Tuesday, November 26, 2013

May God Have This Dance?

It was a first for me.  A lady broke out in dancing during a worship service.  It was January, 1986.  I was in Jamaica on a mission trip.  I was sitting in the church worshiping with the people, waiting for my time to get up and preach.  And suddenly, during the singing, a lady got up and started dancing.  Having been either a Presbyterian or a Baptist for my then 29 years of life, I can honestly say no one ever got up to dance during worship—not even once.  Well, I do remember a kid getting up and wiggling around during the song service in a Baptist church one time, but he wasn’t dancing; he had to go to the bathroom.  Nope, I’d never seen dancing before in worship.
But this Jamaican lady cut loose.  It wasn’t a frenetic jig, and she never jumped a pew.  It was more of a rhythmic movement, up and down the center aisle of the little church, twirling and swaying and raising her hands to God in praise and thanksgiving.  It almost had a ballet feel to it.  And there was nothing forced about it either.  You could tell it came from someplace deep inside her heart.  “So what’s with the dance?” I whispered to the Jamaican pastor who was hosting us.  He kind of shrugged his shoulders, as if her dance was the most normal thing in the world, and said, “She just does it when she’s thankful.”

Hmmm.  I couldn’t help picturing worship as a lodge dance.  God is in the stag line, and this Jamaican lady approaches Him and asks, “May I have this dance?”  And she dances with God a dance of gratitude and praise.  Well, I’m not much of a dancer myself.  There’s not a Fred Astaire bone in my body.  I’m not sure I could do a thanksgiving dance to God.  But I can express my gratitude in other ways: words of thanks, kind deeds paid forward for the kindness God has shown to me, generosity in giving for the bountiful gifts God has given me. 

This is Thanksgiving week.  Take time to count your blessings.  Find ways to express your gratitude to God and others.  Even if times are not the best for you right now, you are blessed far more than you realize.  As G. K. Chesterton wrote in a brief poem:

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

Why am I allowed two, indeed.  Don’t let this week pass without expressing thanks.  Give thanks to others for sure, but remember the source of your every blessing comes from the kind and gracious hand of God.  So I have but one question for you in this Thanksgiving season: May God have this dance?

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
and his steadfast love endures forever!
(Psalm 136:1)

Monday, November 18, 2013


Has it really been fifty years?  I was in second grade at Meadowcliff Elementary School in Little Rock when I heard the news.  The last bell rang.  It was time to walk home like I did every day.  A school crosswalk guard—a sixth-grader, I think—broke the news to the little bunch of us waiting to cross the street.  “They shot the President today,” he said.  “Kennedy is dead.”

“What?  Huh?  The President is dead?”  I was in second grade.  I didn’t know what to make of it.  When I got home, our babysitter was glued to the TV, watching events unfold.  She had been crying.  It was all the discussion at supper too—a kind of deep and pervasive sadness lay across our home like winter’s heaviest blanket.  And even to a second-grader, the world seemed different somehow.

Funny, isn’t it, how some things linger in our memory?  So many of life’s experiences pitch a little tent in our memory, and somewhere along the way, maybe in the night, maybe when we’re sleeping, we never notice that the memory of that experience folds its tent and tiptoes away, forgotten forever.  But for some reason the memory of Kennedy’s assassination didn’t pitch a tent in my memory.  It put down pilings, laid a concrete foundation, and built a brick home.  That memory wasn’t going anywhere.  That memory was staying put.

In reflecting on this 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, I’ve visited that memory yet again.  Like any 50 year old home, that memory is showing some signs of wear.  The door is a bit weathered; the windows could use a good cleaning; the landscaping is a little ragged.  I don’t see things quite as clearly as I once did.  But in spite of its age, that old memory is not going anywhere.

And I think I know why.  On November 22, 1963, the world got bigger for me.  In my little second grade way, I suddenly realized that life was bigger than my family and my neighborhood and my elementary school.  Life was bigger, the world was bigger, than playing army in the woods, riding bikes in the neighborhood, and watching The Flintstones, Huckleberry Hound, and Captain Kangaroo on television.  I was a citizen of a bigger world than all of that.

And it’s not that I was completely naïve to bigger things at that tender age of my life.  I distinctly remember being home with the mumps and watching TV coverage of John Glenn’s orbit of the earth.  And my own home was not a happy one: my mom and dad fought a lot—loudly and with slaps and rolling pins now and then.  I remember lying in bed, having a hard time going to sleep, worried sick that when my dad got home, another fight would break out.  But that was local.  That was my home, my life.  In a sick and twisted way, that was my “normal.”

