Garnering Old School Praise

“It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High..” — Psalm 92:1

Sunday, my wife and I attended a morning Service of Worship at Bellevue Baptist Church,  our sister church in Converge MidAmerica​, and the home church of our partner and musical director Garlan Garner​. In the 25 years of our association with Bellevue, as often as we’ve presented together through Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries​ or Elk Grove Baptist Church​, we had never been able to go to a Sunday morning service.  Add this to our list of #holyspiritmoments.

Bellevue, on Chicago’s South Side, is what we call an “old school” church.  It’s often found in an urban setting or the center of a long-ago established smaller community in a building that was built to be a church decades ago (as opposed to being a converted office building, mall, movie theater or multi-site complex).  Its founding residents were likely another ethnicity than those currently attending, and perhaps that change in demographic was problematic, so much so that it may have hastened the change though few of the current attendees recall.

Such was the case with Bellevue, whose congregation was predominately Caucasian when Lucious Fullwood, a pioneer in encouraging racial unity through the Gospel of Christ, became the senior pastor almost 40 years ago. “Black” was still being accepted as the preferred reference to Americans of African descent.  That there are few Anglos in the neighborhood or congregation Pastor Fullwood still shepherds at Bellevue now is moot, for his messages of maintaining faith in Christ in the face of daily human struggles transcend any particular DNA.

Vikki_Garlan Bellevue

 

Vikki J. Myers and her musical partner Garlan Garner embrace musical styles that transcend neighborhoods and unite communities.

Old-School Worship

Besides,  while the people may have changed certain elements of Sunday worship passed on tradition. In the context of modern church-ulture, “old school” likely means the church has not totally abandoned occasionally reading from The King James Version; announcement time may include conversations from the platform and the pews; guests  may be welcomed by name, invited to stand, and an opportunity to give a greeting during the service; and may have a small, non-flashy, yet boisterous choir whose singers may include those not-yet qualified for AARP.

Garlan led the musical worship as he does three Sundays a month.  In something of a concession to contemporary settings, Garlan plays keyboards that can replicate other instruments.  He is frequently backed-up by what my wife — the gospel jazz singer — calls the rhythm section: drums and electric bass.  They also have an alto sax.  Another modern adaption is having words on the screen versus singing from the hymnal.  Although  there is a printed order of service for the congregation to follow, the printed order is a template.

In old-school church, there is no countdown clock to follow.  No kickoff to hasten home to watch.  DVRs were made for old-school churches (microwaves, too). The first time a preacher says, “As I close” is the 15-minute warning.  the choir, the people and the technicians have to be ready to change. It’s called letting The Spirit work.

Improvisational Worship

Among Garlan’s great gifts is musical improvisation — accompanying in the moment. Without being told, asked, paid or noticed he senses when the atmosphere of a prelude, prayer or offertory  would be more worshipful with keyboard underscoring. He conducts the choir confident that they have done their homework, reviewing their charts, lyrics and mp3s.  Sundays are not for rehearsal, he tells them during their Monday practices,; Sundays are for worship.

He embodies the old old-school form of leading worship, call-and-response, where the person guiding the singing sings or says the upcoming line and the others follow along. An echo. The structure is not dissimilar from Old Testament psalms (e.g., Psalm 136) yet emerged as a distinct element of Christ-centered worship among African-Americans — out of necessity during slavery and as tradition after Emancipation.  At the core of call-and-and response is that there’s no sheet music to follow.   It’s about trusting the leader, listening, knowing the songs by heart, and hopefully singing them from there. Those in the congregation who don’t know the lyrics are not left out.  When the musicians yield to the spirit, the people’s hearts and minds will follow.

All of that history is to help you understand the impact of what happened when Garlan called for a song that wasn’t planned.

 

Garlan Interps

The hands of an arranger:  Hear the score, score the script, play the music, make it your own.

Here We Are to Worship

It started as a “Is-there-a-doctor-in-the-house?” moment.   Garlan moved toward the keyboard, then walked to the edge of platform and shouted for the ushers to see if a choir member was in the lobby.   This was her Sunday off, or she perhaps attended the first service of the morning hours before. Nevertheless, she was not expected in the building, yet Garlan thought he saw her from the stage, and in doing-so a new song came on his heart for the pre-sermon selection; a song he felt was particularly suited to her interpretation.  When the singer could not be found, the song remained appropriate, so Garlan went to the keyboards and began singing “Here I Am to Worship.” The choir and congregation responded. While moving in its own right, the power of these moments became more inspired when we finished singing and recognized what had transpired.

