Simple Gospel

I have played piano, essentially, all my life. Lessons began in second grade and I just kept playing. My university degree is in music, and my professional career has revolved around education and performance and music-related ministry.

I teach privately, which is immensely rewarding.

And I love to hear the people sing.

If you know my current vocation and the way in which we do large church gatherings, you might find that hard to believe. Although my focus has been on the pastoral side of ministry over the past several years, I’m still deeply committed to our musical expression each week; and that expression is contemporary, for sure. Our  musical expression is pretty much rock and roll church, and what you usually can’t hear is the people singing.  Modern evangelical, contemporary-Christian leaning in style and music; it suits our model; it reflects our mission, and we try to choose music for our gatherings that has integrity in every way: Missional, theological, spiritual, musical.

But it’s loud. At first glance it might seem performance-oriented – it is not designed to maximize the experience of hearing a crowd of people sing – at least not like in a traditional church setting or a choral venue. Again, it’s a missional thing; over a longer conversation (or in a different blog post), I could unpack our choices. For now, I’ll just acknowledge that what I’m about to share personally doesn’t seem to line up with where I hang my hat vocationally; I admit to some discrepancy.

Where my heart beats loudest in a musical gathering is in those places where there is little amplification, where instrumentation is sparse, and where what matters most is the people, singing. We occasionally have opportunities to stand around the piano and sing; sometimes before Wednesday night small groups, while Christmas caroling, in staff meetings. In those situations, somebody always makes a comment like, Oh, you don’t want to hear ME sing!! or Y’all will cover your ears if I start singing! and I am always quick to say, Oh, no you don’t – don’t say that. EVERYBODY can sing! Everybody can make a joyful noise! 

And I really believe that.

And it’s truly what I love to hear most in music.

My cousin’s daughter recently performed with a Middle School Honor Choir in Nebraska; Facebook videos showed snippets of focused, tuned, passionate, expressive and accurate musical interpretation. It was a beautiful thing, all those kids singing together. I loved it.

When the Cubs were in the World Series, every game held an extra bonus – everybody singing Take Me Out to the Ball Game with gusto and passion and a lack of inhibition. I didn’t watch the games, but I sought out the seventh inning singing segment of each game. I loved it.

Our Christmas Eve service ended with an a cappella version of Silent Night that still stirs my heart, buried in my aural memory. Five hundred of us, singing together.

Beautiful.

That’s the kind of singing that moves me. And that’s the kind of singing we don’t always hear at our church, it seems. Truth be told, we’ve created that environment. We have incredibly talented and gifted musicians facilitating – or “leading” – worship every week. It seems as thought we elevate the talented and set the bar fairly high and expect everybody else to just watch. It’s true that we recognize musical gifts, and we give space for them to be utilized. But maybe we haven’t done a good job reminding everybody else that we all can sing. And we all should sing.

I’m thinking these thoughts because tomorrow, the snow is forcing us to have one combined service, rather than seven spread out over four campuses. I wasn’t scheduled toi-will-rejoice-in-the-simple-gospel-i-will-rejoice-in-you-lord play, but now I’m joining in with the band and I’ve been looking at a new song we have on tap for tomorrow. I ran through the chords and was reminded that it’s an incredibly simple song; the same four chords, in the same order, throughout the entire piece.

And the words are far from complicated; in fact, the song is titled Simple Gospel, and everything about the song is just that. Simple. Some might find it boring.

Which is, of course, the point; the simplicity, the lack of complication (not to be boring!)

I ran through the chords and sang a bit this evening and I found myself coming back to just one thought, time and time again. There’s only one thing I want when we introduce this song tomorrow; in fact, I think there is something representative here about what I want in general, as I contemplate all these changes in our culture, in my job, in our church, in our families.

I want to hear the people sing.

I hope that this song imprints itself quickly upon hearts and minds tomorrow morning – like it did with me the first time I heard it – and that the words fit easily into our mouths and that we find it easy to proclaim.

I want to hear the people sing.

I want to know you, Lord, like I know a friend
I want to know you, Lord

So I’m laying down all my religion
I’m laying down – I want to know you, Lord

I use to think that I could box you in
But I’m laying down – I want to know you, Lord

Lord, I’ve been told to be ashamed
Lord, I’ve been told I don’t measure up
Lord, I’ve been told I’m not good enough
But you’re here with me

I reach out and you find me in the dust
You say no amount of untruths can separate us

I will rejoice in the simple gospel – I will rejoice in you, Lord

Gifts

It’s a new year, and I kicked off piano lessons with my Tuesday evening students today. I asked them how their holidays went; I got the usual responses (“Great!”). My follow-up question was, Did you give any great gifts this year?

