More Than Childbirth

“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also, his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.” — Romans 16:13

In the days when I regularly planned Services of Worship, Mother’s Day was particularly challenging, more challenging than preparing for Christmas, Easter or any other “holiday” related program. The planning challenge of those events centers on pouring through resources, coordinating production schedules, and assembling a team to share the load.

Mother’s Day is most personal. Mother’s Day is about the heart,
as Luke tells us in his account of the night Jesus was born.

I’ve often envisioned that Luke’s account, written years later after Jesus had returned to The Father, was because he interviewed Mary and asked, “What do you remember about the night Jesus was born?”

“Mary remembered these things and treasured them in her heart.” — Luke 2:19

While Mary’s recollections lead us on the path of gospel glory, countless other women have no such memories. They have not given birth. That is one of the dilemmas of Mother’s Day, a realization that smacked me on a Sunday years ago when I encountered a friend softly sobbing in the lobby during the service. She was a generally cheerful woman, extremely active in ministry, who had helped plan many programs which is why she stepped out during the Mother’s Day tribute.

En route to another assignment, I did not expect to see her alone, and did an about face to inquire.

“Mother’s Day is hard,” she said.

I thought she was reflecting on her deceased mother, as many do. Instead, she spoke of her unfulfilled yearning for motherhood. She did not question God. She had no rage. She just spoke her feelings which seemed an annual response. I had no pithy words of comfort. In fact, I was tongue-tied, and maybe admitted, “I don’t know what to say.”

She thanked me for listening and smiled her infectious smile.

Lesson 1: Listening speaks louder than words.

Remembering her words, the next Mother’s Day we expanded the scope of our salute. Nothing elaborate. No big pronouncement. Just broadening the idea of what motherhood is and how it exists whether or not childbirth is involved.

The next Mother’s Day my friend stayed in the service. She did not cry. She thanked me, and I her, and I think of this moment with my single friend each May.

“And he called his wife ‘Eve,’ because she was the mother of all living.” — Genesis 3:20

When it comes to acknowledging Mother’s Day in Services of Worship, it’s important to expand our concept of what, and who, a mother is. That includes remembering there are women who have never gone through childbirth, but who are maternal. That includes uplifting women who may have been mothers but who, for assorted reasons, did not deliver. That includes saying thank you to those women who have, for whatever reason, become surrogates for our own mothers whether those females are work colleagues or classmates.

Paul felt this way about Rufus’ mother, and remembered her so in what may have been the first Mother’s Day card at the conclusion of his letter to the Roman church.

The greeting is significant for reasons beyond Mother’s Day. The greeting has a voice to us today in light of scriptural comprehension, and
contemporary issues about inappropriate clergy relations, #MeToo abuse, and #ToxicMasculinity.

Paul’s writings are sometimes criticized as accusations that the Christian church is antagonistic toward women, relegating women to second-class citizenry. Examples include his letter to the Corinthian church, that women should be silent in the worship, and to Timothy, that women should dress modestly and not hold positions of teaching men. Admittedly, the statements are complex and merit further study; for as with many New Testament writings, culture and context of the period must be taken into account. And so…

Consider: Paul was writing to churches that were developing multi-cultural (Greek, Roman, local) and inter-denominational (Jewish and Gentile) congregations. Paul was writing to elders and pastors about establishing order in corporate worship. So statements such as “women should keep silent” and not teach men would have been rooted in his Orthodox Jewish upbringing which included separate synagogue seating for men and women. Un-Orthodox churches being planted based upon common belief in the Jewish Messiah may not have had this background, and thus these statements may based more upon introducing established corporate order than in personal opinion.

The ministry of Priscilla, painting by Harold Copping (1920)

However, even had perspectives overlapped, chronology and experience should also be considered. After all, keep in mind that before he personally met Jesus, admitted that Jesus was Messiah, and submitted to teach Christ’s purpose to reconnect Jews and Gentiles with God, Paul intentionally, proudly pursued persecuting and killing Christ-followers.