But when Kennedy was murdered, that seemed so much bigger.  Flags were at half-mast.  Everybody talked about it.  The TV showed long lines to view his body, and there were tears, tears, and more tears.  I even saw grown men cry, and in 1962, before men were taught to “get in touch with their feelings,” that was no common sight.  Gloom hung in the air like a thick autumn fog.

Of course, time didn’t stand still for long.  Time marched on as it always does.  And that decade would see an escalation of war in Viet Nam, two more high profile assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy), protests, and race riots.  And to top off the decade, in July of 1969, Neil Armstrong took his “one small step for man, but one giant leap for mankind” when he set foot on the moon.  All of that was big stuff too.  All of it made an impact on a growing boy like me.

But by the time I caught those punches, I guess I was toughened up enough to roll with them.  Not that they were easy to take, but not a one of them knocked the wind out of me like the news of that crosswalk guard: “They shot the president today.  Kennedy is dead.”  That’s when I realized the world was a bigger, harsher, more dangerous place than I’d ever imagined.  And maybe that’s why across these five decades, I’ve always had a fascination about that tragic event.

That’s when the world got bigger for me.  When did it get bigger for you?  Pearl Harbor?  The moon landing?  The Iranian hostage crisis?  The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan?  September 11, 2001?  When you saw the pictures from the Hubble Telescope?  Or maybe it was when some missionary came to your church and showed you slides of pictures you’d only seen in the National Geographic in your school library?  I’m convinced this happens to us all somewhere along the way.  Some crisis, some overwhelming event or image awakens us to the fact that we are small and the world is a large, wonderful, and even frightening thing.

That’s why I’m so grateful that along the line, I ran into something, uh, Someone, who is even bigger.  How much bigger?  Big enough to speak worlds into existence, to fling stars from His fingertips, to ride storms, and to use the earth as a footstool.  Big enough to take on sin and defeat it’s penalty in Jesus Christ who became “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2).  Big enough to take the worst evil that can happen in the world and redeem it, reshape it, bring some good from it all, and one day, the last day, destroy evil once and for all.  God is bigger all right.  And while that comforts me in this big old world of danger and trial, one thing comforts me more: God is even big enough to hold a person like me in the secure and sturdy palm of His good hands.  And whether you're a second-grader or 80 years old, that, my friends, is plenty big enough.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Pastoral Tenure, Part 2: The Blessings of Tenure

This is the second of two posts about pastoral tenure.  In Part 1, I reflected on the things that have helped me stay put in one place for a long time: my first pastorate almost 14 years; my current pastorate more than 18 years.

In this second post, I want to reflect on the blessings of tenure.  While there are blessings in any length of pastoral tenure, longer tenures bring different blessings.  And when I feel like I’m getting a bit stale or bored or feel the urge to flick the switch to auto-pilot, when I get itchy feet and ponder what it might be like in some new place, I count the blessings of tenure—some general and some very specific.  But even the more general blessings I cite come with names and faces. 

These blessings of tenure were brought home to me in two recent events that happened one on top of the other. 

First, I received a letter from a social worker in a local hospital who thanked me for coming to the hospital to support a family who’s loved one died in the ER.  She wrote, “You are a highly respected and dedicated professional in our community and bring healing with you wherever you go.”  Of course, when I read that line I checked the envelope again to make sure that note was addressed to me.  But that reputation doesn’t happen in one year or three years or five years.  Tenure helped make that happen.

And the second event happened at the wedding of a young woman who grew up in our church but has lived away for a number of years.  It was my honor to help officiate this wedding in Little Rock.  One of her bridesmaids was another young woman I’d watched grow up in the church.  I prayed with the bridal party just before the ceremony, and the bridesmaid said after the prayer: “I still find your voice so comforting, bringing back warm childhood memories.”  Another blessing of tenure.

Those are specific things that just happened.  Here are a few of the general blessings of tenure I enjoy:

·         I get to unpack all my boxes.

·         I have time to teach “the whole counsel” of God’s word, rather than just my hobby horses or the same 200 sermons over and over again at first one church and then the next.  This forces me to read and study and stay fresh.  I like that … most of the time.

·         I get to see that God redeems my bloopers and blunders and mistakes and sins.

·         I get to see the lost person come to Christ for whom some in the church (including me) have been praying for years.  In fact, I get to see answers to lots of prayers that have been faithfully prayed for years.