 

Here I am to worship
Here I am to bow down
Here I am to say that You’re my God
You’re altogether lovely
Altogether worthy
Altogether wonderful to me
— (c) 2001, Tim Hughes

Three weeks ago, on a Saturday when we were preparing to serve as KIT Ministries in Sunday worship in Libertyville, IL, Garlan texted Vikki he had lost his hearing during the week.  A medical procedure to alleviate pressure in his ear canal was not only painful, it did not totally take and left him with minimal hearing.  Not good: not for the service plan; not for Vik, whose musical growth has corresponded with Garlan’s interpreting her thoughts; least of all not good for a pianist who — pardon, yet it’s true — plays by ear (as in, Garlan doesn’t read music. For newer songs, Garlan’ collaborated with his wife, Tracey, also an accompanist at Bellevue.  Tracey does read music, so she plays and records the tunes which Garlan listens to a few times, replicates and then adapts. )

Despite prayers for relief, we did not expect him in Libertyville Sunday, and when we arrived at the location before he did (extremely rare) were certain we’d need to improvise and make adjustments with the host lead worshipper.  Silly us.  (translated, “Oh, ye of little faith!) Garlan not only had confirmed his attendance the night before with our host…he not only drove over an hour from his south suburban home to the northern suburban near- the-state-line site and played our set, but only AFTER the service did any of the other musicians know he could barely hear them.

Standing arm’s-length away he explained, in his normal voice, “You sound like you’re in a barrel and feel like I’m shouting.” When he laughed, it felt safe to make a Beethoven reference — something about “Ode to Joy.” He chuckled then headed home, reassuring us he was all right to drive…despite his balance not seeming right.  We waited for news of his followup visits.

Last week, he had another excruciating ear procedure done.  So painful he had to take off work (Garlan does NOT miss appointments), and listening to him tell what occurred creates weak knees and watery eyes.  In the weeks since the initial problem occurred, Garlan and the Bellevue Prayer Ministry (the whole church), went into overdrive.

 

Pastor Fullwood

Pastor Lucious Fullwood:  Preaching the gospel, providing stability throughout transitions.

A Word from the Pulpit

On this particular day — Communion Sunday — as he finished “Here I Am to Worship”by seguing into “Thank You, Lord” in such a way you thought it was planned, as the singers left the choir box to return to their congregational seats, Garlan intercepted Pastor Fullwood just before the pastor announced, “It’s Preaching Time!” He felt compelled to share a brief medical update with the congregation whose last news was that Garlan was unable to hear what he’d been playing that morning’s music.

“I just want to say,” he said hurriedly, apologetically but necessarily to Pastor Fullwood, “prayer works!  I just wanted to thank you for praying.”

Beat.

“The doctors say I’ve got 80 percent of my hearing back.”

Beat.

“I don’t know what God’s going to do about the other 20 percent, but I’ll still be serving, so I just wanted to thank you.”

With Garlan’s testimony still ringing in our ears, Pastor Fullwood resumed with his regularly scheduled “Preaching Time!” message, “Having Faith In God.” He read from the selected  New Testament passages of Jesus healing the leper and Roman centurion’s daughter. (Matthew 8:1-10, 13).  Healing, by faith.  Garlan took his seat in a pew. And the band prayed on.

 

This essay is one of a series called, “Benediction,” a collection of reflections on sermons, keynotes and workshop presentations heard, and church experiences we have had.

#SDG #AndAmen #MEMoFromMichaelEdgarMyers

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Something About That Name

God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,  to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:9-11 (New International Version)

No name in human history has evoked such a range of conversation and emotion as the name Jesus Christ.

Deified, demonized or defied, “Jesus” evokes some sort of response (even curiosity) among the most casual respondent.  You’re likely to hear or see the name Jesus more this week as public observations about his life are presented as Easter approaches – the calendar date that commemorates the morning his followers believe he returned to life, three days after being entombed following his execution by crucifixion.  Crucifixion, nailing a person a cross until he asphyxiated, was the Roman equivalent of lethal injection.  In other words, capital punishment.

jesus multicultural
Jesus Christ — envisioned by artists across cultures.

To those who witnessed and believed then, and who have believed the accounts of that weekend in the centuries since, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is the climactic part of the Christmas story of his birth to Mary, the Virgin. To those believers these collective events prove that God – creator of the universe — was incarnated on earth as a human, lived among mankind, physically died and returned to life to demonstrate that life has eternal qualities; life beyond what we know,  something to which many aspire.  That eternal life, the followers say, starts with belief about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

 

This tome is less about agreeing or disagreeing with the belief than  an encouragement to embrace your curious gene.

MERRY CREASTER

There’s a bevy of research noting that Easter Sunday has the highest attendance of any church services of the year.  More than Christmas.  There are various, ageless running jokes about people who only go to church twice a year, any where from “Chreasters” to “Chriseastians” to CEOs – Christmas & Easter Onlys.  For anti-defamation sake, these designations have been most often heard in these ears from the voices of those who categorize themselves thusly.

So, there’s a question of why?  Why does Easter attendance skyrocket?  Why are there so many Jesus Resurrection-themed programs – films and documentaries – available for our viewing pleasure this week? Why is there such a quandary in many government offices and schools throughout the U.S. about whether or not to be open on Friday – the day Jesus was put to death, the day revered as Good Friday among those who believe his death was the beginning of life?

We cannot overlook answers such as “because Jesus programs make money,” or “church on Easter seems to be the right thing.” (Akin to when avowed atheist W.C. Fields purportedly was caught reading a Bible during his final days and when asked why purported intoned,  “Looking for loopholes.”  He died Christmas Day, 1946.)

It’s likely that many people are drawn to Jesus more than they’ll admit, and that even more are willing to confess that Jesus is who he said he is, The Son of God, who said, “No one comes to the Father but through me.”

