Since our household routine has changed, my almost daily walks occur in our neighborhood. It is a great course, mostly flat but a few gentle extended inclines for elevating one’s heart-rate. Just right! The main “loop” is just over two miles, but multiple cul-de-sacs along the route provide good options for extending the experience. I prefer to walk just before the break of day; as an old college professor used to quip -- “well, somebody’s got to help the Lord get the day started.”

Assisting getting the boys (7, 9, and soon to be 13) off to school these days means that I’m usually not able to walk that early, not until after they catch the bus. But later walks offer better opportunities to meet neighbor walkers, some of whom I have seen and waved at many years as I left for work. Just last week I met Joe who has walked our neighborhood for at least fifteen years, but he lives on the other side of the neighborhood and the occasion for connection has just never occurred. It turns out he also retired in 2007 as the exec of the Boy Scouts of America and is an active member of Brentwood United Methodist Church.

This week the boys are on Fall Break with Chris back in west Tennessee, so I was out early this morning and it was great. Apparently all the neighbors were sleeping in, which is fine. I do a fair amount of pre-dawn devotionalizing while walking alone, usually as a result of practicing a hymn I’m trying to commit to memory.

I find that hymns are much like scripture -- the more time one spends with a good hymn, the richer the experience because of the unfolding depth and truth. I have found that singing a hymn is not the same as saying it. I’ve sung (and led) hymns all my life and music certainly beautifies the poetry but, for me, saying a hymn has become the more inspirational practice.

One of my most recent hymns has been “For All the Saints,” maybe selected because we are easing up on All Saint’s Day. Regrettably, that commemoration is not in my Baptist background, but now I look forward to it, particularly since Honey died two and a half years ago. Walking along reciting those five stanzas, it occurred to me that I may miss Honey more in the Fall of the year than at any other time. That’s a little surprising since she was such a Christmas gal. By this time every year she would be well into her Christmas shopping, UPS seemed to begin making daily deliveries to our place, and at least one weekly trip to the mall was part of Honey’s fall liturgy. Even her Christmas earrings were already beginning to squabble among themselves as to which pair would be chosen first to announce the season.

Okay, back to the hymn:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
     who Thee, by faith before the world confessed.
     Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
     Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
     Thou in the darkness drear their one true light.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
     We feebly struggle, they in glory shine,
     yet all are one in Thee, for all are thine.

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
     steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
     and hearts are brave again and arms are strong.

I see Honey in every stanza of this old hymn: she now rests from her earthly labor and, in her faithful way, confessed Jesus here to her earthly world. God was, indeed, her Rock, Might, and Light in her well-fought fight and she shines even more now in glory than she shone here -- and that’s saying something! Her earthly strife became fierce and long, but the distant song in her ear made her brave and strong. But the final stanza is the best:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
     through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
     singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:

Since much of the Bible talk of heaven is poetic and metaphoric, we don’t know how heaven really is or how it actually works, but the image of God’s people from all corners of the earth streaming into the heavenly realm for eternity is just pretty cool. And if there’s a welcoming committee at the gate, I’m just sure Honey is there smiling broadly, hugging “red and yellow, black and white,” young and old, male and female, Jew and Greek. That’s just the way she was and I suspect the way she is. That’s worth remembering and celebrating.


- Mark

Welcome Back!

Welcome back! Oh, wait a minute, ‘tis I who’s been out of touch since mid-July – yikes!

My schedule has undergone a pretty drastic change since business has picked up at my house.  Daughter Weslee and three boys now live with me. But my house is WAY too big for just me so that part is working out just fine. Wes and Chris are going through a divorce; they are both doing a hard thing well. In His perfect world, I doubt God intended for there to be divorce, nor in our imperfect world did Wes, Chris, his family, or ours intend it. But under the circumstances, it may well be the best thing for all long-term. It is not mine to approve, disapprove, or judge. It is what it is and we are looking forward not back while making the best of Plan B. (This is not our first experience with Plan B.)

Carolyn, clearly one of the best student ministers First Baptist Church downtown ever had, our forty-year friend, was also mother to Weslee’s best friend, and hubby to Wayne, who at that time traveled nearly every week in his also full-time employment. One day she blew in tardy -- and suffice it to say a bit disheveled -- to a meeting at work proclaiming “what our house needs is a WIFE!” Of course, the meeting went into immediate recess for a good laugh while Carolyn unloaded and regrouped. “Wife” is my new role at our house and three months into it, I’m getting the hang of only some of it. I have a greater appreciation for working mothers, single moms, anyone whose domestic responsibilities include keeping the home fires burning, especially when there are children.