·         I get to know my people over time and on deeper levels.  I get to watch young ones grow up and older ones age.  I get to watch new Christians grow in their faith, and I get to witness older Christians mature in their faith.

·         I get to perform the wedding for children I baptized and sometimes baptize their children too.

·         I get to see firsthand how stories turn out: Does the young person make it to the mission field?  Does the young couple wanting children so desperately finally get one?  Does the troubled marriage get restored?  Does the prodigal come home?

·         I get to see some of that Romans 8:28 “good” that God works in the terrible things that happen to our people.  More often than not, that “good” doesn’t show up till years after the crisis.  I get to see some of that and it builds my faith.

·         People in the community view me not just as the pastor of First Baptist Church but as part of the Hot Springs community.

·         Will God use my preaching and teaching to shape and form a congregation to look more like Jesus?  I get to see.

·         My leadership gains gravitas and my viewpoint gains weight with every passing year.

·         Early on in my ministry in Hot Springs, a number of folks said, “I hope you’re here to do my funeral.”  I have been here for many of them—373 of them to this point.

·         I get to be with many of the same people through the various seasons of their lives: birth, graduation, marriage, divorce, surgeries, crises, moves, promotions, victories, sickness, dying and death.  I get to do a lot of weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.  I get to be their pastor.  It’s so gratifying to hear someone tell me, “I remember when you were there for us when mom died … when the baby was sick … when we played for the championship … when I lost my job … when our marriage was falling apart … when our son was arrested … when the doctor said the cancer was gone …” and a hundred other things.

And I’ve only been here for 18 years.  I’ve got friends who’ve stayed a lot longer than that.  And they tell me the blessings just get deeper and better as the years go by.  If a critical key in pastoring a church is developing relationships, tenure gives relationships room to grow and season and develop.  And as you can tell in my list, relationships are at the heart of almost every blessing. 

Dr. John Faw­cett was the pastor of a small church in Wainsgate, England, and was called from there to pastor a large, influential church in London in 1772.  He accepted the call and preached his farewell sermon.  The wagons were loaded with his books and furniture, and all was ready for the departure, when his parishioners gathered around him.  With tears in their eyes, they begged him to stay.  His wife said, “Oh John, John, I cannot bear this.”  Fawcett replied, “Neither can I, and we will not go.  Unload the wagons and put everything as it was before.”  His decision was greeted with great joy by his peo­ple.  And in commemoration of the event, he wrote the words of this hymn:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

The blessings of tenure!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pastoral Tenure, Part I: How I Stay Put in One Church

[This is the first of a two part series on pastoral tenure.]

When pastors get together for some kind of group experience, the convener usually opens discussion by asking the pastors to share their name, the name of the church they serve, and how long they have been there.  Having recently sat in a group like that, I had the opportunity to say, “My name is John McCallum.  I serve at First Baptist Church, Hot Springs.  And I’ve been there for over 18 years.”  

I don’t know who’s more amazed by the length of my tenure: my colleagues or me.  My situation is made more intriguing by the fact that though I’m 57 years old and have been a lead pastor for 31 years, I’ve only served two churches in that time frame.  What makes this so interesting to pastors is that (according to a 2011 Barna report) the average tenure of Protestant pastors is only four years.

So some of my pastor friends scratch their heads over it and ask how I manage to stay so long in one church. 

The first thing I say in response to this question is, “No pulpit committees.”  Chances are pretty high that if no other church ever asks you to consider becoming their pastor, you’ll stay right where you are.  And honestly, that’s been the case for me.  In 31 years of pastoring, I’ve only had serious conversations with two pulpit committees, both of which contacted me in the first church I served, and  one of which was the committee for the church I’ve now served for 18 years.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I suspect it helps that I made a decision at the beginning of my ministry that I would never initiate contact with a church that was looking for a pastor.  I wouldn’t send an unsolicited resume, and I wouldn’t ask a friend to do it for me.  I’ve always figured that was God’s business and sure as I tried to make something happen, it would end badly.  This posture certainly limits opportunities.  And the lack of opportunities to move elsewhere has surely helped keep me in one place for long periods of time.  That’s the first reason for my long tenure.