ALLURE AND ASSAULT

That the person of Jesus is attractive in many circles is widely admitted.   That the life of Jesus – his commands, his examples, his teachings – has been sullied and misappropriated by poorly educated humans “in the name of Jesus” for centuries is undeniable.  Mahatma Ghandi was impressed by Christ, but not Christians.  Muslims recognize Jesus as a revered prophet, noting so in the Koran, but a revered prophet among many. Dan Kimball, pastor and author, created a popular curriculum of writings and interviews with a title that best summarizes the two-faced Christian image among those who may be CEOs.  Kimball’s curriculum:  “They Like Jesus, But Not  the Church.”

At the same time, Jesus is cursed – as in loathed – in many circles for the very reasons that made him attractive.  Cursed so much so that even saying his name is likely to invoke serious injury, or death.  His name is so despised among many who share his Jewish lineage that “Jesus Christ” may be used as a purposeful pejorative, particularly in his homeland.  It’s the kind of atmosphere that existed in the last days he walked the earth – noted this week.  Holy Week was the start of Passover and began with Jesus’ kingly entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, a coronation of sorts  that subsequently dissipated into Jesus’ tantrum over commercialization in the temple, a political  murder conspiracy,  and a fateful yet hopeful final meal before his mid-night trial, conviction and gruesome killing by week’s end.

Still…after he was resurrected, say his followers… the name of Jesus and reference to these events would land someone in jail, or worse.  One of those men Was the apostle Paul, an early supervisor of Christ-followers killings, who wrote the quote at the top of this article while he was imprisoned for teaching that Jesus was God Incarnate as he claimed.  The verse cited is a lesson learned.  Paul contended that ultimately mankind would discover what he experienced while en route to slay more Christ-followers.  Walking on the road, Paul wrote, he was blinded by a light, knocked to his knees and had a personal conversation with the slain-but-not-dead Jesus. This encounter changed Paul’s life – saving him, he says, from spiritual separation from the God in whom he believed.  To Paul separation from God was eternal death, while embracing God because he believed Jesus was eternal life.  He continued preaching this belief until he was beheaded some 30 years after Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

SYRIA: FOREVER IN THE NEWS

This meeting between Paul and Jesus has taken added significance to this Holy Week, for the encounter occurred on the road to Damascus, Syria…the latest locale of recent political upheaval that has resurrected interest in end-times scriptures as “wars and rumors of wars” and other passages in Revelation pointing toward the Second Christmas – the prophesied return of Jesus.

Is that return true?  That’s why people search.  And write songs. Of the countless numbers of songs that have been written about Jesus, perhaps the one that best encapsulates the multi-faceted impact of “Jesus Christ” is “There’s Something About That Name” written by Gloria Gaither.  While Gaither’s lyrics embrace the attributes of Christ as Savior, at the same time they infer the irritating quality of “Jesus” that leads to its use as a profanity, rash reactions when mentioned in non-religious public discourse, requests to not pray in “Jesus’ name,” or his followers to be  bombed while worshipping him in a church — overseas and stateside.

There’s also something about that name that draws the CEOs to learn more about him in such seasons as this.

For the reader who is curious about the life of Christ – for spiritual, academic or just cultural curiosity – the bevy of Holy Week  programs – on television, at church, in theaters – provides ample opportunity to have that curiosity sated.  For those who already believe, these opportunities provide a challenge to re-examine why you believe what you believe…perhaps to converse with those unbelievers why the name of Jesus is a special something.

When the 25th Is Over

When the 25th is over
And all the kin are gone,
When you’ve packed away the tinsel,
The lights and all the songs…

When you’ve paid the bills for all the frills
And feel your ample girth,
Will you gaze upon your bottom line
And find your peace on earth?

When the 25th is over
And you’re standing in a line
Returning gifts you didn’t like,
But that you said were, “Fine.’

Will you run a tab on your whole life
To see just what it’s worth?
Will you ask yourself, “What must I do
To find some peace on earth?”

As crabby girls and sulking boys
Cry over broken brand-new toys,
When the 25th is over
And you’re taking down the tree,
Can you tell them the irony
Of that tree with lights so bright?
T’will stand for a cross on Calvary
On a darker silent night?

Yes, the 25th is over
And life is back to normal.
You’ve tossed your cookies
And squeezed the candies

(to find the one that’s caramel)

You’re feeling glad Christmas is gone
With all its hype and prices…
Yet, deep inside remains this thought:
“I wonder who this Christ is?”

Then simply search, and simply ask
And think of His good news.
Then simply make His sacrifice
An offer you can’t refuse.

For if you do, He’ll give to you
Peace on earth so strong…
You won’t have Christmas on the 25th
You’ll live it…all year long.

— (c) Michael Edgar Myers, 2002.  All Rights Reserved. Use granted through written permission of the author only.  Cover photo (c) Michael Edgar Myers, 2014.  All Rights Reserved

dons-save-it-all_1
“Don’t Save It All for Christmas Day,”  a Mom & Daughter Duet, Vikki J. Myers & Cami Myers

 

 

 

 

 

Worship in The Barn

Says the Lord: “My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine…and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” — Isaiah 55:8, 9 (New Living Translation)

The piano player phoned about 10 minutes before the call time.

