Blog: Dirty Prayer Hands With a Tasty Beverage

A couple of our guys waiting to help.
A couple of our guys waiting to help.

Bill is here each week, greeting children and adults who happen to walk in on Monday mornings. On Tuesday, Dave sits out in the church Narthex and greets all of the children with a smile and a puppet. Kay answers phones in the church office on Monday afternoons and while accomplishing her task — disassembling the worship flowers from Sunday and rearranges them to be taken to the homes of shut-ins. Sue and Ann spend about 45 minutes each week putting cards and pencils in the pews so that worshippers can write down that they need a minister to come and pray with them. Don arrives on Saturdays and makes the coffee so that visitors can awaken to their faith through a warm, tasty beverage.

Cups for the warm, tasty beverage.
Cups for the warm, tasty beverage.

Our choir recently took up a collection for some hymnals. Some of our church members were helping out at a local adult care facility. A retired Methodist preacher brings the sermon and our people take care of the music — some playing the piano and some leading the hymns. We raised enough money to provide them with hymnals so that those persons who are unable to travel to worship can do so from their wheel chairs, walkers and hospital beds.

One of our church members was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. We were able to connect him to another church volunteer who had been diagnosed over 13 years ago. The two men didn’t know each other at all but shared some interests beyond just a disease. It will be amazing to watch how this faith relationship develops for these two powerful, humble men.

These are but a few examples of the spirit of ministry around the church. While many of these seem to focus on what happens inside the building, there are many examples of things that happen outside the walls, too. Simple, focused, prayerful and ready to take the next step in the name of Christ.

Think it is about old people?

Many of our church members and friends have gone over to a local elementary school, where they are reading buddies for children. The school has a high percentage of lower-income students whose parents are just making ends meet. Often, the parents don’t speak english or don’t have time to do so. Our folks help these children comprehend and hear english spoken to them by simply reading the words on a printed page.

Think that you can be a spiritual person and not have community? Nope. It doesn’t work that way. Not at all. Of course you can be a good person and do good things. But a strong faith community connects you to the need of others — not just your own. Like the two folks I spoke of earlier, if they hadn’t been connected to a faith community, they couldn’t help each other through a difficult and dreaded disease.

Sure, you can give money to a relief fund or donate on the internet. Noble. Needed. Necessary. But that doesn’t get your prayer hands dirty.

I should add it is possible to attend and not be in community. If all you do is show up on a Sunday, write a check and then head out the door to beat the others to lunch, you will have missed the point, too. Get into the whole experience — pray, sing in a choir, read the scripture, teach a class, swing a hammer, pack a prayer basket, knit a prayer shawl — you and your family will by MUCH better for it, and so will the kingdom.

So, get in a faith relationship with others. That’s what God said. Love him (worship) and serve him (work in community.) And, if you come here, you can do it with the help of a warm, tasty beverage.

Man of Steel & Now You See Me

With the summer movie schedule in full swing, I’ve been able to see a few flicks recently. Along with Iron Man 3 and Stark Trek 2, I’ve seen quite a few blockbusters, dating back to May. The most recent ones are Man of Steel and Now You See Me.

It seems that the “in” thing now is a reboot of established movie franchises. Free have been good reboots — Star Trek and Spider-Man — and not so good ones. Man of Steel class somewhere in the middle. Henry Cavill is excellent as Superman. The other lead around him are good — especially Kevin Costner, who is very moving as Clark Kent’s father. To me, the film drags a bit. And, whereas Star Trek had playful and meaningful homages to the original series, those moments are few in this film — I’m fondly remembering Christopher Reeve and the phone booth moment on the first feature film. While I understand that this film is for a new generation and is along the the lines of The Dark Knight, it just gets absorbed into the Armageddon-fueled-video-game stylization of the current day. It was a fun ride . . . just not awesome.

Now You See Me is an unexpected, fun film. It completely catches you off guard. Just when you think the story is getting formulaic and you’ve figured it out, it takes a new twist. Well filmed and well acted, best to see this on the big screen


What Comfort Can Our Worship Bring

While preparing music for my choirs, I ran across a powerful piece of poetry. It is from an anthem of the same name and published by GIA music. The text is by Adam M.L. Tice and the music is by Blake R. Henson:

What Comfort Can Our Worship Bring

What comfort can our worship bring

on bleak and empty days

to those who cannot bear to sing

when pain in missed in praise?


What sorrow can we dare to own,

what anger, loss, and fears?

Not just in joy is God make known,

but also in our tears.


O God, hear every longing sigh,

as voices rise and strain,

and meet us in that honest cry

where praise is voiced in pain.

Mud Cross 2

For a link to the anthem from GIA, click here:

Welcoming the Surprises

On my morning walk, I was listening to a podcast of Dr. Jim Jackson. After a time of reflection, I put on Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord). I was enjoying being in the moment of God’s incredible creation when I was greeted with this sight in my neighborhood. I live in the fourth largest city in the United States yet those who live in my neighborhood can do more than just walk the dog . . . they can take their horses out for a walk, too. Just awesome. Bless the Lord, oh my soul, worship His holy name. Sing like never before, oh my soul. I worship your holy name.


Learning to sing harmony

I’ve been asked many times to teach a person to sing harmony. Actually, I think you have to teach someone to hear and create harmony. Singing a counter line to a solo line isn’t really harmony in rock and roll (i.e.a canon such as Row, Row, Row Your Boat.) Harmony stacks up vertically — usually in three parts — and then moves along in a linear fashion. I believe it’s repetitively training your ear that allows you to hear those chords to stack up.

How did I learn to do it? You practice, practice, practice. I call it — The East Texas Rock and Roll method.

Here are the roots: my parents weren’t musical, for the most part. They liked music — mostly Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley, and Ferrante and Teitscher. I had singers in my family but I wasn’t one.

