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.

Why Matt Redman’s “Never Once” Should Be a New Hymn

The term “new hymn” may sound like an oxymoron. Certainly, an a capella hymn-singing tradition is uncommon in contemporary Christian church services. However, in conservative Mennonite churches today, four-part acapella hymn singing persists as the prominent music style of choice. You might ask: how does this tradition continue?

Mennonite churches seek to celebrate and to further this special tradition though the use of hymns in weekly services or in annual “hymn-sings,” which build in singing practice and promote familiarity with canonical hymn texts.

The newly-published purple hymnal popping up in conservative Mennonite churches
The newly-published purple hymnal popping up in conservative Mennonite churches

One important factor of this tradition is the careful selection of which hymn books will be placed in the church pews. Currently, a newly-published purple hymnal is popping up in conservative Mennonite churches (to include certain northern Indiana Mennonite congregations and schools). John D. Martin spent twenty years compiling the new Hymns of the Church, which features 65 Anabaptist composers. What sets this hymnal apart is that it features hymns that specifically cover Anabaptist themes: the Lordship of Christ, discipleship, obedience, cross-bearing, separation from the world, nonresistance, and the present Kingdom of God.

The a capella hymn-singing tradition is also promoted to Mennonite young people through choral singing opportunities at winter Bible schools. After high school, many Mennonite young people attend Bible Schools before starting a full-time job, starting college, or getting married. Most Mennonite Bible Schools have choirs in which young people practice and memorize a capella choral pieces. These newly-formed choirs then embark on tours across the U.S., visiting various Mennonite communities, churches, nursing homes, or even state prisons. It may seem unlikely, but most Mennonite young people have sung with some sort of touring choir, whether it was a church youth chorus or a Bible School choir.

(This is not to say that conservative Mennonites solely prefer acapella hymn-singing, but it is an unmistakable part of the conservative Anabaptist experience. What I mean is: my young Mennonite students still like their mainstream Christian pop and, gasp, even a little bit of country.)

Shenandoah Christian Music Camp Touring Choir 2010
Shenandoah Christian Music Camp Touring Choir 2010

Another way that Mennonites promote hymn-singing is through music education. Within conservative Anabaptist communities, there is a renewed interest in music education, and this is seen through the recently formed Shenandoah Christian Music Camp, which is held annually in Virginia and Ohio. Conservative Anabaptist music enthusiasts, song-leaders, worship leaders, and youth having been attending these summer camps since 2006. The camps feature classes in musical development, choral conducting, congregational music, and composition. Conservative Mennonites are beginning to see the need for education in order for this tradition to continue.

A capella hymn-singing is also promoted through the composition of new hymns. For one example, for the past several years, the Shenandoah Christian Music Camp has been commissioning new hymns through its annual hymn contest. The camp accepts submitted poetic texts and chooses a winning text. Then, conservative Anabaptist composers (amateur and trained alike) go to work. These composers submit their own musical version of the text, and another winning selection is made. The new hymn is sung at both the Ohio and Virginia camps.

Recently, the idea of new hymns has been on my mind, and I have thought: is it possible to arrange Christian pop songs into sing-able a capella arrangements? It’s been done before. Larry Nickel, a Canadian Mennonite composer, beautifully and effectively re-arranged the Christian worship song “In Christ Alone” to a choral acapella setting. (And where did I first hear that arrangement? Last month at a service in Nappanee featuring a Mennonite Bible school choir.)

It worked wonderfully, so I have decided that I want someone to re-set Matt Redman’s “Never Once.” Matt Redman, a Grammy-award-winning British Christian song-writer wrote the Christian pop song “Never Once” in 2011. This anthemic song is a Christian declaration of the presence and the faithfulness of God to humankind even in life’s toughest moments.

Why did I choose “Never Once” to be a new hymn?

First, it’s anthemic, musically.
Its simple tune and repetitiveness qualify it for the serious tone and chant-like treatment of anthems in contemporary classical music. (Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli and all that.) Personally, I think there’s tons of room for Eric Whitacre cluster chords. (Don’t laugh. It will work.) Its declaration of an aspect of Christian belief (the existence of God) defines it as a credo and also qualifies it as an anthem. Mixing all these elements means that “Never Once” qualifies for new hymn material.

Second, it’s accessible (textually).
One of the problems of hymn texts can be accessibility. The antiquated language and difficult (culturally irrelevant?) metaphors are obstacles to enjoying beautiful hymn poetry. (For instance, in old hymns, there are a lot of “anchors,” “billows,” and “stormy seas”. Personally, as a Midwesterner who happens not to own a yacht, these aquatic word pictures are a little vague as best. But as Emily Dickinson would say: a good imagination can fix that: “I never saw a moor / I never saw the sea; / Yet know I how the heather looks, /And what a wave must be.”) What I’m arguing: unless a congregation is filled with singularly imaginative folk, hymn texts can be hard to relate to. I run into this problem with my junior high students during hymn-singing time. (Oh, that’s another place that Mennonites sing. Elementary school.) Sometimes, these students lack the critical thinking skills to access the complex poetry. However, this would never be a problem with adults because we all learned to love the study of poetry in high school, right? (Ahem.) Understanding poetry, then, is necessary for the accessibility of hymns. However, while “Never Once” uses poetic metaphor, the metaphors are not obscure. Life is compared to a mountaintop and a battleground, and those metaphors are accepted generally. Thus, the “Never Once” text is accessible and congregation-friendly.

And finally, it’s communal (textually).
The diction of the personal pronouns is communal. “Never once did we ever walk alone.” This communal diction works for an a cappela choral arrangement; a hymn is meant to be sung in community. Redman’s piece, then, once rearranged, is conducive to be sung in a group, at least textually.

And perhaps that is why Mennonites prefer hymn-singing in the first place. A capella hymn-singing is community. And in our swipe-screen, social-networking solitariness, isn’t community what we all long for?