Here’s a second: I’ve never pastored a church in a dying community.  God has placed me in a growing suburb and in a stable mid-size city at the hub of a fairly dynamic county.  I’ve not pastored in a community that regularly witnesses factories close, downtown businesses shut their doors and board up their windows, or has more people moving out than moving in.  My hat is off to pastors who serve in dying communities.  Those churches need pastors as much or more than the kind of churches I’ve served.  But how does a pastor stay for very long in a dying community with a shrinking church and no prospects to see it grow enough to sustain the pastor’s family?  Pastoring in more dynamic communities is something I have no control over, but it sure helps tenure.

And so does this: my age.  Now this wasn’t always the case.  While it’s hard for me to remember that I was once a young man, there was a day when I was in the sweet-spot for pastoral transitions: which is ages 35-49.  I moved to First Baptist, Hot Springs, when I was 38.  I still had several “prime” years left for moving elsewhere after I came to Hot Springs, but I just got busy with my work here and the next time I checked the calendar, I was 50.  Opportunities diminish after that—especially opportunities for growing churches that are composed of mostly younger adults or are in need of reaching younger adults.  Churches are enamored with youth, and I don’t blame them.  While age usually means experience and accumulated wisdom, it can also mean cynicism and bitterness too.  While age can certainly mean a pastor works smarter instead of harder, it can also mean a pastor decides to put his/her ministry in neutral and coast into retirement.  While I have no statistics to back it up, my sense is that a pastor’s longer tenures happen on the back-end of his/her ministry rather than on the front end.  Age makes a difference in tenure.  At least it has for me.

And so has this: instead of focusing on changing churches, I focus on changing the church I am in.  While I’ve only been pastor of two churches, I’ve actually pastored three or four different churches in both places.  Churches can change and grow in so many ways: numbers, budgets, spiritual development, additional ministries, additional staff, and, among other things, additional or remodeled buildings that create new or better space.  It’s hard for a pastor to get bored when things are changing and popping.  The challenge for pastors in these situations is to make appropriate and necessary changes in the way we pastor—what do we take up and what do we give up?  This is hard work: sometimes painful, but seldom boring.  I’ve been blessed to be in churches that were willing to make changes and grow in different ways.  I can honestly say that the quality of the two churches I’ve served and their willingness to change have had more to do with my tenure than my own gifts, skills, or abilities.

Then there is this: I've learned to deal with conflicts quickly rather than letting them fester.  Unresolved, festering conflict hurts the church, causes the church to take their eye off the ball, and steals a pastor's joy.  It has always helped me to deal directly and forthrightly with the kind of conflicts that hold the potential to disrupt church unity.  God has blessed this.  And God has taught me something along the way about church conflict: most people don't have to have their way, but they do want to have their say.  Bathe the process in prayer.  Treat all people with love and respect.  Hear people out.  Make a church decision.  And move on.  This is how God has resolved the few conflicts with which I've had to deal through my three decades of pastoring.  And this is a key reason I've been able to stay put in the same church for lengthy periods of time. 

And here's another reason along that same line: I try to remember that things are never as good or as bad as they seem to be in the moment.  A wise pastor told me that early in my ministry and it has helped a lot.  That sage counsel has helped me maintain an even keel through the many seasons a church experiences.  It's helped me not to get too hyped up when good things are happening.  It's helped me not to get too discouraged when things are tough.  And it's helped me not to fret or stew much one way or the other.  This counsel has kept me from premature flight from one church to another (which has its problems too).  

Oh, and one more thing: I make friends with church members.  Common pastoral wisdom suggests that it’s not wise to make friends with church members.  When I was a young buck, I was told by a number of experienced pastors, “Get your friends outside of the church.”  That may be good advice, but that never worked for me.  My best friends are church members—have been in both churches I’ve pastored.  These are friends with whom my family has vacationed, friends with whom I’ve traveled to Razorback road games, friends who’ve shared our joys and halved our sorrows and who have allowed us the same privilege with them. Here’s how this helps tenure: friends root your heart in one place; friends make it easier to stay and harder to leave; friends add joy to the journey.  I’ve never fashioned myself a very good friend, but I’ve sure been blessed with some.  If I was to move, I wouldn’t just be leaving a church, I’d be leaving friends.

And these are the things that have helped me stay put for way longer than the average tenure of most pastors.  I’m not saying that a long tenure is always better than a short one.  God calls some pastors to short tenures, often to do hard things that need to be done but make it hard for the pastor to stay.  A dynamic ministry of three or four years in one church is probably better for the kingdom of God than doing the same year of ministry twenty years in a row in the same church.  My calling has been to long tenures.  And if you think God might be calling you to the same, my prayer is that the things that have helped me stay put will help you stay put too.

