Because Kansas

Touching down on the sizzling tarmac in Wichita, Kansas two weeks ago felt like coming home. While I was a little apprehensive for the upcoming two weeks of intense choir tour with Oasis Chorale, I was excited to be returning to Hutchinson, KS, home of my young college adventures (some of which you can read about on very old posts here.)

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For the past seven years, I’ve spent time every summer singing with the Oasis Chorale, a 40-member Anabaptist a capella choir. This year’s tour started and stopped in Hutchinson, KS, the same town that’s home to Hutchinson Community College, from which I earned my Associate of Arts degree before transferring to The Ohio State University. Moving half-way across the country as a 20-year-old to attend a community college is among one of the weirder decisions I’ve ever made, but it also stands as one of the best decisions, for the Mennonite community there is one of my absolute favorites, and it was my pleasure to call Hutch home for two years.

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Driving from Wichita to Hutch and passing miles of razor flat, wide-open green fields, the sun burning through the pale blue sky and humid, windy air, I giggled in glee, “You can see for miles! You can see the horizon! I can finally breathe deeply again!”

While most easterners and Mid-westerners have driven through Kansas, few of them have come to love the plains, and find beauty in them, like I do. I don’t have much of a chance; I was born in Plain City, Ohio, named so for its extremely flat geography. And I do. I love the plains. There’s something about the sunsets, the miles of fields, and (in Kansas) the unrelenting wind, that I find deeply comforting.

Waves of memories came pouring over me as we sailed down highway 96, past the “honking tree,” and past Yoder, KS, the tiny town where I worked during college. We turned on highway 50, heading toward Pleasantview, following the familiar railroad tracks, and I had a flashback to driving home late one night in tornado-like conditions, all alone on the open road, save for a railroad engineer and the piercing headlight of his long black train.

I hopped out of the van into the warm, windy air and breathed deeply again, an impossibly large smile on my face.

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The next few days became a blur of Oasis Chorale ritual—warm-ups, arpeggios, vocal fry (“Less pitch! Less pitch!”), finding space, unifying vowel, working pieces start-and-stop mode, and recording an entire hymns album (apart from our choral rep for tour), all the while darting in and out of Hutchinson, with its wide western street grids and period homes. I even managed to drag my choir buddies to Metro, the coffee shop I visited every week during my first two years of college.

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Reconnecting with Kansans, I was pleasantly reminded why I love them so much. You know how in every Mennonite Sunday school class there’s at least one lady who is refreshingly honest, unforgivingly practical, sharp as a tack, and very forthright, with absolutely no qualms about calling a spade a spade? Multiply that lady by ten, and that’s basically Kansas. (Readers of Shasta’s Fog will know how I can appreciate those qualities and find them more useful than the guarded, calculated East.)

How fantastic to share with them in song at our first Hutchinson concert, for which, miracle of all miracles, I had my breath under me. (For all our rehearsal days, I just could not make my breath work, but right before concert, my breath returned, and I enjoyed the full concert with, well, another smile on my face.)

Recording over, we began tour with a workshop with Dr. Bartel, a professor at Friends University, and the president of the Kansas Choral Directors Association. Great feedback, including small things like how to sing the word “the.” We were throwing it away, not giving it (and other words) “is-ness.” Such a small detail, but choral musicians know that these tiny significances matter.

Another tour highlight was our choir’s pre-concert chat in Illinois with Westminster student Douglas Byler, composer of this year’s new commission “The Spirit of the Lord.”

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pc: Jason Martin

And our second IL concert featured these special guests, my baby nieces!

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Meeting baby Holly for the first time.

We spent our day off in St. Louis, and furiously googling free things to do, I found that St. Louis is home to the Cathedral Basilica, the largest mosaic-ceiled building in the world. It was stunning.

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A small group of us began our adventures at Kaldi’s, a glass-walled coffee shop nestled beneath Citygarden’s trees, and we enjoyed gluten-free dining.

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Next, we maneuvered the city bus system for a 30-minute ride to the Basilica. It was then that I discovered St. Louis to be one of the friendliest cities I’ve visited. Our bus driver got out of his bus at the bus exchange to point us to the correct bus to the Basilica, and he let my friend ride for free when she only had a $20 and no change. He also added an extra hour to our bus passes. The Basilica’s tour guide offered tacky jokes and an amazing amount of history for the overwhelming mosaics.