The boys -- ages 12, 9, and 7 -- are great. They are doing admirably well adjusting to their new normal -- larger schools, a different church, learning new friends, split family relationships, Papa, greater cultural diversity, etc. Having several months of “warning” they were coming, I was able to re-purpose some of the house to accommodate them and it is working out fine.  The guys inhabit the Boys Basement Barracks with more living space than they’ve had before; Wes and I are on the main floor. My designated space is a small bedroom within view but with just enough distance from the ebb and flow of activity to provide occasionally required respite. I love my cozy quarters. Apparently so does everyone else because nearly every night some or all of us end up in there visiting or watching TV. It’s great!

Looking back trying to put things in perspective, it appears that all this seems to be yet more manifestations of God at work -- not causing stuff like Wes’ divorce or Honey’s death, but God knowing what was ahead and laying some groundwork even when we didn’t see it going on.  Things like this house -- as new empty-nesters in 1997, Honey and I didn’t need a house this size with a full basement configured as it is. Would Wes and boys have come to live in this house five years ago when Honey was alive? Doubtful. The timing and nature of my continuing employment with Celebrating Grace -- thanks yet again to my ten-year friend Tom -- allows me to be available to the boys before and after school while Wes works full-time at Tennessee Oncology, the major provider of Honey’s last year of cancer treatment. The vitality and convenience of Brentwood UMC less than two miles from our house enables the boys to participate in wonderful children, youth, and music programs and for us to get them there easily. It couldn’t be better. We’re not smart enough to orchestrate all of this -- we had help.

I can’t help but remember the refrain to one of my favorite “new” hymns in the Celebrating Grace Hymnal, the first hymn Honey and I shared in our updates --

We walk by faith and not by sight,
     led by God’s pure and holy Light!
Prepare us for the journey, Lord,
     and may we know Your power and might,
     as we walk by faith and not by sight.

Words – Lloyd Larson © 1998 Beckenhorst Bress, Inc.

And these Elisha Hoffman lines penned 150 years earlier --

Oh, how sweet to walk in the pilgrim way…
Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day…

- Mark






Age and Stage

I get to plan and lead music for worship in churches occasionally which, at my age and stage, is plenty often. Many of my peers and I have spent way more than half of our lives on the regular, never-ending seven-day cycle that eventually wears down even the best in the business. Ministry in the church is a calling with year-round implications. My hunch, though, is that most in that fraternity look back on music ministry with delight and deep gratitude -- as it should be. 

Joe has graciously invited me to pinch-hit for him in a couple of weeks while he makes an attempt to get a little well-deserved distance from the grind before cranking up a new season mid-August. Early prep for that Sunday has revealed or maybe just reminded me of one thing I miss most about the once weekly routine -- chewing on a sermon text and mining the hymnal for fodder that supports and amplifies it. 

I worked with four pastors at First Baptist Church, Nashville, the longest time (ten years) with our current pastor. It was a blessing to be paired with him because he always affirmed what I brought to scripting services and never seemed to resent it or feel threatened by it. Not every minister is so fortunate. 

For that approaching Sunday, I seemed to have found a perfect matching hymn -- "Lord of All Hopefulness." Although a few years shy of a hundred, it was spanking new to me when we were building the Celebrating Grace Hymnal (#678) ten years ago by now. It has been included in several hymnals but it needed a new tune so we turned to veteran tunesmith -- and friend -- David Schwoebel. Admittedly, his tender and singable melody has no little to do with my choice and love of the hymn. 

Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
     whose trust ever child-like, no cares could destroy:
     be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
     Your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.

Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
     whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe:
     be there at our labors, and give us, we pray,
     Your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.

Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
     Your hands swift to welcome, Your arms to embrace:
     be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
     Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
     whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm:
     be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
     Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.

Words – Jan Struther, from Enlarged Songs of Praise, 1931 © Oxford University Press

If we consider only the final phrase of each stanza, we get the idea the hymn is probably about God’s presence in lives all day long. But a closer look reveals that “day” is a metaphor for one’s whole life -- childhood, working years, the “fourth quarter,” and even in death.

The first half of each stanza says something important about a season of Jesus’ life and the second half implores the Father “be there in our…” helping us live like Jesus in our same seasons. It is a well-conceived and well-crafted hymn of faith.

For those who worship elsewhere, that Sunday Frank is preaching from Hebrews 11:20-22 which cites Old Testament Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph -- old guys, all lifetime pillars of faith -- gentle and content at the end of their lives, blessing, worshiping, and recalling the Lord’s deliverance.  Should that not the highest desire of the believers’ heart?

