Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

“To love and to be loved”

A former colleague appealed to his Facebook friends yesterday to offer their thoughts about an important question. Diagnosed with stage four cancer some months ago, he has transparently shared the highs and lows of his life since then through social media, with good humour, courage, and characteristic sass. Yesterday’s comments though, were uncharacteristically solemn.

He recently learned his cancer is dormant. “I got to thinking about what all this means,” he wrote, “and I believe it means that I have been given more time.” He went on to invite his friends to share their views on how he might make the best use of that gift. “Is it solely for me to carry on with all the things I hold dear? … Or is there something greater that I should do with the added time?”

I thought about whether I should respond – we were not, after all, intimates – and I wondered if I even had the right to speak into his life on such an intimate question. But he was the best boss I ever had. What made him so were simple things: his obvious love and enthusiasm for what he did, his approachability, his genuine trust in and care for the people who reported to him, and an ever-present twinkle in his eyes that said no matter what kind of chaos was erupting, everything would be alright.

So when some words came to mind that seemed fitting, I shared them. I’d read them recently while studying the life of Mother Teresa as part of the requirements for a course I’m taking.

The diminutive nun taught: “You must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world … [to] make you forget that you have been created for greater things – to love and to be loved.” 

To love and to be loved. The words resonated when I came across them, so much so that I wrote them down in a journal I keep of favourite quotations. But they make life’s aim and purpose sound so simple. Could loving and being loved really be the greatest thing? After sharing the quotation in response to my former boss’s query, I pondered that question for the rest of the day.

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I was still thinking about it last night, when my 84-year-old mother came for dinner. I’d promised to help her hem a pair of pants she’d recently purchased. I admit I almost called her to reschedule, because there was a paper I needed to research for school, and I knew she’d understand. But thinking about that question prevented me from picking up the phone.

Our meal over and cleared away, my mother asked, “Am I keeping you from anything you need to do?”

I thought about that other question, the big one, before answering hers. “No mom. Not a thing.”

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder in my kitchen, working with our needles and thread, each stitching one leg. For a while we chatted. For a while we stitched in silence.

As we worked, I thought about how my mother taught me to sew when I was just a girl. For a year, we both had part-time jobs doing piecework for the same company, sewing patchwork aprons, placemats, oven mitts and things. We must have spent hours back then, shoulder-to-shoulder, working on projects together. But I hit high school and developed other interests. Mom continued to sew, but it’s been years, decades even, since we’ve done anything like that together. Throughout my entire adult life (until five months ago when she sold her house and moved to town) mom lived in another city. During all those years, our times together had focussed on visiting, not projects.

So working alongside her last night felt special. The complete task lasted less than an hour, but I felt my entire spirit expand during those minutes, the way your lungs do when taking a long deep breath of fresh, cool, mountain air. I sensed it was a gift.

Pausing to re-thread her needle at one point, mom told me how much she was enjoying her evening and asked, “How long has it been since we worked side-by-side like this?”

“It’s nice for me too, mom,” I said. And it was. Really, really nice.

And in that moment I realized I’d found the answer to the question that had been rolling over in my mind all afternoon.

 

Of pickles, procrastination and promises

jars of pickles

I loved her from the moment I met her. Lois is at once kind, humble and sweet, yet also tough, strong and wise. At 84 and recently widowed, she is grieving. Her eyes will redden and rim with tears at inexplicable moments; you can’t live and love for more than 60 years with a good man and not have every aspect of life upended when he is gone. And yet, at a time when some people would succumb to self-pity, give up or give in, shy away from others or shrivel up in bitterness, Lois actively engages in life and in her work, seeking out opportunities to enrich the lives of others.

I know, because she has enriched my life.

The first time I met Lois, I came home and told my husband, “When I grow up, I want to be just like her.” She made me lunch that day. Everything was homemade: from sweet grape juice, to savoury casseroles, to buttermilk pie that melted in my mouth. And the pickles! I had never tasted such delicious pickles, and said so. When I left, she gifted me a jar of them. My family devoured them in one sitting. So the next time I saw Lois, I asked for her pickle recipe, and vowed to try my hand at pickle-making when the season came around.

Cucumber season came around a couple of weeks ago, and as I harvested a few tasty ones from my small garden I thought about pickles. I told myself I should get out and purchase the supplies I would need. I should visit a farmer’s market and buy the pickling cucumbers and the dill. But I can be a world-class procrastinator when I’m afraid or intimidated, and with only limited canning experience, the prospect of making pickles felt like an enormous hurdle.

Hearing of my stalling tactics, Lois took pity and said she would gladly mentor me through the process. And so it was that early yesterday I found myself touring her impressive flower and vegetable gardens as she wielded a spade, digging up the fresh garlic we would need.

Standing in her kitchen, sterilizing jars, scrubbing and trimming cucumbers, she told me stories from her life, and of lessons she’s learned. When at one point I commented on her impressive gardening, culinary and home-making skills she reminded me, with a story from her childhood, how she’d learned that we’re all given gifts, and it’s our duty to steward those gifts to the best of our ability.

Then, because it seems she will not receive a compliment without giving one in return, she said, “I couldn’t ever go to Africa and write a book.

Jars of relish and sweet pickles

Relish and sweet pickles in Lois’ kitchen.

We worked from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. You can see some of the fruits of our efforts above. (The photo at the top of the page shows dill and bread-and-butter pickles, the one immediately above – sweet pickles and relish).

At the end of our day, I thanked Lois for her generosity and labour. I told her she’d given me a gift that would last throughout the year – and maybe even for generations to come.

“A labour of love,” she clarified with a hug, and a smile.

At lunch time today, my 20-year-old daughter sampled some of the relish.

“Mmmmm …” she murmured, licking the spoon. “How do you make relish, mom?”

“I’ll show you next year,” I promised. “We’ll make it together.”

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“Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” 

– Henry Van Dyke

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