Celebrating Grace Hymnal

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

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

Doing What We Can

You may remember a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the shawl knitted and given to Honey by a Brentwood UMC “Knit-Pickers” as their pastor adoringly calls them. There’s more.

This year’s Lenten sermon series at that steeple centers around pre-Triumphal Entry events in Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. Sunday’s installment was about the woman in Bethany who anointed His head with “very costly perfume of pure nard.” You remember the story, how some of those sitting around were indignant about her wasting what they contended could have been sold and given to the poor. Jesus’ response to them was “Let her alone… she has done a good thing to me… she has done what she could.”

The Pastor’s closing illustration making his point of “doing what we can” went something like this:

“On the Sunday we left for Amman, I told a story about one of our women who knitted prayer shawls. She had passed away the week before we left. We took some of her shawls to give to some of the Jordanian refugees we would meet on our mission. After the 8:15 service that morning, one of our men -- I don’t think he’s even a member -- drove home and picked up one of those prayer shawls that had been given to his wife in her last days. He brought it back to church and said, “She would want it to be shared with someone in need.” It was our joy to give that shawl to an Iraqi family. They’re followers of Jesus, who have known great suffering. The husband had seen his mother & sisters killed right in front of him. ‘Jameelah’ he said. It’s Arabic for beautiful.”

When it dawned on me he was telling our story, it wiped me out. Having read my recent Facebook post, sweet Anne, my nearly octogenarian pew mate the past few years, also caught on early into the pastor’s story and gently patted me on the knee just as she used to pat Honey or reach for Honey’s hand when the pastor spoke about personal trials, sickness or suffering. (“Pastor Anne” has a nice ring to it, ya think?)

So Honey’s treasured “beautiful” shawl is now comforting an Iraqi family in Amman, Jordan. Would that please Honey or what! Oh my soul! I can see the bright smile and total delight on her face from here.

Following the meaningful sermon, we came to the Lord’s Table sharing Communion remembering that Christ had done for us what only He could do.

From that service I drove downtown for a later service where our pastor was preaching on Jesus’ pre-Triumphant Entry claim that “I am the resurrection and the life.” To reinforce that truth for us today, the congregation sang these fine words from the Celebrating Grace Hymnal:

When sorrow floods the troubled heart
     and clouds the mind with fears,
     affliction presses from the soul
     the bitter flow of tears.

God’s weeping children raise the prayer:
     “Almighty God, how long
     till tears shall cease and silence break
     and grief be turned to song?”

The voice is stilled, no words express
     the pain that lingers on;
     our prayer becomes a silent sigh;
     all mortal speech is gone.

The Holy Spirit groans in us
     with intercession strong;
     when tears have ceased and silence breaks,
     the Spirit stirs a song.

The sting of death cannot forbid
     the child of God to sing.
The scars we bear may long remain,
     but resurrection brings
     the healing of the broken heart,
     the righting of the wrong.

Our tears shall cease, our silence breaks
      in Christ, the living Song.

Words – Rebecca Turner and Paul Simpson Duke, 1989

So the morning was one of seamless worship – celebrating Honey, celebrating Communion, and celebrating Resurrection.  And the evening – dinner with long-time friends, Don and Janice. “…what have I to ask beside?”

- Mark

Here’s a pretty cool after-thought -- that shawl of Honey’s is having a bit of resurrection itself.  It was “dead” lying safely in the “tomb” (cedar chest at the foot of our bed) for a time but has now burst forth with new life, once again doing what it can. Alleluia!

A Day of Birth

In recent years March 7 has become a day to remember for me. It is a day of birth:

March 7, 2008 – grandson Andrew was born. Andrew is daughter Weslee’s middle son and has the healthiest head of red hair and corresponding freckles you ever saw. He is one cute kid! Andrew is the biggest of her three and the most tender-hearted. He’s the one that will get up off the floor from watching TV or playing a video game to give me a hug and say “I love you, Papa” or in the middle of something else blurt out of nowhere, “I miss Honey!” Papa loves that not-so-little football lineman boy. Andrew’s special two-year-old friend Anna Kate’s funeral was last March 7, 2016.