Thinking about all this, it dawned on me that a lot of this hymn describes Honey to a tee, perhaps most accurately stanza four. As she moved toward the end of life, there were extra evidence of gentleness, calm, and contentment borne out of a keen sense of the Lord’s presence which the hymn describes as balm. “Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray, Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.” He sure was and He certainly did.

Thanks be to God!

- Mark

With Head and Heart

Until ten years ago, I scripted and helped lead worship services almost every week for more than thirty-eight years. That’s a lot of Sundays in a row, I’m telling you! These days I benefit from the careful planning and skilled leadership of others -- a weekly blessing and total delight.

From the other side of the pulpit, I’m noticing something first-hand I’ve known for years that the different perspective accentuates. Here it is -- worship is more meaningful when it touches/engages the emotions. My peers in music ministry probably considered me on the heady rather than emotional side of our fraternity, but I have always contended that both head and heart are needed for balance and strength.  

I go to church every Sunday -- it’s what I love to do. Not every worship service hooks either part of me, but clearly, I’m not the object of worship -- or as I used to remind myself and our congregation, “Worship is about God and about us, but it is mostly about God.” Worship is what we say -- and mean -- about God and unto God. God is the audience and receiver of our worship for His sake. But I’m sensing again and anew that my praise in the midst of worship is deeper and my resolve leaving worship is greater when the experience has included my emotions alongside my intellect.

Where people differ is what engages their emotions and intellect. Blessed, indeed, is the person who is able to be a part of a church that engages both in them most of the time. Not everyone has that advantage or opportunity.

The Edwards men in my lineage seem to express more emotion, to be more emotional as they/we become older. My grandfather PawPaw, a tough hard-working south Texas hombre, in his later years was pretty quick to have more than a little bitty tear in his eye. My 91-year-old father who never wept has been more prone to do so in recent years, although he still tries to squelch and hide it. I lean more toward PawPaw. 

Sunday was Father’s Day; I sniffed and wiped tears a good bit of the service. It wasn’t that I was thinking about my own father as much as the combined experience/theme of Fatherhood and fatherhood -- sitting among friends and next Weslee whom I fathered; singing the opening majestic, Fatherly hymn “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above” and the organ prelude/introduction leading us into it;  seeing three generations of one family’s fathers-sons reading the morning scripture; hearing the pastor’s sermon on patience including a sweet story about his own pastor father’s patience with an “outcast” parishioner; my son-in-law down the pew having to reimagine fatherhood; and thinking of son Nathan now crafting and helping lead worship services three hours away and in the likeness of his father -- it was touching, inspiring, convicting, worshipful. Head and heart, intellect and emotions worked in tandem so that departing the service, I felt refreshed with the Father -- blessed, loved, forgiven, and above all, thankful. 

We’ve given you this hymn before, but in case you missed it or love it as I do, here it is again. 

Sing praise to God who reigns above, the God of all creation,
     the God of power, the God of love, the God of our salvation;
     with healing balm my soul He fills, and every faithless murmur stills:
To God all praise and glory.

What God’s almighty power has made in mercy He is keeping;
     by morning glow or evening shade His eye is never sleeping;
     within the kingdom of His might, lo! all is just and all is right:
To God all praise and glory.

The Lord is never far away, but through all grief distressing,
     an ever-present help and stay, our peace and joy and blessing;
     as with a mother’s tender hand He leads His own, His chosen band:
To God all praise and glory.

Thus all my toilsome way along I sing aloud His praises,
     that all may hear the grateful song my voice unwearied raises;
     be joyful in the Lord , my heart! Both soul and body bear your part:
To God all praise and glory.

Let all who name Christ’s holy name give God all praise and glory;
     let all who know His power proclaim aloud the wondrous story.
     cast each false idol from its throne, for Christ is Lord, and Christ alone:
To God all praise and glory.

Words – Johann Jakob Schutz, 1675

Those words paired with that tune sung in that manner in nearly any setting resonate in every part of me. To God all praise and glory!

- Mark

The Tie that Binds

Walking this morning I happened onto a new person -- actually he happened onto me. I sensed someone approaching me from the backside so I turned around to greet him. We exchanged walkers’ predictable pleasantries as we passed a few storefronts when I introduced myself:

“My name is Mark.”

“Hi, I’m Don.”

“Are you a native Nashvillian?

“No, originally from Texas.”

“Where in Texas, I’m from Texas.”


