Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

Still Walking the Hard Road — Now What?

11-28-11

My friend Jim Watkins recently reported on a remark overheard during a missions trip to Zambia: “Americans pray for burdens to be lifted. Africans pray for stronger backs.”

This is one of those unexpected stop-sign concepts that we occasionally meet on life’s road. Theology? Both halves of the sentence are theologically valid. Jesus offered to be our yoke, and our Strong Arm. And then, as the entire Book of James and many other parts of Scripture remind us, we must forbear; that Jesus identifies with our suffering. “Burdens are lifted at Calvary.”

There is no contradiction. Both viewpoints are support beams of that bridge whose builder and maker is the Lord, a bridge that will carry us through life.

Whether Americans and Africans have different attitude toward burdens is a question that ultimately leads to self-examinations as cultures, as residents of certain points in history, and as food for thought. Of course, there might be implications about societies and economies and such; but all are beneficial to think about. We can especially notice the fact that “center of gravity” of the Christian church is moving to south of the Equator. Some people have the impression that Islam, for instance, is overwhelming Africa. Its numbers are increasing, but not as fast or in greater numbers than a rapid spread of Christianity! On-fire, evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity likewise is growing in great numbers in the Pacific Rim and in South America. As an example, there are more Charismatics than traditional Catholics on Brazil today.

As I say, there is food for thought in the comment overheard on that missions trip. But on the “stronger back” side of the equation, let us remember, as we did a few weeks ago, that no matter how difficult things get, Jesus is always there to assist us.

There is a song that reminds us of this truth in a haunting, aching manner. It was written by an elderly lady who had not written other songs that we know of, and has no other music in songbooks or hymnbooks. Back in the 1960s a small gospel group, The Hallelujah Minstrels of Fort Smith, Arkansas, wanted to record an album but couldn’t afford the studio time. A friend of the leader Ray Lewis asked several times if the group would listen to a song his sister, Audra Czarnikow of Liberty, OK, had written. Finally, Mrs Czarnikow offered to contribute to the studio costs if they would record her song. She dug out an old reel-to-reel tape she had made of it… the group was so impressed that they recorded it… and even named the album after the song, “God walks the dark Hills.”

The evocative song speaks not of defeat but of encouragement, while not ignoring the challenges, snares, and pitfalls of life that we all know are too real. But God walks the dark hills for you and me.

God walks the dark hills, the highways and byways.
He walks o’er the billows of life’s troubled sea.
He walks in the cold, dark shadows of midnight –
God walks the dark hills for you and me.

Chorus
God walks the dark hills to guide my footsteps;
He walks everywhere by night and by day.
He walks in silence down the lone highway,
God walks the dark hills to show me the way.

God walks in the storm, the rain and the sunshine,
He walks in the shadows of glimmering light;
He walks o’er the mountains, the rivers, and valleys,
God walks the dark hills to guide you and me.

God walks in silence in the stillness of midnight,
He walks in your Garden of Gethsemane;
He walks through the halls and aisles of the Temple,
God walks the dark hills to guide you and me.

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This song became a signature song of the Happy Goodmans, and is performed here, solo on the piano, by the plaintive voice of Iris Dement. Countless people have gone to contemplation, and uncountable people have been touched, by this lone song of a nearly anonymous, creative servant, Audra Czarnikow. Whether your burdens are lifted or more easily carried, it will encourage your spirit.

Click: God Walks the Dark Hills

Happy Thinks-Giving

11-21-11

Thanksgiving. Let’s see… that’s the one between Halloween and Christmas. “Turkey Day!” The day before the big sales. Autumn decorations – think yellows and oranges. Football! Those big games out in the crisp air, or – one after another – on TV all day long.

Once upon a time, Thanksgiving was a day of observance, set aside to thank God for His gifts. Now, the mention of God is an indictable offense in public schools, as proscribed as teaching that Christian Pilgrims gathered to give thanks for bountiful harvests. The closest children can be to a spiritual aspect of this “holiday” (holy-day?) outside the fortress-walls of their homes and churches, still, is a vague acknowledgment of Mother Nature. Thank… who? For… what?

So it is that Thanksgiving has become one more holiday in an annual American cycle where every month has the possibility of a long weekend built in (August is the slacker). But I invite us to step back a few steps, even a few years. Let us think about Thanksgiving.

