Singing With The Men

Today I sang in our church choir. It was the first time in years and, I must admit, it felt pretty good.  The twenty (or so) other men who joined me on stage sang their hearts out and made a joyful noise,  even if not always on key.  

Standing with those men on stage was a special moment for me. It reminded me of the many years I was part of our church choir and I thought back to the day a man named Robert Cummings invited me to be a part of our sanctuary choir back in 1979. Almost forty years have now passed (along with much of my voice) but today I was reminded how important the choir has been in my Christian journey.  

The men singing today are not perfect. Voices were at times squeaky, and off pitch. It was on the strength of those who could find the right notes, enter at the correct time and harmonize with perfect pitch that the melodious sound coming off the stage was made possible.  When my breath gave out, the man next to me carried the next note and when one missed a cue, others were there to cover their mistake.  Choirs do that for one another. Singing with other men reminded me of the flaws in each of us and the need we have to be supported when our breath gives way or when our lives hit a sour note.  As I have written before, this is the miracle of the Body of Christ and choir may be the best example of its purpose.  

I am aware that men on the stage today are flawed sinners, completely depending on God’s grace.  I know this to be true because I am one of them.  I am flawed, broken, and desperate for forgiveness for the mistakes I make.  But, today I was reminded that there are people who can and will pick me up and help me carry the next note of my life.  A song cannot go backwards and allow a wrong note to be corrected and neither can my life reverse time to right my many wrongs. But, it is good to be reminded that when my life is connected with others, when we are singing the same song, striving to hit the same notes – there is always someone nearby to carry the tune for me when I cannot.

“Then sings my soul!”

Steve

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What I Miss About Church

I don’t want to be that person. You know the one – the guy who complains about any and every change, who lives in the past, listens to only 70s music and longs for the good old days.  I don’t want to be him. But, but, but, I am him.  I do miss things about my past – I can’t help myself.  Lisa forces me to listen to current music rather than 60’s and 70’s songs on our Sirius radio. And I have to admit I like much of it.  But I cannot shake loose from the thought of things I miss.  Recently I have thought a lot about things I miss about the church I grew up in.  I mean really, really miss.  But, before I go any further let me say this: I get it. I know the church and church leaders had to adjust to the new millennium and an ever changing culture. Relevancy I understand and I would not give any of those changes away if it meant alienating my children and their generation from the church and the gospel of Christ.  Still, since this is my blog that I pay for – might as well speak honestly and I suspect that one day my children will also long for the church of their past.  So here goes: five things I miss about the church that I grew up in.

1. Hymns.  Before you say, “Here we go again”, I just need to get this one out of the way. I really do miss singing (at least on occasion) with hymn books.  I miss singing the tenor parts of songs and I miss hearing others singing around me.  Hymns remind me of my past, my heritage.  They remind me of singing with my mom, my grandad and grandmother and they reconnect me to the family I have lost and miss.  The polished sound of church music today is fantastic but our modern church acoustics and sound technology has advanced us right out of hearing anything but what comes at us from the stage.  I can’t even hear myself sing let alone those around me.  It is the reason, I believe, that congregational singing is so diminished today than thirty years ago.  We simply cannot hear ourselves.  I remember being at a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Loma Linda California and experiencing a classic ” high church” worship.  It was not my style, but, I could hear people singing around me.  What was most memorable was hearing an older lady behind me singing at the top of her lungs Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”. Her small, somewhat squeaky voice was certainly not performance quality, but was as joyful a noise as scripture could ever call for and when the service ended, I turned to thank her for singing with such gusto.  I was somewhat surprised to see it was an African American senior adult.  She blessed Lisa and I beyond measure.  Here we were living clear across the country at Christmas time and this little voice made us both feel connected to the people of God. That is what hymns do.  They connect us to our heritage and each other.  I miss that.