THE thing that my parents did was let me buy any album I wanted and bring it home. Rock, blues, country, comedy — it didn’t matter. Any one I wanted. And so I did.

I combed garage sales. The first album I ever bought was The Beatles compilation blue album. I bought it for 50 cents. Every song was a hit. As soon as I had I bought it, I went straight home, put it on the record player and played it over and over and over for the next four hours. Sang the songs again and again — probably to the annoyance of my parents and my sister.

That was the beginning of a long and expensive journey of learning to hear and sing harmony and devouring resources to practice it.

I bought every country or rock and roll album, eight-track and cassette that I liked and I that could find. I purchased and listened to Glen Campbell’s Live album. Discovered Kenny Rogers and John Denver had great backing groups who had wonderful harmonies. Queen’s Fat-bottomed Girls was a favorite song to work out my ear. I owned almost every Journey cassette there was — and used them to sing very high like Steve Perry. Kansas was a favorite — Carry on was a challenge to work into my ear and head. Def Leppard had high harmonies with the guitar edge that I craved. Alabama, too. Yes, I even owned Shaun Cassidy, as well.

Over and over I listened, until I could sing every note of every song on each album. And, not in the ways you think. My voiced hadn’t changed, so I was singing parts in different octaves, changing the around and thereby putting harmony parts into ranges I could sing it. I’d replay the recordings over and over until I had every line in my ear and my head.

Then, I purchased the Hotel California eight track and the Eagles Greatest Hits, Volume I. I wore them both out. I knew every line of vocal track on Hotel California. I’d learn and sing the guitar solos, creating a series of scats and oohs so I’d have it in my ear. It was a challenge but it was so much fun to learn them.

As I grew older and drove, singing harmony was a constant game in the car. With no one in the car, I’d listen to my radio and sing to the sounds of that time. I’d challenge my ear by listening to the constantly moving chord structures and sing them out loud. (Yes, I’m was guy in the VW commercial singing Rush and doing the drum solo.) Song after song — I’d work until I mastered the sounds of the music I loved.

Cars were my studios. I could make mistakes and fix them with another hearing via the rewind button. Over and over songs emanated from my car — loudly. If a band in need of a backup singer would have driven by and heard me, I’m sure I would have been hired on the spot.

But, alas, DonHenley never came and asked me to sing backup and I ended up in college studying music.

In school, having rock and roll chops wasn’t seen as a positive thing. I had to learn to read actual music notes — use my eyes for something other than reading the liner notes on the cover of an album. That took work. but, I excelled in sight-singing and ear training. As a music student in Mrs. Rye’s sight singing class, I was an excellent student. She would start class, listen to us warble through some line, and then turn to me and Todd Walker and dismiss us from class, leaving others there to wrestle and struggle with hearing the notes she would play.

I worked hard at my studies. I learn music form and structure, which helped me in visualize harmonic structures. This continued into masters work at SMU. Being able to hear and see the harmonic structures of things helped me be a better choir director, conductor and overall musician. Again, it all goes back to the hard work of singing to those records.

Practical application of all of this came when I was charged with the creation and execution of a new contemporary worship service. It was while serving in Texarkana, Texas that I was charged with creating this new service — X-perience. Of course, this would mean forming a band, which I had never done. We announced what we were doing this new worship service but quickly fell behind in creating it. Originally, we wanted to hire a specific musician to handle the preparation of the music for this new service. However, we had trouble finding a qualified, thoughtful musician to lead it. No one we interviewed or talked with fit the bill.

With the deadline looming, I was forced to step in. I talked with a church guitar player, James Herrington, who contacted some local friends and former bandmates to work with us. These guys played in bars every night for the Robert St. John Band. They knew everything about being in a band, whereas I knew almost nothing. After some conversations and a money agreement, they agreed to help out. But with no leader, it fell to me to organize the singing and worship leadership.

Recruiting a series of choir members — Stefanie Laird, Renay Turner, Lacy McMillen and my wife — we began to work out songs. I used people who were confident singers. I had learned that you have to have 1) people with a heart for ministry and 2) strong singers for great upfront leadership.

In rehearsals, the instrumentalists would work together and we’d be off in another room figuring out our parts. Here are the conversations, “. . . you sing high . . . Wait your doubling me . . . Just hum here . . . I’ll carry lead . . . can we do that again because I really messed that up . . ” and then we’d sing it over and over until we got it. Then, we’d get together and run it. Some days it was Chris Tomlin. Some days it was Creed or Beatles tunes. Many, many hymns and worship songs were sung. It was such a fun time to learn and sing with those folks. And, we had a great band that taught me great deal about what it means to lead a group.

When we moved to our current church in Missouri City, TX, we worked hard doing the same things we’d done at Williams — creating another worship service. Many more tools were in place this time — a great teacher of instruments in Mike Whitebread, for example and a great partner in worship creation in Melissa Burnham. But the essentials of learning to hear and sing harmony were the same — practice it and sing it over and over until you made it work.

Again, singing harmony takes work and training. Mostly, it is you alone in a room or car listening to a recording. Listen to good groups and match pitch with them. Place your voice in the midst of theirs. Do it over and over again. Listen to the Eagles over and over until you wear the mp3 out and can cover each part. Listen to Chris Tomlin and his excellent band and do what they do. Find the people who are good models and learn from them.

That’s how to learn the art of singing harmony — sing every note over and over. Work hard — every day at it. Just get your mp3 player humming and practice until you can sing EVERY part on the recording. And, sing hymns. Sing them often and work on hearing the parts. Do it over and over until you can’t stand it. Then, move to the next song.

It’s the way all great guitar players learn — repetition. It’s practice. It’s the way geat singers learn, too. So, grab the Eagles album and get started.


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