March 7, 2010 – the day Celebrating Grace Hymnal was born. After four years of intense, rewarding, joy-filled work, we rolled out that book two consecutive nights at Atlanta’s Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church to a house full of church musicians. We sang the stars down, I’m telling you! I’ll never forget the sight of Tom and Julie McAfee trying to sing through the tears as we all belted out “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” That book was his dream and it had come to life before our eyes. In his remarks that opening night, Terry York reminded us that the main test of a hymnal is “Does it sing?” and that night did it ever. And it still does! I have had more than my fair share of high moments in music ministry through the years, but none higher than that those two nights.   


March 7, 2013 marks the birth of “Notes from Susie.” Honey’s first surgery just completed, standing in a hospital hall, I noticed my phone flooded with emails, texts, and voice messages. Overwhelmed trying to figure out how I could respond to it all, Weslee calmly said, “we start a Facebook page.” We did, she hosted, and what a blessing it was to Honey and me, both in the writing of messages and receiving responses from people we knew and some we didn’t know. By the grace and goodness of God, that informational vehicle morphed into an almost daily “relief valve” for Honey and me to vent our fears and gratitude, our faith and grief – frequently expressed and nurtured through words of timeless and time-honored hymns. And then came the book!

Here is a hymn in the Celebrating Grace Hymnal written to be sung at the beginning of a calendar new year. But March 7 seems to begin a sort of new year for me, so let’s sing it today. The tune is the one to which we sing “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” (itself not a bad choice for an occasion as this.)

Great God, we sing your guiding hand
     by which supported still we stand;
     the opening year Your mercy shows;
     that mercy crowns it till its close.

By day, by night, at home, abroad,
     still we are guarded by our God;
     by His incessant bounty fed,
     by His unerring counsel led.

With grateful hearts the past we own;
     the future, all to us unknown,
     we to Your guardian care commit,
     and peaceful leave before Your feet.

In scenes exalted or depressed,
     You are our joy, You are our rest;
     Your goodness all our hopes shall raise,
     adored through all our changing days.

Words – Phillip Doddridge (based on Acts 26:22)

I doubt that hymn has made any list of Top 10. But it certainly is good fodder for straddling a pivotal occasion, seeing/celebrating what lies behind and striking out on yet another lap led by God’s guiding hand. 

Thanks be to God for March 7. Onward!

- Mark


Recently in this spot we talked a little about one’s outlook on life. Yesterday, I met Exhibit A of the “glass half-full” sort.

Only a few days into my two-month-old morning mall walk routine, Diane, who seems to know all the walkers by name and history, introduced me to Betty, an older woman strolling along at a slower pace pushing a basket cart. That day Diane stopped to visit with Betty and I barely broke stride not wanting to impose on their lady-talk. Since that day I’ve seen Betty off and on, waved and greeted across the other side, and moved on.

Last Monday midway around the “block’ I pulled up beside her and her cart –

“Good morning, Betty. I have a burning question I’ve wanted to ask.”

“Really?” she said looking a little startled and puzzled, but with a smile.

“Are you pushing that thing or is it pulling you?”

Her face relaxed and she snickered, “Probably a little of both.”

“How long have you been walking this mall?”

“I moved here about fifteen years ago and been walking it since.”

“Where did move from?”


“Did you see Atlanta lose the Super Bowl the other night?”

“Yes I did. That was awful, wasn’t it!”

We walked on carrying on a conversation about this and that.  It turns out that Betty’s niece was a member of FBC, Nashville, some fifty years ago and married Robert Denny who, at one time, was General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. I knew Dr. Denny only by reputation. Small world.

Betty and I have both lost our spouses. Her husband ended his long battle with depression twenty-nine years ago by taking his own life. 

“Depression is tough battle and losing him was hard for me. I did all I could trying to help him for a lot of years, but there’s only so much you can do.”

Nearing the mall south entrance, she grabbed her coat in the bottom of the basket.

“Are you done?” I asked.

“Yeah, one lap is enough for a person my age.” 

“Oh, you’re not old.”

“Yes I am and I’m not as healthy as I used to be.”

“Aw, how old are you?”


“You’re not 95!”

“Oh yes I am, every day of it.”

“You are remarkable at 95! You have a bright spirit, you’re friendly, you’re out here staying in shape and visiting with people. Good for you!”

“I’m doing what I can and I enjoy it.”