2.  I miss seeing people worship.  Our church has incredible lighting technology.  I admire those who have worked to create an ambiance that is designed to be worshipful.  However, I cannot see others.  Since Lisa and I are typically late for worship, we struggle to find a seat, primarily because we cannot see the seats.  The low lighting is great to remain incognito and allow for a worship experience that provides privacy.  But, what is “corporate” worship if one cannot see others worship?  I need to see others of the faith worshipping. It is both inspiring and motivating.  Scripture charges us to “encourage one another” and my faith has been built upon the witness of others that I have seen.  Show me your faith, show me your worship, show me the love you have of our Lord.  I need to see you.

3.  I miss a church with windows.  This may seem odd but I actually miss windows in my church.  I grew up in a church that had windows that in warm weather would be open to allow the sound of the world outside inside and the message through song and sermon to spill out.  I loved that. I miss that.  The open windows served as a reminder to me that we were part of a community, even a neighborhood, that we were to influence and impact with the gospel.  The design of modern day churches seems to intentionally close off the outside world, even silence it from disrupting the activity within.  Most modern sanctuary designs are windowless and so closed off from the world it is charged to influence that it seems practically cloistered.  I miss windows.

4.  I miss Sunday night services.  There was something about Sunday evening services that seemed to glue a congregation together. Typically the Sunday evening crowd was made up of the most dedicated of members and that time together served to galvanize our commitments to our Lord and one another.  When numbers became the main focus of the modern church, Sunday night services were dropped faster than a beer can from a baptist deacon. Sunday night services no longer seemed necessary since the numbers did not add up.  Why continue an activity of the church that only a hundred people attend when the morning services draw nearly a thousand?  What we failed to realize is that those Sunday nights pulled the core membership into a close fellowship that bricked the foundation of future growth. I miss gathering in a circle on Sunday nights,  holding hands and singing, “Blessed Be The Tie That Binds”.  That felt like not just church – but family.  I miss that.

5.  I miss fellowship.  What happened to laughter and joy?  In our haste to save the world we seem to have forgotten how to be free in the Lord and happy.  There is a seriousness that has overshadowed the life of the church to the extent that having fun, being joyful and enjoying life seems practically sinful.  There was a time when people laughed in church, when the church designed events to cause laughter and fun in its people.  I miss that.  I suspect heaven will be a happy place and today’s church is not ready for it.  We have forgotten how to laugh together.  Bring back the silly fellowships with crazy music, silly costumes, funny skits.  Let me hear the church laugh again.  I miss that.

So, there you go. My list of five things I miss about church.  Who cares? I have no idea. I love the church – I love my church and I doubt what I say or write will have much bearing on the direction the church will take in the future.  I only know that I am determined to go with it.  I may not always like where it takes me – and I’m not giving up my seat just yet.  But, you may notice me looking over my shoulder on occasion to see where we have been. 

I can’t help myself.

Peace, Steve.

A Lesson I Will Never Forget

Lea Flats was built by my great grandfather in the early 1900s and is a rather little known piece of Owensboro history.  Built on the corner of 3rd and St. Elizabeth Streets, the property was home to my great grandmother and her family and for many years served as a boarding house for single men.  It was where my dad was raised following the death of his mom at a young age and it is where I spent many hours with my great aunt, Daisy Lea Ward, who took over care of the residence following her mother’s death.  It is all part of a past that now seems like several lifetimes ago.  The place my dad called home was razed decades ago, but, now and then a memory will pop into my head of that wonderful time of my life and of my Aunt Daisy and my dad.  

Chris Curry was an African-American gentleman who began working for my great-grandmother at Lea Flats in the 1930s and a person I came to know growing up.  He always spoke kindly to me (called me “Stevie”) whenever we visited and I loved the way my dad and he would carry on with each other, evidence of the unspoken affection they had for one another.  Since my dad did not have a close relationship with his father, it would seem that Chris was one of the few male role models in his life and I’m certain one of the reasons for their close connection.  

