Between Pulpit and Piano

A pastor once said, “Everyone has one good sermon in them.” I am not sure if it was to encourage thought or because he wanted to sit in a pew and listen every once in a while, but the story resulted in a gift of a journal which led to these stories, so there is truth in the statement.

“One great rock show can change the world!” Dewey Finn (Jack Black) – School of Rock

When you ask for wisdom it may appear in the literary masterpiece that is School of Rock, yet there it is. If one great rock show can change the world then one good sermon could as well, if not more. My words in song or story may not be profound, poetic or grammatically correct, but they are honest, unfiltered and written as God grants me His whispers to ponder.

I have offered stories from pulpit and piano, yet mostly writings of others. What could I write better than “Amazing Grace” or can you sing “How Great Thou Art” too many times?  There were songs I thought would touch a certain churchgoer, only to see them slip out before I could find out. I too have left the church broken, my meager talents failing what I thought needed to be said. Perhaps I will find out about both one day, sitting at the feet of Jesus next to those that were changed, if any.

This world has its own ruler to measure success, and in the literary world, it is books sold or blogs read. My brother asked if only one heart was changed, was my writing worth it? “Absolutely.” He responded, “Then keep writing, all the rest is in God’s hands.” Though my readership numbers are not astounding by any measure, my words have made it from Russia to China, Europe to Africa reaching around the world, not by my efforts, but the Almighty Hand of God, at the time and place of His choosing.

Jesus said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Matthew 7:16-20 – NIV

As I learn to write, publish and extend the Kingdom of God, my focus is to produce good fruit, not just in my writing, but in everything I do, every effort I make. In my deepest prayers, I ask:

Does my life reflect Your Glory?
Does my heart respond in praise?
Search until you weed out all the hidden parts
And nothing’s left there but Your Grace
.
Be Glorified – John G Adams

Lord I pray Your Grace would abound in me and through me, that I may be a reflection of your great Love that others would draw nearer to Thee.

Amen …

If you have been blessed by my meager ramblings, send me a note at John@BlessedInGreatMeasure.com. I love to hear good stories.

Keep an eye out for the release of my upcoming book Echoes Intertwined, a collection of parables, lessons and God whispers.

Dark Saturday

kneelingprayerThe Gospels give account of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection; washing the disciples’ feet, the last supper; Jesus’ arrest and torture, His journey to the place of the skull, His suffering and death on what is known as “Good Friday”. Then there are stories of Sunday morning when the women approached the empty tomb, encountered Jesus and told the others what they had seen. We read about Sunday evening, as the disciples huddled into a locked room, the risen Jesus appeared to them. But not much is said about the Saturday in between.

“Holy Saturday” as it is called, was the Sabbath day and a special one as it followed the Passover feast. The disciples may have followed tradition at the temple offering prayers. They may have stayed locked away out of fear for their lives. The two men that walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus were returning home, so some may have scattered.

Easter Sunday is bright and joyful, and rightfully so. “Good Friday” is shocking and sorrowful, ending in darkness. Saturday is a mixture of dark and light, stuck in a gray fog. That Saturday had to be one of the darkest days ever known, second only to that Friday. Some tears had since dried and the shock of the crucifixion had set in. Fear, doubt, and disillusionment most likely ran rampant.

“Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, … ‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Luke 24:13-16; 19-21

These two had hoped for deliverance, but now doubted what they had heard and seen, abandoning their newfound faith and running away, possibly feeling foolish for believing such things. This must have been a common feeling. It is believed that Judas witnessed all the events that his betrayal caused, and hung himself sometime thereafter. A dark Saturday indeed.

Now consider Peter. The man who Jesus renamed “Petra” meaning “Rock”. He boldly pronounced that Jesus was the Messiah and stepped out of the boat to walk on water with Jesus, only to sink when fear set in. He said he would follow Jesus to death and drew a sword, yet denied Jesus three times in the courtyard.

“Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.” Matthew 26:74-75

For Peter, it was a dark Saturday, “weeping bitterly”.

One Sunday morning, I was playing a song I had written. Truths in song based on personal experience tend to resonate loudly, but can be dangerously raw. I began the song confidently, but in the first chorus, a phrase struck me in a way I had not expected. Tears welled up, my hands shook and my voice began to falter. I remember thinking, “I’m already a mess and the bridge has always been the hardest to sing.” I stumbled through the words; my hands forgot how to play. I cut the song short, directly left the church, sat in my truck and wept bitterly. Memories of past failures rendered my meager talent unworthy for God’s use. I could hear the rooster crowing in Peter’s ears.

Later, I sat at the piano, trying to play out my pain. Deep seeded emotion tends to block out the rules of writing and produces something creative, whether painful or otherwise. A melancholy melody began to form and drew me deeper in self-pity.

“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.” Psalm 1:3

That’s where I wanted to be and lyrics flowed like tears. The resulting song ranges from failure and darkness to a cry out to God for wholeness.

“Plant me by streams of Living Water
My soul is dry and begun to wither
Wash me with water from the well that won’t run dry
Make me whole again, Dear Lord.”  – Make Me Whole Again by John Adams

Each time I revisit that song, memories of that time replay. I also get a chance to root out dead wood that has blocked me from peaceful waters.

Dark Saturday reminds me of Peter’s pain and of things I try to hide in the shadows.