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Not a painting; a literal mosaic. (!)

Dinner was at Three Sixty, the restaurant atop the Hilton, where we had a (warm) view of the entire city and the famous St. Louis arch.

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The next morning, our choir slipped inside the Old Courthouse, just a few blocks from our hotel, location of the famous Dred Scott trials, who sued the federal government for his freedom. Permitted by a security guard to perform a single choral piece beneath the famous dome, we sang Hawley’s “Not One Sparrow” in dedication to the historical significance of the courthouse.

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pc: Wikipedia Commons

Not one sparrow is forgotten
Even the raven God will feed
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father
In thy mercy have a share
And through faith and prayer, my Savior
Rest in thy protecting care?

Most of tour, however, is a rat race of hydrating properly, eating properly, guarding your rest like nobody’s business, focused personal rehearsal and memory work on the bus (outside of group rehearsal), and stealing as many gummy bears as possible from the basses. (Gummies = OC’s candy of choice. The urban legend? They’re good for your throat.)

Another immensely rewarding experience was performing a set of songs at the Kansas Choral Directors Association convention in Topeka, KS to a congregation of choir directors, musicians, and All-State high school choir kids. It’s one thing to share your gift with local church audiences; it’s another thing to perform for a room-full of musicians. (You can catch this performance over at OC’s facebook page.)

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The other side of Oasis Chorale is collaborating with local choirs, meeting hosts, making new friends, and net-working. Performing in the green-hued, hundred-year-old sanctuary of First Christian Church in Fulton, MO, I met a lovely elderly lady who reminisced about the congregation’s past:

“It’s changed so much. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s our church was so full, you couldn’t find a seat. There was a women’s college in town, and the girls were required to attend church. Wherever the girls went, the boys showed up! But it’s changed so much. It’s not near as full.”

At a local Hutch concert, I also reconnected with middlewestpenandpage after we had worked together in KS seven years ago!

One of the most inspiring moments of tour was meeting Dr. Jana Nisly, to whom was dedicated our commissioned piece, “The Spirit of the Lord.” Director of La Clinica de las Buenas Nuevas in rural El Salvador for 25 years, Dr. Nisly has held Luke 4:18-19 as her clinic’s motto, and this text was adapted by Douglas Byler for the new commission.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To preach deliverance to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are bruised
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

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It was a pleasure to meet Dr. Nisly, to be regaled by doctor stories over a meal, and to hear the mission of her work: “The poor are disregarded in the medical field in El Salvador. To be able to touch them, to treat them, to listen to them… there is no greater joy.” And in her Kansan way, she added, “Now, there’s also nothing more tiring, and it’s too much for me!”

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Slowly and quietly the circling gyre of tour floated to the ground, and we found ourselves at our last concert in Wichita, surrounded by friends, family, and the lovely folks at Eastminster Presbyterian. We performed our last concert as the western sun sparkled through the stained-glass windows. We swallowed our emotions, encouraged to perform “just another concert.” I had the most freedom of breath in that concert that I experienced all of tour.

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The community of Oasis Chorale is something that amazes me. every. year. It’s a stunning moment to prep breath, vowel, and space, and to be backed by (but also to lead) thousands of vocal muscles that synchronize into a thunderous, unified downbeat of “All Hail.” I don’t take this richness for granted. Nor the spontaneous bus conversations about theology and vocation. Nor can I ignore how singing in choir is a metaphor for the way in which God wants to lead us into more perfect beauty. The experience of being led, and of following, of disciplined rehearsal, of vulnerability and trust within the community of choir mid-concert, and of flexibility to follow new gestures that can only come through the growth of being together… these are things which somehow mimic community led by the Spirit.

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Besides this metaphor is the actual musical beauty of my extremely talented friends, whose music-making, in rare moments, makes me feel that dull, physical ache, that only true beauty can. For we know that we are not made for here. As C.S. Lewis says, “We do not merely want to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” It seems that every summer there is at least one memorable solitary moment in which I experience this ache for beauty, a beauty, it seems, that I cannot inhabit. Lewis goes on: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in the world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We singers regularly discuss the chasm there seems to be between our beautiful two weeks of music-making every summer and the “real world,” as it were, or our vocations, which are more closely touched with earth’s brokenness. It’s therefore a grace to perform, to worship, and to inhabit these texts every evening. Yet we would be remiss to make it all about art. Our director gently reminded us to take time daily to know who we are apart from the choir, apart from the music.

