I’ve been playing the banjo now for … let’s see, that would be 46 years … the same number of years I’ve been married. Yep, I bought my first banjo on my honeymoon. It was a Harmony banjo, made of plastic, which I bought at a pawn shop in L.A. We were on our way to Palm Springs (from Ventura County, where we were living at the time) and as I recall, Marci was OK with me buying the banjo with some of the money we were given at our wedding. We both were singing in a folk trio at the time called the Accidents (patterned somewhat after Peter, Paul and Mary) and we figured a banjo would be a nice addition if I could learn to play it.
And I did for the most part. Like most banjo players, I learned to play by listening to Earl Scruggs. There were other banjo players (Doug Dillard was one of my favorites) but as I soon found out, they all learned from Earl.
Earl passed away last week at the age of 88 and he was still making music well into his ninth decade of life. He won a Grammy award for best country instrumental performance at age 78.
HIs memorial service was held last Sunday afternoon at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry for so many years. I listened to a broadcast of it on the web and it was very moving. It’s amazing how many people were there to pay tribute.
If you would like to listen to my radio show honoring Earl Scuggs, you can listen online at www.kson.com/bluegrass.
Slacker Radio also asked me to program an Earl Scruggs tribute station and it is now available for listening at http://www.slacker.com/station/earl-scruggs-tribute.
One of the great things I get to do at College Avenue Baptist Church is to plan and promote intergenerational short-term mission trips. Here’s a video we showed in church this past week:
I recently finished Roger Steer’s biography of the late Anglican pastor and renowned author John R.W. Stott titled Basic Christian. Thank you InterVarsity Press for sending this book to me during the Christmas season. What an amazing, full and exemplary life was lived by this giant of the evangelical faith. I have read several of his books over the years, most notably his The Cross of Christ (several times) which I learned in this biography was the book he considered his greatest work. But I regret that I never had a chance to hear him speak nor to learn more about his private and public life. I am especially intrigued that he was an avid birdwatcher and always took time to enjoy his hobby all over the world and sometimes at great personal expense and risk. This encourages me somewhat as I also have some obsessions (like bluegrass music) which is sometimes hard to explain to people in ministry circles. I have often suggested that people who do ministry should take up a hobby, an “other life,” a passion outside of ministry that is healthy, invigorating, fun and irrational. I’ve discovered that pastors and ministry leaders who do not have such an “other life” often become full of themselves and are more likely to burn out or fall into an other life which is more often than not self-destructive.
One big take-away for me from this book about Rev. Stott (and there are many) is his morning prayer which Steer reprints and notes that John prayed it daily. “Each morning (usually before five a.m.) John swung his legs over the side of his bed and before placing a foot on the ground started the day (whenever possible) with this Trinitarian prayer.”
“Good morning heavenly Father, good morning Lord Jesus, good morning Holy Spirit. Heavenly Father I worship you as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Lord Jesus I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world. Holy Spirit I worship you, sanctifier of the people of God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Heavenly Father I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more. Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you. Holy spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me, Amen.”
I want to make this prayer mine also. And I want to go back and read more of Stott’s books now that I know more about the man. I am at an age when I am seeking out contemporary mentors–dead or alive–who lived their lives completely dedicated to God with immense integrity all the way to the end of their lives. I have found one such mentor in the life and ministry of John R.W. Stott.
The December 2011 issue of Christianity Today featured an article by Anthony Baker, a theology professor at the Seminary of the Southwest titled “Learning to Read the Gospel Again” with the subtitle “How to address our anxiety about losing the next generation.” Losing the next generation (or expressed positively—hanging on to the next generation) is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately in my role as Pastor to Generations at College Avenue Baptist Church. Like many churches, we are doing our best to stop the bleeding of young people leaving the church in record numbers.
Professor Baker makes a strong case in this article that the only thing capable of holding young people to their faith is the Gospel itself. He quotes the venerable theologian Stanley Hauerwas who made this comment about the emergent church movement which of course targets younger generations: “The future of the church is not found in things like this; the future is in doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday.” The “same thing” Hauerwas is referring to here is not the same failures of acculturation, but rather the continual proclamation of the good news, the Gospel about Jesus Christ, and “attending to the various classical practices that form people’s lives within the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ … The future of the church is found in doing this week in and week out, Sunday after Sunday, come rain, drought, hell or high water.”
