Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Room Full of Student Teachers

Directing a children’s choir never made my short list. No one was more surprised when after talking to our Minister of Worship and Arts I found myself staring back at 25 pairs of eyes that first Sunday evening.

I struggled the first few weeks. My leadership was not good but the choir responded even when I did a bad job.

I began the year committed to working the children into my schedule. I made sure they had my attention when I was with them. I set goals at the beginning of the year and tried to stay focused on them.

At times I came to choir and didn’t have a clue what to do or where to start. That didn’t seem to bother the children. They just wanted to do something important and this was their opportunity.

I could see the end of the year and it looked like an eternity away. I was not optimistic about my chances to pull off two musicals and a couple of worship service performances. I knew my hope rested in the quality of support I would receive from parents, church staff and my own team. I depended on them. I am sure there were times when they looked at me and wondered why I took the job.

I did, too.

From the beginning I intended to keep the job one year. I was sure someone else would step up the next year. As for my legacy as a director, people might not remember that I was a good leader, but they would remember me as a person ready to cooperate and take on a job even if it wasn’t “a good fit.”

Everything in my life changed during November 2003.

It doesn’t take long to catch on to the seriousness of heart disease. Sober-faced doctors, committed nurses, task-oriented support-staff and clueless but well-meaning residents all build a community focused on the patient. After a while, however, even the most hard-boiled patient starts to realize a lot more is at stake than just whether you can make it past “the knife.”

As I watched the world parade past my bed, I began to see people differently. Maybe I began to see them for the first time. My church family took time out from busy personal schedules to pray with me. When my employer kept paychecks coming even though it was a hardship on the business, it touched me deeper than I was prepared. My beloved family put their lives on hold until they knew everything would be OK.

Nothing, however, reached me like the first Sunday evening after I was released from the hospital. I returned to the children’s choir to thank them for remembering me. Their response, when I walked into the room, overwhelmed me. It wasn’t the height of volume. It was the depth of joy. They knew I would be back and their prayers were a part of what made it happen.

I left the hospital a physically changed man. I left the choir room changed in a whole different way.

When I left the rehearsal room I saw the children and my time with them as precious. I still believed I would be the director but one year. Instead of being an eternity, however, the time was in danger of flying past me. I saw my limited ability in children’s leadership required more than just my previous “work around” mentality.

As I walked from the choir room that night I acquired a sense of urgency. Somehow I started seeing the difference between dreaming and having a vision. Somewhere in time children became the canvas rather than the resource. My leadership purpose changed and the choir became the paint. In the process the leader became the student and the student became the teacher.

When it is healthy, the symbiotic relationship of student and teacher makes for a dynamic that is difficult to measure. It is a relationship that works best when we let it happen naturally as each does their assigned tasks, fulfills their vision and follows their hopes and dreams. In the end we draw lessons from our time together that will weather the storms of life.

The following are some of the lessons I have drawn from my short time of service as the children’s choir director. I restrain from offering the actual stories and shared learning experiences behind these ideas.

Children know how to express joy.
You haven’t seen joy until you see it in the eyes of a child that knows what they are doing is important and they are doing a good job. This is different from having fun. Children teach you the difference between fun and joy. Jesus didn’t say, “I have come that you might have fun and have it more abundantly.” Children get it. Sometimes we don’t.

They know how to express joy with their whole being.
Getting children to do something loud is not hard. They do that so well. They are energy. The challenge is getting them to do it under control and on cue. When they do, you have something very unique. You have a person so focused and vibrant that the world lights up around them.

They know the right way to say, “Thank you.”
Children aren’t into gimmicks or cute things. They are into drawing, coloring, wrapping with uneven corners and poorly placed tape. But most importantly, children are into looking you in the eyes and saying something important to them. They know saying “thank you” is ultimately not about “me.” It is about “you.” They say “thank you” to tell you something about you. It is never about them.

They know the right time to say, “Thank you.”
A child doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. They just say, "Thank you." It is in that moment that everything you are measures up to their expectations. Relish in it because the moment moves on too soon.

They show me how easy it is to inflict pain.
Unfortunately, children are not perfect angels. They also give us a picture of selfishness. Being selfish is the heart of sin. I look back and realize the times I hurt others. A child finds out it is so easy to do. Paul addresses my inner child when he says, “I put away childish things.”

They show me that sometimes l like to hurt people.
The child is not a bad child. The child is simply looking for a way to be seen and acknowledged. There are times the darker side of my humanity leaks. My selfishness runs unabated. The childish things of life rear their head and I stumble. I am reminded there really isn’t that much distance between childhood and adulthood.

They teach me how to ask forgiveness, give forgiveness and go on living.
I watched as a child went to another and said, “I’m sorry.” It wasn’t one of those adult oriented, set-up apologies. The child found out he hurt someone and he apologized. Something wonderful happened. Forgiven, a transgression forgotten, they sat together and shared a piece of music. Forgiveness given and granted filled the whole room with music.

They remind me how good it feels to share a part of my life.
No man is an island, Children help me to open my life to others and ask from them. They help me be a cup to hold the elixir of vitality that only children can squeeze from life. They fill the cup and stand ready to fill it again each time I am empty.

They teach me to remember the purpose as l prepare for performance.
Children aren’t that focused on purpose. They enjoy the moment. They remind me how easy it is to get so lost in the celebration that I forget someone had to bake the cake. Working with children reminds me that someone has to keep “the main thing the main thing.” As long as the leader knows where they are going, the children will follow even onto a stage before 400 people to recite lines that only 24 hours before floated in a foggy mist. They do that because they trust. It is a heavy mantle to wear. Only keeping centered on the purpose will protect the leader.

They teach me that everything l do is a foundation for the next event in my life.
I watched as the first group of children left for youth groups. I had them for a year and the next group I will have but for two. I remember the leadership of my childhood. Mrs. Davidson rehearsed our Books of the Bible until they were a part of my Sunday fabric. Mr. Perry, Wiley Stuart and “Jinks” Middleton sat patiently as we read our Sunday lesson out loud. They did their best to fill our time with wisdom from the Bible. Our children’s choirs sang, our Vacation Bible School marched and our mission groups prayed. All taught me lessons long forgotten. What is not lost is that each set a stone. They squared it with life and prepared me to enter the world ready to bear the weight of adulthood.

There are many in our church more qualified than I to lead this group of musicians. There isn’t a single person I know who appreciates them and looks forward to the next time we meet more than I do.

Chas Schaal, 2005