“Oh, I have a cousin who lives on the Arkansas side of Texarkana who is a Presbyterian pastor.”

“What’s your last name?”


“Oh, I know you. In fact, I’m in the choir you used to direct. Downtown at First Baptist Church? We’re new members of the church and you led rehearsal one night a few weeks ago. I just didn’t recognize you out here.”

From there we had a wonderful conversation for about three laps. We know many of the same Baptist pastors and ministers of music.

Yesterday, Betty was almost finished with her lap as I arrived so I did a U-turn and joined her for her last 50 yards or so. She was rolling along at a pretty good clip pushing her basket/cart with weights in the bottom. She looked great -- white-white pants, bright coral-colored top, a bit of eye-shadow and, of course, lipstick and earrings to match.  Amazing for age 95 at 6:45 AM!

“Good morning, Betty! How are you?”

“Where have you been?” she lovingly barked back.

“I was here yesterday, had a doctor’s appointment Monday, and last week I was doing some manual labor at our office. We did some moving around so I got plenty of exercise doing that.”

“Are you doing okay?”

“I must be -- I’m still here!”

“Well, you look like the fresh breath of spring!”

“…or the last rose of summer,“ she quipped.

“Do you try to walk every day?”

“Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I ride the bike on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Oh that we all could be that active physically, mentally, and in spirit at 95! Thanks, Betty, for being a wonderful model and inspiration.

Bill (Gina’s dad) and I have run into one another more often recently and that’s always enjoyable. We seem to have a lot to talk about and we pick up where we left off last time. He’s helping with security again at Brentwood Baptist’s VBS next week and always looks forward to that -- a wonderful ministry for guys his and my age. I may give that a shot the first summer I’m retired.

Betty is active at Franklin’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, Carolyn is doing all manner of ministry through her Church of Christ, and Robert (the Boompa look-alike) goes to Revival Church near Nolensville.

I’ve been walking three mornings of most weeks in Cool Springs Mall for seven months and have met a lot of new and interesting people. I’ve told you about many of them. Looking forward to seeing any/all of them is part of what helps me maintain that early morning regimen. But I’ve noticed this -- people of Christian faith are easier for me to connect with those who don’t seem to be practicing theirs. Duh! I am able to carry on an interesting conversation with nearly any of them, but the flow seems more seamless among the faithful.  Though not at all ashamed of my faith, I’ve never been a loud-mouth button-holing pusher of it. In these walking encounters it’s pretty easy to gently “test the waters” and see who continues the train of thought. When someone does pick it up, fellowship among near strangers is almost immediate. Very cool!

I doubt Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf had ever walked a mall three hundred years ago when he wrote these words, but he, too, sensed the fellowship among believers:


Christian hearts in love united, seek alone in Jesus rest;
     has He not your love excited?  Then let love inspire each breast.
Members on the Head depending, lights reflecting Him, our Sun,
     Christians, His commands attending, we in Him, our Lord, are one.

Come, then, come, O flock of Jesus, covenant with Him anew;
     unto Him who conquered for us, pledge we love and service true;
     and should our love’s union holy firmly like no more remain,
     wait ye at His footstool lowly, till He draw it close again.

Grant, Lord, that with Thy direction, “Love each other,” we comply,
     aiming with unfeigned affection Thy love to exemplify;
     let our mutual love be glowing, so that all will plainly see
     that we, as on one stem growing, living branches are in Thee.

O that such may be our union as Thine with the Father is,
     and not one of our communion e’er forsake the path of bliss;
     may our light shine forth with brightness, from Thy light reflected, shine;
     thus the world will bear us witness, that we, Lord, are truly Thine.

Words – Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf, 1725

Indeed, blest is the tie that binds Christian hearts in His love.

- Mark


Surely Goodness and Mercy

When the Psalmist, using King James English, declared “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” he said a mouthful! On the surface, one might read that to mean, “from this point forward, God’s goodness and mercy will now follow me to the end of my life.” True, but only partially true -- exactly one-third of the truth and reality. God’s goodness and mercy has already followed us to this point and even is doing so this very moment. It’s an ever-presence in our lives -- past, future, and right now.

It seems that God’s goodness and mercy in our lives is best seen looking back, seeing from whence we have come. The past few days have offered an occasion to review some of my recent past and celebrate again God’s goodness and mercy. 

Ten years ago last Sunday I announced my retirement as minister of music at Nashville’s, First Baptist Church. (I cannot believe it’s been ten years, that is until I recall what all has happened since.) Remembering that pivotal day has caused me to reflect again on primarily two things -- what I joyfully walked away from and equally joyful walked into.

