Carol Story: As Others Wonder, The Faithful Pay It Forward

A great difficulty with contemporary celebrations of Christmas is the misconception of the events and timing of the birth of Jesus. This occurs even among Christians Believers, particularly in Western cultures. The problem? The prevailing concept that Christmas climaxes on a singular date: December 25.

Yes, there are further celebrations of Christ’s birth in assorted denominations – the 13 days of Christmas continuing through the Epiphany in Catholic and related congregations; and the remembrance in the Orthodox Church observed January 7, or 12 days after the “traditional” Christmas. 

However, if you look around, come December 26, “the Christmas spirit” begins dissipating. Observe three tendencies:  the urgency to remove decorations; the rush to return gifts; the reduction of Christmas songs in public.  Even the most earnest pastors and worship music leaders may wonder how many weekends after December 25 should the congregation continue singing “Christmas” songs in Services of Worship.

FURTHER READING:  “When the 26th Is Over,” a poem for reflection

The transitional songs of the Kingdom Impact Theater production “Carol Story” belie the idea that Christmas music should go away immediately after December 25.  Indeed, a number of Christmas selections build on the concept of evangelizing – that is, telling others the Good News of salvation through Messiah’s birth. Lyrics of three carols,  “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “I Wonder as I Wander,” can be viewed as tools in the on-going witnessing concept first noted here in “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”  Taken as a whole, these lyrics should remind Christ-followers that the birth of the baby was the beginning of the Christmas story, not its conclusion, and their a responsibility to share this information. 


LEARN MORE:Donate and Partner with Kingdom Impact Theater.


To grasp this idea, it’s necessary to review the scriptural timeline of the Christmas narrative rather than Hallmark cards.  The Biblical story recorded in Luke Chapter 2 indicates that Jesus was born at night. So, unlike us who often open presents at the crack of dawn, Mary and Joseph’s gift of parenthood didn’t arrive until nightfall … at the END of the day.

(Jesus wasn’t swaddled in cloths on Christmas Eve, either, for it didn’t exist yet.  Though we’ll give some allowances for a right-after-midnight arrival, meaning the shepherds COULD have been stirred by middle-of-the-night celestial viewings).

Lifesize Nativity Chicago
Lifesize nativity in downtown Chicago represents the worship vistiations that may have actually taken place over a couple of years. (Photo: Michael Edgar Myers)

By the time the shepherds saw the stars and singing angels, and walked (or ran) to see this thing, arriving at the manger took time. And it wasn’t the same evening as the three visitors from the East recorded in Matthew Chapter, whose account of the Wise Men’s arrival likely was two years later.

Indeed, for point of conversation, it’s possible that the Wise Men’s encounter with King Herod was less about the birth itself, but as a result of what occurred afterwards:

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. —

Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 15:18 (New International Version)

Three things did happen that night that continue in today’s Christmas season:  1) people came to worship the child, believing the Old Testament (Hebrew) prophecies were fulfilled after 500 years; 2) witnesses went and told others the significance of the child’s birth; 3) others came to discover for themselves, and began to ask questions.

This worship and investigation led to the wonderfully imagined nativity scenes which decorate our landscapes and homes.  However, these are a composite of what happened over time, not on the night of, Hallmark notwithstanding.

Three songs in the middle passage of “Carol Story” capture this sense of “shepherds’ telephone line” that inspired the crowds to visit Bethlehem and ponder what occurred. Their lyrics inspired a poetic encounter between the shepherds heading to the manger and the people they meet on the way to Bethlehem. Those people, like us, have questions.

“Shepherds, why this jubilee…?”

“Angels we have heard on high…”

“Come, all ye faithful! Join the triumph of the skies!”

(Sotto voice): “I wonder, as I wander…”

— Songs Lyrics, adapted in “Carol Story”

The questioning lyrics come from a latter-day carol from Appalachia, representing a person curious about the possibility the newborn babe could be the prophesied savior, while at the same time questioning one’s own belief in Christ during a time of crisis, period.  Questioning occurs even among those who have heard the scriptures for years.  Ask a teenager, as we discovered at a high school dinner party years ago.

LEARN MORE:  The Virgin Shall Be With Child, Really?

The story of how this folk carol from rural 1930s America came to be a beloved Christmas witness is its own miracle.  The accompanying video, a live performance by Vanessa Williams, maintains the reflective intimacy of the lyrics despite an orchestra accompaniment.

VIDEO MOMENT:  “I Wonder as I Wander,” captured in revival after jail

That solitude is contrasted by the acappella power of Italy’s SoundDiva Classical Choir whose harmonies in the French carol “Angels We Have Heard on High,” are a scaled-down version of how the Heavenly Host may have sounded singing, “Gloria! In excelsis Deo,” (“Glory to God in the Highest!” Which is echoed as “Carol Story” some to its climax (in days to come).

