Depending on the source you’re reading, there are varying views about divorce rates among couples who profess to be Christ-followers. The rates are either growing at the same rate as non-believers, greater than that rate, declining from that rate, or were never as high.
Assorted denominations have particular perspectives whether couples should divorce and what roles those who do divorce should have in Christian ministry, particularly leadership positions. Whatever the numbers, whatever your opinion, these facts remain:
children of God divorce;
they have done so since the time of Moses;
divorce is not God’s desire.
Of the numerous verses in Scripture about divorce, the best perspective is Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ conversation with Pharisees.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
(Yes, we switched from the New International to the King James for the last verse for readers who may have heard the words at weddings yet didn’t realize these are the words of Christ, not just the preacher.)
The salient exchange is this:
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
The question 20 centuries later, then, is, “What causes hearts of married couples to become hardened today?” Moreover, “How do Christian couples become hardened?” For our purposes, one more reflection: “What happens if one of those hardened Christian spouses is a pastor?”
Keep these questions in mind when listening to Family Priorities, today’s audio installment from “Who Prays for the Pastor?” In this segment, author Frederick Ezeji-Okoye recounts the testimony of a pastor whose zeal for evangelizing produced fruit, not all of which was sweet.
Before you start, discuss or journal about the following:
What does the phrase “God-First Ministry” mean to you?
What does Family-First Ministry mean?
Pray for the health of your pastor’s marriage as you hear the following testimony. Ask God to improve communication between both spouses and their offspring.
“Practicing What Is Preached:”Steps to apply weekend sermons to daily communication.
“The Roscoe P. Love Love Clinic:”Practical relationship communication for men, for women; couples, singles; adults, teens.
For maximum, on-going impact, we recommend purchasing the paperback or the audiobook, or both. Each is available at amazon.com.
This essay is one in a series of devotionals on coping with stress in ministry, and is based on the book, “Who Prays for the Pastor?” written by Bro. Frederick Ezeji-Okoye. The accompanying discussion guide was written by Michael Edgar Myers, who also narrated the audiobook and 1-minute devotional excerpts. If you have any difficulties accessing the material, please e-mail email@example.com. Thank you.
Among the teaching in his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul gave what some Bible translations subtitle, “Concerns for Married Life.” Included in the passage in chapter seven, Paul speaks to pastors…or would-be pastors, with an admonition summarized here by the late Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase, “The Message.”
“Because of the current pressures on us from all sides, I think it would probably be best to stay just as you are. Are you married? Stay married. Are you unmarried? Don’t get married. But there’s certainly no sin in getting married, whether you’re a virgin or not. All I am saying is that when you marry, you take on additional stress in an already stressful time, and I want to spare you if possible.”
Peterson and Paul’s perspective is the backdrop for this sequence of audio and written reflections based on the book, “Who Prays for the Pastor?” by Frederick Ezeji-Okoye, founder of the Men of Faith Network. Ezeji-Okoye’s book goes into depth about the pressures pastors (and other ministry leaders) encounter from their work, their ministries, their families, themselves. More than recount them, he offers suggestions in overcoming them.
Author Frederick Ezeji-Okoye
Available Print, Audio
It was our pleasure to provide the narration for the audiobook companion to this narrative. We have edited four segments into one-minute reflections and added our own questions and reflections for discussion points between pastors and their families.
Peace At Home
These brief devotions will be published one-by-one in subsequent days at no cost. As they are published, take time to ponder the preview thought questions, listen to the narrative from the book, then reflect and discuss the follow-up questions, action points and prayer.
As a prelude to these essays, you may learn more about the pressures of which Paul and Ezeji-Okoye speak, review the following resources:
However, more than looking at the data and testimonies, take to heart the principle of the book and devotionals and pray for your pastor. This would be an on-going gift growing out of Pastor Appreciation Month.
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.
Patton as Patton.
Scott as “Patton.”
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.
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:
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
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. — Jesus, quoted in John 14:27
When my pastoral season as a staff associate ended earlier this year, I was liberated from weekly responsibilities at my home church and allowed the liberty to visit other Services of Worship.