Baker notes that one doesn’t have to look far to find churches where the “same thing” is a thing of the past and he suggests that youth & children’s ministries today are particularly prone to skipping over the gospel message in favor of more relevant fare.
For the kids, the situation is especially dire. Summer camps feature Jesus on a surfboard, or perhaps in safari gear, while Sunday morning classes tend to specialize in low-quality group counseling sessions. What we offer is anything but the simple gospel that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:19). On good days the children humor us by pretending to enjoy themselves, all the time wondering when they get to do something more fun.
Quoting a memorable line from Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, he continues: “Young people look to the church to show them something, someone, capable of turning their lives inside out and the world upside down. Most of the time, we have offered them pizza.”
What Baker is suggesting is not that we stop using age-appropriate methods of reaching and teaching our young people, but that we consistently offer our kids a fresh and inspiring look at Jesus as revealed to us in the Scriptures. He continues,
“Of course what Matthew Mark, Luke and John offer us is a story, but not just a story. It’s also the linguistic vessel through which we encounter the loving, creating and saving God. The central character in this narrative loves us back. After asking, ‘Do you love what you are reading?’ the Christian educator ought to be able to add, ‘And are you loved by what you are reading?’… Imagine a church in which children and adults of all ages, races and classes were bound together by their common love for the words of the Gospel. If Christians can learn, week after week, to read the story of Jesus of Nazareth—to love what we read, to be loved by what we read—then surely the future of the church would look a bit more hopeful.”
I also read a new book last month by professor Scot McKnight (North Park University) titled The King Jesus Gospel which has greatly enlarged my understanding of what the Gospel is all about. McKnight begins at the beginning of the book by asking the reader to write down on a piece of paper an answer to the question “What is the Gospel?” I played along and wrote something like this: “The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, was buried and then rose again on the third day.” I based my explanation of the Gospel on Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3.
As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off. McKnight in fact bases much of his book on the same verse in 1 Corinthians. But he takes issue with evangelicals who summarize the Gospel more in terms of a formula for salvation: “Christ died on the cross for your sins. If you will repent, believe and receive Christ as your personal Savior, you will be saved.” I have to admit, I have presented the Gospel that way many times.
But McKnight’s view is that such a formula is not the Gospel but “the plan of salvation.” It is, of course, an important part of the Gospel, but it’s not the Gospel. When we reduce the Gospel to the plan of salvation, writes McKnight, we tend to make the Gospel more about us and what we do than about Jesus and what he has done. The Gospel is not our story, writes McKnight, but instead it is the story of God, the story of Jesus, how he came as the Messiah of Israel, lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven and is coming back again to rule over his Kingdom forever and ever. That’s the good news (Gospel) about which all of the four evangelists wrote and which is contained in their four accounts which are appropriately named “The Gospel (according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).” This is also the Gospel which Paul proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 15: 1-5: “Now brothers and sisters I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this Gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve.” McKnight asserts that these four crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ are the concern and the primary message of the biblical evangelists, not the “four spiritual laws” which are the concern and primary message of evangelical Chrisitanity today. The Gospel as a system of personal salvation is an incomplete Gospel, says McKnight, and is ultimately self-centered.
We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my personal salvation. In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person—me—and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism. We need the latter without cutting off the former.
What McKnight is saying is that the Gospel is more than what can be communicated in four bullet points. It is even more than what happened on the Cross. It is the whole story of God’s redemptive plan, from the creation story to the coming of the Messiah to the final consummation of human history when Jesus reigns forever as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The story is told of author and professor Robert Webber’s (Wheaton College) encounter with a student who asked him to explain the Gospel. He replied, “Do you have an hour?” McKnight himself takes a stab at summarizing the Gospel in his book and his summary takes six pages. He’s not saying that it’s impossible to be concise and clear about the Gospel message by using just a few words (that’s exactly what Paul did it in 1 Corinthians 15). He’s just saying that the Gospel is the entire amazing story of Jesus as Messiah, Savior, Lord and King as told in the context of God’s amazing plan to redeem all of humankind.
I remember reading a book years ago by Paul Little called Your God Is Too Small. McKnight’s book has made me think that mayber our Gospel has become too small. I agree with Baker that the Gospel, the good news about Jesus, is big enough, awesome enough and certainly powerful enough to capture the hearts of our young people and keep them connected to Christ and the church. If the Gospel is something that we want our children and young people to believe and trust for a lifetime, then we must take the time, week after week, to teach it to them.