“I just wanted to make sure I’m at the right place,” he said.  “All I see is a barn.”

“Red barn?”

“Y-y-ess…”

“You’re in the right place.”

The actors arrived at the big red barn about 15 minutes later, in time to see The Pianist at work.  He grabbed a snow shovel and joined two other men, who may or may not have been attached to The Barn, clearing the sidewalks.  Not because he had to.  It’s just who he is.  The extra hands were helpful because the temperature promised to only become more sub-zero, although no more snow as anticipated.

Except for the eye-watering atmosphere, the scene was picturesque:  The fresh white covering over acres of woods made isolated crimson structure and its attached beige silo more robust.  A Courier & Ives card-in-waiting.

That The Pianist pitched in reflected the aura emanating from The Barn, manifested in the two men who were already at work when The Pianist parked.  The manifestation continued through Shoveler No. 1, George, who stopped shoveling to greet and hold The Barn door for the entering cast.  He was especially elated to meet The Singer, who would be presenting a solo during the Service of Worship.  He had heard a recording of the song she’d selected and made an offer.

“I play drums,” he said.  “May I sit in?”

While The Singer, The Pianist and George The Drummer entered The Barn to rehearse, stabilizing harmonies in the sanctuary;  The Director climbed into the loft of The Barn for an overview of staging and recording possibilities.   Ten minutes later, as George The Drummer assumed his mile-mannered George The Shoveler identity, The Director descended the loft and went to talk with The Pastor in another part of The Barn, the silo — The Pastor’s oval office.

the-barn-saw
A commemorative saw, reminder of the craftsmanship, on display in the lobby.

“Lark (n): A lighthearted, fun, carefree episode. Often unplanned, a lark can happen when you are feeling adventurous.” — vocabulary.com

Atop the circular stairs, The Director gazed out the window into the white field glimmering under the eastern rising sun.  The view was pastoral. Placing himself where The Pastor studies at his desk, it was easy — and helpful — to envision the serenity and inspiration of this view on a lush, green day. At -6 outside, this was not that day.

Yet Minus-6 or 98.6, that the view exists is a miracle.  The Pastor, Lamarr Lark, is not the first of many connected to The Barn, who will use that phrase, “a miracle.”

“I remember standing out in the field,” NOW he could flash the smile that rivals the snow for gleam.  “I was…I was crying…and I was…..”

Mad at God?

“I couldn’t understand.”

During this brief chat at the top of the winding staircase that supplanted an office door, Pastor Lark recounted the short, intense history of Connection Church, the church he had been working to plant in the country – farmland – an hour north of Chicago.  He had no idea how apt “planting a church in the country” would be.

Lark and the team had purchased a large acreage of farmland, the centerpiece of which was a rickety building slightly older than Abraham:  a 136-year-old barn.

“You would not believe what it looked like.  I said, ‘God, what are you doing?’ ”

RAISE THE ROOF

Lark had a vision for a church.  This wasn’t it.  When a real estate developer offered cash for the property and a quick closing date, the complex Lark envisioned sharpened.  “I had the spot and the property all picked,” he said.  Something sleek and modern.  Custom-made.  Something economically feasible with bells and whistles to intrigue families of the Media Age, families with whom he interacted when working in corporate America nearby, families curious about The Word but scattered about where it’s hard to meet new neighbors. This vision was clear.

Before closing occurred, village officials nixed the deal.  The developer’s plan for a new multi-house residential complex was incompatible with zoning guidelines.  No sale.  The Barn became a white elephant.  Lamarr wept.

And submitted.  Rather than a barn razing, there was a barn raising.

“God’s plans are not our plans!” Lark’s smile was praiseworthy.

the-barn-in
Praising God in the sanctuary: Refurbished original wood.

IF GOD WERE A CARPENTER

As God unveiled His plan — in His time — He provided new vision, blueprints, capital, partners, and workers.  Like George the Shoveling-Drummer.  Like Brenda Lark, The Pastor’s Wife (First Lady of the Oval Office Silo).   Like Mike the Carpenter.  Lamarr preaches from the pulpit.  Mike preaches from the carpet.  (Or, he would if there were any.  The floors are hardwood.  So are the walls.  And the beams.  Almost everything.)

“We didn’t want any drywall upstairs,” said the soft-spoken Mike.  “We had to shore up the beams, keep the wood.  We didn’t want any pressed wood.   I’m a carpenter.  Carpenters are craftsmen.  I always wanted to pass what I know on to someone else.  God made that happen.”

Among the volunteers was a college-age lad, a medical student who latched on to the intricacies of carpentry.

“Carpentry is one of those professions that used to have prestige, like the pastor was saying.  Sometimes people see me and ask, ‘Are you still pounding nails?’  They don’t mean it bad, I’m not somebody to make an issue, so I say, ‘Yeah, I’m still pounding nails.’ But it means something to be a carpenter.”

He didn’t say so, but like any good preacher, he left room for interpretation and personal application.  On this last Sunday before Christmas, standing in the middle of a rehabbed barn with a nail-pounder gave new insight into the fact that Mary’s husband from the line of David the Shepherd was a carpenter who taught the craft to his son.