This is not “church shopping” as some call it. It’s been a working a sabbatical. These visitations brought with them new opportunities to commune with The Lord in assorted worship venues hearing other pastors preach, singing various styles of music.
Some places we went were just, “Where do we want to go this Sunday?” family choices. Many of the venues where we traveled were the outgrowth of presentations through our Kingdom Impact Theater Ministries.
Our nomadic Sundays included a suburban megachurch, an urban church plant in a high school cafe, an outdoor tent service on a shopping thoroughfare; our tucked-away home church; a renovated barn; an intimate suburban-city church merger with shoehorn parking; a renovated restart on a sprawling campus that added to Fitbit steps. We experienced old school Sunday jump-and-shout, a full-blown pop Christian concert, and a traditional stained-glass chapel with a friendly family instruction, “Mom, they’re Lutheran. They don’t raise their hands or move around.”
We found ourselves in the heart of a gay community; where English was a second language; where our presence virtually integrated the sanctuary; where the congregation was all-black; where it was a rainbow coalition. The pastors ran a spectrum from seasoned-and-running-the-church-for-decades to part-of-the-collection-replenishes-my-Proactive-supply. Yet, no matter where we went the Word of the Lord was solidly presented and, more often than not, we left a little beaten up from a spiritual workout.
CCB meets in the same location in which it was founded. In 1847. The congregation is 90 percent Caucasian, and perhaps 70 percent of that is AARP-qualified although none of them was around when the church began. Their younger pastor is a well-qualified theologian in the Martin Luther King title vein — a “Reverend Doctor.” The last name has a hint of French aristocracy. Most of the congregation, however, call the Reverend Doctor by first name: Zina.
Did I say Zina is female? She is. Maybe I should also mention Zina is African-American.
Barrington Community Church, built 1947.
Musicians Garlan Garner and Vikki J. Myers with Rev. Dr. Zina Jacque
If all of that seems too deep or pretentious, let me peel this back the way Zina might: She’s a big ol’ black country gal from East Chicago, Indiana, who doesn’t look black, who got a PhD in Boston, and is up here preaching to a buncha white folk in a Baptist church that was built before slave times…and they tell her she’s got 20 minutes to preach.
Ah, but what Zina does in those 20 minutes!
We first met Zina when we were co-presenting at an African-American History celebration at an African-American suburban church about four years ago. We’ve presented music and workshops at her church a few times since.
The 20 minutes we spent with Zina at Community Church this summer occurred a week after the riots in Charlottesville, VA, when a white man drove his car into a crowd of African-Americans who were protesting Confederate statues in the community. The driver, a self-described white nationalist, injured 19 people and killed one. A white female protester.
Zina’s sermon was a convicting confessional. A head-slapper. One of those that makes you just sit there and listen instead of taking notes. The notes will talk to you later. “Later” was this morning when I began reviewing my overnight newsfeed.
Two items on the feed caused a #holyspiritmoment smile of irony: back-to-back were the last YouVersion verses of the day that I had tried to post from my Kindle earlier in the morning but ran out of time before I had to be the wife’s Uber-driver to work. When I got home, I see that my verses of the day had been scooped by Ben Mitchell, an acquaintance through the Praise & Prayer Station Facebook Group I visit.
Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. — Colossians 3:13 (KJV)
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; — Matthew 5:44 (KJV)
Just below those verses was a Trump-Putin post with a friend’s rant and like-minded thread, the kind of which I’ve chosen to ignore. My blood pressure is borderline. Our budget cannot manage BP prescriptions. I scrolled to find mellower posts. This is what next appeared on my screen:
I can recommend good blood pressure monitors.
The post-er was Aaron Freeman, a long-time friend and fellow Chicago-based actor. Aaron is a well-respected comedian, who cut his improv teeth on the mainstage at The Second City, but established himself as a premiere satirist — in the Dick Gregory mold — when Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983. The landmark election and subsequent battles between the city’s first African-American mayor and the predominately white city council occurred shortly after the original “Star Wars” premiered. Aaron deftly parlayed the daily headlines into a long-running solo comic tour-de-force called, “Council Wars.”