[Next time: The Blessings of Tenure]

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Prayer for Our Leaders

Each year about this time, our community hosts the Garland County Leadership Prayer Breakfast.  Hundreds of our community leaders attend along with many from our county who serve in elected offices.  It's a nice event.  Craig O'Neil was the keynote speaker: great fun and simple wisdom.  The daughter of one of our judges shared a reading about Jesus that stirred a rousing ovation from the audience.  I had the privilege of praying for our leaders.  Several people asked for copies of the prayer, so I thought the best way to provide that was by posting it on my blog.  "I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people.  Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them.  Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity" (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Here's the attempt I made at doing that this morning.  Would you add your prayers to this one?


We praise you, our Father, because you are a great God.  You spread out the heavens like a tent and rest your feet on the earth like a stool.  You can hold oceans in the palm of your hands and spin a planet on your finger.  You are sovereign over the whole wide world.  And yet you take interest in the likes of us.  Not only are you kind to your people, as Jesus tells us, you are kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked.  What a great God you are.  You do anything you chose to do, any time you chose to do it, without seeking the counsel of any of us.  Nothing happens that takes you by surprise.  You know everything there is to know.  You are the one true God.  There is no one greater.  You are God and we praise you.  Your word tells us that you put rulers in their places and that with the puff of your breath you can inflate them to glorious heights or blow them away like a tumble weed. 

So Lord, we thank you for our leaders.  Our hearts go out to them whether they serve in the West Wing, the halls of Congress, behind the bench, the state house, the county court house, city hall, or in superintendent’s conference rooms all over our county.  Thank you for their willingness to serve.  And with the abuse so many of them take, it’s a wonder anybody would want to serve at all. So in this difficult climate, help them to serve well.  Give them strength to serve others rather than themselves.  May the high ideals that moved them to seek office be their beacon while they’re in office.  We ask that you give them common sense and a willingness to work with others, even those with whom they disagree.  Help them to remember that while compromise is always a dirty word when it comes to morality, it’s usually a golden word when it comes to politics.  So Lord, would it be too much to ask that you help all of our leaders seek the common good ahead of personal or party ambitions and the discernment to never confuse the two—so that they might have the courage to see things as they are, the vision to see things as they could be, and the wisdom to bridge the gap?

None of our leaders are perfect, so please give them the courage to admit their mistakes when they make them.  Forgive any stubborn pride that leads them to think they are better or wiser or more patriotic than others.   Raise up in them a spirit of humility that will stir them to listen more than speak, to think of others before self, and to feel a great need to pray about everything.

I suspect, Father, that those of us who have never held office can’t begin to imagine all the voices in their ears: constituents, lobbyists, party bosses, and all the rest—demanding this, expecting that, offering favors for votes.  We pray that in the midst of these many voices in their ears, they may both seek and discern your voice above all the rest.  For you are a God who guides, a God who is ready and willing to provide wisdom when we ask.  Help our leaders to ask … and then to hear your voice and have the courage to follow your lead of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with you.

And while we get awful frustrated with our leaders sometimes, may our voices, the voices of your people, offer our leaders more than angry opinions, phony flattery, and bitter criticism.  May we offer respect and civility instead.  And even more, may our voices offer prayers in their behalf, just as you have commanded us to do, and just as we are doing today.  Please hear and answer our prayers as you see best, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why I Write

Dorothy Sayers was probably speaking for herself when in one of her mystery stories Harriet Vane says of writing prose, “When you get the thing dead right, and know it’s dead right, there’s no excitement like it.  It’s marvelous.  It makes you feel like God on the Seventh Day.”

Looking over my blog, I noticed that I’m closing in on the completion of four years of blog posts.  While I don’t fashion myself a great writer by any means, the quote above from a Dorothy Sayers novel captures my feeling when I write and preach (which, since I write my sermons, are like two peas in the same pod).

When I began the blog, I wasn’t sure how long I’d do it or if I’d like doing it.  Perhaps I was just putting pressure on myself to prepare yet something else in a life already full of preparations.  I determined from the get-go that I would only write when I had something to say (not a luxury I have in preaching unfortunately).  For the most part, I’ve honored that, and, by God’s grace, I’ve stuck with it. 

Not long ago, a friend of mine, who reads my blog from time to time, was thinking about starting a blog of her own.  She wanted to be sure, though, that cranking out blog posts would be worth the time it took her to write them.  “Do you have a lot a lot of people read your stuff?” she asked.