First Baptist, Nashville was the absolute best place for a person like me and of my musical persuasion to do music in church. The musicians, the room, the instruments, the heritage, the people -- magnificent! To realize God’s active presence helping me navigate working with four very different pastors and three interims -- amazing! To love the work that was mine nearly every year over a long haul -- incredible! And to recall how those dear people enfolded, nurtured, and ministered to me and my family for thirty years -- priceless and precious!

Amid all God’s goodness and mercy during those three decades, fourth-quarter stirrings in my soul along with some weariness of the never ending seven-day cycle, I was ready to do something else. But what do almost four-decade veterans of my craft do next? Tune pianos, build organs, sell choir robes?  None of that really appealed to me. I had never thought of building a hymnal, but not so with Goodness and Mercy. That opportunity was placed in my lap and I never saw it coming.

What began as a three-year mutual commitment for me to shepherd production of the Celebrating Grace Hymnal across the finish line and become the face of the project has now reached the ten year mark. Even during three years away from company “active duty” to care for Honey and rebound following her death in 2015, God’s goodness and mercy through the person of CEO Tom McAfee has allowed me to remain a part of this ministry of music/hymnody that has been at my core literally my whole life. What a blessing!

Of course, Honey’s illness and death was a difficult season, but most certainly, goodness and mercy followed closely our every step. Looking back on that stretch of the road now more than two years later, I discover additional ways God’s hand and work and presence was active in the situation. Some of it I didn’t see then but it is abundantly clear now.

God’s presence in the past is relatively easy to see. Lines from two hymns -- “as Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be” and “I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!” -- etched in our hearts and minds help us feel okay about the future. But the growing edge, at least for me, is realizing, celebrating, and putting my full weight down on the active presence of goodness and mercy in the now, in facing daily life this very day -- forming attitudes, responding to situations, making good choices, etc.  We do ourselves a favor when we remember that no matter how well we plan or how in charge of our lives we think we are, life every day is series of steps of faith and that God’s goodness and mercy indwell the believer all the time. Or as John Rippon put it:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
     is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
     to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
     for I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
     I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
     upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
     the rivers of woe shall shall not thee overflow;
     for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
     and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
     my grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
     the flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
     thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
     I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
     that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
     I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!”

Words – John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, 1787

I love the way this hymn is built. Stanza 1 is like a preamble saying that God’s excellent word lets us in on God’s presence and provision for we saints of the Lord. The remaining stanzas provide scriptural snippets as evidence -- foundational to Christian faith.

Surely goodness and mercy follow us ALL the days of our lives even when we are not aware of it or consciously engaged with it.

Thanks be to God!
- Mark

Mine the Riches Therein

This week we had our semi-annual “corporate” meetings -- a day and a half during which our staff from TX and GA meet midway in our TN office to commiserate, strategize, eat, fellowship face-to-face for the next leg of our journey together. One special feature this time was a retirement dinner for Dora Ann who has played an important role in helping us develop and launch Growing in Grace, our children’s music curriculum now in its sixth year. To say she served well is an understatement as is “we will miss her.”

Tuesday morning I was up to bat leading the devotional. Rather than saying all the words myself, the day before I had asked the staff to be prepared to share a favorite hymn and in a few sentences say why it was a favorite. Here are some takeaways from that experience:

  • The Celebrating Grace staff is comprised of deeply spiritual and Christian people.
  • All of us are people of the book – the hymnbook. Hymns touch us deeply and give voice to that which otherwise can be difficult to express.
  • Sometimes a hymn in poetic form rather than interlined with music seems to take on new meaning.
  • Hymns stick with us and have extended shelf life.
  • There’s a whole lot of Bible in the hymnal.
  • Hymns seem to be and some surely are God’s more recent revelation.
  • Many of our staff “favorites” dealt with quiet, intimate, and tender places in their beings. Several included thoughts about resting, being at ease and at home in the presence of God.
  • Good hymns, like good literature and scripture are sturdy enough and rich enough to be studied -- the closer they are examined and pondered, the greater the riches revealed.

I had a delightful lunch today with forty-year friends Ray and Barbara who follow this column.  He commented that I usually conclude with a hymn lesson. If so, so be it. Today’s admonition is to visit a hymnal and mine the riches therein. “There’s gold in them there songs.”

Weslee and her boys (ages 12, 9, and 7) were here over the weekend and attended the early service at BUMC with me. It was Communion day and their first time to participate. (The older two had been baptized in their west TN Baptist church just last Sunday.) Conversation had en route home.