DISCIPLE SOMEONE“Angels We Have Heard On High,” A French carol anglicized

The idea of inviting people to Christ, and musically sharing the gospel door-to-door and outside church buildings, is captured in the remarkable violin-driven flash-mob “O Come All Ye Faithful,” by The Five Strings. This relatively new video reached the Kingdom Impact Theater offices via a friend’s private social messenger as a Christmas greet to be shared.  And so, we do. Here. Interspersed with James Chadwick’s translated lyrics of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” are a wonderful interview dialogue: A question asked, a story told, an invitation made to join. Heading to Bethlehem, we imagine they encounter a new curious fellow: a little drummer boy.


SoundDiva Classical Choir

SoundDiva is actually a production studio in Italy that’s dedicated to improving the quality and production. The assembled choir in this video is directed by Antonello Martina for part of a series demonstrating the work quality by the studio.

LEARN MORE: SoundDiva Recordings.


The Five Strings

The Five Strings are a performing family band from Utah. The band is made up of 5 siblings, ranging in ages from 8-18. The Five Strings’ high energy concerts showcase eight different instruments including violin, piano, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, percussion, five-part harmonies, clogging, and choreography.

LEARN MORE: The Five Strings YouTube Channel.


Vanessa Williams

Vanessa L. Williams is an American singer, actress, and fashion designer. She initially gained recognition as the first woman of African-American descent to receive the Miss America title in 1983. Since then her critically acclaimed work in film, television, music and Broadway has been recognized by every major industry award affiliate including 4 Emmy nominations, 11 Grammy nominations, a Tony nomination, 3 SAG award nominations, 7 NAACP Image Awards and 3 Satellite Awards. She often performs in the Rob Mathes Holiday Concert, from which this clip was recorded.

LEARN MORE: Vanessa Williams’ autobiography.

More Christmas MEMos and Wonderings

Advent Revelations

Christmas and All The (Indy) News

Shopping at 15

Combatting Cultural Christmas

Sinterklaas, Piet and Me

Sophomoric Christmas

Worship in The Barn

The Virgin Shall Be With Child: Really?

When the 25th Is Over


Advertisements

Patton, Prayer & The Quarterback

Military films intrigue me, especially those on the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. On holiday weekends such as Memorial Day or Independence Day, I often find myself inadvertently absorbed in commemorative film fests on TCM, A&E or the History Channel.

Sometimes they’re just white noise while I catch up on belated household tasks. Sometimes my viewing is a concentrated respite from the daily headlines.  The action sequences need not be viewed, and the sparse dialogue creates picture-radio images in my head. Like them or not, such historic films are insight into people who became leaders and decision-makers in times of strife.  They reassure us. We know the outcome: Our nation won independence. Our nation was preserved. Our nation saved the world from evil. That star-spangled banner yet waves!

Today we have less assurance.

I’m aware of history, journalism and film-making enough to recognize literary conceits as historical fiction and dramatic license, so I embrace these films in the spirit in which most are created: entertainment and storytelling. So, I ‘m also skeptical. If a film entertains and intrigues me enough, if the story I hear causes me to stop and watch the screen,  invariably there will be a moment or two when I hear myself saying, “Really?” whereupon my latent detective gene emerges.  Once the film is done (or paused), I begin my most delicious house-cleaning-avoidance,  writer’s block diversion: research. This post-movie research most frequently occurs following biographical films, the so-called biopic. I often find myself scouring my bookshelves and, most handily, the Internet to discern the answer to my latest, “Did that really happen?” quandary.

Many times I’ve discovered poetic license won out, so I’m relieved whenever I find the screenwriter not only trusted the facts, but left enough intrigue that research enhanced the experience.

Which brings us to ” Patton, ” the 1970 film that earned George C. Scott the Best Actor Academy Award he refused, and Francis Ford Coppola a screenplay Oscar he didn’t refuse, and therein launched his directing career as patriarch of “The Godfather” trilogy.

At the Movies

“Patton” is good storytelling and Scott compelling, even though his gruff, sandpaper voice contradicted the actual Patton, whose tone calls to mind voiceover artist Mel Blanc. (It’s been said that Patton’s penchant for profanity was purposeful — to be taken seriously and to offset a voice considered unmanly and un-military.

(VIDEO: George Patton speaks.)

There are many “Really?” scenes in “Patton,” but the one that stood out on my most recent viewing and propelled this missive was when he summoned the 3rd Army chaplain to write a good-weather prayer to counter the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge in the Christmas season of 1944.

Though I’ve seen the film often, I had to stopped painting my kitchen. What struck me was the chaplain’s perplexed response: “I don’t know how this is going to be received, General, praying for good weather so we can kill our fellow man?”

