Down in My Closet to Pray

Down in the Valley to PrayMatthew 6: 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

I don’t know which version of the Bible you did your memory work in growing up. We used, as I’m sure many of you did, the King James translation which, although we no longer speak like Shakespeare (which, verily, I thinketh a pity) has no parallel for the beauty and majesty of its prose. There is a tradition that Shakespeare had a hand in the translation because in the 46th Psalm of the King James, the 46th word from the beginning is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” You can look it up. There’s good reason to suppose that Shakespeare as a leading and highly favored playwright of the day (his company was the official theater group of James I, and writers of the time were fond of leaving little hints as to the writer of a piece. And Shakespeare was 46 years old when the King James came out in 1611.
Anyhow, while the King James Version is a literary masterpiece, the meaning sometimes gets fogged up by the passage of time and the differences in culture between us and seventeenth century England.
Take the Matthew 6:6 as an example. I wanted to follow the letter of Scripture, being rather large on rules and legalism at that time, as opposed to forgiveness and grace, so when the verse commanded me to pray in my closet, I did. I lived upstairs in our little house at the time, under the dormers where my parents kept me so I wouldn’t harm myself and others. They let me out to go to school and church, but other forays out of the neighborhood required a parent or two if were a particularly bad day for me. At home, my brother and I were encouraged to spend as much of the day as we could outside, coming in only for meals, bathroom breaks and sleep. My mom told us doing so enabled her and my dad to live in a house that didn’t look like the barbarian hordes had just swept through. In fact, when I studied European history some time later, I read the story of the tribes that rampaged across Europe in the fifth century and recognized some similarities between their activities and ours.
Anyhow, back to closets. It never occurred to me (and it shouldn’t have) that the meaning of the word “closet” was different. Up until the eighteenth century, no one had closets. The thought of having a protected space for storage was unknown, so they stored their “goods” as they called them in trunks, barrels, baskets and the like. When closets came along later, taxes were based on the number of rooms in a house, and a closet to the tax authorities was a room. In fact, that’s what it meant in the seventeenth century. Jesus was saying to go into a private room, not burrow among your shirts and shoes to pray. I did that for a year and I’m here to tell you it isn’t comfortable. And so, not for the first time, I did something based on a good intention and an incredibly high level of ignorance.
Nonetheless, I think God honored my effort to follow the commands of Jesus and my prayers. and. And God does so with all who call upon his name. Praise God for his tender care, his justice faithfully given and his ongoing and all-embracing love.

Doc Watson and some friends doing his version of “Down in the Valley to Pray,” which was the basis for “Down in the River to Pray” in the Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?


Resting in the Everlasting Arms

 Everlasting Arms

Deuteronomy 32:27: Our eternal refuge with Our Creator eternal, and God’s almighty arms underneath are everlasting.

I am almost three weeks into my radiation treatments for prostate cancer (my prognosis is positive and the treatments are quick and painless, and I am thankful that so far I have had no adverse effects), and share a ride with a woman whom I’ll call Sharon from our church. It’s nice to have company on the 32-mile round trip drive, and I’ve gotten to know Sharon better over the past couple of weeks.

The past couple of weeks, Sharon has shared a number of stories from her past with me. She grew up in Derry, a small town in New Hampshire and went to the local high school, where Robert Frost taught for a while. (She told me she did not have him as a teacher.) The population was so small that one school bus covered the entire attendance area. And I thought I had a long bus ride in high school! Sharon went on to say that buses were only for students through grade eight. After that, they were on their own. Her father went to work at 6:30 AM and dropped her at a traffic circle about a half mile from school. The janitor lived at the school so he had the building open and stoves going when she arrived. I imagine it was a glimpse of Paradise to come in to a warm building from the New Hampshire winter.

Sharon’s older brother was born in 1930. While he was still an infant, his mother stood holding him in their living room while an electrical storm raged about them. Lightning struck the house, traveled into the room and hit the baby, not harming the mother at all. Of course the infant suffered neurological damage and had seizures and other medical problems the rest of his short life. He passed away at age seven when Marge was four, and she spoke with great tenderness of taking care of this unfortunate child.

I had never heard of a babe in arms being struck by lightning, much less while being held in loving arms. It seems to me a parallel to how God treats each of us as God’s eternal children. We are babes in this world, and as the storms of life rage about us, sometimes we are struck by any number of destructive forces. But no matter how we are harmed or the extent of our injuries and diseases, the arms that hold us are everlasting. Let us praise God for God’s goodness, care, compassion and eternal vigilance over us, who are to the Creator as babies to their mothers.



Poem: Ladies of the Church

I posted my piece on the ladies of the church last week, and my friend and former colleague Mary McElveen and also former Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria, put this on her blog.