Papa: “You boys were really good in church this morning.”

A (age 9): “That’s because we were playing a lot of Hangman.”

J (age 12): “Yeah, that was great!”

Assuming they had been engaged in the service, their response was somewhat deflating -- dang, they missed the whole thing! Their conversation continued in the back seats when A or T (age 7) apparently made a disparaging remark about someone back in the west TN.

J: “Didn’t you hear the sermon? (Love your neighbor as yourself.) If you don’t, we’re going to have a problem.”

Evidently kids can multi-task -- play Hangman AND get the hang of a well-crafted sermon.

A: “That bread was good.”

T:  “Yeah.”

J:  “When you eat it right after you dip it in the juice, it’s great.

A: “Yeah, but then the bread is good after that, too. Two good things – awesome!”

One final hymnological take-away from Tuesday favorite hymnfest is that in many four-stanza hymns, stanza three often has a “pastoral care” theme. I discovered another such at BUMC Sunday following Communion. I’ve sung and led “More Love to Thee” all my life but had never seen stanza three.

Let sorrow do its work,
Send grief and pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers,
Sweet their refrain,
When they can sing with me,
More love, O Christ, to Thee.

Words – Elizabeth Prentiss, 1869

Sunday morning early service was a tender time for me -- Weslee and boys with me, worship had been meaningful, the boys taking Communion for the first time, and thinking how blessed and proud Honey would be. Since her death more than two years ago, sorrow has done its work on me and I have made it thus far, but in that moment I needed some “sweet messengers” to sing that “sweet refrain” with me…and they did.

- Mark

Party and Pew

It is hard to believe that it has been nearly ten years since I retired as minister of music at First Baptist Church, Nashville. It has been a quick and full almost decade -- a nearly nine-month interim in Birmingham, the Celebrating Grace Hymnal was built and released, continued full-time work for three years until Honey got sick, two years of full-time caregiving, her death, and then back to my current almost full-time work with Celebrating Grace. The hymn line “mingling toil with peace and rest” says it pretty well.

Following a long tenure and in order to give FBC the space and freedom to conduct whatever musical business she needed, I began attending nearby Brentwood United Methodist Church. (Honey and I had visited there occasionally through the years and had said that if I weren’t leading music downtown, I would attend BUMC.) At that time, Honey was still doing her Sunday early morning greeting downtown so most Sundays I was at BUMC by myself. One of the issues I experienced first hand in a new church was “where do I sit?” After trying out several spots, one Sunday I pulled in behind two couples -- one obviously older than the other -- and breaking the ice while sitting down asked of them:

“What happens if I sit here?”

I don’t remember their response but it was warm and welcoming. We exchanged pleasantries so I returned to that same spot behind those same couples several subsequent Sundays between business trips. Hoyt and Marie, their daughter Susan and hubby Boyd became good pre-service visits that I looked forward to. (Hoyt always impressed me with his quoting the Apostle’s Creed from memory.) One day, he asked:

“Do you know who usually sat there?”

“No I don’t.”

“Hap Townes. Did you know Hap?”

“No, but I ate at a restaurant called Hap Townes by Greer Stadium a few times when I worked downtown.”

“That was him!  Hap died recently and his wife Anne hasn’t made it back to church yet.”

It wasn’t long, though, until Anne did come back although I don’t remember that first Sunday or our first meeting. She, too, was welcoming and we became fast friends. 

I began to tell Honey about Anne and when Honey was no longer able to go downtown to greet “her people” she would go to nearby BUMC with me for the early service. With Honey’s special liking for senior adults, I knew she and Anne would immediately connect… and did they ever! Honey loved Anne and Anne loved Honey -- of course.

This past Sunday was Anne’s birthday although her long-time friends Jerry and wife Beata threw a party for her Saturday afternoon at Arrington Vineyards east of Franklin. The weather could not have been much worse but the party couldn’t have been much better. The bright gold helium balloon “0” marked our table in the tasting tent; somehow the “9” had gotten away and floated off… or maybe Anne shot it down. It was cold and wet, but nevertheless a delightful and joy-filled occasion.

That Anne is one sharp, elegant and active gal. She’s a staple in her Sunday School class; is in rotation as a narthex greeter; drives herself nearly any place she wants to go; is on the sanctuary flower team, and who knows what else she’s into… I suspect whatever she wants. 

