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.