I helped her finish putting on her coat and resumed my walk as she and her trusted cart headed out the door toward the parking lot. My last lap was consumed thinking about this dear soul with enough zest for life even at age 95 to get up before the break of every morning, drive to the mall to get in a healthy walk. I don’t know if she is a person of faith although her countenance makes me think she is; I’ll find out in a few mornings and let you know.

We probably all hope to have a zest for life as long as we live. If the recent NPR life-outlook guest/guru was correct and the scientific research she referenced is accurate, a glass half-full outlook is something we must practice along the way, ahead of the fourth quarter. For some it will come easier than for others.

People like Betty are an inspiration to me. Perseverance is a word that comes to mind; grit is another. With all she’s been through for as long as she’s lived, I can’t help admire her and marvel at the sparkle still in her eyes. 

Here’s an old hymn in the Perseverance section of the Celebrating Grace Hymnal.

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
     leaning on the everlasting arms;
     what a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
     leaning on the everlasting arms.

Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
     leaning on the everlasting arms;
     oh, how bright the path grows from day to day,
     leaning on the everlasting arms;

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
     leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peach with my Lord so near,
     leaning on the everlasting arms;

[Ok, sing the refrain with me…with parts and echoes]

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
    leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

            Words – Elisha Hoffman, 1887

Sunday, the Brentwood United Methodists sang a bit of that hymn like a bunch of rowdy Baptists. Gregg, their Baptist-trained organist turned that instrument inside out sounding like a single-stanza revival meetin’. It was great! Upon completion and en route to the kneeling rails for the morning prayer, the Liturgist (also former Baptist) remarked “something tells me that’s not the first time y’all have sung that hymn!” He was right and we all laughed in assent.

It appears Betty is sweetly walking in this pilgrim way; observing her encourages me to do the same. 95? Holy smoke!

- Mark


Morning mall-walking continues and becomes more and more serendipitous.

A couple weeks ago in the “Lost Cajun” installment of this blog, I mentioned Boompa, my late father-in-law. Early on, walking Cool Springs Mall I noticed an older gentleman also lapping the place every morning. Walking behind him, his gait and speed, his height, both bowed knees that created the same slight limp, and even his cap reminded me mightily of Boompa. I wish those of you who knew Boompa could observe Robert walk every morning – you wouldn’t believe the similarity either. 


Robert’s photo makes him look taller than my father-in-law, but my new friend is only a little slimmer – they were likely the same size at Robert’s age of 71. Boompa claimed walking on concrete floors in his grocery stores all those years took its toll on his knees causing his slight limp. Today I caught up with Robert and in conversation asked him what kind of work he did while in the workforce. You guessed it – Kroger, 42 years. The take-away here – if you want bad knees and to walk with a slight limp, spend a whole career working in a grocery store.

Robert asked about my line of work, and when I told him First Baptist Church downtown, it turns out he plays saxophone and for a while played in a band that rehearsed weekly in our church basement with Bill York, FBC’s security chief. Small world.

Today Robert and I were walking the lower level of the mall and when it was time for me to go to the office, I said a few parting words to him and hopped on the escalator to the top level where I had parked. Rounding the corner I overtook a new-to-me walker and howdied as I went by. In a half-dozen or so paces he shouted my way –

“Didn’t you used to be at First Baptist Church?”  

Turning around “I did!  I’m Mark Edwards. Tell me who you are.”

“Bill Long. I’m Gina’s father.”

I lock-stepped with him a few minutes of visitation and then headed to the parking lot amazed at what had just happened. The funny part about that is a few weeks ago when I wrote about the poofy-haired walker – Suzanne – Gina commented “My Dad is also an early morning Cool Springs Mall walker.  Sometimes I join him when I’m in town, so if you see a girl yawning, with bed hair trying to keep up with her Dad…that’s me!”

I’m not making this stuff up; I’m enjoying it…but beginning to wonder some about the recent connections I’m discovering and making. 

I’m noticing that since Honey died nearly two years ago, I seem to see different things and see things differently. Perhaps my gaze is wider or vision clearer; I’m looking more intently or intentionally. Good things – people and situations – seem to be showing up unexpectedly and more often; maybe I’m living with a greater sense of expectancy; so far, it’s interesting and down-right delightful.  Soon after Honey died my brother Randy made a comment to the effect that the “next chapter” for me may be the best yet. I also remember my long-time friend Rita commenting a few years following her husband’s death that she didn’t know if she’d ever be happy again, but she genuinely was. I still see and feel a big hole in my heart every day, but life nearing two years later is good. 