My dad, through his actions, made it clear to me that the color of one’s skin was not a reason to not befriend a person and, in the case of Chris, love them like family.  That message was never made more clear to me than in 1984 when my Aunt Daisy passed away.  In a moment that I will cherish forever, my dad did something that helped me understand the insanity of racism and how skin pigmentation can disappear when you love someone.  

As people entered the funeral services for my Aunt Daisy, we were all surprised to see Chris arrive, having walked several miles from the west end of town to pay his respects.  It had been an oversight on my dad’s part to not think Chris would need a ride to the funeral since he did not drive. I remember him apologizing to Chris for not giving him a ride, an apology that the gentle soul said was unnecessary.  But, there he was in a suit and tie and as the funeral director instructed family to move into the private side room to begin the service, the moment I will never forget took place. 

I loved my Aunt Daisy dearly and she was more of a grandmother to me than a great-aunt.  Her passing hit me hard and I cried almost uncontrollably when she died.  I remember standing near my father and Chris as the service was about to begin and as visitors walked toward their seats, I noticed Chris move toward his seat in the main sitting area.  As our family started moving to the side room, I happened to see my dad take Chris by the hand and say, “Chris! You are family.”, and holding his hand he walked him into the private family room. There Chris sat with us – not as an employee, not as a black man, but as a member of our family.  I never loved my father more than at that moment.

Chris passed away several years later and I regret not being able to attend his funeral. I do believe that one day we will meet again and he will  get the chance to call me “Stevie” just like he did when I was a boy. 

And I look forward to calling him “family”.

Love – no matter what!  

The Day I Was Prayed For

A funny thing happened on my way to knee replacement recovery – people prayed for me.  Allow me to explain.

I have no idea how many people pray for me.  I will probably never know.  My family probably does pray for me and when we gather for a big meal we pray for one another.  We also pray for God’s blessing on the food – something I’m almost embarrassed about doing.  Isn’t it enough that He provided the food that we should refrain from asking Him to “bless” it – whatever that means. In terms of public praying, I probably have prayed more for food than people. 

My pastor says he prayed for me the other day and he actually called and prayed with me over the phone.  Since my surgery took place out of town, he had no choice but to call me on the phone and I know had he been present he would have prayed out loud for me. Technology has made praying possible over long distances and I have no doubt would have been utilized during the first century by the apostles. With a good cell phone, Paul could have stayed in contact with his beloved Jerusalem church during his many missionary journeys. Technology can be used for good and bad things. And then there is Facebook.

For all the bad things about social media, it is nice to be able to communicate prayer requests and concerns through social media and have people respond with a “praying” comment.  Nothing wrong with that.  I often tell people that I am praying for them through Facebook and have been on the receiving end of those prayers. It is a great comfort just knowing people say they are praying.  I greatly aporeciate that.  But, I don’t hear those prayers.  I don’t hear their voice inflection, their emotions, I don’t feel their presence or passion.  It almost makes the promise to pray for someone too easy, too non-committal.  

A few days ago I was reminded what it means to really pray for someone and the experience led me to reconsider my prayer life.  Here is what happened.  Last year Lisa purchased an embroidery machine which recently required some repair work.  The company where she made the purchase agreed to send someone out to the house to pick up the machine and take in to their shop.  None of what I’m about to tell would have happened had my surgically repaired knee been strong enough to carry the machine down the steps and into our car myself.  But, there was no way I could do that.  It would seem the master potter was molding the clay for the moment that was about to unfold.  In other words, God had me just where He wanted me.

Two men arrived at our house to pick up the machine.  One, an older man appearing to be in his late fifties, the other a young many in his twenties.  I guided the two men to the upstairs room where Lisa does her embroidery work. As they began to unplug the machine and prepare it for the journey down the steps, the older man asked about my knee.  Lisa had explained to them over the phone about my surgery and the reason we needed their help in getting it picked up and carried to their store.  I explained to the man that I was six weeks out of surgery but still experiencing a good amount of pain.  And then something unexpected happened.