“Carpenters are creative. Everything was created through Jesus.”

The Barn has endless sermon possibilities.

IF WALLS COULD TALK

“Somebody was telling me that the walls could preach a sermon,” Pastor Lark interjected into his message.  He continued noting that the whisper of the walls remembering the process of cleaning the building in preparation for the carpenters. “Some of you remember.  When we dug out the downstairs, the SMELL from the horses!  Imagine…THAT is the barn where Jesus was born…”

Cleansed of its horse dung, porous rafters, and unstable foundation, the remodeled basement is the Connection connection. The drywall is painted stark white, offset by hand-crafted wood trim. It’s an adaptable open, modern space where children play, teaching may occur, food consumed, TV viewed over the fireplace.

“That wasn’t supposed to be there,” said Pastor Lark.  Then came Mike, who added two other places that weren’t “supposed to be there:” the kitchen and, upstairs, an entry hall into the worship space.

rock-city-8
Billboard near Chattanooga, TN. Courtesy “Creative South Homes” by Kaliee

“You know, it’s easier for some people to come to ‘The Barn’ than to come to ‘church,’ “ says Mike the Carpenter, who  moved from a church he had been attending for almost 20 years to answer a cry he heard in a message by Pastor Lark. “People have baggage about ‘church,’ but when they come here, and get to see what we’ve done they’re more open to hear The Word.”

Although weekly services began in September 2016, the official grand opening won’t be until Spring 2017 as Easter approaches.  Until then, building within the building continues.  The building of relationships — among the members and within growing local communities in Lake County and across the county lines.

Crossing county lines doesn’t mean just across the road into Cook County.  The mission of Connection to be a multi-cultural church is more than an advertisement on a side of a barn which is why Lark – an African-American leading a small, mostly Caucasian congregation – is partnering with Rodney Patterson, also African-American and pastor of historic Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side, a predominately black congregation, to worship and study Scripture together. The fellowship hall is the workshop for building that relationship.  It’s a room of transformation– a carpenter’s 2 Corinthians 5:17.

barn-plans
Remnants of a Brainstorm.

HANDWRITING ON THE WALLS

The fellowship hall walls are covered with poster-sized sticky notes, the residue of brainstorming sessions.  They are a blueprint teaching the members how to interact and engage with people who drive from nearby communities, who have different church experiences or Bible knowledge.  To emphasize the teaching, the sticky-noted mission statement discusses an edit between “A diverse community” to “an inclusive and equitable” community.  That vision, Lark said, is not his, but His.  “We want Connection to reflect a heaven that says ‘every tribe and nation.’ ”

At the same time, he knows he is dealing with humans — real people, sinners, who have personal issues that must be addressed, Biblically.  Like Paul’s church epistles, these sticky notes have specific instructions. One challenge is developing a corporate, proactive sense of serving as exhibited by The Carpenter and The Drummer (who not only played drums on the rehearsed special song, but unexpectedly — miraculously? intuitively? Spirit-fully? — provided improvised drum underscore in the scene performed before the sermon).  Part of overcoming the challenge is discipling through action and language.

Illustration: “I don’t like the word ‘volunteer’ in a church setting,” said The Carpenter.  “A ‘volunteer’ doesn’t have the same commitment.  It’s about ‘servanthood.’ ”

Another illustration hangs on the walls of the oval office.  Above The Pastor’s desk, the post-it note outlines guidelines for developing a Ministry Team proclaiming boldly: “Come and See Orientation Engaging a Non-Believer” leading to TEAM Time:

connection-team

SHILOH IN THE SILO

On the opposite wall are outlines for practical application of TEAM Time. “The Worship Experience” speaks of “unity fellowship” an important element in a church culture where “worship” is often a synonym for “music.” (Toward this, Connection jobs-in musical ensembles or individual worship leaders rather than depending on a set musical team or style.  Perhaps something else Pastor Lark had not planned.)

“The Worship Experience” plays out in the Sunday hour, however, it’s especially applicable as the guideline for the burgeoning relationship with Shiloh entitled, “Let’s Talk About Race,” a series of six dialogues including themes of socialization, reconciliation and transformation.  Part of the process includes “unity fellowship” worship experiences in the home church’s neighborhood.  Shiloh is scheduled to visit The Barn in February — African-American History Month.  Among their collaborations is a semi-annual joint Service of Worship alternately hosted on their home sites, meaning – a trip to the South side and a trip to The Barn.

lamar-and-pastors
Lamarr Lark (r) with Dana James and Rodney Patterson from Shiloh.

The idea, Lark explains, is that in an era of increasing racial tensions in the U.S., it’s important to demonstrate that the gospel of Christ is for all;  that worship is more than musical style, but a place of preparation for regeneration; that Christ, more than the ballot, is the hope for the nation. Saying this in his message, The Pastor paraphrased a public official who had recently spoken of feeling without hope as the country changes leadership.  The Pastor looked to the walls of the resurrected barn on which hung a symbolic cross of resurrection.