Anne is also funny. I love sitting beside her on Sunday mornings and as a former Baptist, she quickly takes note when those Methodists strike up a “Baptist” hymn -- they sing it like Baptists, too. My daughter Weslee also loves to sit with Anne when she’s in town. Sometimes I threaten to sit between them so they don’t misbehave. One Communion Sunday morning several months ago, the layperson pinching off portions of the communion bread was most generous with the amounts he gave to congregants who came by his station. Anne, who sits on the aisle of “our” pew, was the last of us to return from receiving her Bread and Cup. Sitting down she “whispered” to Weslee sitting next to her, “He gave me a BISCUIT!” I heard it as did Marie, Susan, and Boyd in front of us and Kent beside me. Well, we all got tickled -- the high and holy meditative atmosphere in our corner was over. During the rest of the service, I’d look up only to see Susan -- still seated -- intermittently bouncing in quasi-reverent muffled laughter. Now every time we have Communion, someone recalls that moment and we all laugh anew.

It is important for people to connect with others at church --large or small. Anne, Kent, Susan, Boyd, Jerry and Beata warmly welcomed me and have become dear friends. I love and appreciate them very much. Hoyt, Marie, and Honey are carrying on together and saving us all a place on the other side.

Our hymn today is one we can ALL sing!

Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday, dear Anne;
Happy birthday to you!

- Mark

ROMEO, Ron, and Russell

Even though the weather has moderated considerably, I’m still early-morning walking in Cool Springs Mall before going to the Celebrating Grace office nearby. A few of my buds there apparently walk in their respective neighborhoods now that the mornings are wonderful and spring is in full bloom. This morning I walked a spell with Wayne and Naif who bring to mind Laurel and Hardy. (That pretty well dates me.) Walking alone I tend to compete with myself and end up walking too fast; falling in step with L&H slows my pace some and that’s usually a good thing. Naif is the steady, easy going one of the duo whereas Wayne is always picking at someone about something along the way. (Wayne reminds me of my Uncle John -- likable, good-hearted and fun-loving, but -- as we would say in south Texas -- full of baloney.)

If I want to pick up my pace I walk with Ron who is long-legged so I have to work hard to keep up with him. He’s an interesting guy as are most of the others walkers. He is retired and his hobby is airplanes. He and a couple of others own a two-seater hangered at an airport in Lewisburg some forty miles south. He goes down there three or four times a week to mess with the plane, hang out with other flying friends, but primarily to get out of the house. He belongs to a group of guys unofficially called ROMEO. That name sort of conjures up images of dirty old men on the prowl for available Juliets. But he quickly explained that ROMEO is an acronym for


Apparently, ROMEO is a regional “club” whereby guys within a hundred or so- mile radius fly their planes over to some agreed-upon spot on the banks of the Tennessee River for catfish lunch, somewhere in Alabama for meat ‘n three, or Kentucky for a bait of hot brown, derby pie or some such. They set a time for lunch and everyone leaves their respective airports in time to make the lunch bell. Rural airports run a shuttle to and from the restaurant where the guys eat, tell lies, visit awhile, “see ya next week” and fly back home. “It’s not inexpensive, but we enjoy it and it gives us something fun to do.”

Arriving at the office this morning as usual and ahead of nearly everyone else at our complex, I noticed a gentleman taking his morning walk in our parking lot. I parked the car and walked toward our suite. By then, he was approaching me on the sidewalk and seeing me stick the key in our door he said:

“You’re just the person I’ve been looking for.”


Pointing to our wall sign, he said “I’ve walked by here a dozens of times wondering what ‘Celebrating Grace’ is. I even stepped inside one day and didn’t see anyone so I turned around and left. Grace is such an important word.”

I gave him the short version of our business then asked, “Is grace important because it is someone’s name or for some other reason?”

“It’s because of my faith. My name is Russell.”

We talked on a bit, swapping faith stories, etc.

“So you walk by here frequently?”

“Yeah, I live over here in the Alara Apartments. I’m from Covington (TN) but my wife died of cancer two years ago and I’ve married my high school sweetheart who lives down here.”

“Really! My wife died of cancer two years ago, but I haven’t remarried…nor is it on my radar.”

“We were married 47 years.”

“Honey and I were married nearly 45.”

We compared cancer stories and somehow the Notes From Susie book came up.

“That’s great!  I’ll go buy a copy next time I’m out.”

“Well, why don’t you just come in and I’ll give you one of my author copies.”

“Okay, maybe I can make a donation to Celebrating Grace.”