“No, not many,” I replied.  “If I post on a controversial issue, I get a bigger readership.   But I don’t do much posting like that.  My regular posts get an average read of 150-200 people.”

“That’s it?” she said.  “Then why do you do it?”

“I do it for me,” I said.  “I do it because I love to write.  It’s cathartic and therapeutic for me to get my thoughts out in front of me in black and white.  It helps me process life.  And I also do it as an offering to God.  That’s why I call my blog Life at the Altar.  I enjoy looking for traces of God in the everyday experiences of life: family, work, current events, church, death.  Sometimes God is so thick in things I can’t see anything else.  And sometimes I have to grab my magnifying glass and fingerprint kit, put on my Sherlock Holmes hat, and sleuth Him out.  But I enjoy the process and I enjoy writing about it.”

“You mean you’d blog even if no one read your stuff?”

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had more readers, but I’m pretty sure I’d keep it up even if nobody read it all.  Besides, God reads it, I think, and if it brings a smile to His face, that’s good enough for me.”

So far as I know, my friend has yet to begin a blog.

I began mine in 2009, and 188 posts later, thank you for taking a few minutes two or three times a month to read Life at the Altar.  Thanks for sharing posts that touch you on Facebook and for inviting others to read it too.  The subtitle at the top of the page reads, “Altars are places where people meet God, and because God is everywhere, we can meet Him anywhere.”  I hope you’ve met God in my posts.  I think that, too, would put a smile on God’s face.  And I know it puts a smile on mine.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, 2001 — A Poem of Remembrance

The rumble of a jet engine
     low over Manhattan, too low.
Necks on the street craning to see
     the source of the noise.
In seconds, the sound of a great collision,
     a fireball in one of the twin towers,
    now gashed and looking like a broken chimney.

Calls are made; sirens roar;
     police and firemen on their way.
Chaos on the inside; chaos on the outside:
     in both human hearts and the broken tower.
What a horrible accident!  It just couldn’t be!

Yes, it could.
     And it was no accident:
In a cave in Afghanistan,
     Osama Bin Laden grins from ear to ear.
And in New York City, hear the rumble of another jet
          barely overhead.

Now two towers, burning, smoking.
     First responders doing their thing.
Bystanders on the street, running for their lives
      and staring into the impossible;
     A nation on the edge of their seats,
          rubbing eyes in disbelief:
               Who?  What?  Why?

What’s that?  The Pentagon too?
     And four new generations of Americans
          taste the bitterness America tasted
               at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941:
                    O God, not again!

At least the worst is over, right?
     Wrong.  The twin towers shiver,
          and crumble into a pile of dust and ash and twisted metal:
               an impromptu grave for more than 3000 people
                    who went to work that day with full calendars
                         and plans for the next weekend.

“I’ll see you this evening,” said the wife to her husband.
     “We’ll toss the football when I get home,”
          said the father to his son.
There was no evening for them,
     they never made it home:
          the football stayed in the closet;
               the boy stayed in his room, his pillow soaked with tears.

And it still wasn’t over: a plane spirals down in a Pennsylvania field;
     “Let’s roll,” says a passenger, and that plane is brought down
           by brave Americans who put the lives of others above their own.
There was a lot of that that day.

As night fell on America,
     there was much weeping and fervent praying;
          the President spoke, flags waved,
               the strains of “God Bless America” were heard from
                    sea to shining sea.
And America has never been the same.
There are memorials now in all these places,
     where thunder struck and people died,
          memorials made of wood and metal and stone.
And in the hearts of all Americans who lived that day
     there are memorials in our hearts and minds
          composed of images we will  never forget …
                and shouldn’t.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sing to the Lord a New Song

A couple of weeks ago, our church installed our new Minister of Music and Worship.  As part of his installation charge, I included the following reflection.

In his famous song, American Pie, Don McLean sings about "the day the music died."  Have you ever thought about what life would be like if there ever came a day when music died? 

Imagine what life would be without music …  

Parents would have to rock their children to sleep without the sweet melody of a lullaby.

Television commercials would be dry as dust.  It's the jingles that get to us.  It's the jingles that stick in our memories.  See if you can complete these jingles:

·         “The best part of waking up is ….” 

·         What about this one: “My bologna has a first name it’s ….” 

·         Now this one: “Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece of that ….” 

·         And you may even remember this much older jingle, "See the USA in your …."  That's right, Chevrolet. 