Our pitiful goodbyes being said, we flew home this week, but not before I had one amazing day-on-the-town in good ole’ Hutchinson. My friend Trish and I took a gander around campus, and warm memories washed over me as I walked through Lockman Hall, the campus building where I worked as English Department Scholar, discovered my love of literature, took the hardest exam of my college career (World Mythology), and met some of the finest and most caring English instructors. It’s summer, so professors were out, but I penciled in a note to a professor, met the new secretary, and walked all my favorite routes, including the short-cut across the tennis court.

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My ramble across the empty campus was one of the most healing walks of my life. To remember dropping down into Kansas as a shy, scared Mennonite kid in order to maneuver what felt like the impossible unknown, and to look back now… I see that what was, at the time, one of the scariest decisions I had ever made, was one of the safest decisions. While at the time it seemed risky, I now know beyond the shadow of a doubt that enrolling in college in Kansas was unquestionably the best, and safest, decision for me. My experience with faculty and students at Hutchinson Community College and my interaction with the Mennonite community in Hutch unquestionably impacted the person I have become. Kansas was exactly where God wanted me.

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My day in Hutch ended with one of my favorite iconically Kansan experiences… a night walk on Kansas dirt roads. My friend and I quietly crunched over sand and gravel, in the darkness, breathing deep breaths of sweet hay, and dust, til we reached Trails West, the only paved road for miles, and we lay down in the middle of the empty road, with our backs on the warm pavement, staring through the darkness at stars, the moon, and shooting stars and fireflies, and talking about all the secret things that girls talk about.

The next morning I rose early before my flight to make my last Kansas dream come true—a run down West Mills, my familiar running route, the dirt road where I became a runner. Trish and I ignored the distant thunder and lightning in the gray summer morning, as we jogged down the lane to the dirt road and headed west.

In one sense, Kansas, and its big sky, is a place where you can think more clearly. You feel closer to God because there’s nothing between the you, the prairie, and the open sky. It is at the same time safe, and terrifying. Lonely, yet inspiring.

With the rolling wind at my back and the miles-wide gray thunderclouds pregnant with lightning resting low above the shadow green fields, I picked my feet up faster, grinding them along the top of the dirt road. I ran on, in freedom, stopping only to spin and spin in absolute joy.

My Ancestors, Singing, and Oasis Chorale

So the last three weeks have been FANTABULOUS.

I spent a weekend at a family reunion in southern Virginia. In case you don’t know, a Good family reunion consists of:

  1. Exquisite four-part hymn singing.
    How am I blessed with this heritage?

  1. Obligatory “Good” puns.
    “It’s ‘Good’ you made it.”
    “It’s a ‘Good’ reunion this year.”
    “These are my ‘Good’ relatives.”
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  1. Meticulous research and history prepared by our family historian, Evelyn Bear, who traced our family tree as far back as the 1500s to our Swiss roots THROUGH FOUR LINES (the Resslers, Goods, Brennemans, and Hubers). The Brennemans and Goods were Swiss Anabaptists who emigrated to America through Germany due to religious persecution, settling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (of all places!), Melchior Brenneman in 1709, and 20-year-old Jacob Good on the ship Samuel in 1732. (Surprise, surprise, I now live in the land of my ancestors! Except both families moved to the Shenandoah Valley several years later.)
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Clockwise: My great-grandparents’ wedding photo (1904), their 50th wedding anniversary, my mother’s baby picture, my mother’s family in 1951, my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary.
  1. Fabulous coffee prepared on the spot by my coffee connoisseur cousin Paul Yates.
    Vanilla rosemary latte, anyone? (He creates his own rosemary syrup.)
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With my mama.
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There was also lots of niece-squishing.

I then drove north to the Shenandoah Valley to meet my favorite people, the Oasis Chorale, for our annual summer tour. This year we toured Virginia and the Carolinas and additionally recorded a second hymns project in conjunction with John D. Martin’s new Hymns of the Church. (Recordings will be available in October! Click here or here for up-to-date information regarding new musical releases.)

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Photo by Erin Martin.

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It’s no point trying to put into words what the experience of Oasis Chorale means to me, but I will try.