She wrote, I wrote [this] for a friend who was asked to say a few words about a lady at the church who died of cancer. Gloria was one of those indefatigable volunteers, and probably has heaven organized and running like a top.

Thank you for letting me post your poem, Mary. Every church has its church ladies.
They are legion,
the church ladies:
the hands that smooth the tablecloths, brew the coffee,
bake the cookies, make the sandwiches,
arrange the flowers.

They think of everything,
then do it.
They are the voices on the phone
the fingers on the keyboard,
the gentle nudge
reminding, recruiting,
reorganizing and regrouping—
doing the things no one has time for,
for the people no one has time for… and for us all.

They are all things good:
secretary and sorceress,
chauffeur and counselor,
teacher and student,
greeter and galley slave…

And I can’t help thinking that if Jesus is among us,
He is cleverly disguised
as a church lady.

To-Do List

To Do List

1. Spend time with people who can lift you up and inspire you.

2. Face your problems.

3. Be honest with yourself.

4. Put others first.

5. Be yourself.

6. Live in the present, and have faith for the future.

7. Make mistakes. You’ll learn a lot.

8. Forgive others.

9. Learn to forgive yourself.

10. Realize that happiness can’t be bought.

11. Nor can anyone else make you happy.

12. Be productive but not overactive.

13. You’re as ready as you’re going to be. So do it.

14. Cooperation, not competition.

15. Maintain your dignity, your standards and your sense of humor.

16. Look for the beauty of small moments and every day events.

17. Take responsibility for yourself.

18. Look for occasions of gratitude.

19. Always take time for children, pets and old people.

20. Stop and help, even if it makes you late.

Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven

Matthew 18:5-6: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” 
“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

It is probably no surprise to any of us that children in this life are frequently in danger.  All over the world, children are exploited, used, molested, abused, taken advantage of, injured and even killed, all through no fault of their own. Such treatment rightfully outrages us and most of us work hard to protect and nurture the children in our care.

I have been thinking about children a great deal this summer, largely because I spent two weeks with a lot—and I do mean a lot—of children.  Now, working with children is not one of my talents. I much prefer teenagers, which is mystifying to many, but to me, the miracle workers are the ones in our midst who work with the children.  I saw them at work in Lynchburg at Eagle Eyrie during the state music camp and right here during our summer music camp.  It’s amazing how small children who can barely walk or talk can be led to sing and dance and play instruments. I have the greatest admiration for those who work with children and lead them to do marvelous things.

Christians have a special charge to make sure that children and the vulnerable are led and nurtured and not exploited. Jesus said in Matthew 18,   “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

It occurred to me that these two weeks were a picture of the kingdom—one in which the young are led by shepherds to safe pasture.  All of us can do this for each other and when we do, there is something of God’s Kingdom on earth.  Now, I am not suggesting that the children are totally innocent or that those who work with them are angels.  But they come as close as we’re likely to see in this world.

William Blake, the English Romantic poet, wrote about much the same theme  in his poem, “Holy Thursday” in 1789.  It was the custom then to dress children from the charity schools in London in bright colors and have them process to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a service celebrating the ascension of Jesus 40 days after Easter. As I watched the children do their musical last Friday evening, they were dressed in their red camp shirts, singing as they were watched by parents and friends, and I thought of this poem.

Holy Thursday

‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green,
Grey-headed beadles walk’d before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.

O what a multitude they seem’d, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Bright Hope for the Future

Eagle Eyrie


This week, Becky and I have been teaching at Virginia State  Music Camp at Eagle Eyrie, the Baptist Assembly outside Lynchburg.  Actually, the real name of the event is Music and Worship Arts Camp, sponsored by the Virginia Baptist Mission Board in Richmond.  Baptist churches are independent but cooperate through agencies like the VBMB for missions and support. This gathering is an arts camp  with a decided musical emphasis for fourth grade through high school students.

The assembly at Eagle Eyrie is 57 years old and perches on the side of a steep mountain. It had fallen into a state of disrepair several years ago, with peeling paint, broken fences and walls, and old fixtures.  A largely volunteer committee, headed by our former senior pastor at Manassas Baptist Church, Bill Higgins, restored the property.  Today it looks fresh and new, with beautiful plantings and landscaping.

