I heard this story on the radio and looked up the video many weeks later. NPR is a great place to find holy things happening in ordinary places. If you listen hard enough, you will hear it.
These human beings are children of God. When they sing, they are listened to. When they pray, they are heard. Their hearts are beautiful. Their souls are sacred. This choir is a great example of somebody doing something practical and artistic that has become a holy experience. She's just a choir teacher, but her work and their music? It exalts the human spirit. Those words are part of the philosophy of education that I keep pinned up behind my desk at school - "I believe that the practice of music exalts the human spirit and improves quality of life for my students."
Several years ago, when I was still new to the area, I met some women at church who had just come out of prison. They were living in a rehabilitation facility, and the program's mascot was a big picture of the tree of life.
I have covered my home with images of butterflies and the tree of life and every time I think I'm sinking, I remind myself of the tree planted by the stream - deep roots reaching into the water. That tree can't die of thirst (Psalm 1:3). That tree doesn't even know what a desert is. The water is hidden, but the water is there.
When I saw the picture of the tree of life on their information table, I knew what I wanted to do. I could feel that familiar tug way down in my heart. You can't say "no" to that.
So I found myself packing my gear, driving up over the hill from my house and back into the woods . . . checking in at the guard gate of an institution, passing the main building, and arriving at a small, old brick structure. The yard had been cleaned up and flowers planted. A guard buzzed me in at the front door and gave me instructions to bring my car to the back of the building, that some of the ladies there would help me carry equipment in through the kitchen.
That's how the most beautiful experience of my human life began.
It was the most beautiful. I spend my days in the midst of beauty - teaching children and singing with adults - people who pray with me and for me. But this was more beautiful than all of that. It only lasted a year. It was my last year before being thrown full time into teaching. I still had free time.
I would go there every Wednesday evening. Women met me at the back of the building and helped me carry my instruments in. They would pass out the song books and the drums and shakers. And then we would sing.
Sometimes the staff would come out and listen.
These women had favorite songs. They would tell me what their favorites were and I would go find them to bring the next week. We would sing and pray and read scripture for a bout an hour . . . sometimes more. And then they'd help me pack up and I would drive home.
This was our favorite song. Every week we had to do it.
We had some healing in that space.
I learned a lot about the human spirit . . . about the fact that people are so much the same. There's not some magic formula that makes a person choose the right thing every time. Everybody makes mistakes. And when we make our mistakes, we feel them. We feel them the same.
Being taken into this community, being allowed to share in discussion about insecurity and pain? It's one of the biggest privileges I've ever experienced.
It reminded me of being the fortunate student who was sent to play for the tiny, one room Methodist church near our campus in college. Being the person who got to share in the close and quiet life of such an intimate gathering. It's a privilege. It's a blessing.
Can I tell you a secret?
I don't often write songs for church people. Sometimes I do, I guess. But not for that reason. I tend to write songs for real people. I write songs when I know folks well enough to understand what their struggles are. And then I usually write about that. It's our common ground. We are all people made of dust.
Look at this! Music and healing have found their way into the dark. And things are lighting up!
I've often been misunderstood when talking about this. So please let me explain - music is a means of communication for me. It always has been. Many other people use music to communicate. I believe that it is art, but I have mostly used it to talk with other people about life. I don't worship music. I'm not saying that music itself is somehow in control of everything. I'm saying that I think music helps us to connect on a deeper human level, and that it opens a gate for healing.
I believe that it's a gift from God. I've always believed that. And I believe that when we are working to create music together, we are speaking in a language that God meant for us to speak.
When I was a kid my parents took us up to the mountains for a picnic every summer. We always cooked out near a stream. When I was very young, we would camp there, too.
We loved to wade in the stream and turn over rocks.
We found beautiful creatures under those rocks - things that we wouldn't have seen out in the open. Sometimes we don't see what is holy unless we turn over a few rocks.
Hey - I haven't yet met a person who didn't have a spark of heaven looking out from behind their eyes. I've been so fortunate to speak the musical language because it has given me a free pass into the lives of some people I wouldn't have been allowed to meet with otherwise.
And it's so easy to let the world tell us how separated we should be. It's easy to let the world explain to us why all of our differences should keep us apart.
But God built us for community. And there is no place that community shouldn't go. No place.
I have been finding a way into the lonely places using music.
What is your key? Is it poetry? Is it art? Is it the ability to listen thoughtfully? Is it your strength of character? Is it your sense of humor? Is it your background? Your personal experiences?
Holiness is hidden in the normal. And all we have to do is look.
Peace and Goodness,