On dark Saturdays
Make me whole again, Dear Lord

And allow me to be
Blessed in Great Measure

I Looked in the Pages

Lyrics to a song by Steven Curtis Chapman come to mind.

“These are the places I was sure I’d find Him I looked in the pages and I looked down on my knees.” Sometimes He comes in the Clouds – Steven Curtis Chapman

I was preparing music for Sunday worship. The readings were about prayer and being attentive in prayer. I recently heard wise words about recognizing “heavenly interruptions” and read about the need to take time, not only to pray but also to listen.

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10 NIV

Song selection took some heavenly nudges to pluck my heartstrings, but it finally came into focus. Then came the question of a special selection. Something that would fit the sermon or just something that God needed to be said. Then, news that a family friend earned her angel wings, so the planning for her life celebration service began (I prefer not to call them funerals). More songs to prepare, but still not settled on the song for Sunday.

I looked through the pages and I looked down on my knees. I pulled out one of my songs from 2008 called “Million Promises” and the lyrics hit me as they did 10+ years ago.

“You said that we should approach the throne in confidence
but my eyes so full of tears I just can’t see”

Life has been coming at me hard lately, so that rang true.

“All I know to do is put my trust in You   Open up my heart and just believe.”

Yep.

“I’d trade a million promises,  for one that I can keep
‘cause when it comes to sacrifice, my will is much too weak
When what I was has come and gone, and I’m left with what I am
Just a heart, a soul, one spirit Lord, is entrusted in Your hands.”

Ten years ago, all I knew to do was trust. Ten years later, it is still all I know. In that span, I am still weak; I have gained a few more worry lines, a few pounds and a gray hair or two (or more). I hope that I have gained a bit more wisdom, a bit more patience, and a lot more grace.

I am still trusting, still looking through the pages and still looking down on my knees.
And always Blessed in Great Measure

If you are at our church this Sunday, you probably will hear “Million Promises” (unless the Spirit moves me elsewhere).

If not, you can listen to it or some of my other musical offerings here: Million Promises

Listen to “Sometimes He Comes in the Clouds” by Steven Curtis Chapman here:

 

Prodigal Redefined

running2In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of a son who asked his father for his inheritance. With his request granted he set off with pockets full. When the son had spent every dime on wild living, he became hungry. He even longed for the food that he fed to the pigs. His father’s servants have enough food to eat, so he would return home, humble himself before his father and ask simply to be a servant. This parable is known as “The Prodigal Son” and in some texts “The Lost Son”.

I identify with this son way too well. How many times have I ventured out on my own with pockets full of grace, only to end up broke(n) and hungry? All my treasures spent on raucous living, metaphorically aligning myself with people who would trade their integrity for a quick buck. I end up longing for the food I feed to the pigs (too many analogies to mention here, but that’s a story for another day).

In the midst of one of many journeys back home, I wrote a song called “Prodigal Heart”.

A Prodigal Heart that struggles with prayer
Running back home and yet unaware
You’re calling me back from the dark
Though I had fallen so far
Lord, can You heal all the scars of my Prodigal Heart.

I had always though “prodigal” meant lost, or foolish, or repentant, as in Jesus’ parable, so a “lost heart”, a “foolish heart”, or a “repentant heart” made sense. Our pastor pointed out that “prodigal” really meant extravagantly wasteful, so a “wasteful heart” didn’t have as much impact. So I packed away the song in the black hole that is the “re-write pile”.

Recently preparing for worship, the biblical text for the upcoming Sunday was the parable of the prodigal son. There are so many great songs in my arsenal to choose from. The mid 1980’s, Benny Hester wrote a song called “When God Ran” about the father running to welcome home his lost son. In 1999, Phillips Craig and Dean did a fantastic cover of the same. In 2007, John Waller released a song about how amazing it was that God “Still Calls Me Son”. Then I remembered that I had written a “prodigal” song. I dug back through the archives and among the song ideas scribbled on scraps of paper and church bulletins, I re-found “Prodigal Heart” from 1999, then 2007, then 2010, then now.

After nearly 20 years of re-writings, the memories and pitfalls that formed the original song came rushing back. Some of them I have overcome, some still linger. I thought about a “wasteful heart”. Time and age revealed that the “wasteful” definition was even more poignant than the “lost heart”. In this season of preparation for Jesus’ death and resurrection, Hallelujah, we find that Jesus took on our sin and left it in the grave. But that does not give us a license to sin. Each time we stumble, it is another hammer strike on the nails through Jesus’ hands. When we turn away, we “waste” the Grace offered us. So the redefinition of “prodigal” is even more fitting.

The point of the story was not the “lost-ness” or “wastefulness” of the son, but upon the son’s return and humble apology, the father ran to meet him, gave him a robe and ring, and celebrated the return of his son who was dead, but now lives.

The parable tells us of God’s great love for us, how He sees us from afar, runs out to meet us and celebrates our return, when we come to our senses and turn back home. Amen.

Though I stumble, I pray not to be wasteful of God’s gift of Grace.
And to be Blessed in Great Measure

 

Listen to “When God Ran” by Benny Hester here
Listen to “When God Ran” by Phillips Craig and Dean here
Listen to “Still Calls Me Son” by John Waller here

Listen to “Prodigal Heart” coming soon to a website near you.

If you know similar songs or have a good story, let me know.