First, it is community. The more I sing with this choir, the more I come to love its individual members, the camaraderie that ensues, the spontaneous philosophical and theological discussions that we inevitably find ourselves in, and the way that we care for each other. People who aren’t conservative Mennonite may not be able to tell, but Oasis Chorale is actually extremely diverse. Our members come from a wide variety of Anabaptist, educational, and musical backgrounds, each with our individual experiences of Anabaptist communities and unique musical experiences within those communities. There is such strength in this diversity. For one, I think we are better equipped to minister to wider varieties of congregations. Second, it enables us to learn from and to support each other in our varying church, musical, and educational contexts.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY that Oasis Chorale is not first and foremost concerned about performing choral music well. It most certainly is.


You better have your pitches and rhythms learned. Along with your consonants, vowels, body alignment, proper breathing technique, appropriate tone, lifted soft palate, sense of line, inflection, suitable syllable stress, bright eyes, all performed with a sense of wonder.

But to me, Oasis is more than just a choir that sings beautiful music well. It’s a choir that strengthens its members for service beyond just a two-week summer tour. It encourages and refreshes singers, musicians, song leaders, artists (also a huffing lot of teachers) to pursue beauty and truth the REST of the year. This happens due to having a visionary conductor who expects discipline and personal musical growth (which is possible both within and without the choir) and who regularly invites us to contemplate the poetry of musical texts and the truth expressed therein. This emphasis on discipline and thoughtfulness is a haven for me.

Getting to be immersed in this convivial, contemplative, Christian community is something for which I thank God.
Every.
Year.

As a choir, we visited colonial Williamsburg this year and performed a candlelit concert in the historic Bruton Parish church. Definitely a highlight!

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Performing by candlelight in the historic Bruton Parish Church in colonial Williamsburg. Photo by Erin Martin.

One line from a hymn we recorded this year captured my attention and expresses a very particular worldview which I personally think aligns with the mission of Oasis Chorale:

“Crown Him the Lord of peace;
Whose pow’r a scepter sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease,
Absorbed in prayer and praise.”

For these things, we sing.

Amen.

Crosses, Tea, and Buns: Ireland, Week 1

Greetings from the United Kingdom! I’ve returned from across the pond! I can’t wait to share memories and pictures with you all.

Perhaps I will start at the beginning.

Recording Stateside
Five weeks ago I traveled to Lebanon, Pennsylvania for rehearsal and recording with the Oasis Chorale. We rehearsed at St. Luke’s, an Episcopal church built in the 1880s. Gorgeous architecture.

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DSC_0136The first day was a great day of music-making, but I lost my fervor as the day wore on because I noticed I was developing severe throat pain. But this could not dampen the joy of joining 40 singers and nailing Lyle Stutzman’s “Shout for Joy” at the first down beat. These singers energize me! Thursday I was brokenhearted. My throat pain had only worsened. I was convinced I had developed yet another case of strep throat, and I was sent straight to the doctor. While the choir spent hours recording beautiful hymns that I had practiced for months, I sat in the waiting room at an urgent care facility.  I spent the next two days sucking zinc lozenges and taking naps, trying to beat the virus I had contracted. (So, no strep throat. But seriously?! What is with the sickness?)

By using the zinc, downing EmergenC, and gargling warm salt-water, I was well enough to sing at our Saturday and Sunday concerts, which was very exciting for me because these were our only state-side concerts. And, my parents had surprised me and had driven out all the way from Ohio to attend both concerts!

Our last concert, at St. Luke’s, was packed out! It was standing room only, and we found out later there were nearly 100 people standing outside listening in through the windows. A rather warm evening, but so beautiful! I felt so much gratefulness in my heart to God for giving me this opportunity, especially after I had just gotten over the virus. I had had a lot of time for personal reflection, having sat out of several rehearsals, and I felt very settled at the concert. It seemed very worshipful. I felt privileged to sing about God’s goodness. And His grace and mercy. And purity.

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Afterwards, the warm lights of St. Luke’s lighted the joyous fellowship. And I’m not just using million dollar words right now. That’s really how great it was. An excellent introduction to good times ahead. Monday: we fly.