I like that question, even more than the What did Santa bring you? or What did you get? It comes from my kids, I think, and from our own experiences year after year.

Discovering this unique joy at Christmastime has been one of the most fulfilling, worthwhile surprises of my experience as a parent. Because my kids are many (five, with two spouses and one significant other), and because most of them are young and on tight budgets (i.e. BROKE), holiday gift exchanges often require a great deal of creativity. And because my kids are all creative in some way, they come up with some exceptional gifts for one another.

And for me.

The current life stage of every one of my kids is unique. Lots of limbo, changes, and transitions; the two oldest will move to new cities this coming year. The third is in the process of shaping a new life on the west coast. My eldest son is reexamining everything in a search for what direction he might head in the near future; my youngest is preparing to finish high school in another 18 months and contemplating higher education. And even as they look forward to the future, we all arrived at the Christmas holiday with a few bumps and bruises. It’s been a hard year in many ways.

But Christmas arrived, and the gifts were piled underneath the tree as everyone came home. On the 25th, after multiple cups of coffee and the arrival of The Grandparents, the gift exchange began.

We have a process, and we always follow it: The youngest goes first, giving out gifts one by one; those gifts are then opened, one by one (except for special circumstances), in order from youngest to oldest. So David hands out his gifts first, and then his siblings open them in birth order – one at a time. Daniel is next, and so on. The entire family operates this way; if you’re a guest here at Christmastime, we ask your age so that you fit into the order properly.

This year was extraordinary, and at the risk of sounding boastful, I’m going to highlight the gifts that I received from my children, because each of them moved me in a unique way that I’ll long remember. However, in case I don’t – remember, that is – here are pictures and stories.


David went first, as usual. When he got to Sydni in the opening order, he gave instructions: Syd and Mom open together. So we did, and a thin cardboard cover parted to reveal a map of the United States, dissected, with each state marked with delicate watercolor. Two states were identified; Syd was given the East Coast, with Virginia alone named among the states My gift was the West Coast, with California highlighted.

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This is a boy who somehow senses what it’s like to have half of your mother-heart on the other side of a vast prairie and majestic mountains. He knows, he sees, and he told us so. It cost him time and effort and all the care in the world, and it meant more than I can say.

This is also a boy who sketched – free-hand – a portrait of his grandfather’s favorite artist for his gift.

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I think he’s incredibly talented. (That’s also a shot of the back of Syd’s calendar for Moon River Print Co.)

Daniel handed out his gifts and went through the normal sibling order. He also gave Tony a toilet seat (a super high-quality one!), but that’s another story… When it came time for my gift, he sat beside me and handed me a piece of paper. I opened it to read rhyming verse; here’s an excerpt:

I want you to know how much you mean to me

And how you’ve shown me Grace Every Day

No present to put in your hands, there’s no words I could say

Sometimes I don’t know who I should try to be

But with you by my side to make sure my day was alright

I’ll make it through everything, Mom – don’t worry, I’ll be just fine

You’ve done so much for me

Yeah, it’s meant so much to me

I finished reading, silently, and I looked up at him sitting beside me. He had a goofy grin on his face and I had tears in my eyes. He was holding out his forearm, which was wrapped tightly in tissue paper. Unwrap this, Mom. So I did, and I found the words that have been the heartbeat of my collection of words and stories and moments as I’ve tried to make sense of this life in the past eleven years; the words that have come to define how I hope to live each moment. grace every day, in my handwriting, tattooed on his arm.

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That’s a forever thing, and I am not sure what I think about tattoos, but I am sure of how my son spoke to me with this gift, and I was profoundly moved. I still am; my heart cannot quite hold all the love and hope I feel for him as he works through this season of his life – but I can say that he must know for sure that I am for him, and that is a great and sacred thing.

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Sydni had mentioned that she was breaking with tradition and doing something new this year, and so as she handed out cards to every family member, I knew she was excited – and a little nervous. We all opened simultaneously, and each of us found a unique quote, done in her tasteful, exquisite style – a beautiful font, gorgeous names on the packing. We opened and oohed and aaahhed, and then she explained. I took all the money I would have spent on gifts for everyone and made a donation to Save the Children. Your gifts combine together to completely fund a medical clinic. We were all collectively so proud of her – and so touched by her generosity. It was different; and incredibly beautiful.