In either context, therefore, consideration must be given for the plausibility that Paul’s perspective on women in ministry may have expanded as his mission journeys took him beyond his Orthodox community. Writing to church leaders who did not have his multi-cultural experiences may have been a way to speak to colleagues who struggled with gender responsibilities just as they struggled with questions about whether to circumsize Gentile Christ-followers.

Regardless, in the context of Romans, Paul’s naming the women who supported his ministry — Priscilla; Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis — plus the sister of Neuris; and Rufus’ “mother, who has been a mother to me as well,” indicates an understanding that contradicted gender prejudice in his era, and eludes many in ours.

If naming the women wasn’t sufficient, the ultimate point is that he entrusted delivery of the Romans letter to Phoebe, very similar in how Jesus entrusted the first report of his resurrection to be delivered by Mary Magdalene.

Moreover, Phoebe delivering “Greetings” to the 28 people is not merely being cordial, as in sending a Hallmark card. A modern equivalent of the importance of “Greetings” might be that when the recipients opened Paul’s Hallmark card, the voice of Aretha Franklin would sound forth, belting: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” (Which was written by a man: Otis Redding.)

That’s the same principle behind “Greetings” and the laud behind ministry mothers today. Just as Paul thanked his women aides with no particular holiday (does “Just Because” count?), in an era with resurgent feminism, it’s important to remind male and female Christ-followers of the importance of women in ministry and culture. Paul’s letter is a model. So is reviewing Old Testament scripture and the relationships of Jesus.

Mother’s Day seems an apt time.

“Who is my mother…? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” — Jesus (Matthew 12:38-49

Throughout our congregations, in our classrooms, in the houses down the street are women who do the will of our Father on earth as it is in Heaven. An array of women across generations who may not have offspring, but who have Eve’s instinct of motherhood and responded to those who cry, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

They are teachers, attorneys, widows, First Ladies, would-be preachers, nurses, and sorority sisters. They are the cousins and aunts who care-take, fix meals, run errands, lend an ear, dole out advice, or simply pray when a parent or spouse is absent or otherwise engaged.

These are the REAL housewives whom even modern women must see within themselves: a woman of virtue, a woman of natural beauty; a woman who neither curses nor is cursed; a woman who acknowledges mutual respect — just as men recognize their interaction to women is modeled, not by culture, but by Christ.

On the cross, among Jesus’ last actions was to tend to his mother’s needs by passing her care to the disciple John.

He said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” — Jesus (John 19:26-27)

Jesus did not pass judgment on the woman accused of adultery. He praised the woman who washed his head with perfume and his feet with her tears while the men nearby chastised Him for doing so because of her “reputation.” As mentioned earlier, it was women to whom he revealed himself and gave the responsibility of telling others he was resurrected — this, in an era when a woman’s testimony was scorned.

In our times, fewer people recognize the difference between gender abilities and gender responsibilities. While there are gifts each has that are unique, there are others that are best designed to be used collectively. While Scripture introduces, and Jesus reinforces, this union by noting, “the two shall become one flesh,” a modern revelation of the connection has been expressed in the film, “Jerry McGuire.” After recognizing he has taken his girlfriend, Dorothy, for granted, the self-serving protagonist tracks down his forsaken beloved and confesses, “You complete me.”

It could be said that oneness — completion — is at the core of discussions regarding “feminism” and “women’s rights.” If so, Christ-followers have a great contribution to the conversation by demonstrating wholeness in Jesus, the first “feminist,” for ultimately, even Paul acknowledged and reminded the church in Galatia, in Christ “there is neither male nor female” for we are all one.

In some ways, this is what Mother’s Day celebrations, and greetings from Paul’s letters, are about: affirmation. That, as people, our contributions make a difference and are appreciated.

Whether or not a woman has given birth should not be the litmus test for motherhood, any more than a man’s ability to fertilize is indicative of being a father. What is essential is recognizing a woman’s gift to nurture and complete God’s image in our families and communities. That gift is worth worshipping and you don’t have to give cards and flowers to celebrate that.

You don’t HAVE to, but they sure help.