Those are dated, and you still remembered them, didn’t you?  Without music television would be empty.  No jingles in commercials.  No theme songs for the shows.

And without music in life, no matter which radio station you tune in, all you could find would be talk radio.  How could it officially ever be summer if you couldn’t drive down the road with your windows down and your radio blasting as you sing along to your favorite tunes?

Life without music would be strange indeed.

And imagine worship without music …

Well, worship might be shorter, or worse yet, we preachers would probably go longer.

In worship without music, way fewer people would be able to use their gifts in the church.

In worship without music, offertory times would be louder because there would be no music to cover up all the whispering and readjusting that goes on during that time. 

And what about invitations: no music, no hymn, just a preacher standing up there staring at the congregation.  The only plus side about the invitation, I guess, is that preachers would never lie to us again about, "We're only going to sing one more verse."

And in worship without music we would never have the hymns to carry with us out the doors of the sanctuary and into everyday life.  Even though it’s been years ago, I still remember when Oral Hershiser won the World Series MVP for the Dodgers.  He was asked by a reporter, “I see you moving your lips in the dugout when you’re teams at bat.  You don’t appear to be talking to anyone and no one appears to be listening.  So what are you doing?”  Hershiser answered, “I’m singing hymns.  They keep me calm and focused.”  We all have our favorite hymns and choruses that encourage us so much as we go about our lives.

Worship without music would be sterile at best and dead at worst.  I can't imagine worship without music, can you?

How about the Bible without music?  

Did you know that music fills the Bible?  If we were to take the music out, we'd have to get rid of the song of Moses, the song of Deborah, David's song, and pretty much the whole book of Psalms.  Can you imagine the Bible without the Psalms?  How would you ever find the middle? 

And the NT would feel the pinch too.  How about the angel's song and Elizabeth's song and Mary's song?  How about Philippians 2:6-11 where Paul quotes the hymn about Jesus who though He was equal to God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped?  You know that song, don't you?  It ends with the chorus that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  It's a great song.  And Revelation has some great songs too.  Take out the songs of Revelation and about all you have left are ten-headed beasts, scorpions and dragons and stuff.

It's just hard to imagine what it would be like to live in a world and a church that had no music.

Music is a gift of God. 

It comes from the soul and lives in the memory.  It touches our emotions in ways mere speaking never could.  And music expresses our emotions too.  Through music we can sing for joy or cry the blues.  Through music we can express our fear or declare in faith an assurance that reaches down to the deepest part of the soul.  Music is God's gift.  God likes music—all kinds of music.  God put music into nature: bird song, wind whistle, bass drum thunder, coyote moon song, rooster crow at dawn, percussion waterfalls, and so much more.  God also put all kinds of music in the Bible and He put all kinds in our soul.  God even joins in the singing: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph. 3:17).  God is the Master Musician, the Singer of singers, the Voice of voices, the Composer of composers.  We’re the Pips to God’s Gladys Knight, the Boston Pops to God’s Arthur Fiedler, the guitar to God’s Carlos Santana, the trumpet to God’s Louis Armstrong.  That’s why the Bible and the human soul are full of music.  God did this so we would learn how to set our faith to music, so we’d learn how to sing a song in the day and how to whistle in the dark.  God did this so we could add rhythm to our lives, poetry to our prose, and help us march to the beat of the great drummer of the universe—Jesus Christ our Lord. 

So "Sing to the Lord a new song … (Ps. 96:1).  Make music in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:19).  You’re not singing solo, you know.

Monday, August 26, 2013


No one has taught me more about how to praise the Lord than Frederick Buechner.  Certainly the Psalms provide me language and expressions of praise, but I want to offer some praise on my own.  That’s where Buechner helped me a lot.  He reminded me that praise is not so much paying compliments as it is paying attention.  Since God is so very thick in our everyday lives, Buechner suggests a little exercise of putting a frame around a moment in time, finding God in it, and turning that into praise.  It’s a rewarding and soul-deepening exercise in which I learn to delight in and enjoy God so very much. 

This has been my practice off and on across the last fifteen years or so.  Sometimes I practice it more rigorously than others.  And when I do, God does not disappoint.  He provides the ingredients I need to mix up a batch of praise all along the way.  You can do this too, you know.  It takes no special gift to do it.  All it requires is learning to stop, look, and listen—to pay attention to moments in our lives that are thick with God if we’ll just notice.