Besides being actors, Aaron and I have a couple of other things in common. We both can be found dressed as Illinois Lottery balls in ancient commercials floating somewhere in cyberspace. We’re both African-American. We both study the Scriptures.
Did I mention Aaron is a satirist? Okay. Did I mention Aaron is Jewish? Ahhhhhh!
Actually, Aaron grew up Roman Catholic and converted to Judaism.
Aaron often comments on things of race, science, African-America and Judaism. He’s been known to irk people because of his wit. Sometimes he’s smarter than the average can bear. However, like any evocative public presenter — say, a Reverend Doctor, Aaron makes you think and if feeling an ouch occurs sometimes, so be it.
Everything from A(aron) to Z(ina)
So, let me break all of this down:
Aaron, my black-Jewish comic friend, posts a mind-blowing “photo” of Coretta Scott King kissing George Wallace, a five-term governor of Alabama, who made a national splash in the 1960s for his unavowed, eternal pledge to racial segregation. Aaron posts this photo with the heart-stopping caption, “How Alabama Negroes Came to Love ‘Their Hitler.’ ” He posts this two days after Roy Moore’s quest for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama was denied largely because of the vote of African-American women. (If media can be trusted.)
Now, you may still be in that place I was when I saw the photo: Skip it, or bang out an immediate, vitriolic response and note really pay attention to Aaron’s comment that accompanied the photo:
Alabama black women don’t just punish racists, they forgive them!
Orrr, you can do what I did and click the Aaron’s accompanying link to get the rrrest of the story on YouTube, originally posted in 2016. I clicked from curiosity and because, knowing Aaron, I was hoping that the rest of the link didn’t have incendiary data to send me for lisinopril.
I survived. So might you. You need to watch this to make sense of the rest of this piece:
That video essay immediately shot me back to the August morning with Rev. Dr. Zina.
Her sermon is worth a sit-down listen. Remember, they only gave her 20 minutes; but it you want a quicker connection to Aaron’s essay, fast-forward to 14:04. My suggestion — request — is to listen in its entirety for full impact.
The combination of Ben Mitchell reposting the verses on forgiveness, followed by Aaron’s video, and Zina’s extended discourse must give us pause for meditation and prayer: as a nation, certainly as Christ-followers. Or even as Americans whose faith in God is confined to the Old Testament — the Hebrew Bible — wherein The Lord intones:
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
What is the sin of America which much be confessed?
What are the sins of Americans which must be confessed?
Where must we, who follow Christ, ask forgiveness in order for our sins to be heard?
As we reflect upon the birth of Christ, we must also prepare for His Christmas yet-to- come. What does Jesus say about qualifications and responsibilities of those for whom He is returning?
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Jesus, Matthew 6:14-15
A Word from Isaiah
All of which brings us to the post between Ben Mitchell’s verses and Aaron Freeman’s photo. The post about Putin and The President. Whenever Mr. Trump’s actions result in further dropping of his “approval” ratings, how do you respond? Do you get sucked into the morass of social harping, or retire to your prayer closet and pray for repentance? Do you pray for the president’s safety, recognizing far worse ramifications? Do you ask forgiveness for placing the government upon his shoulders instead of upon His Shoulders? What is the source of your peace on earth?
Admittedly, as Rev. Dr Zina says, “This is nuts. This kind of love is beyond my pay-grade!”
That’s the peace of the Prince of Peace that Paul says passes all understanding. Thus we must reflect and act upon her challenge: “We have to have confidence that our prayers and our hopes will make a difference.”
The A and Z of this is, if Aaron and Zina demonstrate how The Lord changed George Wallace, there may be hope for Donald Trump.
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 J. Myers and her musical partner Garlan Garner embrace musical styles that transcend neighborhoods and unite communities.
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.
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.
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 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 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.”
“The doctors say I’ve got 80 percent of my hearing back.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.