But the Bible Says…

My immediate thought was that it seemed incongruous for the chaplain to be surprised by such a request, for King David wrote many in Psalms asking God’s guidance in battle.  Psalms 20 and 21 are examples.  Earlier in the film, Coppola’s script included Psalm 63, David’s embattled prayer fleeing his son Absalom which Scott narrated while “Patton” prepared to apologize for slapping a solider.  In light of these passages, I sought the brief clip of the chaplain scene for readers less enamored of the genre to experience here:

VIDEO:  Patton’s Weather Prayer

However, before I got to the movie links,  I came across two printed stories about the scenario that brought the film, the man and the Bible into new focus.  Something to remember when encountering how Scripture is quoted — whether on screen or from the pulpit. In the words of the apostle John:

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)”

Merry Christmas, G.S. Patton

One story is the transcript of the film scene, the anecdote written by Patton’s aide, Col. Paul Harkins, that was no doubt the source of the movie moment above.  The other story was written by the clergyman who wrote the prayer,  noted in the credits only as “3rd

oneill
Col. James Hugh O’Neill

Army Chaplain.”  Indeed, the author was hardly anonymous, but integral in the Third Army’s zeal and morale that holiday season.  The chaplain was Monseigneur James Hugh O’Neill, who was hardly unknown to Patton, but a U.S. Army colonel whose served with the general in five campaigns. The prayer itself was a but part of a larger Christmas missive to the troops which O’Neill explained in “The True Story of the Patton Prayer,” an article published as a government document first in 1950, then re-published not long after the movie premiered.

O’Neill’s story outlines the complexity of Patton, a devout believer in scriptures and the power of prayer, whose behavior (temper and tongue-lashings) and beliefs (that he was reincarnated) seemed contradictory. After writing the prayer, along with a ghostwritten Christmas greeting for the commander, O’Neill delivered a draft to Patton not sure how it would be used:  by the general himself, or delivered to other chaplains in the unit to be intoned at services among the troops.  Patton ordered copies of the Christmas card prayer to be printed and delivered. “See to it that every man in the Third Army gets one,” he said.

There were 250,000 copies made of this:

Patton_card2Pattons Prayer2

Patton then said to O’Neill: “Chaplain, sit down for a moment; I want to talk to you about this business of prayer.”

Patton then began a conversation about prayer became the basis of a larger treatise.

“I am a strong believer in prayer,” O’Neill recounted. “There are three ways that men get what they want; by planning, by working, and by praying.

“I wish you would put out a Training Letter on this subject of prayer to all the chaplains; write about nothing else, just the importance of prayer… We’ve got to get not only the chaplains, but every man in the Third Army to pray.”

Patton Prayer

A Contemporary Translation

Several passages of the O’Neill article are pertinent to America today.  Yes, in light of Memorial Day commemorations of military personnel who fell in mortal combat; but they have greater relevance in light of spiritual warfare that threatens our independence and unity from within; forces of evil far more insidious than tanks and rockets.  They are evils flourishing on this continent and endangering the liberties for which this nation was established, for which men and women died and stand watch to preserve — freedoms of expression and faith.  The evils of racism, sexism, selfish political ambition (add your own hashtag-creating #isms) are not only limiting our pursuit of happiness, they modernize the kind of societal behavior that led to the demise of Old Testament Israel.

The sermon we heard Sunday exhorted the congregation to pray, for prayer is a value of its mission. The pastor, a native Brazilian and naturalized American, invoked God’s word to David:

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” — 2 Chronicles 7:14

Take a Knee

As the pastor spoke, I  could not help but think of Colin Kaepernick and the controversy surrounding his kneeling during the national anthem during NFL games.  Kaepernick came to mind because a few days earlier the NFL owners imposed a penalty on players who kneel when the anthem is played.

After the church service, our choir stayed to rehearse to sing at our town’s annual Memorial Day ceremony.  The director announced that in addition to the tradition songs we’ve song, we were asked to lead singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” My inner bad boy was pricked.  After rehearsal I told the director that I was debating kneeling during the song.  I never had intentions of doing so, but I couldn’t avoid needling in anticipation of his priceless expressions in the moment of deciding whether or not I was serious.

Not one to let go a good running joke, at Monday’s final rehearsal I assured him that after prayer and meditation I’d decided to not kneel.  And he shook when he laughed. So humored, joking ended. Topic done. Time to raise the Banner.  But to our surprise, The Kneel soon came back to the floor as the mayor framed his Memorial Day speech around The Kneel. opened his remarks passionately saying how proud he was that no one kneeled during the anthem; then closed his speech with reminders why we shouldn’t.

A gamut emotions swirled. As I was one of four discernible Americans of African descent in the crowd of hundreds, I could not applaud. I was not offended. After “anger,” “dismay” eventually settled. For while I understood the mayor’s endeavor, and though I have relatives interred in Arlington National Cemetery, as part of the 2.9 percent of African-Americans living in the community, I found his statements another illustration of misunderstanding and misinformation. Weariness emerged.