Russell followed me into my office and we continued to get acquainted. He told me about the Methodist church in Covington where his membership remains and about Epworth UMC they now attend. He mentioned the death of the female associate pastor at their Covington church and how that church and senior pastor are still grieving this well-loved associate’s death. It turns out that associate had been one of my friend Rusty’s favorite students at Lambuth College in the late 70’s and he had attended her memorial service earlier this year. Her name was Grace.

“I don’t believe in coincidences” he said. “I believe you and I were supposed to meet today.” 

I showed and gave him a copy of Notes From Susie and he handed me a check for $100 for Celebrating Grace.

“Russell, this is so nice of you.”

“I’m just glad to be able to. I better be on my way. She’ll be wondering where I am.”

“I hope our paths cross again. Maybe we can walk together some morning.”

Borrowing a phrase Honey used and a way of life she practiced and pretty much perfected -- “Today I am thankful for” -- opportunities I have, for new people I am meeting, for health to walk, for strength to do pretty much what I want, for wonderful churches of many stripes, for good friends nearby since family is afar, for the beauty and freshness of springtime…all of which calls to mind this bright and joyful hymn:

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,
     all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings,
     He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountain, the river running by,
     the sunset and the morning that brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter, the pleasant summer sun,
     the ripe fruit in the garden: He made them every one.

He gave us eyes to see them and lips that we might tell
     how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,
     all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.

Words – Cecil F. Alexander, 1848

- Mark

Final Act of Faith

We are in the midst of the third Holy Week since Honey died. Since then, it seems as though every year during Holy Week a single, but specific take-away sneaks up on me. I don’t remember that happening all those years I was in local church music ministry, perhaps because I was otherwise preoccupied with typical musical goings-on, events, logistics, etc., tied to that week. Looking back from this distance, that’s not something I’m particularly proud to admit. Contributive to my richer experiences in recent years has been closer attention to the entire Lenten season -- Ash Wednesday through Holy Week -- and attendance at related church services. Holy Week services -- Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, then Good Friday services set a wonderful stage for celebrating the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday and the four together make for a very meaningful spiritual journey at just the right time.

This year’s take-away was Jesus’ final -- according to Luke’s Gospel -- of seven sayings from the cross -- “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” That was the focus of the lesson at Sunday’s Sunday School class I attend when my schedule allows. In His first three utterances, Jesus took care of others:

  • “Father, forgive them…” -- his forsakers and crucifiers
  • “Today you will be with me in paradise” to the dying thief
  • “Behold your son; behold your mother” to his family

Sayings four and five show His humanity:

  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  • “I thirst”

The sixth seems to be transitional between this world and the next:

  • “It is finished”

Then His release:

  • “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” addressed to none other than God.

Some time and for some reason after Honey died, I wrote that death may well be the believer’s final act of faith. I couldn’t prove my hunch nor explain it very well, but watching Honey live while dying one day at a time over several months, it just seemed right. I still can’t prove it but contemplating Jesus’ words from the cross sheds good light and makes the notion clearer. Jesus’ ministry on earth complete and His humanity on full display, His final act was one of unwavering faith in His Father -- “into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” Luke goes on to say “And having said this, He breathed His last.

I don’t mean to over-spiritualize what I’m about to say nor exalt Honey inappropriately, but in the middle of Sunday’s class I realized that though the circumstances were very different, her death followed much the same pattern as His.

In the months and weeks leading up to her death, she completed some long-standing tasks, took care of people, and said things to family that needed saying. About a month before she died, she stopped talking about the grandkids which signaled to me she was already gazing beyond; and her humanity was certainly evident. But at the end I believe she -- not unlike Jesus -- committed her spirit into her Father’s hands -- her final act of faith. (see Notes From Susie, p. 337, paragraphs two and three.) I hope that’s not heresy, and I can’t prove it, but it just seems right.

Perhaps the week called Holy holds added meaning for me now because we buried Honey just two days before Holy Week 2015. I thank God for His timing.

Here is an old hymn Honey loved and that my sisters and I sang in three-part harmony at approximately ages six and eight or maybe even five and seven. It seems appropriate for today mid-Holy Week.

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
     for Thee, all the follies of sin I resign;
     my gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
     if ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.

I love Thee because Thou hast first loved me,
     and purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;
     I love Thee for wearing the thorns on Thy brow;
     if ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.

In mansions of glory and endless delight,
     I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright;
     and singing Thy praises, before Thee I’ll bow;
     if ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.

Words – William R. Featherstone, 1864

Jesus showed us how to die and Honey obviously followed His lead to the very end. Indeed, death is the believer’s final act of faith!

- Mark