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


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Carol Story: Songs of “The Night”

This carol is one of 61 on the playlist of “Carol Story,”  a 10-minute play that tells the story of Christ solely through lyrics of Christmas songs as dialogue.  Learn More.


“O Holy Night” is an English translation of the French carol “Le Christien Minuit” that was translated and became a rallying cry of abolitionists during the Civil War. The third verse of “O Holy Night” was a direct Christian call to eradicate slavery, a sentiment that led to the song begin edited  or outright banned in some sections of the country. We address this story more in our production, “Freedom Song.” 

​In the context of #CarolStory, “O Holy Night” is woven with five other standard carols — “Silent Night,” “Hark! The Herald,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “The Hallelujah Chorus” to establish the atmosphere of fear, awe and respect that the shepherds experienced when the Heavenly Host appeared on “The Night” when Christ was born. (The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 8-15).

Danny Gokey, a former American Idol runnerup, cleanly expresses those emotions and the abolitionist sentiment in his elegant yet simple video.  As a bonus, we add a unique one-man barbershop quartet performance by Julien Neel, aka Trudbol A Capella, in the original French.

LEARN MORE:  Original French Lyrics

LEARN MORE:  Beloved Carols with non-American Origins

LEARN MORE:Donate and Partner with Kingdom Impact Theater.


About the Singers


Danny Gokey

Danny Gokey — “O Holy Night” (English)

Daniel Jay Gokey is an American singer and former church music director from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was the third-place finalist on the eighth season of “American Idol.” After his placing on the show, Gokey signed to 19 Recordings and RCA Nashville at the beginning of a career in country music, releasing the single “My Best Days Are Ahead of Me.”  

LEARN MORE:  Danny Gokey’s Biography.

Trudbol A Cappella

Trudbol A Cappella — Le Minuit Christien (French)

Trudbol A Cappella (Julien Neel) is a one-man barbershop quartet. Julien sings all the parts from bass, to baritone, to tenor.  He typically covers classic barbershop tunes, but also Beatles songs, video game and TV theme songs, choral music, etc..  Julien lives in France and sings in French, English,  German, Swedish and will try other languages. Julien sells audio learning tracks and publishes a cappella videos each Thursday. 

LEARN MORE:  Trudbol’s Biography.


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

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