Life and Death and the Arts: A Children’s Perspective
Last year, I worked with a small Texas town, its school board, and its local Baptist church to create a community children’s choir. As I drove 40 miles each way to work with the children of this community, I frequently thought, “Does this really matter?” This question was answered in an unexpected, heartbreaking, and life changing way.
We had a tremendous inaugural year. We performed for more than 6,000 people (10 times the size of the town) and conducted a tour to Tulsa, St. Louis and Memphis. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in May, we presented our spring concert for the town. The children sang with elegance and grace. Frankly, there is nothing like seeing a bunch of cowboys cry when the voices of children point them toward heaven. That evening, two sisters, who sang in the choir, lost their mother in an equestrian accident. A few hours earlier, I had watched this dynamic young mother and caring father interact with their girls, go to the parking lot, and drive away. How could they know that their lives were about to be changed forever?
The town was in shock. The girls had strong support from amazing adults and friends. The love and strength of their father, his faith in Christ and how it guided his actions, the enfolding of the Holy Spirit around this father and his precious girls, and the love that enabled them to express grief and begin life again were remarkable and deserve more attention than can be shared here.
Our next rehearsal was on Wednesday – three days after their mother died. I received word that the two girls wanted to come to rehearsal. The father brought his daughters to rehearsal before the other singers arrived. He shook my hand and said, “This is important. It was important to their mother. The girls wanted to come today. We will be here for rehearsals and go on tour.” I was humbled by this man’s strength of character, depth of faith, and dedication to his children. I hugged the girls, looked in their hurting eyes, and told them they were loved.
The other children arrived shortly after this encounter. As they gathered for rehearsal, I witnessed a wonderful occurrence, one of the reasons I love working with children. They entered with their normal wave of energy, and they proceeded to do our pre-rehearsal routine. In other words, there were no awkward adult preliminaries, no dread of what had happened, and no worry of the future. They only brought a concern for today, love for their friends, and a sense of discovery for this very moment. The children enjoyed being with one another, and everyone was a part of that joyful togetherness. At rehearsal, there was laughter. At rehearsal, there was learning. At rehearsal, there was understanding. In fact, we began a new piece, “The Lord Is My Shepherd” by Cindy Berry. God was present as the children learned and sang this adaptation of Psalm 23. I noticed friends giving an extra hug or two to the girls, hands being held as a sign of friendship and connection, and knowing smiles being passed between children as they rehearsed.
In the middle of rehearsal, we debriefed our performance from the previous Sunday. I asked, “What piece meant the most to you?” Someone said, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,“ and everyone laughed. Then, the children began to think. I thought they would talk about our African welcome song with drums and flute, the character pieces about Samson or Noah, or one of our other upbeat pieces. Across the choir from all ages came the following: Santo, Santo, Santo (Holy, Holy, Holy, My Heart Adores You) when everyone sang with us; Inscription of Hope when we sang, “But I believe in God even when He is silent”; Al Shlosha at the end when we sang in parts about peace; and Pie Jesu when we sang, “Dona eis requiem.” (Yes, they knew the translation.)
I learned a great deal about children that day. It was reinforced a few weeks later as my children ministered to adults, sang in formal and informal settings, and shared hours of travel together during our tour. In particular, I will always remember a nursing facility on our concert route. This nursing home was understaffed, moans filled the halls, the smell of strong antiseptic cleaners saturated the air, and the faces of adults in wheelchairs seemed vacant and hopeless. Then, the children came. They touched the adults on the arm or shoulder, they held the hands of ladies in smocks, and they spoke with moaning adults that had not heard a child’s voice in recent memory. The moaning ceased, conversations began to be heard throughout the hallways, and the workers smiled with unexpected joy. The children gathered the adults in the common room, and they sang their songs of joy, laughter, sorrow, and love. They invited the adults to join with them on songs they knew and gave a performance worthy of royalty. I watched the precious sisters, who had buried their mother a few weeks prior to this, share of themselves in song and deed. I watched their father, who travelled with us on tour, view the actions of his children. The presence of the Holy Spirit permeated the space. The words of the girls’ father filled my thoughts, “This is important.”
On the bus ride home, I wrote some thoughts about that Wednesday rehearsal and our concert tour. We underestimate our role as artistic ministers in the spiritual and human development of children. I hope these thoughts help you as you work with and minster to children – a priceless treasure given to us by God.
- Children live in the present. They do not care what you have accomplished or where you think you are going. The present moment is the most important one.
- Children love being together. Whether the destination is Paris, France or Paris, Texas, the children value: riding on the bus, swimming in the hotel pool, eating together, singing together (formally and informally), doing things that challenge them, and connecting with people in song and deed. In other words, focus on these seemingly simple activities rather than endeavors that build adult prestige or position.
- Children are transformed by active participation in pursuits that involve mastery. The current practice with church children’s choirs seems to be experience without mastery or exposure without learning. This approach provides a mere token encounter with music that encourages a view of music that is neither artistic nor meaningful.
- Children can achieve the highest levels of artistry in vocal music. Children cannot achieve mastery in many of the arts. However, vocal music is an exception because the child’s voice is one of God’s most beautiful creations. Properly prepared and trained, children’s choirs stand on equal footing with any adult, youth or senior adult choral force.
- Children watch adults very closely. Not only do we need to think about how we interact with each other in front of our children, but we also need to allow them to observe how we express our faith. The latest church growth fad of culling children out of worship in the name of “child appropriate” models is far more destructive than anyone ever imagined.
- Children rise or fall to the adult leader’s expectation. Children are energized as they understand non-verbal signals and enjoy genuine expressions of gratitude from their adult leaders. Children learn to make aesthetic judgments by watching adults. In other words, great children’s choirs come from competent leaders with significant visions.
- For children, the death of a loved one is the absence of that person in the present moment combined with the fear of being abandoned. Children need the strength and love of adults to help them understand that they are surrounded by God and have not been abandoned by those who love them. This can be a moment where children truly sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.
- Children desire community as they grieve. Community to a child includes adults, children younger than them, children older than them, and children their own age. Segregating children by age during times of grief rejects what we know about how children think, learn, and interact. This is also a critical time to model how a Christian community functions.
- Children use actions to work through the grieving process. Children want to help others hurting around them by giving of themselves. Children’s choirs that do more than rehearse and actually perform and minister are a tremendous help for those going through grief or facing other life challenges.
- Children know the difference between religious tokenism and the love of God. Happy-clappy, child-appropriate, perpetually hyped praise kidz religion is meaningless when your mother dies. Our children need the real thing: Jesus, who fed the hungry; Jesus, who spoke with the outcast; Jesus, who healed the sick; Jesus, who died for us; Jesus, who rose from the grave; Jesus; who ascended to heaven; Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God the Father; Jesus, who gives us eternal life through the action of confessing him Lord and Savior; Jesus, who with the Father and Holy Spirit, interacts with them every moment of every day; Jesus, who will come again.