The Music and Worship Arts Camp is coordinated through the Worship and Church Music Ministries division of the VBMB, headed by Tom Ingram, Field Strategist/Worship and Church Music Specialist, and Debbie Cobb,  Administrative Assistant to Empowering Leaders Team.  They are dedicated, humble, Spirit-filled servants who essentially put together a school for 350 children each summer, along with their other duties during the year. They work with a committee to establish a theme (this year’s was, believe it or not, “The Gift of Christmas.” The kids have been singing Christmas carols all week. That helps to counteract the extreme heat we’re having here closer to the sun) beginning in February.  Becky is on the committee as are several other Virginia church musicians such as Fred Horn and Bernadine Donovan.  (I don’t know the names of the others on the committee.)

Tom and Debbie are assisted at the camp by several energetic interns either in college or just out of it, Laura, Hilliary, Ariana and Megan. There were thirty-eight faculty members this year, along with numerous chaperones of church groups.  These faculty members are incredibly talented and experienced musicians who are  a joy to watch work with the children.

I slid in as a teacher by teaching a class in song-writing, using my experience teaching writing which is more developed than my musical skills. The class was called “Lots of Lyrics,” and the students showed great insight and creativity writing words to familiar tunes, writing poems based on the Psalms and writing a Christmas carol. One of their songs was used in a worship service.

Class selections include handbells, a vocal ensemble, banners, guitar 1 &2, instrumental ensemble, interpretive movement, make it/give it (students make an item which is give to an orphanage or shelter), orchestra, piano, ‘scapes (visual art project), puppets, stomp (students play trash cans, pots and pans, and some other more or less indescribable instruments), voice, drumming, and worship leadership. Each student is also part of a choir, Alpha for younger children, and Omega for the older ones.  The choirs are usually directed by musicians from out of state, although Becky directed the Alpha choir a few years ago.  Imagine directing a choir of 135 children!

There is also a Delta level for high school students, who help with classes and learn what is involved in being a worship leader.

The Worship and Church Music Ministries division also sponsors an All-State Choir and Orchestra in February, with students chosen by audition from all over the state.  They work with a director and produce some beautiful music.

I think you can tell this week, while exhausting, was a mountaintop experience for me, both literally and figuratively. Seeing the leaders work with the children, who were exceptionally well-behaved and enthusiastic (with some exceptions–they are children, after all) was uplifting. One of the teachers in another class I overheard was talking with his students about eventually taking the places of the church musicians now working.  Their experiences at camp are a start, he said, and they could work until they are ready to step in at some point in the future when we can’t minister any longer.  Judging from what I saw this week on the mountaintop, thanks to the efforts of a lot of people and the grace of God, that future is very bright indeed

A Touching and Inspiring Story

Romans 5: 3-5: We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope.And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

If you believe in education, in the human spirit, and in God touching the hearts of his children, you will find this story of an eight-year-old Tanzanian girl to be both touching and inspiring. I know I tend to complain when I also know that most of us are blessed beyond all measure.

O Beautiful

O Beautiful 2 Chronicles 7:14: If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.


 Founded by eighteenth English colonial aristocrats who used seventeenth century British philosophers and classical figures and forms of government as their guide

 Whose signature foods (frankfurters and hamburgers) are named after German cities, even if they didn’t necessarily originate with German immigrants

 Whose educators educate (or attempt to educate) every child, regardless of origin, status, position, ability or income

 Whose national anthem originated as a poem written under fire by a detainee during the War of 1812 and then set to the tune of a popular British club song

 Where most people welcome diversity of race, culture and religion

 One of whose most beautiful patriotic songs was written by a poet after seeing the vista from atop Pike’s Peak.  She rode up on a mule.

 Whose citizens sacrifice their sons’ and daughters’ blood and lives for the cause of freedom and justice around the world

 Whose troops, once the war is over, do not permanently occupy a land but return home to resume their lives

 Whose people reach out and help rebuild countries they have defeated in war

 Whose political process most closely resembles a free-for-all but which results in progress for the common good

 Whose society has social, cultural and political problems but works to solve them

 Whose people give generously to those in need, no matter who or where they are

 Whose citizens do not live in a utopia, an Eden or even a city on a hill, but who are making progress toward that ideal

 Whose national music was created by those brought to these shores out of their suffering, pain and hope

 Whose music is diverse, energetic and ever fresh

 Whose music was taken in by a bunch of young British kids in the ‘60’s and brought back to these shores in the British Invasion, changing the face of popular music forever

 Whose military serves the people and the President and not the other way around

 Whose system of justice works to guarantee rights even to the dispossessed, the powerless and the unpopular

 Whose people enjoy unparalleled freedom of expression, association and mobility simply by virtue of living here

 Where people come from all over the world for opportunities that do not exist in other places

 Where the airplane, the light bulb, Velcro and Post-It notes were all invented

 Whose scientists and engineers sent men to the moon, not to claim it as territory, but in peace for all humankind

 A place where rags to riches stories do come true

 Whose writers have produced a literature that is profound and authentic, drawing on unique American experiences

 A place of deep faith, hard workers, incredible resources, incomparable natural beauty, and immeasurable blessings

 What a country! God shed his grace on thee!