When the Pilgrims had their feast, and prayers, it was indeed to raise praises to God for peace with the natives, for establishments of their communities, for a bountiful harvest. When George Washington proclaimed Thanksgiving, it was to bless God for the successful Revolution and for the foundations of a new nation. When Abraham Lincoln issued the first of the unbroken string of presidential proclamations in 1863, it was to ask forgiveness of God, and to thank Him for protection through a Civil War. In a Thanksgiving Proclamation of Theodore Roosevelt, he said: “The things of the body are good; the things of the intellect better; but best of all are the things of the soul,” and he besought Americans to respond to God’s gifts with gratitude and to fight for righteousness.

Without disregarding any of those ideals and values (contemporary culture is doing that, very well, by itself) I wonder if we can step back even further, so to speak. And thank God for more than harvests and prosperity and victories. Think about it – we thank God for Jesus (um, that’s our Christmas compartment); we thank God that Jesus died for our sins (check: Easter)… and so on.

Surely we don’t need a special day to thank God for being God (but Thursday will do), or to thank Him for things we don’t often think about.

This week I received a stunning video, produced by the group TED (Technology, Education, Design), forwarded to me by my friend Mike Atkinson. It features the imagist Alexander Tsiaras, and the title is Conception to Birth. Tsiaras has photographed, filmed, and recreated the development of a baby in the womb, and through the birth canal, to delivery. We see the tiniest cells and the most detailed pictures of beating hearts and evolving, folding brain components. He opens with an explanation of what we will see, and how he did it; and he closes with details of the miracle that is the human body, and the implausibility (for he is a mathematician, among other things) of the wonderful workings of the human body.

How do we react to such acts of God? The voluble scientist Tsiaras keeps returning to the words “Divine,” and “Divinity.” For me, I was awestruck. In my dank past I was one of those “blob” adherents regarding the unborn. Eventually, like Ann Coulter, I came to realize the logical challenge inherent in the question: “Why is it called Birth Control and not Blob Control?” And after watching this video several times, my additional reactions are also wonderment, and tears.

And can we not all respond to things we take for granted – life, the miracles of our bodies, everyday protections, health, simple blessings, friends, and communities of believers – with Thanks?

Maybe, this year, we can keep the decorations in the closet; the dinner-table harvest-sentiments at bay; and some of the football games at low-volume. And “automatic” prayers. At least for a little while… let us Think before we Thank.

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This video, likewise, should not be compartmentalized for, say, “Sanctity of Life” Day. Life is sacred every day – and this vid shows us how we all got here, surely a miraculous thing to contemplate every day of the year. If the video does not link, Google for Tsiaras and “Conception to Life” and you will find it. Its production is, itself, a miracle… for it brings us closer to the Creator God. By the way, I particularly appreciate the background music as the speed-motion development of a baby is shown: Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria. Glorious indeed.

Click: Give Thanks For the Divine Spark

“Occupy” This!

11-14-11

Lunatics are running the asylum. Having been in the humor business most of my life, I feel like it is becoming difficult to be more outrageous than reality. Last week I had an accident when I sneezed while driving. After the police showed up and made their report, I was charged with Driving Under the Influenza. No, not really, but things have almost gotten that absurd.

On the serious side, we see the economies of the world crumbling before our eyes. The distress of mighty nations and powerful leaders affects each of us in the smallest compartments of our lives… and it will get worse. The Penn State scandal, a cancerous obscenity at every level we know of (and probably more details to follow) is, sadly, an age-old story of personal sin, and of moral cowardice on the part of others who might have intervened. Yet the twist of contemporary American culture is thousands of students rioting because their idol of a coach – a false idol, clearly, as guilty as clergymen who cover up for fellow pedophiles – is reprimanded for complicity in molestation. “Building men” on the field, and letting boys be destroyed in the locker room.

Elsewhere in the news, the “Occupy” movement, to me, is partly humorous and partly troubling. Add partly offensive. Which adds up to totally dangerous. I feel like a latter-day Rip Van Winkle – where have these unwashed, hirsute, malodorous hordes been until two months ago? Are they some new species, a “42-year locust”? The Sixties are repeating on us, like a side dish of rancid sauerkraut.

Less amusing (?) is the lack of discourse in what purports to be a protest movement. Beating drums, robot-like chanting, three murders, rapes, vandalism, defecation on sidewalks and on police car hoods, public intercourse, intimidation of pedestrians… these are not traditional seeds of economic reform. But these are new times. Maybe end times.