Traveling
Monday we rehearsed in the morning, then drove to NYC. We left for Dublin, Ireland at 9 p.m. and for once in my flight life, I had one of those really cool airplane seat mates who you can talk to for hours. We discussed education, religion, and Irish culture. She recommended a movie for me to watch, and we ended up both watching it and discussing it. It’s an Academy Award-winning movie about a very specific event in Irish history. Apparently, in the mid-twentieth century in Ireland, girls who had children out of wedlock were ostracized by their families, turned out on the street, and would end up living with nuns at convents. Many times, the children were seized from these young mothers without their consent and given up for adoptions (truly, “sold”) to American families by the Catholic Church, the money from which was used to fund missions endeavors in Africa. (??) The movie, based on a true story, follows a journalist helping one such Irish woman, now in her 50s, trying to locate her son in America. The story is complicated by religious undertones whereby the journalist is an atheist, and the melancholy mother is a staunch Roman Catholic, despite what the church has done to her. One of the great themes from the movie is forgiveness; in an emotional scene the mother returns, years later, and forgives the unremorseful nuns who took her son away and destroyed information that would lead her back to him. The atheist journalist is almost angry at the woman: “How can you forgive them after what they’ve done to you?!” The Catholic Irish woman replies with strength: “That’s the difference between you and me.” It is a moving scene, very thought-provoking.

Watching this movie before landing in Ireland was an interesting introduction to Irish culture. Here I was, singing with a Mennonite choir from an evangelical tradition. How did that connect to a very Catholic country? Would my own faith tradition have any relevance to the Irish tradition? To the non-churched, how would my association with church be received, especially considering the people are dealing with certain hypocrisies in the Catholic tradition, including the Irish baby adoption scandal, not to mention the child sexual abuse issue that is very real for some individuals? How did my trip, my faith, and more importantly, Jesus, play into all of this? Was their healing to be had?

I can tell you that my thoughts were whirling when we landed on the sunny runway. My Irish seat mate left me with this: “Dancing, drinking, storytelling, and religion. These are what make up Irish culture. I hope you get to experience all of these things.”

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Tuesday was that evil day of jet lag where they try to keep you awake all day even though you didn’t sleep at all on the airplane and it’s like 4 in the morning in your body, but sunny and 9 a.m. in Dublin city center. You feel like cursing, but you’re supposed to be a pleasant tourist all day, so you stand in line for like a half hour to see the Book of Kells and then go souvenir shopping. I caffeined up at a tiny coffee shop and tried not to whine too much. It had been a while since I had pulled an all-nighter.

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Cheesy tourist picture at the library at Trinity College. I wanted to bottle the old book smell and save it forever.

The Book of Kells was amazing! The Trinity College exhibit was excellent and very exciting to see! Call me a nerd if you want, but that sort of artistry AMAZES me. The idea of scribes spending years copying, preserving, and decorating the words of God is amazing! And then the artistry is exquisite! The tiny detail, the tiny images and imageries… the figures… and all this preserved through Viking raids and the Middle Ages! I caffeine up with a real macchiato, and then I decided I needed a healthy meal (because seriously, what meal am I even ready for right now), so I ate…  GET THIS: Nutella gelato. I decided I kind of liked Ireland. Next, we drove to the beautiful Glendalough Hotel, and with zombie smiles, enjoyed the grounds, the trees, the green clover, by the brook, near potted plants, before we were served the most delicious meal. Stuffed chicken wrapped in bacon, mashed Irish potatoes, and a “banquet” of vegetables. Then I had my first cup of Irish tea and an apple dessert, before we fell into our beds at the nearby (sparse) hostel. We are here!

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My first cup of Irish tea.


Week 1: Rehearsing, Sightseeing, and English Concerts
The next few days were spent rehearsing and resting. Wednesday we rehearsed at the hostel before exploring Glendalough Visitor’s Centre, which has a wonderful museum display, passionate tour guides, and an informative video, explaining the importance of Celtic Christianity and the early Irish monastic tradition. No other place we visited in Ireland gave such great information of this period of church history. We learned about the history of St. Kevin in the area, the churches from the 900s through 1100s, the Tower, and the Celtic crosses on gravestones.

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We choir members were then left to tour and hike at our leisure. I wanted to make the best use of my time and see All The Things. So I set out for the two hour hike, which we voluntarily turned into the three hour hike, because, hello, we’re only coming to Ireland once in our lives, and we should probably hike the rim, wouldn’t that be really cool? I mean, who cares that I’m just wearing off-brand Converse? Heh heh. Let me say: the views were amazing and so are my calves now.

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Planks laid over spongy bog ground.
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Hmm, yes, we DID come a long way on that windy trail.
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With Pheobe, the gentle hiker beast.
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Worth it.