PHOTO ALBUM:  Connection and Shiloh Fellowship

If the walls could preach, they’d say THAT resurrection was as likely as the expected Savior of Humanity being introduced to the world in the guise of a baby in the din of a stable.  If walls could preach they’d say THAT birth was as likely as a dingy stable being resurrected into a chapel.  If the walls could preach, they’d say either of the above would take a miracle.

If the walls could preach, they’s stay it was no lark that the The Pastor stood in the middle of The Barn talking about the birth in the dingy stable.  They’d say it came from a silo mentality.

God’s ways are NOT like ours.

the-barn-years

Combatting Cultural Christmas

…and He explained all that was said about Him in The Scriptures. — Luke 24:27

In these last days God has spoken to us through His Son. — Hebrews 1:2

Pastor Brian Bill of Edgewood Baptist Church in Rock Island, IL, has a pet peeve he has shared with his family, and in a recent advent sermon, with his congregation.  Bill toted a shopping bag to the stage to demonstrate his complaint about consumerism.

“Have you noticed how packaging gets smaller, but the price is going up?” he asked. His shopping bag examples included ice cream, bottled water, peanut butter and cereal.

“The boxes are hollow and shallow,” he said. “It kind of feels how Christmas feels in our society. The depth is gone.”

An “Amen!” moment.

“We can lament, and we should.”

Amen! And hallelujah! The Christmas Culture War truth is marching on!

The Christmas Culture Wars were hot and heavy in the last decade. You may remember, or have engaged in the battles:  annual backlashes against companies — mostly department stores — that mandated employees not say, “Merry Christmas” in deference to expanding people groups celebrating end-of-the-year holidays. Christmas was too exclusive. Too offensive.  Some even said, too “white.”

Offended Christians counter-punched:

“Happy holidays,” said the smiling cashier.

“Merry CHRISTMAS,” declared the dour deacon.

News outlets were replete with stories in communities going to court to remove nativity decorations from public view.  “Church & State….!”

Christmas faithful protested.  Onward Christian soldiers! To arms! To Shop-Mart! Store boycotts were enacted; headlines blared and pastors preached: “Let’s keep CHRIST in Christmas!”

red-letter-bible2

AND THE SURVEY SAYS…

This battle is still fought on many fronts, though now they’re skirmishes.  It’s not making headlines it seems, and that raises some questions:

  • Was the Christian counter-offensive victorious?
  •  Is “Merry Christmas” making a cultural comeback as a less offensive phrase?
  •  Are nativity scenes tolerated because when the nativity is put away – by choice or court order – in the eyes of many, Jesus also disappears?

And what of Christians lamentations?

  • Has Christmas become so homogenized that it’s just an adjective, even among Christians?
  • Have Christians become so accustomed to Christmas — so caught up in shopping, Christmas pageants and services at church that they, themselves, have minimized Christ in Christmas? 
  • Are Christians more guilty of removing Christ from Christ-mas because Christians limit Christ to Christmas?

“We’re in danger of shrinking our depth,” Bill admonished. “Our danger is that Christians can shrink our understanding of Christmas as well.”

Pastor Bill showed his shopping bounty to prepare his listeners to receive the weapons of The Christmas Culture battle.  These weapons, however, are in neither the courts nor bellicose retorts.  As the Scriptures say, “The weapons of our warfare are not of this world…”  They ARE however, IN this world, and were driven home in these quarters by three memorable pastoral encounters in three different communities during the week.  Each is separately powerful.  Taken collectively, however, they’re stunning Holy Spirit confirmations of how the victory over Christmas Culture Wars is literally in the our hands.  That’s why they’re connected here.

IN THE BEGINNING…

The sequence began midweek.  An item crawled on my Facebook timeline.  It was from Jay Manguba, a pastor friend from across town.  It’s rare that I stop to read timeline crawls, and rare for Jay to post, so when Manguba posts, it’s important:

“One of the coolest things I heard today,” he wrote, “ ‘I used to read a lot of books about the Bible but now I’m mainly reading the Bible.’ ”

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MEANWHILE IN THE QUAD CITIES

Sunday I was visiting across state, listening to Pastor Bill, whom I’d never heard before, launch into his shopping sermon and remind the assembled congregation, “Christmas doesn’t begin with the manger and it doesn’t end with the wise men… “The best way to understand the Bible is not just looking at small sections but by seeing the overarching meta-narrative.  God’s plan and the plotline of the Bible stretch from Genesis to Revelation.”

Ah, the Bible again.

  • “In the beginning, God…”
  • “In the beginning was The Word…”

A pattern is developing.

“How many of you have a Bible that has the words of Jesus in red? ” the pastor asked. “Imagine the Old Testament where every reference, every prophecy, every shadow, every image, every allusion to Jesus Christ appeared in red.  One author has written that if such a red-letter Old Testament existed, it would glow in the dark.”

Ah, the red-letter Bible.