These serendipities mall-walking and elsewhere bring to mind an old hymn I love as did Honey. She always wanted me to play it at night after putting her to bed – “it’s happy and calming.” The hymn has appeared in various hymnals since 1779 when it was written. The fact that it has been paired with various tunes could indicate the search is ongoing for the right tune.  Perhaps the tune I penned – JONATHAN (named for my eldest grandson) – included in the Celebrating Grace Hymnal will end the search…or not.

Sometimes a light surprises the child of God who sings;

   it is the Lord who rises with healing in His wings.

When comforts are declining He grants the soul again

   a season of clear shining to cheer it after rain.


In hold contemplation we sweetly then pursue

   the theme of God’s salvation and find it ever new;

   set free from present sorrows, we cheerfully can say,

   “Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.”


It can bring with it nothing but He will bear us through;

Who gives the lilies clothing will clothe His people, too’

beneath the spreading heavens no creature but is fed;

and He who feeds the ravens will give His children bread.


Though vine nor fig tree neither expected fruit should bear,

though all the field should wither, nor flocks nor herds be there;

yet God the same abiding, His praise shall tune my voice,

for while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.

                Words – William Cowper, 1179

I can say for sure that in the last couple of years I have been “in Him confiding” more and that “I cannot but rejoice.” Thank you, Lord.

- Mark

Making Sense of the Hymnal: Mary and Joseph

Besides baby Jesus, His mom gets most of the press in the Christmas story and perhaps rightly so. For a long time, though, I've thought the birth of Jesus was as much a step of faith for Joseph as it was for Mary. Though not knowing exactly how she conceived, Mary believed the angel Gabriel and was completely confident that the Holy Spirit had fathered her baby. Joseph's faith walk had an additional step -- believing his wife-to-be AND the angel who later appeared to him. Mary has a baby growing in her womb while Joseph's probable task was to keep explaining the unbelievable though blessed situation to people in his circle and beyond. Mary carried the evidence; all Joseph possessed was others' word. 

Through the years, hymn writers and carol crafters have melded sparse biblical record and poetic imagination to tell the ancient story. But as already suggested, there is relatively much biblical record about Mary compared with very little of Joseph. In the Celebrating Grace Hymnal, there is a four-item Mary section that includes, "My Soul Proclaims with Wonder," and "Tell Out, My Soul," both based on Luke 1:46-55 -- Mary's song in response to Gabriel's announcement to her. Between those two versions of the Magnificat is the actual scripture passage and the hymn, "Young Mary Lived in Nazareth;" the latter moves the story forward including Mary's visit to Elizabeth, a brief mention of Joseph, and the journey to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. 

But a subtle thing occurs a few hymnal pages later. On the left side of the spread appears, "Gentle Mary Laid Her Child," but facing it on the right side is an entire hymn centering on Joseph. That occurrence is not accidental nor is it coincidental that their tonal centers are closely related, meaning the two hymns could be sung in worship seamlessly, one following the other. 

Although the Joseph hymn, "The Hands That First Held Mary's Child," is mostly author imagination its message is completely plausible and seems to capture some of the weight Joseph bore and the worship he experienced in his journey of faith. Walk alongside this Christmas giant for a spell. 

The hands that first held Mary's child

were hard from working wood, 

from boards they sawed and planed and filed

and splinters they withstood.

This day they gripped no tool of steel, 

they drove no iron nail, 

but cradled from the head to heel

our Lord, new-born and frail. 

When Joseph marveled at the size

of that small breathing frame, 

and gazed upon those bright new eyes

and spoke the infant's name, 

the angel's words he once had dreamed

poured down from heaven's height, 

and like the host of stars that beamed

blessed earth with welcome light. 

"This child shall be Emmanuel, 

not God upon the throne, 

but God with us, Emmanuel,

as close as blood and bone."

The tiny form in Joseph's palms

confirmed what he had heard, 

and from his heart rose hymns and psalms

for heaven's human word.