“Have you prayed about it?”, the older gentleman asked.  I was a little taken aback by the question but responded with “Oh, yes!  Been praying a lot.”  He then asked if they could pray for me.  It is sad to say that I felt a little weird allowing these strangers to pray over me. This is what Facebook prayers have turned me into – someone actually wanting prayer, expressing my prayers to others, but uncomfortable having someone actually pray for me in person. C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape” would have been all over this one.  What a better way to hasten the demise of the Christian faith than to cheapen ones prayer life to the extent that actually praying in public becomes too uncomfortable for even people of so-called faith.  If we truly believe in the power of prayer, we should be praying for each other out loud, loudly, and often. 

I said that I would appreciate their prayers and the older gentleman bent down and gently placed his hand on my surgically repaired knee and started praying.  He did not hold back.  As he passionately prayed for my complete healing, his younger partner placed his hand on my shoulder and joined in.  As the older gentleman’s prayer ended, the younger man took over praying for not only my knee to heal but for my life to be full of joy and peace.  Tears came to my eyes as I listened to these two complete strangers pour out their hearts to God on my behalf.  In that small upstairs bedroom, God showed up.

When their prayers were finished the older gentleman asked a simple question.  “Is your knee better?”  I walked a few paces around the room and told him it actually did not hurt as much. He believed that God would heal my knee and made that clear to me.  They completed their work of loading the machine into their truck, I thanked them for their prayers and they were gone.

It has now been a few weeks since their visit to my house and my knee is practically pain free.  It is slowly getting stronger and I have complete confidence that it will heal completely. Perhaps God did not heal my knee on the spot as these two faithful men believed he could and would.  Maybe God has chosen to take a little longer to do His work.  But this I can say God did that day – He sent two men to pray for me and their prayers and everyone else’s are slowly being answered.

Keep praying – loud and often. 

Love, Steve

 

 

Knees

I have withstood the temptation to write about my recent knee surgery (full replacement) or make light of the struggle those like me have with bad knees.  Certainly there are worse problems in the world and rather than risk anyone thinking my pain and discomfort is worse than any others, I decided to keep silent.  Besides, my wife and kids have heard enough.

So, I thought I would try my hand at poetry to share my thoughts on having a full knee replacement and the weeks of therapy to follow.  My thanks to Joyce Kilmer for inspiration.

 

Knees

I think that I shall never see,  A poem painful as my left knee.

A knee whose screaming tendons prest, By sadistic therapists against my chest;

A knee that looks at God all day,  Because I cannot bend down to pray.

A knee that may in Summer wear, Shorts that show the scars I bear.

Upon whose swelling stiffness lain, The moans and groans of a day in pain.

New joints are made by fools like me, But only God can make a knee.

 

Leaning on My Grandfather’s Cane

I never knew my grandfather, my dad’s dad.  He passed away soon after I was born and I only knew him from the scattered comments of my mom and dad as I was growing up.  Not long ago I came upon a letter my dad had written to him while he was attending military school as a teenager. The letter broke my heart. My dad spoke of wanting to make his dad proud of him, how he was trying to do much better in school and how much he wanted his dad’s approval.  The letter helped me piece together facts about their relationship and how and why my dad would eventually be raised by his grandmother after his mom passed away when he was an infant.  From those stories I remember being told about him and from the heart breaking letter I recently discovered, I came to a painful conclusion.  My grandfather was abusive.