As grist for the mill of your very own praise, I offer these praise reflections from my month of leave this summer:

Praise is taking a trip with my son and his son to take in some baseball games, grateful that they share my love of baseball—which will someday pass away—but more grateful yet that they share my love of God and God’s things which will never pass away.

Praise is sitting in a busy airport, watching all kinds of people, wondering who they are, where they're heading, what's their story, and marveling that God knows each and every one. 

Praise is visiting with an old Missouri friend who is so enjoying the Virginia church he pastors, and thankful that God in His wisdom knows how to put the right pastor in the right spot so Christ’s church might be blessed and God might be glorified.

Praise is enjoying the sight, sounds, and monuments of our nation’s capital, keenly aware of the power that resides there, but rejoicing all the more that God is on His throne and has way more power still.

Praise is a botanical garden filled with a thousand different plants in a rainbow of color.  Praise is a dead tree in a tidal basin reaching up its arms to God, still praising Him in its deadness.

Praise is chatting with a Pakistani taxi driver about Isa—Jesus—and remembering that God loves the world and gave His only Son that those who believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Praise is watching the Orioles beat the Yankees.  But even more, praise is sitting in a full stadium, listening to people cheer on their team, and remembering that we believers are surrounded by a great cloud of unseen witnesses who cheer us on as we seek to live our faith in this world.

Praise is seeing a Bible in an airport bookstore, humbly taking its out of the way spot in the marketplace of ideas, and knowing that of the millions of words in the books in that store, only these Bible words will endure forever.

Praise is worshiping in small Baptist church with only a handful of people in which Dayna and I were among the youngest, a lady leading slow, old hymns from the piano, and a young pastor who preached his heart out, believing God still has a hope and a future for that church.  And God does.

Praise is attending one funeral and assisting in another, saddened at the death of friends, but grateful knowing that they have heard on the other side of the grave the restful benediction of Revelation: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…."

Praise is having one little girl jump in your arms and another grab your leg and shout, “Papa!”

Praise is sitting on my daughter’s porch at a Christian camp listening to the morning symphony: the gentle breeze plays percussion in a grove of trees; a bird squawks in her perch; a goat b-a-a-as from behind the house, a sprinkler plays marimba.  Add to that the muffled chatter of campers waking and stirring about, the sound of doors opening and closing, and the creaky swing on which I’m rocking which keeps rhythm with it all on a morning in which God’s mercies are fresh yet again in Jesus Christ.  Mozart couldn’t do it better.

Praise is watching two young men who grew up in this church have a Christ-impact on the lives of teenagers.

Praise is a piece of coconut cream pie from the Blue Bonnet Café in Marble Falls, Texas.

Praise is getting some alone time with my daughter and having a rare, rich conversation, just her and me, as we made our way to town and back.  When did this little girl become such a remarkable, godly young woman?  How I praise you, God.

Praise is sitting in a recently planted church filled with mostly teenagers and young adults, the band plays and the congregation rocks out to songs I’ve never heard at a volume level that’s out of my comfort zone, and yet grateful that God receives this praise as gladly as He receives an established church singing Amazing Grace or To God Be the Glory.  What a large and mighty God He is!  What a lover of diversity and variety!  How gracious God is to meet us where we are!

Praise is listening to a preacher tell again the story of Jonah and the relentless love of God in Jesus Christ that pursues runaways, tracks them down, gets their attention, forgives their sins, and restores them to blessing and usefulness again.

Praise is sitting in a ballpark in Kansas City with my father-in-law and his brother to watch the Orioles and the Royals, checking Facebook during batting practice, and seeing a post from a Kansas City friend who, knowing I’m an Oriole fan, wrote, “I wish John McCallum could be here.”  Was he ever surprised when I immediately responded, “Your wish is granted.  I’m in section 217.”  To which he responded, “Stand up and look behind you at the glass windows.”  I did and he and another old KC friend were waving to me there.  We ended up getting to chat for a while.  Praise is that serendipitous blessing that God just gives to His children now and then because He loves us and because it delights Him to do it.

And at the end of a little time away, praise is turning into a driveway, grateful to have a place called home.

Don’t you see?  The ingredients needed to mix up a batch of praise are all around us.  You don’t have to go to some store to get them; they’re right before your eyes.  We just need to pay attention.  Praise begins by paying attention, by putting a frame around moments in time, by opening our eyes and ears, taking in the glory of the moment, and turning it to God in prayer.

You can do this.  And both life and your walk with God will be richer when you do.