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

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

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

Excerpt: Faith Runs Deep

In this week's post on the Notes From Susie blog, Mark Edwards features an excerpt from the book followed by a new postscript reflection on the passage. 

Someone characterized people's Christian faith as either simple or complex. Honey was the former, and I say the lucky one. I'm the latter and have to think through it all, try to modify it, massage it, and work at it. Not Honey. She was a "what He says we will do and where He sends we will go, never fear, only trust and obey" person. She didn't consider herself a good Christian witness, mostly due to a narrow view of "witness" pretty much limited to buttonholing nonbelievers and converting them. Honey wasn't going to buttonhole anyone for any reason, but she certainly was an effective witness.

Honey was a pray-er although she didn't like to pray aloud, much less in public. She used the time writing notes to people as an opportunity to pray for them. I often saw prayer lists around the house tucked away in safe places. I know she prayed for me, our kids, grandkids, and a host of others all the time. It was private but very personal and regular.

Her faith ran deep, borne out of her spirit of profound gratitude that produced joy. She always remembered provisions made for her -- a birth mother who chose life over death, a family who adopted her, Jesus who died for her, a husband who loved her, good job, friends, family, our house and home, and the list goes on. Getting sick was a downer for her, but it provided whole new group of friends and professionals. And the interesting thing was that she didn't have to work at interacting with people or being grateful, that's just they way she was.

The last two years of her life when I would put her to bed, she would always say, "Thank you for everything you did for me today," and she meant it. Often she would continue, "We are so blessed," then rattle off a list of things that came to mind. All our married life, she would adapt to whatever the circumstance and be okay about it. She could honestly sing with the hymn writer, "Whatever my lot, Thous hast taught me to say, 'It is well with my soul." It really was in life and it certainly is now.  

Beginning to develop the Notes From Susie book, I wrote that piece only a few weeks after Honey died. Two years and one week later, I see the truth of it even more clearly. The first part of this week, I tended the Celebrating Grace booth at a union meeting -- actually a church music conference -- during which several people made it a point to speak to me reporting how much they were blessed having read the book (and even following this blog.) All of it only confirms the point I was trying to make in the first paragraph -- Honey was, indeed, a powerful witness to her Christian faith that ran deeply even though it spoke quietly. It also reminds me of one definition of a saint -- “someone who never stops doing good.”

This old hymn certainly carries the freight of Honey’s quiet witness to her deep faith. 

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word
     what a glory He sheds on our way!
Let us do His good will; He abides with us still,
     and with all who will trust and obey.

Not a burden we bear, not a sorrow we share,
     but our toil He does richly repay;
     not a grief or a loss, not a frown or a cross,
     but is blest if we trust and obey.

But we never can prove the delights of His love
     until all on the altar we lay;
     for the favor He shows and the joys He bestows
     are for those who will trust and obey.

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet
     or we’ll walk by His side in the way;
     what He says we will do, where He sends we will go;
     never fear, only trust and obey.

[All together now…]

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
     to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Words – John H. Sammis, 1887

Thanks, Honey, for witnessing to us all.

- Mark

Happy Anniversary

Early church Sunday was very meaningful even though school spring breaks in full bloom resulted in lower attendance in every respect, although I don’t fret about such like I used to. Making a point in this installment of his Lenten sermon series -- “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” -- senior pastor Davis mentioned that he and a half-dozen others were leaving that afternoon to go to Amman, Jordan on a mission related to the refugee crisis in that part of the world. “We’ve talked about this situation long enough; we want to try to DO something about it!” That was one example of being a servant, but not all acts are or even need to be of that magnitude.

Later he reported that long-time BUMC member Elizabeth Hill died last week and her memorial service was Friday. Elizabeth’s ministry was making shawls for people who were ill or otherwise needed to sense the warmth of God’s love or the support of God’s people wrapped around them in times of crisis. She and several other women would gather at the church one day a week to knit shawls and pray for persons in need. (Davis affectionately refers to that bunch as “The Knit-pickers.”) He said the Jordan mission team would be taking eight of Elizabeth’s shawls to Amman this week to share with some of the refugees, extending her servant heart that expressed itself in specific action.

That’s when it hit me -- Honey received one of Elizabeth’s shawls when she was sick; one of the pastoral care ministers had brought it to her. Honey loved that shawl and was so touched by their kindness and inclusiveness. After the service I rushed home and found the shawl, laundered and stored in her cedar chest at the foot of our bed. I scribbled a note, put both in a bag and returned to the church. The contemporary service in progress in the sanctuary, Leslie, the church’s Executive Director happened to be in her office adjacent to the narthex. I handed her the bag, shared the shawl’s history, and asked her to see if she could get it in one of the suitcases bound for Amman later in the day that “Honey would be all over this!” (All of us who knew Honey well would readily agree.) Leslie’s face lit up as her eyes filled up. I explained that this week -- actually Friday -- is the two-year anniversary of Honey’s death and sending her treasured shawl to a refugee halfway around the world would absolutely delight her and be the most appropriate way to remember and celebrate who she was.

(The most amazing part of this whole incident is that I put it all together. Maybe I AM beginning to catch on to some of this.)

Leaving worship Sunday a text from daughter Weslee reported that Jonathan (12) and Andrew (9) had made their professions of faith at their church. Their child-like faith has been blooming for some time, they have been talking about it awhile and have decided to follow Jesus. Whoa! Can anyone else besides me see Honey’s wide smile from here? If schedules can be worked out, the boys’ two grandfathers will baptize them. Will that be cool or what!

Like many of you, I seldom answer or even use my home phone. For some time now, its most important function remains as a repository for telemarketing messages. Sure, I check it when the message light is blinking but nine times out of ten it is someone trying to sell me something. They have no idea what a waste of time that is. However, getting dinner together one night last week I noticed the blinking light feverishly signaling a message -- this one from Nettie Hunt.  NETTIE HUNT! Holy smoke, that’s Honey’s chemo friend who became like a sister to her. You may remember reading about Nettie in some of Honey’s early Facebook updates that made their way into the Notes From Susie book. They loved each other, they were about the same age, and those gals had a big time traveling a hard road together. I called Nettie when Honey died but today she was calling me to see how I was doing coming up on March 24. We had the nicest visit, she’s doing fine, I sent her a copy of the book, and we committed to stay in touch. What an unexpected blessing!

I’ve never been particularly good at celebrating anniversaries, but celebrating Honey on this second anniversary of her death is off to a good start -- two grandsons declaring their faith, reconnecting with Nettie, and a shawl shared with a Jordanian refugee. Add to all that a visit to the cemetery last Saturday with my brother and Nathan coming to town later this week that includes catfish on Friday, the words of hymnwriter Fanny Crosby come quickly to mind – “what have I to ask beside?”

While we’re at it, we might as well sing the rest of Fanny’s hymn; sing it with me, you know it –

All the way my Savior leads me;
     what have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
     who through life has been my guide?

Heavenly peace, divinest comfort,
     here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know whate’er befalleth,
     Jesus doeth all things well.

All the way my Savior leads me;
     cheers each winding path I tread,
     give me grace for every trial,
     feeds me with the living bread;
     though my weary steps may falter
     and my soul athirst may be,
     gushing from the rock before me,
     lo! a spring of joy I see.

All the way my Savior leads me;
     oh, the fullness of His love!
Perfect rest to me is promised
     in my Father’s house above:
     when my spirit, clothed immortal,
     wings its flight to realms of day,
     this my song through endless ages:
     Jesus led me all the way.

Words – Fanny Crosby, 1875

Happy Anniversary, Honey!