aspects of life in Haiti, and I wondered if really any good had come out of me growing up there. God’s response was to flood me with memories. Memories of a childhood that was full of quiet moments and contemplation. No distractions of tv and internet and plugged-in entertainment. A childhood of music and book reading and journal writing. A childhood of nature and beauty. In the midst of the chaos God nourished my soul. I am thankful.