The tools that Joseph laid aside

a mob would later lift

and use with anger, fear, and pride

to crucify God's gift. 

Let us, O Lord, not only hold

the child who's born today, 

but charged with faith may we be bold

to follow in His way.

Words by Thomas H. Troeger © 1985 Oxford University Press


We've gotten used to the idea that Mary -- likely a teenager at the time -- was special and, though only a common person, accepted God's call to participate uniquely in the Kingdom. But this hymn helps me see that Joseph, even more"under the radar" and unlikely than we've thought of Mary, was trusted of God and also was faithful to God to be and do a unique thing. I believe it took them both to bring the Prince of Peace safely into the world. 

And if God trusted these two, do you think perhaps He also calls and trusts you and me to do our individual part in delivering His peace to our world? I do. 

- Mark

People, Look East

Advent began Sunday and already the songs and services of the season are a blessing. The Youth Choirs – almost 200 teenagers – annual Advent Concert at Brentwood UMC was beautiful and what they do and sing is quite remarkable. And then the Service of Remembrance and Hope downtown at Nashville’s First Baptist Church has always been meaningful to me but, of course, more so since Honey died in 2015.

One delightful Advent hymn I learned while helping build the Celebrating Grace Hymnal is “People, Look East.” It is a fresh, joy-filled text alerting people of earth, furrows in the field, and angels in the air to do their respective things to make ready because “Love – meaning Jesus – the Guest, the Rose, and the Lord is on the way.” The hymn is set to a bright French folk melody that sort of dances off the page.

For ages, east has been symbolic of hope, of new life, of resurrection. In the creation story, God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden. The prophet Ezekiel talks about the east gate of the Temple where the glory of God hovered over them. The magi saw His star in the east, and east is the root word for our word “Easter.”

The sanctuary at FBC, Nashville is a majestic, resonant room, not well-suited for every kind of music, but the absolute best for congregations and choirs to sing. The room itself is part of what kept Honey and me there thirty Christmases in a row. “People, Look East” was not written for our church, but the hymn’s title, if not also its imagery, has something to say to that congregation. You see, to the west of the sanctuary and to the backs of most of the congregation is not only the setting sun, but also the historic Customs House where bankruptcy court is conducted – both suggesting the down side of life. To the south of our campus is the huge and encroaching Music City Center (and soon-to- be three high-rise hotels) housing nearly every form of commerce imaginable, none of which ultimately satisfies anyone’s soul. To our north and across bustling Broadway are the central business district, the state capitol, and entertainment hub which also come up short in life’s matters that really matter.

But in the midst of it all the congregation sits in worship facing east, right into the magnificent resurrection window at the base of which is the baptismal pool – itself a symbol of new life, rebirth, and eternal hope. The massive window is the most abstract of the set of nine. It not only invites the worshiper to face east but also to look up, following the facets of blue, red, and green glass to the Easter lily-like white at the very top, opening upward toward the heavens.

Sanctuary at First Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee

Sanctuary at First Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee

It is not coincidental that many churches face east and rightly so. But it seems to be more intentional and dramatic in this place.

People, look east, the time is near

of the crowning of the year.

Make your house fair as you are able,

trim the hearth and set the table.

People look east and sing today:

Love, the Guest is on the way.


Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare, 

one more seed is planted there.

Give up your strength the seed to nourish,

that in course the flower may flourish.

People, look east and sing today:

Love, the Rose, is on the way.


Angels, announce with shouts of mirth

Christ who brings new life to earth.

Set every peak and valley humming

with the word, the Lord is coming.

People, look east and sing today:

Love, the Lord, is on the way.

People, Look East - words by Eleanor Farjeon (1928)
© 1960 David Higham Associates., LTD. 


If you are not familiar with this hymn, follow this link and listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbfKd5u8gmI

May this Advent season be a time to begin to “look east and sing today: Love, the Lord, is on the way.”