SERMON AUDIO:  “Creation: God Makes” by Brian Bill, Edgewood Baptist Church

HOME AGAIN, HOME AGAIN

Returning to my home church Tuesday, the lead pastor (Curt Hansen), worship pastor (Andre de Mesquita) and I simultaneously arrived at our offices, and fell into a casual doorway debriefing about Sunday’s service.  As in Rock Island, the Elk Grove Baptist First Sunday service had the additional communion and Advent celebration elements.  Pastor Curt Hansen is a time-conscious man,  often concerned whether additional elements (read: speakers) will affect his presentation (read: edit  the sermon).  This Sunday, he was elated.  Without editing, speeding up or watching the clock, he was astounded to learn he finished at the exact time on the printed running order.  Moreover,  when Andre thanked him for the power of the words, Pastor Curt deferred, “It’s easy to preach when you preach the words of Jesus.”

Then to me:  “The last half of the sermon, I just read the words of Jesus.”

The arsenal was loaded.

“For the remainder of my message,” I heard about 12:00 into the audio.  “ I’m going to read the words of Jesus.  If you have a red-letter Bible, everything I read is in red….” For the next 13 minutes, Pastor Curt let Jesus preach.  Jesus finished with this: “If you hold to my teachings, if you obey me, you are really my disciples.”

SERMON AUDIO:  “The Actions of Christmas: Listening” by Curt Hansen, Elk Grove Baptist Church

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From three seemingly disparate locales, God spoke clearly about the responsibility of Christ-followers responding to “The Christmas Culture War”:

  1. Read the Scriptures
  2. Seek Jesus in the Scriptures.

BENEDICTION

Pastor Hansen’s in-the-moment voicing of The Word has its own impact: a personal, verse-to-verse response: “If one speaks to you, jot it down. And when you listen, listen with the mindset of, ‘What do I need to do to obey this instruction.’  After all, obedience is the point of listening.”

At the same time, Pastor Bill offered different direct warnings and challenges to bring perspective on transformational impact of The Word in a homogenizing, downsizing Christmas culture.

“Do you lament how Christ has been taken out of Christmas in our culture?” he said. “As Christians, we’re in danger of shrinking Christmas as well when we focus only on the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke and then only during the month of December.”

Just as Jesus came as a baby, said his followers must come to Him as children, and asked that children be brought to Him,  Pastor Bill highlighted a children’s reader to reinvigorate Scripture reading.

blog_story-bible“One of the most helpful resources for children is “The Jesus Storybook Bible.” Here’s how it begins: “The Bible is most of all a Story…The Story of how God loves His children and comes to rescue them. It takes the whole Bible to tell His Story. And at the center of The Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers His name.”

“For many years I thought that Jesus got his start when He was born,” the Pastor articulated a confession no doubt others think even today.  “Jesus didn’t begin when he was born,” the pastor noted, citing Christ’s words to the Pharisees (“Before Abraham was, I Am”) and the parallel between Genesis 1 and John 1. “Actually, Jesus Christ has always existed.”

Then what’s the point of the baby in the manger?  Why does it matter whether or not a nativity scene is seen?  The connection, says Bill, is not dissimilar to why crosses in public are troublesome.  They’re reminders.

“Christmas is all about how Christ covers our curse by dying in our place on the cross.  God was sinned against and so He provided a sacrifice for sinners.   God made coats of skin to cover sin.  Jesus is God with skin on…”

READ MORE: The Story Behind the Red-Letter Bible

While the cultural Christmas War may not grasp this, Pastor Bill, Pastor Hansen, and Pastor Jesus say it’s imperative true Believers do. It’s these revelations that make Christmas personal, regardless of what’s said at the checkout line or the courthouse.

“Listen,” Bill concluded.  “The way to keep Christ in Christmas is for us to let the light of Christ shine through us! We are containers for Christ!  Let’s not become “cheater packages” filled with shrinking spirituality.  It’s our job to not live lives of deception.  We must avoid going shallow.”

If this all sounds a deep, it should.  The answers, though, as Jay Manguba’s friend discovered, are in the book.  Start with the red letters.  They say, “Merry Christmas.”

Advent Revelations

How can I understand unless some one explains it to me? — Acts 8:21

It was a simple ice-breaker game. Some of the class selected cardboard discs with questions about Christmas: Traditions, travel, gifts, wishes…

As with any good ice-breaker, the idea was to elicit discussion. This one broke the ice. The six teens revealed as much about Christian culture as themselves:

  •  “I want a…”
  •  “My dad always gets a rolled up tree.”
  • “We have one of those fake trees…”
  • “How come we sing carols…?
  • “Christmas songs are lame…”
  • “When are we going to learn something I don’t know?”

Did I mention this was a Sunday school class? Did I mention all of the students were from church-going families? Did I mention they each had to state something they had learned about Christ or Christmas before the class was dismissed to go home?

The Scripture study for the first Sunday of Advent in Luke.  It turned into Revelations.

  • “Advent means we put up a calendar.”

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Pam Nelsen/etcgraphicdesign

It’s difficult to say what was most revealing: The stories about Christmas dreams and wishes; the cynicism around being in Sunday school; or the recognition that Christian kids who grew up in the church realm don’t grasp what Christmas means other than obligatory Christianese (“Jesus came to save us from our sins”…”so we don’t go to “the bad place”…’Christ-mass’…eternal life”).  Considering that between Sundays they’re inundated by a culture where Christmas is an adjective for a department store sale or tv  dating movie, this does not surprise.  And yet…

So, the question came to mind: Are we who teach about celebrating the incarnation of God…the birth of Jesus…effectively connecting the message?