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Shannon had asked if I ever wanted an actual book of photos from her wedding some months ago, and so I wasn’t completely surprised by what I found when I opened her gift. However, I was completely taken aback when I actually took the time to thumb through the pages. So much had happened that day, and I had never been able to sort through the thousands of pictures. Even two years later, the gift of remembering the joy and excitement of our first backyard wedding was an absolutely perfect gift.

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Sarah is known for always spending way too much money on incredibly awesome and expensive gifts for everyone; but this year, she dialed everything back a notch, and for that alone, I was so excited and thrilled and happy. Seeing your kids grow up and learn restraint – well, there’s not a better gift than that. She gave me a box of very cool pampering, self-care things, and within each little sample was evidence that she sees me and she knows me, and that she cares. My girls know I’m not much in the make up and facial department; they share with me and care for me and it is an expression of love.

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There were other gifts given and received, and I’m grateful for each of them. But I looked at the bounty in my corner after the chaos ended and realized the way my children demonstrate the width and depth of the blessings of God through their generosity. My kids have become men and women who value others; and they know how to express that value in a way that matters. I couldn’t be more grateful, more honored, more in awe of grace.

And I can’t wait til next year.

Something’s Coming

We are staying inside tonight as 2016 ends; no New Year’s revelry for us, unless you count Tony’s exquisite repair of my beaded wooden prayer bracelet. That was a rockin’ good time.

Seriously. Do you know how awesome it is to be married to a man who can fix anything?

It’s awesome.

It seems necessary to recognize this turn of the page this evening; more so than in year’s past, I feel an obligation to acknowledge what was and look toward what is to come. It’s the chaos and tumult of the year, of course; it’s all that was lost, and all that has changed.

But it’s also the anticipation of something new, something unseen. In West Side Story, the arc of the entire plot line is set early on with “Something’s Coming”, a almost-perfect bit of dramatic songwriting. I know this song by heart, for two distinct reasons. One is Barbra Streisand’s 1985 Broadway album, which fueled my post-college passion for something to bridge the bizarre triangulation between Pat Metheny, Little Feat and Barry Manilow (among others). My taste ran eclectic and varied.broadwayyears

Anyway, Barbra sang the crap out of this song, and I belted it (the entire album in fact) every chance I got.

And I knew “Something’s Coming” well because while I lived in the Dominican Republic, we staged a performance of West Side Story in the Altos de Chavon Amphitheater – a show cribbed together with all the resources we could muster in that third-world country. I played the entire orchestral score on piano; we threw together a script gleaned from repeated viewings of the VHS tape of the show; costumes were homemade and spectacular. The kids were amazing – utterly amazing.

It was a wild, risky undertaking; at 24, I believed in this crazy idea and I threw all my energy into making it happen.

And it did.

/ / / /

Two things tug at my thoughts this evening; one comes as I turn my head, straining to see the girl I was at 24. Try as I might, I can’t quite connect…but I know what she did. I know how she lived. With what I know now about all that was to come, I’m amazed and impressed by her gall, her willingness to believe that anything could happen.

It did.

And as I squint my eyes to try to catch a glimpse of that girl, I see – right in front of me – my four eldest offspring, all circling that same age, all taking risks and living large and dreaming big. From a maternal perspective, I’m mostly cautious: Don’t go too far! Be careful! Take your time! Move slowly!

But secretly, I hope they run. I hope they try, and fail, and succeed, and struggle, and weep, and celebrate. I may never say that to their face – the maternal instinct looms large and leans, always, towards protection – but I hope deep inside of them they hear that call -and that they respond.

Could be – who knows? / There’s something due any day / I will know right away / soon as it shows

The second thing tugging – twisting, churning, yearning – is what might be coming for this second half of my own life. What risks lie ahead? Am I willing to embrace them? How much of that wild-eyed, faith-filled 24-year old is still within me – the one who believed anything could happen? How loudly does safety ring in the melodies I hear these days?

Could it be? Yes it could – something’s coming, something good / If I can wait…

I have a scripture for the New Year. I have this song. I am mulling this ‘choose a word’ business; having chosen one fairly definitively, I now hear another syllable on the raspy sounds of each breath I take, and I think I know what I have to do about that…

The air is humming….and something great is coming…

Come on, Twenty Seventeen. Let’s do this.