Thursday, February 9, 2012

You have to breathe before you can sing....

I don't remember the first time I met her. But, I'm certain singing was involved.

Her husband had come to our little country church as youth pastor, and she was part of the bargain. She became director of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir. (I never asked her how she felt about that--as a self-involved teenager, I rarely wondered how adults felt.)

One of my first memories of her is clear as a bell--she was teaching us how to breathe. "Breathe as though you're trying to breathe air through a straw deep down into your belly," she instructed us as she stood there with her hands on her hips, demonstrating this technique. "If you're raising your shoulders, you aren't doing it right."

She was smart enough to realize that you had to breathe before you could sing.

And, boy oh boy, did she teach us to sing! (That's her in the picture a moment when it looks like we're causing her to at least want to pull her hair out.)

That group of awkward, pimple-faced teenagers ended up winning our church's State Teen Talent Competition, and coming in second at the national competition. (Losing to Mableton still sticks in our craw.)

One summer, we loaded up on a bus and traveled all the way from Kimberly to New York City, where we sang on street corners and in churches and sang "The Cross Is My Statue of Liberty" at the DADGUM STATUE OF LIBERTY! (Now, how many people can make such a claim?)

One year--I believe it was for our Easter service--she decided we needed to learn a musical titled "Celebrate Life."

...We did...We learned it so well that we performed it more than 100 times at churches across the Southeast.

It was a season of celebrating life that we will never forget.

To this day, I can recall most of the songs' words. One of my favorites was "I Quietly Turned to You," which is the song sung by the woman whom Jesus healed from 12 years of hemorrhaging. My friend, Joy, usually sang this solo. (If I close my eyes, I can still "hear" her clear, young voice.) After Joy died several years ago, I'd find myself sometimes singing those words--
"There was nowhere else to turn, and nowhere else to go.
My body knew all the pain a body could know.
Then I quietly turned to you; I quietly turned to you.
Help of the helpless...hope of the hopeless...I turned to you."

Then, there was the beautiful song about the last meal Jesus shared with those He loved most:
In remembrance of Me, eat this bread.
In remembrance of Me, drink this wine.
In remembrance of Me, pray for the time
When God's own will is done.
In remembrance of Me, heal the sick.
In remembrance of Me, feed the poor.
In remembrance of Me, open the door
And let your brother in....
In remembrance of Me, don't look above,
But in your heart, in your heart, 
Look in your heart for God.
Do this in remembrance of Me.

Whenever we would sing that particular song, my eyes were drawn to the bathrobe-clad actors who played Jesus' disciples--Greg, Jeff, Bob, Michael, Kevin, Joey...others I can't recall now. I always wondered if they felt a little of what those 2,000-year-old disciples must have felt.

I don't remember the exact date we stopped taking our traveling "Celebrate Life" tour on the road.

By then, all of our lives had become a little more complicated.

In the growing-up years since then, a few of those teenagers have gone on to sing in places around the globe. Some have stopped singing. Some have died, and are now with that Jesus they once sang about with such exuberance.

Each of us has learned in our own way that life is hard, but God is good.

Over the years, whenever kind, gracious people have asked me, "Where did you study music?," my response has been, "Marla Wilson taught me." They usually follow up that reply with, "Where does she teach?" And I answer, "She was my youth choir director at the Kimberly Church of God."

But, she was much more than that. Yes, she taught us to sing. But, more importantly, she taught us that a precious gift. She taught us that, because singing is a form of worship, we should approach it with an attitude of excellence. She was one of the first people to teach me about the role and importance of excellence in worship...and in life!

She also taught us the difference between performance and worship, and that worship should always be at the heart of singing.

Because of her vision for that little rag-tag group of singing teenagers...AND her and Jerald's faithful, hard work that vision required...we experienced people and places and things that opened our eyes and hearts to just how large this Kingdom of God really is.

Last fall, she offered to reunite those now-middle-aged teenagers to come and perform "Celebrate Life" for my mom, one of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir's biggest fans and most consistent chaperones.

But, the chaos of the season caused me to decline her sweet, generous offer. While I still believe it was the right thing to do, I'll admit there have been days when I've regretted having to make that decision. One of those days was when I learned that Marla has been diagnosed with some pretty major health challenges.

When I read the sweet, encouraging notes sent to her on Facebook and CaringBridge by so many of her "kids," (forgive us, April,...we all know she and Jerald were just waiting for you!)...I realize that what Marla was building with each rehearsal, with each "performance" (I never liked that word), with each trip on that converted school bus...was something that will outlast time.

She was building Levites (if I might be so bold)....She was building disciples.

So, thank you, sweet Marla, for teaching us to breathe so that you could teach us to sing...sometimes even in the dark.

I believe the Bible passage I read today is meant for you and your beloveds--Jerald, April and Glenda--from your Abba who loves you:
But now...listen to the LORD who created you...
The one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.
For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior....
“ is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
....Yes, I will make rivers in the dry wasteland
so my chosen people can be refreshed.
(from Isaiah 43, NLT)
And, for your birthday, here is a reminder, which I believe you'll recognize:
He is alive! Jesus is alive!

I waited patiently for the LORD to help me,
and he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
and steadied me as I walked along.
He has given me a new song to sing,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
They will put their trust in the LORD.
Oh, the joys of those who trust the LORD....
(Psalm 40:1-4, NLT)


  1. What a wonderful tribute to such an amazing woman of God. Beautifully written Karen! Much love to you, Melinda

  2. What an incredible tribute to an awsome lady! Her influence not only extended to KCOG, but to most every church in the area through her dedication to share her gift of teaching at MJHS. She and Jerald are two of my favorite teachers.