Granted these were middle school students and high school freshmen. Granted there was the ongoing (weekly) battle about putting away the mobile device (“My Bible is on there…”). Granted the age is fraught with a wide-range of attention spans and hormonal exploration. Yet, they are also the age of great intellectual curiosity. They are a mission field of critical thinkers with untapped thoughts.  They are more willing learners than the ice reveals…beneath the surface.

They are the age Jesus was when his parents had to go look for him in the temple. Imagine: Jesus, the Middle Schooler.

In the words of pastor Paul Tripp, they are “the age of opportunity.”

In the last 20 minutes of the period, we got back to the planned Advent lesson:  Simeon & Anna in the temple.  The theme was waiting.  This was a followup from the sermon earlier in the morning.  Only 2 of the group had been there.  We read from Luke. Luke 2:21-38. Aloud. Collectively. Summarized the story, then challenged them to read that passage each day during the week. Mount Rushmore became teenaged.  We circled by the door to prepare for home.  Provided each was able to articulate their revelations during the period…in case they were asked at home.

Among their discoveries was learning to listening for the message of Christ in the music they hear this time of year, no matter the source.  This grew from the ice-breaking prompt about favorite Christmas songs which led to a You Tube comparison of Taylor Swift’s “Last Christmas” and a version of “Come Thou, Long-Expected Jesus,” one of the congregational songs in the previous hour’s Service of Worship.

Defending her choice, Taylor’s fan explained she liked the beat and that she also has a favorite church Christmas song, “O Holy Night,” as did a laconic boy, who previously was sarcastic and distracting. Two of the girls accompanied “Last Christmas” verbatim while #TheBoyWhoKnowsEverything except — apparently — this song, cried out, “That’s got nothing to do with Christmas!”  One of #TheGirlSingers countered: “She said she wanted love and was looking for her heart.  I mean she COULD have been singing about Jesus.” Even she admitted this was a stretch, but it also reflected a stretch of thought, leading to discovery No. 2.

A purpose of Sunday school is to prepare the students to think about faith and speak confidently about Christ for themselves rather than regurgitating what just the information they have received at church. “I guess some Christmas songs are okay,” admitted #MrLaconic before the day’s amen.  This was growth.

To prepare them, adults must give structure, listen, correct and encourage.

An illustration of such interaction is a “non-Christmas” scripture: Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8.

The Ethiopian was reading scripture. Phillip asked if he understood. How can I if no one explains, said the eunuch.

Phillip took the time. The eunuch understood and came to Christ.

Such is the role of modern apostles. No matter how long we walk with Christ, have heard, taught or preached the Christmas story there remains a responsibility, a command, to tell others.

We have a lot of material to teach about Christmas. Creative. Fun. Insightful. Yet, when it comes to the annual Christmas studies, we must be careful that our traditional pageants, programs or teachings do not become commonplace so that even ardent Christ-followers turn an icy ear. As the students discovered, given time and earnest discussion, this Christmas can be more heartfelt than the last one.

 

The Blessing Jar

“I will give you the promised and sure blessings promised to David.” —  Is. 55:3

The kitchen has an intense struggle with the television as the focal point of the family interplay.  But until there’s an HD fridge-TV combo unit in the den, the kitchen wins out.  Even on TV they admit everybody’s got to eat.

So it’s apt that in the middle of the kitchen table is a quart-sized Mason jar, the kind that — in the days before tin cans, Tupperware and microwaves made dinner more facile — great-grandmoms stuffed with peaches, tomatoes and all sorts of homegrown treats then vacuum-sealed with wax to be eaten months later, or donated to those who couldn’t do so.

blessingjar2xThis particular jar is a modern variation on Greatgran’s.  Rather than wax, the lid is sealed by a gold plated metal top, held to the glass by a metal clasp.  A rubber cylinder seals the lid that keeps fresh, not food but small, neatly folded squares of paper.  Taped to the outside is a homemade white label on which a child has printed, “Our Blessing Jar.”  One S looks like an N, the other is backwards, as is the J.

Written on the papers are notes about what happened to each family member that day.  These are their blessings.  It’s not the desired daily ritual originally hoped, but the effort allows them to stay in touch with each other and the LORD in this era when there’s more time commuting than communing.

More often than not the family writes at least three blessings of the day, trade papers to read aloud, then place in them in The Blessing Jar. Sometimes they write after dinner; often just before bedtime.  The blessings are the basis of their nightly prayers. The blessings are big stuff — “Bonus check came.” Little stuff — “Didn’t argue with V.” Sometimes they overlap: “Had fun with…Mom/Dad/Family.” They’re often enlightening.

The Blessing Jar began as a time capsule to be opened on Thanksgiving. Often, though, the seal is broken in the middle of the night when someone feels hungry, overwhelmed, or lonely and ends up in the kitchen at 2 a.m.   The Blessing Jar is where blessings are counted, instead of sheep; where life stops and roses are smelled; where thanksgiving isn’t a holiday but a daily reminder of God, from whom all blessings flow.