Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - Christmas Day

Advent 2012




The Choirmaster


             There was a time, not that long ago, when I was actually a little afraid of James Richardson.

             The First Baptist Youth Choir in the 1970s was a collection of unique individuals.  Some of them are still members of the church today - Billy Sutton and Charlie George, for example.  I see Holly Gay's mom from time to time on Sundays. And I'm still in touch with Bryan and Julie Austin, Lynn Tyson, and the Kirkley twins, Sandra and Susan, via Facebook and other means.  But in the seventies, we were a pretty tight bunch.  We socialized in Sunday School, sat together in church each week, and spent every Wednesday night under the tutelage of a rather demanding taskmaster.

"Shh.  James is looking at us," Bryan would whisper to me -even if James was turned the other way.

The mystique was that profound.

During the church service, I would often see James's eyes staring at me in the little mirror over the organ.  It unsettled me, driving me to the very edge of paranoia.

If the Youth Choir was in vocal performance, whether singing something as simple as Cat Stevens' "Morning Has Broken" or something as complex as the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah, I lived in abject dread of seeing that little wrinkle between James's eyebrows - the sign that something just wasn't quite right.

"Mark, you came in a little late on that one, and you were a half note off at the beginning of the second verse," he might say, leaving me to wonder exactly how he heard my voice among 30 or so - and offering further proof of his musical omniscience.

The Youth Choir took summer trips to places like North Carolina and Virginia, intermingling Vacation Bible School with evening vocal concerts.  We had summer retreats at Wesley Gardens, including one occasion where the girls all chased the boys around and tried to kiss them - and we boys actually ran away, for reasons that I cannot entirely fathom.  We set up haunted houses at Halloween, made ornaments for the Chrismon trees, and engaged in numerous Friday night lock-ins in the Salt Box.

I can still recall the first night I ever stayed up all night at one such lock-in, at age thirteen or so.  I watched the copper-colored sun rise above the rooftops of downtown Savannah from a fourth floor window as we drank Coca-cola from green glass bottles and nibbled on packages of Lance peanuts dispensed by the vending machines.  Although we were small in numbers, we regularly competed at statewide youth choir competitions - and we won, often beating out far larger groups from gigantic churches in Atlanta and elsewhere.

How were we able to do this? It's easy - we had our secret weapon:  James Richardson.

As I grew older, I feared James less and appreciated him more.  I savored the subtle nuances of his thematic musical selections for Sunday worship services.  I understood how he taught us to blend our voices, how he used contemporary selections and unusual instruments to keep our levels of interest high, and how our desire to meet his lofty expectations made us a better choral group - and, ultimately, better people.

There was one constant in those days, one day each year when it all would come together.  The highlight of the church year for me growing up was always the Christmas Eve service, and the caroling on the church steps that followed.

I loved seeing the church at night.  I enjoyed the old-world novelty of hundreds of handheld candles, the flames being passed from hand to hand as we gathered in the evening chill on the church steps.  And as we shared our light with the world by singing those carols, there was a tremendous sense of community, of being part of something bigger than ourselves.  It was a fantastic experience every holiday season, one that I felt brought me closer to God.

There is a saying, "Time and tides wait for no man."  It's a true statement.  The members of our little Youth Choir have gone on to live their own lives, scattered far and wide into the great world beyond the First Baptist Church of the 1970s.  And while I can capture the fragile crystalline essence of those long-ago days here on paper, those times are gone.

Or are they?

I've always felt that each of us carries a little piece of each contact we make with us the rest of our lives.  Human beings are an amalgamation of their life experiences; we are, indeed, irrevocably changed by those experiences, our perceptions of the world altered to some degree by each and every interaction with another.

And some interactions exert a more profound influence than others.

The members of our Youth Choir are all over the place now.  We are middle-aged and graying; our hair is thinning and our waists are not as taut and we have children (and even grandchildren!) of our own.  But there is still a part of us that is derived from the choir room in the educational building, a little sliver of each and every one of us.  It is our history and our legacy.  It is love and laughter and song, all rolled up into a collection of wonderful memories from several decades ago.

In that context, do each of us not have at least a wee bit of James and Carol Anne in us, making us see things we might not have seen, or hear things we might not have heard?

I know I do.

So this year, instead of some obscure piece of fiction, I wanted to pay tribute to a couple of people who made me a better person and who made First Baptist Church a special place for nearly half a century.  James and Carol Anne Richardson are those people.  They taught me to appreciate choral music in a way that will always be a part of me. A few years back, I went to Oxford, England, and I spent half a day browsing the musty selections of an ancient music store in the basement of a 500-year-old building, seeking out choral gems of which I would never have had even the vaguest understanding, had it not been for the Choirmaster and his wife.

So to James, on the eve of his retirement, I must say a simple word of thanks.  You and Carol Anne have made this church, this community, and indeed, the entire world a more beautiful place.  And we at First Baptist, both past and present, will continue to benefit from the gifts you gave to each of us for the rest of our lives.  

God bless you, James. 

Thanks, so very much, for everything.

- Mark Murphy


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