Abuse is found in various forms.  There are people who live through sexual and physical abuse while others experience it’s  horror verbally and emotionally.  In whatever form it manifests, abuse is a tragedy.  It would seem that my dad endured mostly neglectful and, at times, emotional abuse.  To beg for a parents approval is a sure sign something is wrong and my dad’s letter was nothing short of a plea to be loved – love that I don’t believe ever came.  For all of my dad’s life I was witness to a good man who loved his family yet lacked any sense of worth and never had confidence in himself.  I cannot imagine the pain of never being told you were of value and even more, to be practically abandoned by a parent and raised by a grandmother. Losing his mom at such a young age must have been a trauma he never overcame and he was never able to feel the benefits of what would have certainly been a loving mother-son relationship. My grandfather would eventually remarry and the divide between he and my dad would grow over the course of his life until by the time he died, they hardly spoke.  The fact that my dad did as good a job as he did raising two sons is a miracle.  Discovering this truth about my dad’s life illuminated things about him that I struggled to understand growing up.  He did not have a father’s example to follow as he raised my brother and I. He simply did the best he could.  I have written before that the greatest gift my dad gave me was, simply, his presence. He was always present in my life- always there.  Most of the time he had little to say –  rarely offering any fatherly advice, but he was always there.  I love my dad because he never left me.

When my dad’s half-sister passed away a few years ago, I was given my grandfather’s cane that he had used when he was older.  That and a wooden chair are the only keepsakes I have of my grandfather’s life.  I’m not sure why he needed the cane.  Perhaps he had bad feet and knees like my dad and I and needed the cane to lean on and walk with.  Two weeks ago I had a full knee replacement and have required a cane to get around with until the knee is healed. I almost went and purchased a fancy, adjustable cane but remembered my grandfather’s cane and pulled it from the closet. There is nothing fancy about it.  It is a classic shaped oak cane with a rubber tip and it seemed to be in excellent condition.  I placed it at my side and realized it was the perfect length.  I must have gotten my short height from my grandfather.  I decided I would use my grandfather’s cane.  

My physical therapist explained that I needed to use my cane on the opposite side of the knee I had replaced.  In other words, she encouraged me to lean toward my good side and not bear weight on the damaged knee. Her words stuck with me – “lean toward the good side”.

My grandfather was a flawed man. To what extent I will never know. But, I too am flawed – in various ways. Like my father and his father before him, I am flawed.  Fortunately, I have been able to express love to my family in a more natural way than my dad was able to and I credit my dad’s willingness to expose those weaknesses he lived with day in and day out.  My ability to be a better husband and father was born out of observing my dad’s flawed side.

My grandfather needed a cane and now so do I.  Leaning on that cane, I realize he did the same thing seventy-five or more years years ago.  This man I never knew, like all of us, had imperfections that forced him to adjust in his life – to lean against the good things. It is important to remember our heritage and to embrace our past, warts and all. I’m glad I have my grandfather’s cane to connect me with this man who I knew so little about.

I’m now leaning on my grandfather’s cane and I just have to remember to always lean against the good side.

Love, Steve Mc

Me and my 5K

I ran in a 5k road race a long time ago and, I swear this is true, finished behind the trailing police car.  In fact, by the time I reached the end of the race, everyone was packing up and going home.  Rather than embarrass the race organizers (and myself)  I just kept running past everyone as if I was out for a light jog and just happened upon an actual race.  I played it off to perfection and nobody noticed me dodging around the volunteers as they folded up the tables and chairs.  I have not participated in a 5k since – that is, until this past Saturday.  

God built some people to be runners – just not me. I was born into a world where I required husky diapers and extra wide Red Ball Jet tennis shoes. I inherited my dad’s short, stocky legs and my mom’s asthma and somewhere in my lineage a pair of flat feet.  I’m not sure why God created me this way – but I’ve grown to accept that I will never weigh 160 lbs. or be six-seven.  And, I’m OK with that.  I just can’t run.  

This past Saturday, in honor of our grandson, Lincoln James McFarland, (who passed away soon after he was born last November) and to support CareNet, a local organization dedicated to pro-life principles and practices, I walked in a fund raising 5K alongside Lincoln’s parents, our son Justin, and our daughter-in-law, Lori. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  But, let me repeat – I walked.