Then there is the dangerous aspect, that the cultural establishment and a portion of the political elite regard these folks as modern Washingtons. They aren’t Washing-anythings. But the Occupy movement might well become the tail that wags the dog of political debate in this country. And just as financial thievery in exalted boardrooms can affect our own kitchen pantries… so can lice-infested rabble in city parks affect mighty governments and their agencies. It surely is possible.

I have a friend who equates a proposal to eliminate food stamps as a willingness to watch millions of Americans starve to death. Hyperbole masquerades as propositional truth every day these days. But in a democratic republic, Theodore Roosevelt reminded us, the sin of envy is as evil as the sin of greed. And when Christ adjured us to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he did NOT want believers to surrender to the government our charitable impulses nor our responsibility personally to care for the sick and needy.

On television we see street riots in Oakland, in Rome, in Greece… and we are reminded that “democracy,” a word with Greek roots, was to be avoided, as a step preceding mob rule.

Occupy Wall Street. Occupy banks. Occupy cities. Occupy parliaments. Let us, as Christians, as we are concerned with justice, and work as representatives of Jesus in this world, remember at the same time to be concerned with the ultimate activism – that we Occupy Heaven.

Instead of changing people’s hearts, many well-meaning churchgoers – and a lot of ill-intentioned political thugs – would rather pick people’s pockets. Of course, the hearts we should most be concerned with changing are our own. We can miss Heaven by scheming for worldly solutions to spiritual problems. But by holding high the Cross, in our hearts as well as in society, we can storm Heaven’s gates, some day as redeemed and sanctified children of God, to Occupy Heaven.

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It is the desire of God’s heart that we Occupy Heaven. For those who accept Christ, there are no “off-limits signs,” or “No Trespassing” rules. There is not only a way to Heaven, but a Highway to Heaven. Here is the rousing gospel song, exciting a staid British audience, by Jessy Dixon.

Click: The Highway to Heaven

Trials… and Trails

11-7-11

The other day I saw a reference to the “veil of tears,” a phrase Christians use when speaking of our trials here on earth. There are challenges that confront us, that we must see past, and try to get through. Most Christians, indeed all the saints, have at time longed for release, to be freed by God’s mercy; and, sometime, to join Him. To be embraced by Jesus’ outstretched arms.

I think we can understand this term better – this concept of enduring life’s difficulties – if we realize that the word “veil” is misspelled. It is actually “vale of tears” – from the Latin valle lacrimarum; literally, “valley of tears.”

Slowly a clearer meaning, and a better understanding of a biblical principle, is before us. A “valley of tears” can remind us of the Psalm’s “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” And then, a step further, we should let that verse speak to us clearly. Note how the Psalmist rejoices that God is with him in the dark valley.

Surely he might have resented that God did not walk him to the mountaintop, far from shadows of death, never having to even go near the valley of tears. No, he rejoiced that God was with him in that place.

We need to remind ourselves that God usually works that way. When He intervened in the life-threatening situation of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, surely the Lord could have destroyed the furnace, or struck King Nebuchadnezzar dead, or caused the many jailers and guards to flee. By His miraculous hand, God did save the three faithful servants… but in their trial, not from their trial.

The Bible is replete with such workings of God. We might as well get used to it! It’s not “second-best” – except by our own selfish points of view – but is in fact perfect, it is from God: His ways are wonderful. It doesn’t mean we should cease praying for deliverance; but it does mean we should praise Him in the midst of trials. Deliverance comes, and God deserves praise, even the sacrifice of praise.

When we come to see our occasional tears as a trial, we see the place as a vale, a valley; but even more as a path… a trail. And when those tears wash our eyes, we will clearly see the form of Jesus at the end of the trail. More often than not, if we have accepted the rod and the staff wherewith God has comforted us, we will see the Savior running towards us, His arms outstretched.

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The gospel songwriter Dottie Rambo wrote a powerful illustration of these principles:
When I’m low in spirit, I cry Lord, lift me up!
I want to go higher with Thee.
But nothing grows high on a mountain,
So He picked out a valley for me.

Here is a version by Connie Smith, whom I believe was the first to sing it, from a tribute to Dottie a few years ago:

Click: In the Valley He Restoreth My Soul

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More