OB Funeral.jpg
Interment of father-in-law Col. Otrie Barrett Sr., U.S. Army, Retired, Arlington National Cemetery, 2012.

Misperceptions

From the outset, Kaepernick’s protest has been misinterpreted as anti-American and anti-military despite his assertions to the contrary.  When Kaepernick, who is biracial and whose adoptive parents are white, began his protests during the preseason of 2016, he sat.  At a post-game press conference that fall, the once-celebrated quarterback spoke of his disappoint with the response, and explained his protest was a civil rights issue related to increasing police action shootings involving black males.

“I think it’s a misunderstanding. “The media painted this as I’m anti-American, anti men and women of the military, and that’s not the case at all. I realize that men and women of the military put themselves in harm’s way for my freedoms of speech and my freedom in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee. I have the utmost respect for them. I think what I did was taken out of context and spun a different way. “

Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since shortly after that statement appeared in The New York Times in September 2016.  Though newsworthy fewer people took note of the initial protests.  After all, he started in preseason. To me, having come of age in the 1960s when higher profile black athletes as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali were more vocal protesting racial injustice, Kaepernick’s sideline bow seemed mellow. This was no John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists in the Black Panther salute during the Mexico City Olympics and getting their medals revoked. It wasn’t until critical Presidential Tweets began that mellow became maelstrom and the issue of injustice was swirled away.

John Carlos Tommy Smith_Post
John Carlos, Tommy Smith, protest, Mexico City Olympics 1968 (Photo: Washington Post)

RELATED: “They Didn’t #TakeTheKnee”

Oh, Say, CAN You See?

When I finally caught my attention about the Kaepernick protest was when he literally switched positions.  From sitting to kneeling.   The pose struck my ironic funny bone. The image of one man or two men kneeling while everyone else was standing during a song that has been more widely disrespected when sung at games, struck me not as angry protest.  I viewed it as the free expression of prayer.

Kapernick 2

Whenever I’ve seen players kneeling at games since, I’ve imagined them praying for the country while others sang…much as I occasionally sit while others sing choruses and hymns during musical worship.

Maybe it’s because Kaepernick kneeling reminds me of the football locker rooms I’d enter after a Friday night game in my reporter days and I’d hear the coach say, “Let’s take a knee,” as the public school players recited The Lord’s Prayer.  Maybe it’s because that around the same time that Kaepernick began to take a knee, a high school football coach in Washington state was fired for initiating a post-game prayer.

bremerton_team_prayer_800x500
Bremerton High School football team post-game prayer, circa 2015. (Photo: OneNowNews.com)

Maybe it’s because the fourth verse of Francis Scott Key’s poem, a verse never sung, reads as a Psalm of David:

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Maybe it’s because the song that some suggest would be a better national anthem, the song which our choir sang to close the Memorial Day program, the song written by an immigrant composer, Irving Berlin, begins by beseeching God’s blessing on America:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:

kate_smith_1
AUDIO: Kate Smith introduces “God Bless America,” CBS Radio 1938.

Let US Pray

Whatever the reason, I am less offended by The Kneel than I am by protracted conversations that not only don’t recall the reason for his protest but ignore the debate by imposing an unrelated issue.  The Kneel is not about disrespecting the flag.  It’s about healing the racial divide in the U.S. — a fissure that seems to widen each day.

Lincoln, paraphrasing Jesus recorded in Mark 3, warned of the dangers of such splits.  “And if a house be divided against itself,” the King James says, “that house cannot stand.”

The Apostle John records how Jesus prayed for his sheep to live in unity.  If this country, which purports to be a Christian nation, is to overcome the clear and present danger of division, Christ-followers would well embrace the actions of a radical preacher, symbolized by a radical quarterback and spoken by a radical general.

Kaepernick knelt to weather a storm as Patton knelt on stormy weather.  Specific prayers for specific battles.

“As chaplains it is our business to pray,” O’Neill wrote to chaplains for Patton in The Training Letter. “We preach its importance. We urge its practice. But the time is now to intensify our faith in prayer, not alone with ourselves, but with every believing man, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, or Christian in the ranks of the Third United States Army.

“Those who pray do more for the world than those who fight; and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers.”

Think:  “If my people will humble themselves and pray…I will heal their land…” from racism, sexism, genderism…#hashtag your own #ism.

Agree or disagree with the analogies. Don’t lose the point. Pray for our nation. Evil engulfs us that mere protests and legislation will not thwart.  As Jesus told his disciples unable to cast a demon from a possessed lad, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”

You may be compelled to respond to these thoughts.  You’re welcomed to do so below.  There’s one request. In the Spirit of Gen. Patton: I want a prayer…a prayer for the United States.

#SDG #Shalom #TakeAKnee #AndAmen.

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

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