At 57 years old, in need of a knee replacement and about thirty pounds overweight, I don’t run anywhere.  That ship has sailed.  In fact, that ship is usually anchored to the softest cushioned chair it can find.  I have many friends who run, some run a lot.  To be honest,  I’m not sure some ever stop running by the looks of their Facebook posts.  These people run great distances and wear tight spandex and high dollar watches that provide them all the necessary data runners today must need. These are serious runners who show up an hour before the race to run a couple of miles as a warm-up and then a couple of more after the race to “cool down”. Personally, I like to “cool down” with ice cream.  But, I digress.  

Upon arriving at the race site, I immediately felt out of place as I was the only one wearing jeans and not feeling the need to stretch or bounce up and down in anticipation of the start.  My only impulse was to go back home to my cushioned chair and have another donut. But, I knew the cause was right and in honor of Lincoln, I would gladly do whatever my broken down, out of shape body would allow.  

The race started and we, the slow walkers, maneuvered ourselves to the rear of the pack.  The initial pace set by the other walkers was a little faster than the normal, grocery aisle speed I was accustomed to and as my hamstrings started feeling the burn after the first two hundred yards, I was already looking for a back alley to dart into. Surprisingly, the pain soon subsided and at the first mile mark, I was actually feeling better.

Despite the arthritic pain in my left knee, cramping in my flat feet, lower back stiffness and swelling of both of my hands flopping and swinging at my sides, I felt pretty good.  I had even managed to pick up my pace and actually passed a couple of what looked like grandmothers pushing grandchildren in their strollers.  Heather had brought our grandson (Conner) along and I even offered to push his stroller for most of the distance. My thought was that if I finished dead last, at least I have the excuse of pushing a baby carriage.  

At around the halfway mark the walkers bringing up the rear were given an unexpected reprieve when a train blocked our path for about ten minutes. My hunch is the race organizers had no idea the Union Pacific would pass at that exact moment putting me behind schedule and undermine any hope of breaking my personal best 5K mark of one hour and five minutes.  But, to be honest, the train could not have passed through at any better time.  In fact, if I ever walk another 5k in my lifetime, I’m going to plan it according to that train schedule.

Following the train break came the most humiliating moment of all.  As my group of walkers neared the last part of the race, runners circling back from a completed part of the course that the walkers had yet to experience, felt it necessary to blast encouraging words to all of us slow pokes as they passed by. Their shouts of “Good job!” and “You can do it!” rang out and I never felt like a bigger loser in my life. Could it be any more humiliating than having people nearly lap you in a race and as they pass shout, “You can do it!”?  Do what?  Walk? It seemed a bit odd to have these joggers yelling “Good job!” to me since I didn’t think I was really doing anything.  I have never had the inclination anytime in my life to roll down my car window and yell “Good job!” to someone walking down a sidewalk, carrying bags of groceries to a bus stop or pushing a baby carriage – any of which could possibly get me arrested. In fact, the only thing I have been less inclined to do is actually run in a 5k and yell “Nice job!” to the poor shmucks walking in last place.

Despite the train delay, cramps, and stupid comments, I made it to the finish line, although I had to dodge the runners in their “cool down” jog coming toward me to get there. They (apparently) wanted all us losers in the back to notice they were still running long after the race was over.  Well, congratulations, Pegasus! 

The final insult came as I passed through the finish line to the over-exuberant cheers of a couple of participants still running in place as if their legs may fall off if they stop.  Trust me – they will not.

My son later told me I had finished the race seventeenth in my age group.  Not bad, I thought.  Then he broke the news that was out of eighteen.  To add insult to injury the race organizers posted everyone’s time for all to see.  Let me suggest next time listing only the top three times from each age group.  I see no real need in telling the world that it took Steve McFarland a day and a half to finish a 5k.  Just saying.

Well, at least I did not finish in last place and I did manage this time to stay in front of the trailing  police car.  Maybe I’m making progress.

Steve Mc