For Further Conversation

We cited some New Testament Scripture samples where women are edified. What are your thoughts on these passages? What other illustrations might you add?

5 Songs of Praise for Mothers & Others

“No Charge” — Sisters of Glory (Thelma HoustonCeCe PenistonPhoebe SnowLois Walden and Albertina Walker.)

“Rely Upon Jesus” and “(Glory) Mary’s Song” — Vikki J. Myers

“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” — Richie Havens

“I’ll Always Love My Mama” — The Intruders (“Soul Train” extended play)

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Carol Story: A Silent Night Anniversary

Silent Night” is the quintessential Christmas song. It’s virtually impossible for any artist to record a Christmas album and not have a rendition.  In this 200th anniversary of the song’s creation, we thought  it fun to expand the variety of recordings of the song to show its durability and to underscore the need to not let musicality overshadow the message of the lyrics.

Sis. Vanetta Pinn, who curated our Carol Story YouTube Playlist, included versions by Mariah CareyJustin Bieber and Boyz II Men for our re-posting consideration.  We’ve linked these videos to give a glimpse of vocal variations, musical arranging and technical production growth through the years. 

LEARN MORE:  “Silent Night” 200th anniversary observations

We’ve also included a medley by KIT Ministries co-founder Vikki J. Myers as a sample of how Christmas music can be merged with non-seasonal worship selections to give a sense of how the Christmas message lasts beyond the holidays.

However, for the purposes of our #CarolStory live presentation, the renditions that best  reflect the backstory nuances are by Andrea Bocelli and Mahalia Jackson . 

See December Archives (left) for other “Carol Story” stories.

In the context of #CarolStory,  the 10-minute worship play, “Silent Night” is woven with five other standard carols — “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “O Holy 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)

LEARN MORE:  “Carol Story” The Script

Bocelli, singing in Italian, brings to mind the European feel of the original German carol written by Franz Gruber.  We wonder how Gruber may respond to the variety of arrangements of the song, especially considering the urgent and somewhat controversial circumstances  under which he wrote the piece for Christmas Eve 1818.

LEARN MORE:  History of “Silent Night”

There’s a nostalgic prejudice for Mahalia Jackson’s version.  It was among the first “church” Christmas songs I heard (as opposed to the just-released “Frosty,” “Rudolph” and “Jingle Bell Rock,”) and was a family favorite.  Mother was not a singer but held her own singing along whenever the record  (as in vinyl) played , or when the Spirit moved her to burst into song  while baking cookies — thinking she was alone in the kitchen in the middle of the night.

As with other selections in this piece, the lyrics of “Silent Night” are woven throughout the play to move the story along and work effectively as scene exposition transitioning between scenes.

​LEARN MORE:“Carol Story” Live


Andrea Bocelli

Andrea Bocelli, “Silent Night” (Italian)

Andrea Bocelli is an Italian singer, songwriter, and record producer. Celin Dion, with whom he recorded “The Prayer,”  has said that “if God would have a singing voice, he must sound a lot like Andrea Bocelli.” 

Bocelli has recorded 15 solo studio albums of both pop and classical music, three greatest hits albums, and nine complete operas, selling over 90 million records worldwide. He has had success as a crossover performer, bringing classical music to the top of international pop charts.

He was born with poor eyesight and became completely blind at age 12, following a football accident.


 “The Prayer,” his duet with Celine Dion for the animated film Quest for Camelot ,  won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1999. — Source:  Wikipedia

LEARN MORE:  Andre Bocelli Today

Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson’s “Silent Night,” a personal family favorite.

Mahalia Jackson was an American gospel singer. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel.”  She became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She was described by entertainer Harry Belafonte as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.

“I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free,”  Jackson once said about her choice of gospel, adding, “It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.” — Source:  Wikipedia.

LEARN MORE:  Mahalia Jackson Biography

One More Thing

Mahalia Jackson is also one of the individuals whose story is included in  the Kingdom Impact Theater production, “Faith, Hope & Love:  History-Making Women of Faith,” a one-woman performance by Vikki J.  Myers.

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