Thursday we ferried to Wales! I’ve never been on a boat that big before, and I was nervous that I might get the sort of seasickness my dad gets. (His stomach turns by simply looking at a canoe.) However, I found that if I stayed in my seat, I felt just fine. Walking around made me a lil woozy though. It was pretty big ferry, with a gift shop, and several restaurants, would you fancy that. We spent the rest of the day busing to Bristol.

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Hello, let me pose with this nautical orange disk.

I didn’t know much about Bristol, England, but our two-hour, double-decker, open-top bus tour gave us a lot of historical information about the city. A pretty cool town! The perfect mix of old and new. Our bus tour ended at the Church of St. Thomas, the Martyr, a place with an organ so awesome that Handel liked to play it. We tiptoed in after visiting hours (we knew a guy) and enjoyed making music in the space. The church is no longer used as a place of worship, and it’s actually smack dab next to Bristol’s best night club, ironically. So while the side street was overflowing with tables and taps and rowdy conversation, we made music inside a beautiful church, which sits empty, with a lone organ, played by the likes of Handel, that sits silent. I’m sorry to say this to the Bristol British, but honestly, you are idiots. (Sorry.)

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Bristol British having their cake and eating it too: nightclubs, beer, and Handel history.

We stayed at a riverfront hostel, and once the sun finally went down, we saw a little taste of Bristol nightlife. Yeah, they don’t really go to bed early in that town. We enjoyed a hearty British breakfast the next morning at the hostel: eggs, fried tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms, “rashers” of bacon (thick bacon, slightly fried), and of course, tea.

Next we boarded the bus for Oxford! A two tour walking tour whet our appetites for amazing architectural and literary history! It seemed surreal. I had to remind myself I was in England. I could have spent days there, exploring the streets C. S. Lewis and Tolkien walked, eating at the Eagle & Child pub, and visiting all the lovely sights.

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Ye olde Radcliffe Camera!
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A lamppost very near the Camera, pre-dating C. S. Lewis, and believed to be the inspiration for Lucy’s lamppost.
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The lion carving in the door predates Lewis and is believed to be the inspiration for Aslan. Notice the faun, in gold, beside the door?
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The favorite pub of the Inklings: where Tolkien and Lewis discussed what Bilbo Baggins should do next.

I joined a group of choir members intent on eating at the Eagle & Child, but we managed to miss meal time (they don’t serve food all day), so we had to go down the street to a St. Giles Café where I ordered eggs, bubble, and squeak. Bubble and squeak is like a potato cake with cabbage in it. It was all very delicious.

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Our accommodations for the evening were at Keble College, which rents out its rooms in the summer to tourists, buts functions as a college during the school year. Absolutely stately grounds, and the breakfast in the large dining hall was palatial.

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Friday evening was our first U.K. concert. We sang at Littlemore to an appreciative audience. Lovely hospitality, and it was great to interact with the audience afterwards.

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Saturday we toured Warwick Castle which was a very interesting experience. It was at this point when I realized my knowledge of British history is sorely lacking! Wait, William the Conqueror? Who was he again? The castle grounds were very commercialized and less historical. Very, very kid-friendly. I spent the day being sad that I wasn’t enjoying the experience, and irritated that I could never bring my Indiana junior high students here who have been dazzled beyond belief.

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Saturday night we sang at Aylesbury, a 13th century church. For some reason, we, or I, felt a special connection to the small audience. I think the progression of our repertoire moves in a specific way so that by the time we sing “God Be With You Til We Meet Again,” the little grandmas are teary-eyed and so are we.

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Our last English concert was Sunday afternoon at Sandiway Gospel Church. What lovely hospitality and reception! The pastor warmed us with his words: “You’ll notice we’ve left the front row empty. That’s for the angels. They’re there to take some lessons from you!” After some wonderful food and fellowship with our friendly hosts, we headed off to the Colwyn beach in Wales to kill time before taking the night ferry.

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I had heard NASTY things about night ferries and not sleeping, and ever since our first jet lag, I was determined to get my sleep. We boarded the ferry, and I dashed to find an empty bench. I donned my black eye patch and warm socks and I was out like a light until the captain announced we were back in Irish waters. The next morning, in County Wicklow, we toured Powerscourt Gardens, the third-ranked garden in the world (according to National Geographic). I spent the morning in quiet exploration, poking around the world-renowned living artwork with my Oasis friends whilst sipping an impeccable latte.