Rocks, Lambs, Bruised Reeds, Smoldering Wicks and Other Matters

Rocks, Lambs, Bruised Reeds, Smoldering Wicks and Other Matters


Matthew 4:19: “Come, follow me,” Jesus said,

I don’t know if you pay a lot of attention to directions or other information. I know I don’t. Whenever anyone asks me when something is happening at church or where we were meeting, I never know. I can always ask the director (my wife Becky) and that seems to work out well except when someone asks me for information. I kinda figure out what’s happening when about the time Becky leaves to go to church. That’s my reminder that something is about to happen.

This even affected these devotionals. I was singing “Blessings” to myself early last week and thought, hey, I’ll write about that since we’re singing it Sunday. I even put it in my Friday Biscuit City blog that we were. But we weren’t. We sang “He Is the Rock,” which, if you will remember, is a very different song from “Blessings.” Sometimes I’m observant like that.

Anyhow, I was a week early with thoughts on “Blessings” and I could have written about “He Is the Rock” for this piece, but I like to look forward and I’ve already written about “Blessings.” So, I was thinking about “He Is the Rock” after we sang it Sunday. I think that’s why I goofed up in Sunday School last Sunday. Let me tell you all about it.

Because I just can’t do one thing at a time, I am one of the teachers for two (by actual count) Sunday School classes. I alternate between them, working with twenty-somethings one week and with first and second graders the other week. I am comfortable working with teenagers and adults, but have much less experience working with children. I wanted to learn how to better in case there was a children’s class teaching emergency or something. My nearly nine months in working with children (actually four and a half months’ actual experience) has paid off. Amy told me they were desperate for subs at the elementary school where she teaches and said I should sign up. See? A recommendation from a veteran elementary teacher! I suppose that with a little more experience I could be Elementary Teacher of the Year. However, I’m not ready yet. Under the influence of “He Is the Rock,” I didn’t handle a situation in the class very well. No one was hurt or traumatized, but I wish I had it to do over again.

I was teaching the children this past Sunday with the able assistance of Michael Hill, and after snack and a reiteration of the story of Gideon and a fun word search related to it, we made paper airplanes (representing the angel who visited Gideon since angels can fly and so can paper airplanes). We then took our airplanes to the playground to fly them during recess time. They didn’t really fly that well, so the children left them on the ground and went about enjoying themselves on the playground in their usual manner, trying to injure themselves on various pieces of playground equipment. Fortunately, everybody survived recess, so we went back to the room so they could finish their word searches (I think I used a word search that was too difficult, but they like a challenge). I pulled out my Martin D-18 I had brought so we could sing some songs while they worked. Actually, I’ve found that the children don’t sing along with songs like “Deep and Wide.” They like to listen, even to me, but they really like to dance to the songs, and play games like “Freeze Dance” where they dance until the music stops and then they are supposed to “freeze.” If they don’t, they’re out. I think they would play “Freeze Dance” all day although that doesn’t happen because their parents come get them before the sun sets or my hand cramps up, which would come first.

So, I was playing my guitar when a boy who had been singularly inattentive and uncooperative all class suddenly became very interested in my guitar. I think he had never seen one, and he showed his excitement by coming over and smacking hard with his fist on the body. I stopped playing and said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m seeing what it’s made of,” he said.

“It’s made of wood, and if you keep that up, it will be made of little pieces of wood. Please back up!”

He backed away a bit but then, as the rest of the children danced their hearts out, he came back and started twisting the tuning machines. This has a derogatory effect on the tuning of the instrument. I stopped playing, and the children stopped dancing. No one moved, but when I didn’t continue playing, they called out “Play some more!” Glad they like music. Bet they like it better in tune.

I said to my young friend, “Go away!” He responded by backing up a step.

I was telling Becky this story and she, out of her experience working with children, suggested I could have handled the situation better. And I should have. Instead of being a rock, I should have been a lamb. She said I could have said something like, “I don’t need a helper right now.”

It occurred to me that this is the sort of thing Fred Rogers would have done if some child had come up and done his best to disassemble his instrument. I took this as a sign that I needed to respond differently, even when a child has irritated the fool out of me for over an hour. I’m supposed to be in the business of being Christ to these children, of encouraging them, of not breaking off the bruised reeds or quenching the smoldering wicks.

I promise I’ll do better. The guitar is insured. A child’s future isn’t except in God’s hands and with the right words and loving actions from God’s helpers.