BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

BETTER THAN JINGLE BELLS

In Ready or Not: The Return of Christmas, Maureen Jais-Mick wrote: “Society never actually wanted the Incarnation. Emmanuel, God-with-Us, does not sell computer games or cologne. Society wanted the cute stuff–rustic stable, adoring shepherds, fluffy sheep, cows, donkey, holy family, infant Jesus, gift-bearing kings, stars, angels, St. Nicholas, reindeer, fir trees, holly, and presents. The pagan stuff they will retain–even if they do dye the trees powder blue and decorate them with miniature hanging appliances and Disney ornaments…The marketplace will also retain some of the traditional hymnody, but in arrangements that remove them from the realm of traditional worship. Ancient chants are popular, too. They sound religious and profound and–best of all–nobody understands Latin, so no shoppers are offended.”[1]

I was reflecting on these things as I meditated on Mary’s song, recorded for us in Luke 1:46-55. I wondered, what would it be like if a young woman stood at the rail above Santa’s house at the mall and began singing, in a pure, clear voice, this song? What if the whole sound system went quiet right after Jingle Bell Rock and one voice stood out above all the rest with this little hymn?

I think stunned silence would follow. A few would lock on and quietly enjoy her song. But most would look away uncomfortably, shuffle their feet, or go on shopping because the singer would be doing something foreign to us. She wouldn’t be performing or entertaining. She would be worshiping. And true worship at Christmas is about as foreign to us as Elmer Fudd at Easter.

Christmas is thing centered. Worship is God-centered. Things leave hearts empty. God fills hearts with peace, and joy, and confidence. Worship is the thing we’re missing at Christmas. The lack of worship – personal worship – is what is leaving us so empty.   

Mary’s heart was full of God. Her song made eight references to the activity of God in her life and the life of Israel. God filled her mind, her heart, and her mouth.  That is worship. And that kind of worship does not come about by accident. Worship that enters the presence of God is worship that comes from a life consumed with his greatness.

Getting there requires a disciplined focus on God. But that kind of focus is difficult for 21st century Americans. We have too many distractions. Too many screens, songs, and sugary treats. Not enough silence, serious reflection, and self-denial. Those things may sound like Christmas downers, but they characterized Mary’s life and made her song possible. It is not unlike landing an airplane or sinking a difficult putt. Stay focused, and it’s a thing of beauty. Get distracted, and it gets ugly.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Jingle Bell Rock as well as anyone. But worship that arrives in the presence of God is the result of a mind that has made a habit of focusing on God – his goodness, his holiness, his power, his mercy, and deeds – to the exclusion of everything else. When you learn to sing Mary’s song, nothing else will quite measure up.

[1]    — (Cresset, Dec. 1995 ).  Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 14.

 

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter, October 3, 1930 – November 14, 2019

“I’m a good ole boy and my Momma loves me, but she can’t understand why they keep showin’ my hands and not my face on TV.”

Waylon Jennings was so well known on the Country Music scene that by the time he played Good Ole Boy for the 1979 redneck sitcom, The Dukes of Hazard, everyone who heard the verse knew who was singing it. Waylon’s face never appeared, only his jeans, cowboy shirt and leather vest framing his fingers picking his signature white and black Fender Telecaster. It was an inside joke. But we understood. Waylon was already famous as an “outlaw” country singer. We didn’t need to see his face. We could recognize the sound of his guitar and that coal mine deep baritone anywhere.

About the same time that Waylon and the Duke Brothers were hitting their stride the hands of another musician of a totally different stripe began appearing regularly on television. In Touch, the television ministry of Dr. Charles Stanley began airing nationwide in the early eighties. In those days part of the signature opening sequence for the program was a shot of a pair of skilled hands caressing the ivory white keys of a black grand piano. The viewer never saw the musician’s face and very few people ever knew her name but those of us who were members of First Baptist Church of Atlanta back then didn’t need to. We recognized the hands and knew the signature sound of one of the most talented and dedicated servants to ever play a hymn. We used to sing her that verse of Waylon’s song during rehearsals just to kid her.

Her name is Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter. For twenty-two years she caressed the keys for countless rehearsals, worship services, weddings, funerals, church theatrical productions and traveling choirs as part of the ministry of First Baptist Church of Atlanta. That’s when I met her and more importantly, met her daughter who became my wife. But that doesn’t even make up half of her time in service to the King at the keyboard.

Bee began playing for the church when she was ten years old. She went on to major in organ music at Ohio State University. The week after my wife was born, she was back at the keys with the baby in nursery. She was pianist every summer for about 40 years at Camp Barakel in northern Michigan. And, as of 2016, when she played for her last church in Kennesaw, GA, she had been at her post in some church or ministry, almost every Sunday and many nights in between, for seventy-five years.

The Apostle Paul wrote the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”[1]

Watching her practice, even well up into her 70’s when she probably could have winged and gotten by, one knew that Bee took that to heart. She said she always heard the words in her head when she played, worshiping with the congregation as she gave them the tune and followed without fail the conductor’s tempo. Those of us she accompanied loved to sing when she played because she always made us look good.

So, if you ever get discouraged and wonder if anyone will ever appreciate your work for the Kingdom of God, take a little lesson from my mother-in-law Bee who went home to be with the Lord last week. Very few people on earth will ever know her name. And no one will see her face on TV. But she is enjoying her inheritance in the presence of her King.

[1] Col. 3:23-24

I’M HERE FOR THE MUSIC

No iTunes can match, no earbud replace the living intercourse of artist and audience.

The kid at the keyboard, Samuel, who is only sixteen and won’t mind me calling him that, had no idea what he was about to do to us. Oh he knew he was presenting a Chopin piece for an offertory, one he had practiced for many months in preparation for a local scholarship competition. And that our small church was a great place for a first public performance, a warm up for the big dance, but he could not know the rest.

That the music, Fantaisie Impromtu in C# Op. 66, was not specifically religious did not matter. All beauty belongs to God and, as per Philippians 4:8, our congregation celebrates it whenever we can. That such an intricate and demanding piece came from such a young man, with power, grace, skill, and sensitivity, moved the adults in the room on a level a sixteen-year-old cannot comprehend. When I realized he’d played it from memory I nearly fell off my stool, but you would have had to be there.

That’s the thing about live music. It is fleeting, communal, and transparent, lasting only as long as notes linger midair, shared only by those who perform with those who attend. No iTune can match, no earbud replace the living intercourse of artist and audience. Of all God’s creatures only humans have the experience created when a musician brings a composer’s song to life and infuses the listener with its soul.

You have to be there.

I’ve “been there” three times since last summer. Once to hear one of my favorite rockers, Don Henley, this was a gift from my daughters; once to hear the Ukrainian National Symphony, presented by the Danville Concert Association; and of course Samuel playing Chopin in church. (That none of the music was specifically Christian says things about the state of Christian performing arts, but we won’t go there today). Each time the music, the mastery of the artists, and the shared joy of the moment, moved me to tears. Each time I gave glory to God and thanked him for the gift. Earth is full of the echoes of heaven, and if we are capable of such beauty, pathos, and exultation through the combination of tone, rhythm, and word, what must God be able to do?

Some say that in heaven we will be able to hear color and see music. If so, I can’t wait. Until then keep singing in church, encouraging young musicians, and making room in your life to share the experience of live music, because if you want to be blessed by the piano man, you have to be there.

Oh, and Samuel? He won.