No, my readers, but the roses. The ROSES! They were huge! Ancient. Larger than life. Larger than your hand.

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If I ever go to Ireland again, I will go to Powerscourt and spend all day in the walled garden.

We left Powerscourt for our Wicklow Hostel, Knockree, way back in the mountains. Beautiful, beautiful landscape. Rain. Mist. Sleep.

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Coming soon: Week 2 and Saying Goodbye!

A Linen Belt

Once during a choir tour, on a bus, while traveling through the rolling Ozarks, a wise man posed this simple question: “What has Jesus meant to you since 7:00 this morning?” It’s sad to admit, but I had to answer… “Nothing.” I honestly hadn’t even thought about him at all. The busyness of tour, interactions with friends, and my own selfish ambitions had kept me preoccupied. I cringed at that thought.

For many of us, the answer to that question is too often, “Nothing.” So my question is: what causes us to be so self-focused? What causes us to be so preoccupied… that is, “pre-occupied,” or occupied “before”… occupied first by human cares… before Jesus has a chance to fill our minds? How can we so quickly forget our Savoir and our God?

One of my favorite metaphors is found in Jeremiah 13. (Nerdy English majors can have favorite metaphors.) (And it’s actually fascinating how God uses metaphor and symbolism throughout the whole Old Testament. Jesus also used literary devices when he spoke in parables. Another literary device on which I would like to expound is “sarcasm” in the Bible, but I haven’t found many examples besides Sarah’s laugh [which was a portrayal of her lack of faith, so that’s not very attractive, huh?] and Jesus’ response to Nicodemus when he said, “You are Israel’s teacher, and do not understand these things?” We’re at a loss, then, with sarcasm. Just how holy is it?) Digression ends here.

In Jeremiah 13, God compares the nation of Israel to a linen belt that becomes damaged, or destroyed. The Lord has Jeremiah buy a linen belt, wear it, hide it in the rocks, and recover it, only to find it ruined. Then Jeremiah prophesies, and he brings God’s words to the people:

9 “This is what the LORD says: ‘In the same way I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. 10 These wicked people, who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the stubbornness of their hearts and go after other gods to serve and worship them, will be like this belt—completely useless! 11 For as a belt is bound around the waist, so I bound all the people of Israel and all the people of Judah to me,’ declares the LORD, ‘to be my people for my renown and praise and honor. But they have not listened.’ (NIV)

When Jeremiah dug up the belt, he found it to be completely useless. The Lord said that the nation was profitable for nothing, like that belt! God explained how, in his mercy, He had bound the nation of Israel to Him like a belt and that they were to be for his praise. But their disobedience had reduced His glory.

We can look deeper into the analogy to find additional meaning. Perath, where Jeremiah hid the linen belt, represents Babylonian power. (So in essence, Babylonian captivity would be their ruin.) One source reminds us that linen was specifically for priestly apparel (and also worn by rich nobility), so a prophet showing up in a priestly garment would have created quite a stir. This makes the linen belt seem even more glorious, and God is expressing his deep love for Israel by comparing them to such an excellent garment. Another aspect for consideration is the make-up of the garment: the linen belt might be a girdle, or a kilt, or as one irreverent commentator put it: priestly underpants.

Despite the additional contextual information, the message is quite clear: ignoring God’s commands makes us completely useless. When we regularly do not do what God asks us to do, we reduce Christ. Christ is our glory, and as we are supposed to reflect Him, we then become God’s glory. We will praise God because of the glory of Christ in us. Our purpose for living is to bring praise to God. Our existence should bring praise to God and should make His name known.

But for many of us, obedience is just too simple. We must “figure out God’s will” for our lives, when in fact, He has already revealed it to us: to be obedient. A dynamic young doctor (a professional by anyone’s standards) reminded us of this last Sunday, when she humbly aligned herself with her fellow church members by making this statement, “God’s definition of success is obedience.”

As we recognize the importance of obedience, we still downplay the effects of ignoring God’s commands…

In verse seventeen, the Lord speaks again:

17 If you do not listen,
I will weep in secret
because of your pride;
my eyes will weep bitterly,
overflowing with tears,
because the LORD’s flock will be taken captive.” (NIV)

God knows what the effects of disobedience are, and He weeps because of it.

How many times do I forget my glory?

When do I disregard God’s commands?

The Bible says to “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14).

Perhaps, I think, there are mornings when I forget to get dressed.