Today I am celebrating ten years since my wife Marci’s brain surgery. It was in 2001 that she was diagnosed with a meningioma tumor in her brain which thankfully was operable. You can read the whole story about her surgery and recovery here which I posted on the web ten years ago this week.
Here’s what I posted on December 11, 2001:
Tuesday, December 11
After sending an e-mail to everyone I could think of, I headed for the hospital around 9:00. They wouldn’t let me in the CCU when I got there, so I had to wait a while until they allowed visitors in at 11:00. When I saw Marci, she still had all those tubes in her, including the respirator going down her throat, so she couldn’t talk, but when she heard my voice, her eyes opened and I saw a little smile under all those tubes. My heart leapt. When I held her hand, she squeezed mine hard. The nurse told me not to get her too excited because they were testing to make sure she could breathe on her own. They wanted to take the respirator out soon. So I just stood and watched for a while, feeling really good that she recognized me and was trying to communicate. I left the room while they finished up their testing on her.
When I came back in about an hour later, the respirator was out of her throat and she opened her eyes when I spoke again and tried to talk. It was real raspy but I heard her “Hi babe” which is what we usually call each other. I started crying again (I’ve been crying all week) but this time they were tears of joy. I said something that must have been funny because she laughed and then started coughing. Praise God for that laugh! That’s what I’ve been praying for … I just couldn’t bear not hearing her laugh again. Marci’s sister Dixie came in and cracked a joke or two and Marci laughed some more. The intensive care nurse asked in amazement, “Is she always like this?” I answered “Yes!”
I stayed with her for a good part of the afternoon, just looking at her while she slept, thinking to myself that even though her eyes are almost swollen shut, her face is all puffy, her hair is gone, she’s wrapped in bandages and has tubes galore coming out of her … she looks so beautiful to me. I don’t want to get too sentimental here, but I think I’m falling in love with my wife all over again. I’m just so happy that she’s doing well and that I’ll get her back.
Corey also got a chance to see her in the CCU, but Amber was not feeling well and running a slight fever, so she couldn’t go in. Amber went on home today. I have really appreciated having her here during this time.
I went home later in the afternoon, and we (Dixie, Corey and me) went out and got a little Chinese food. After being home a while, I wanted to go back down to the hospital and see Marci again. While I was there, Dr. Hardy came by to check up on her and he said she’s doing good. He checked her vision by holding up fingers and making her count. She got all the answers right, so he was pleased with that. He told her that her eyes would probably continue to swell until she couldn’t open them at all, and they would turn black. He said, “Remember what I told you … in another couple of days, you’ll look like you’ve been in a prize fight.” She laughed again. I told him that he was my new hero. What an amazing thing to be able to do … to go in and take a tumor out of somebody’s head, sew it back up, and have the person laughing the next day. Incredible.
I slept better tonight.
I am so thankful to God for the gift that he gave to me and our family of these ten years with my wife. She is still laughing and brings joy to everyone who knows her.
Ten years ago, just a day or two before Marci’s surgery, our granddaughter Maddie was born at a hospital in Orange County. We took Marci to the hospital to see Maddie the day before her surgery because we knew that it might be her only chance to see her, given the serious nature of the surgery. Our neurosurgeon had warned us that blindness, brain disabilities of various kinds, even death were possible outcomes.
Well, today as I type this, Marci and Maddie are seeing a matinee performance of “The Nutcracker” together–just the two of them. I know they are having a ball and I am so grateful
I recently read Eugene Peterson’s memoir, a book simply titled Pastor. Peterson is of course best known for The Message, his wonderful translation of the Bible. But before he was a famous author, he was a not-so-famous pastor of a small suburban church in Maryland.
For the past year or so I have also been a pastor—not a senior pastor, but a pastor nonetheless. Even though I have served alongside pastors and youth pastors for almost 50 years, I have never actually been a pastor before. In some ways I feel like I’m starting over again in ministry, learning a new vocation that requires new skills and new ways of working with people. I’ve got a long way to go. I thought I would read Peterson’s book to learn more about what it means to be a pastor.