- Mark

A New Book of Psalms

Our Tuesday morning Bible Study group recently began a rather new book, Making Sense of the Bible, penned by Adam Hamilton, a Methodist pastor in Kansas City. Already the early stanzas dealing with the nature of scripture -- Biblical geography, timeline, writers of the Old Testament, when and why they wrote, and which books did and didn’t make into the Old Testament -- are turning on lights within me that a faith-based college degree in religious education and a pair of seminary degrees (in music of course) failed to do. In no way do I fully credit those institutions nor my junior college Bible teacher with those failures. My upbringing left a deep impression that critical Biblical scholarship somehow debunked the authority and power of Holy Writ. Growing up, a steady stream of revival preachers leaning toward “the Bible says it, I believe, and that settles it” left its mark also. But in my heart of hearts those slants didn’t seem to ring completely true even back then and the theological environment amidst which I’ve lived most of my adult life hasn’t done much to change my misimpression. I’m not blaming that either. I should have investigated further my hunch. 

The fact is, much of the Bible began as oral tradition, told and retold over generations rather than scripted by the finger of God or transcribed verbatim from the voice of God. Imperfect people eventually put the old stories in writing and later on, other mere mortals decided which of those writings made the cut and which ones would not be included in the manuscript as we know it today. But none of the above diminishes or dilutes the message of love or grace or power or judgement of God conveyed in scripture. Personally, it elevates the sacred text and makes me want to read more of it – it now makes more sense. I feel more connected to it and inspired by it realizing that God has trusted His eternal kingdom work to His people, people not unlike you and me. And God still does. 

I have performed as preacher exactly once in my life -- at a Celebrating Grace Hymnal dedication several years ago. (Since no additional invitations have come, methinks word has gotten around.) Preparing that single Sunday wonder, it occurred to me that God did not cease his revelation when the Bible came into being, that some of God’s more recent revelation can be found in other places -- for me, most readily within hymns scripted by other inspired writers. 

Those of you who followed our Notes From Susie Facebook page while Susie (aka Honey) was sick and those who have read the Notes From Susie book know how she and I drew on the depths of hymnody during her illness as have I since her death a year and half ago. Most of those hymns came from the Celebrating Grace Hymnal that I was privileged to help build. That book and those hymns were like discovering a new book of Psalms. Adam Hamilton reminds us that many of the biblical Psalms were written in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem, during and after the Exile, encouraging the people to rebuild their lives and temple after great national turmoil and hardship. In like manner, those hymns were like psalms to Honey and me during our extended journey.

Occasionally in this space for the next little bit and in the spirit of Adam Hamilton, I’m going to try my hand at “making sense of the hymnal.” There’s a lot of Bible in the hymns…there is also inspiration…and more recent revelation. Perhaps we will mine some new and remember some other. 

This morning I’m reminded of a line from “Break Thou the Bread of Life,” a hundred and fifty year old hymn about the Bible -- “beyond the sacred page, I seek Thee, Lord.” 

And another – “singing His praises all the day long.”

- Mark

Boy, We Didn’t See That One Coming, Did We?

Boy, we didn't see that one coming, did we? We thought the election would be closer and I suppose the popular vote indicates that it was. 

BUT the historic election is over -- mercifully -- and we have a new President-Elect who needs and deserves our prayers and support. It is a little scary, but also offers a modicum of excitement that things will be different. Speaker Paul Ryan said of Mr. Trump: "He saw something that the rest of us didn't." That's encouraging. I sure want my President to see more than I. It's a tough job, his.

I shared this hymn in the previous post. In the Celebrating Grace Hymnal it is included in the Commemorations section - mostly intended for church dedications and anniversaries. But I encourage us all to consider it again as a call and resolve to sorely needed unity in our divided country.


In unity we lift our song

of grateful adoration, 

for brothers brave and sisters strong,

what cause for celebration.


For those whose faithfulness

has kept us through distress, 

who've share with us our plight, 

who've held us in the night, 

the blessed congregation.


For stories told and told again

to every generation, 

to give us strength in time of pain,

to give us consolation.


Our spirits to revive

to keep our dreams alive, 

when we are far from home

and evil seasons come; 

how firm is our foundation.


For God our way, our bread, our rest,

of all these gifts the Giver. 

Our strength, our guide, our nurturing breast

whose hand will yet deliver.


Who keeps us till the day

when night shall pass away, 

when hate and fear are gone

and all our work is done, 

and we shall sing forever.

In Unity We Lift Our Song – words Ken Medema, 1985


The long campaign was ugly and the rhetoric poisonous, but Jesus' command to us remains to be salt and light in our world no matter the circumstance. Let us remember that it is "with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes."

- Mark