Peterson is a good one to learn from. The book is autobiographical in nature, and it’s a good read. His story is told honestly and with humility. There are also points in the book when Peterson adds some wonderful commentary on ministry, theology and the state of the modern church. For example, when he became a pastor, he resolved to focus on just two things: worship and community. Of these, he writes, “The religious culture of America that I was surrounded with dismayed me on both counts. Worship had been degraded into entertainment. And community had been depersonalized into programs.”
“By the time I arrived on the scene as a pastor,” he continues, “the American church had reinterpreted the worship of God as an activity for religious consumers. Entertainment, cheerleading, and manipulation were conspicuous in high places. American worship was conceived as a public relations campaign for Jesus and the angels. Worship had been cheapened into a commodity marketed by using tried-and-true advertising techniques. If so-called worshippers didn’t ‘get anything out of it,’ there had been no worship worth coming back for. Instead of calling people to worship God, pastors all over the country were inviting people to ‘have a worship experience.’ Worship was evaluated on the ‘consumer satisfaction scale’ of one to ten.”
And he writes this on community:
“Church in America was mostly understood by Christians and their pastors in terms of its function—what it did: build buildings, become ‘successful,’ change the neighborhood, launch mission projects, and create programs that would organize and motivate people to do these things. Programs, mostly programs. Programs had developed into the dominant methodology of ‘doing church.’ Far more attention was given to organizing and giving leadership to programs than anything else. But there is a problem here: a program is an abstraction and inherently impersonal. A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are. The more program, the less person. … I wanted to develop a congregation in which relationships were primary, a household of hospitality. A community in which men and women would be known primarily by name, not by function. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t.”
There’s a lot to learn in this book about how to be a pastor. Peterson served at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church for 30 years, not a big church by today’s standards, but one where lives were transformed and disciples were made. I think I would have loved being a member there.
I have a confession to make. Last week I bought a $35 guitar pick. Yes, that’s right … a guitar pick. I don’t think I have ever paid more than 35 cents for a guitar pick in the past. In fact most guitar picks, I get for free.
How did this happen? Why would I spend $35 on a guitar pick? I have no other way to explain this except to say that it was peer pressure, pure and simple. Here’s how it happened: I walked up to a booth in the exhibit hall of the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) last week in Nashville. The booth was “Blue Chip Picks,” a company based in Knoxville, Tennessee which makes picks primarily for professional guitar and mandolin players. Several bluegrass “stars” endorse Blue Chip picks and probably get them for free in exchange for their endorsements. I have wondered for some time what all the fuss was about.
So I’m at the Blue Chip booth and ask the obvious question. So how much do these picks cost? “Well, the one you’re holding there is $35.00.” I quickly put the pick down. Wow. I had no idea a pick could cost that much. Of course the man behind the table went on to explain to me all the desirable qualities of a guitar pick, how they are shaped, what kind of material they are made of, and how these picks never wear out but if they do, they can be returned for a new one. My problem of course is that my picks never have a chance to wear out. I lose them right away. They magically disappear after each use. Or somebody borrows my pick and that’s the last I see of it. So I’m standing there watching other musicians casually laying down some serious money for these picks. “I’ll take three,” says one. I do the math in my head: that’s $105 for three guitar picks. Holy smokes.
“You can’t beat these picks,” says Bull Harmon, a flat-pick guitar champion from Missouri. “Just like a tortoise shell pick.” Of course, I’ve never played guitar with a tortoise shell pick, since they are illegal and also very expensive if you know where to get one illegally. I’m not sure what makes a tortoise shell pick so much better than a plastic pick. I’ve actually made guitar picks out of old credit cards.
Several other musicians are there at the booth just raving about these picks. Before long, I’m starting to want one. I try out a couple of thicknesses. They even have picks that have been shaped a certain way depending on whether or not you are left- or right-handed. I finally settle on the TD-40 (which sounds pretty impressive for a pick — it’s pictured above). I hand the man behind the table my credit card and say, “I’ll try this one out and if I like it, I’ll order more.” I think I said that to make him believe that I did this all the time, and that $35 really didn’t seem all that outrageous to me. I get my receipt along with the pick, which is in a little plastic zip lock bag. It doesn’t come in a fancy case or anything. Just a guitar pick in a plastic bag. I put it in my pocket, hoping I won’t lose it before I get out of the building.
On the way out of the IBMA exhibit hall I stopped at the Martin Guitar booth. They had free guitar picks on the table. “Take all you want,” the man said. But not to be greedy, I took two and put them in my pocket, right next to my $35 guitar pick.
As I was walking back to my hotel room a few blocks from the Nashville convention center, I suddenly came to the realization that I had just spent $35 for a bleeping guitar pick! What in the world made me do that?
All I can say is that it is the exact same kind of peer pressure that we warn our kids and grandkids about. While I was standing in that booth, with all those other musicians encouraging me to “try it, you’ll like it,” I did. I couldn’t just walk away. When I got home, it took me two full days to confess to my wife what I had done. She wasn’t too upset as she admitted that she had been a little extravagant herself while I was away and bought a new purse.
So, next time you hear me playing my guitar, I know you’ll be impressed because I will be using a $35 Blue Chip TD-40 pick. If I don’t lose it first.
I’ll be heading off this week for a conference in Dallas which is called D6, named after the oft-quoted passage in Deuteronomy 6 which commands parents to know the commandments of God and to “impress” them on their children in the normal routines of daily life (6:6-9). Several of us from College Avenue Baptist are going and I’m looking forward to hanging out with them and some of my friends who will be there like Doug Fields, Tim Smith and Mark Matlock. There are quite a few good speakers lined up for this conference and I’m looking forward to hearing them and attending some of the seminars. I’ve been asked to be on a panel for one of the sessions, to talk a little bit about how youth ministry intersects with family ministry today. Should be a good conversation. If you would like to peek in on the conference this week, you can do that online by visiting http://d6conference.com/.
In case you aren’t familiar with Bill Monroe, you are most certainly familiar with the music he created. He was a singer and mandolin player from Kentucky who in 1939 formed an ensemble called the Blue Grass Boys (named to honor his home state) and after experimenting with various combinations of instruments and vocal styles, he found success with his legendary 1945 combo which included Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on the banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater playing bass. The early recordings and performances by that band took the world of country music by storm and spawned dozens, then hundreds, and today thousands of bluegrass bands all over the world.
Bill Monroe wrote hundreds of songs and instrumentals which form the canon of bluegrass music today. He single-handedly established the mandolin as a solo instrument in American popular music. He was one of the early inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was the first inductee into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, and he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many of the early rockabilly stars of the 1950’s like Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley were huge Bill Monroe fans. Presley’s first single was Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Well, I could go on and on about Bill Monroe (“On and On” is the title of a Monroe song, by the way), but I’ll let you look him up on Wikipedia or something. I’m just honored that I had a chance to meet him and work with him on a few occasions. One of my prized possessions is a photo of him that he signed for me which hangs on my wall at home.
When I was in the band Brush Arbor, I’ll never forget the night in 1973 when we opened for Monroe at the world famous Palomino Club in North Hollywood. The room was packed with celebrities and many of my musical heroes at the time who had come to hear Monroe, not us. I remember seeing Clarence White of the Byrds sitting up close and Carl Jackson, who was playing banjo with Glen Campbell at the time. Backstage I chatted with Del Shannon who had hit songs like “Runaway” and “Hats Off to Larry.” Of course, the biggest thrill was hanging out with Big Mon himself, who was bluegrass music royalty. I remember just how kind he was to us despite the fact that we had drums and steel guitar in the band (a no-no to most bluegrass fans). He gave us an open invitation to play at any of his bluegrass festivals around the country. We did get to play at one of them.
When we took the stage at the Palomino, we kicked off with our version of “Proud Mary” which is really really fast. I kicked it off on the banjo and about four bars into the song, my thumb pick just popped off my thumb and flew out somewhere in the audience. I was stunned. Everyone looked at me like “what are you going to do now?” and I really didn’t know. My brother Jim grabbed a thumb pick out of his stash on stage and I was back in business right away and the song went on. But I broke into a flop sweat that just soaked my rhinestone-covered Nudie suit. Sooo embarrassing. I never got my thumb pick back.
Happy birthday Bill Monroe! Thank you for the amazing music you created which absolutely swept me off my feet almost 50 years ago as a teenager and which continues to bless my life in so many ways today. I thank God for you and remember you with deep appreciation on your centennial year.
If you would like to hear my radio show which I did Sunday night (9/11) to celebrate Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday, go to www.kson.com/bluegrass. It will be there for about a month so if you are reading this after October 15, you probably won’t be able to hear it.