Just Don’t Get It

Luke 16: 19-31, The Rich Man and Lazarus

Staring down over five decades immersed in scripture and music, it is hard sometimes to avoid musical renderings of a text. Reading the famous Gospel story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, I hear the boys barbershop quartet from Henderson High School in Chamblee, Georgia, circa 1975…

“Dip your finger in the water… come and cool my tongue ‘cause I’m tormented in the flames.” The famous passage from the 16th chapter of Luke is one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. We have an unnamed Rich Man who wears beautiful clothes and gorges himself at feasts. Outside his gate lies a poor man named Lazarus. (In Greek the words seem to suggest Lazarus is “dumped” at the Rich Man’s gate.) Covered with sores, Lazarus can’t even fend off the dogs. The story implies that the Rich Man ignored ample opportunity to intervene.

When both men die, the Rich Man, now burning in Hell, sees Lazarus at the bosom of Abraham. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to bring water and comfort. Abraham replies that such is not possible, for there is a great chasm between them. The Rich Man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers still alive. Abraham replies that the brothers will not believe a man risen from the dead as they have already ignored the warnings of Moses and the Prophets.

Pretty obvious where this goes, don’t you think?

  • Poor=Good
  • Rich=Bad
  • Treat the poor well and receive your reward in heaven
  • Treat the poor badly and be tormented in the flame
  • Maybe we should all raise our tithing percentage to the Church, for fire insurance if for no other reason
  • Maybe those of us who trust in God while living large should rethink the excess of our lifestyle

It is amazing, when you think about it, how much Jesus talks about money. Journeying through Luke’s chapters 15 and 16 we hear the famous parables of the widow’s coin, the prodigal’s inheritance, and the dishonest manager. We have been told that it is not money in and of itself, but the love of money that is the “…root of all evil.”

I would ask us to consider carrying the idea one step further. I do believe any form of blessing… money, talent, fame… can also be a curse. Having such things provides enormous resources for doing good. It is hard to support the building of hospitals, universities and cathedrals if you have no funds to contribute. No, being rich in and of itself is not bad. What matters is what you do with riches.

Ideas two and four of my cozy list smack of a works theology that, though popular and self-serving for the Church to proclaim, flies in the face of a gospel of grace. Can any of us do enough to be deserving of salvation and a home in Abraham’s bosom? No. Our service to the poor is not a quid-pro-quo, but a response to the unmerited grace offered to us in Jesus Christ.

Should we in (as) the Church be always assessing our lifestyle in the context of our daily living? Absolutely! One of my favorite hymn verses is from the early 20th century American clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick:

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.

I would suggest another level here that, much of the time, even in the Church, or especially in the Church, we just don’t get. I think the larger question is “What is it that defines us?”

Even with the fires of Hell searing his face, the Rich Man didn’t get it. Did you notice how he commanded Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him water. Then, when that didn’t work, he commanded Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Even though Lazarus was comforted in eternal joy and the Rich Man condemned to eternal torture, the Rich Man still saw Lazarus as his servant.

One of the richest and most godly men I have known in this life lived as simply and humbly as the poorest person you would ever meet. Quietly, he sought to use the resources he believed that God had entrusted to him to help people and to make the world a better place. Sometimes that meant giving money. Sometimes that meant choosing not to give money, but to use money and its lessons for teaching values.

I have known hundreds of others who have used their wealth, whether modest or great, to define themselves in the context of others. Sometimes, like the Rich Man, this has taken the form of opulent living. Sometimes it has taken the form of undue and improper influence. Often it has taken the form of building and bowing to one false idol after another.

I think we can find something of this in every one of Jesus’ parables that focuses on money. One of the most vivid is the story of the rich young ruler who comes to follow Jesus. Jesus replies, “Cool. Go sell all of your stuff, give the cash to the poor, and let’s get started!” But the parable tells us that the young ruler went away sad because “he had great wealth.” It was not the wealth itself, but how the wealth defined him that resulted in the sadness of the rich young ruler.

Jesus calls us to be defined in Him, heart and soul, mind and spirit, with all that we have, all that we have been, and all that we ever hope to be.

Fortress Jesus

The bartender says, “Tell ‘em to come and have a drink.” The Church says, “Please step away from our door!”

It was a bright, sunny Thursday morning in the central business district of a small Kansas town. A middle-aged man, attired for his task in a crisp white shirt, cuff links, dress trousers, polished shoes, and long tie, approached the door of the oldest and largest outpost of a mainline Protestant church in the town.

The staff parking lot was full, but there was no sign of life around the building. The stone and brick structure looked to be around 100 years old. The grounds were nicely kept. Near the large doors that likely opened to the narthex was a sign. The name of the congregation was at the top of the sign followed by the names of two clergy and the times for services and Christian education. The lower part of the sign featured a bright electronic message of “We are Happy You are Here!”

The visitor walked around the church building looking for an open door or for signs that would indicate the location of the church office. There were none. However, he did notice a mailbox near a door on the side of the building. To the right of the door was a speaker with a single button below.

The visitor pressed the button.
“___________ Church,” said a female voice from the speaker.

“Good morning,” the visitor responded, “My name is____. My choral group is presenting a concert of sacred music here in town. I have some flyers and a poster I would like to leave for your music staff.”

“Please wait,” said the disembodied voice.
After a few seconds the voice in the speaker spoke again. “We do not accept solicitations. Goodbye.”

A bit flabbergasted, the visitor pushed the button again and said, “Ma’am, I am not selling anything. I just wanted to drop a flyer for a free sacred concert for your music people. They can judge whether they wish to post it.”

The disembodied voice, now with a tone of harshness, spoke again: “I told you we do not accept solicitations. Please step away from our door!”

The visitor was, of course, myself. The bright spring day was last Thursday. It is not important to report the name of the church or the town.

I walked away trembling. I felt that I had been reprimanded for trespassing. I felt I had been scolded like a ten-year-old who went into the wrong old lady’s yard to retrieve a baseball. I felt like I had been lied to by the cheery electric sign.

As I have on a thousand occasions in my almost forty years serving the Church, I felt tears falling on my face in grief for the kingdom. How have our priorities become so tragically corrupted?

I honestly wasn’t that upset about the concert flyer. When I served congregations as music director I didn’t always post or announce everything that was handed to me.

I also understood the need for security in any public place. It is only prudent and responsible these days to assess the purpose of anyone seeking entry, especially if there are children present on the campus.

Still, the question must be asked what an exchange like the one I experienced last week says about the Church and about the kingdom of Jesus Christ. I came to the door of the church with a flyer for a concert. What if I had been the victim of a stabbing and was bleeding and begging for a call to 9-1-1? What if I had come bearing a broken heart, seeking spiritual guidance? What if, after 20 years away from the Church, I had just learned that I was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was coming in panic and desperation to “get it right” with God.

Is it really true that the Word of God says, “Come unto Him all ye that labor and are heavy-burdened?” Really? Or, does it really mean, “Come on Sunday morning at 10:30 with a thirst not for salvation, but for a pledge card to complete. Otherwise, ‘Please step away from our door!?’” “Of course, we will allow you admire the electronic welcome sign as you walk back to your car.”

After this first stop I approached 15 additional churches with my flyers. Of the total of 16 I visited, there were only five where the location of the office was clearly marked. Four of those were either closed or no one responded to the door buzzer or my knocking. A number of times, in the churches where I did manage to summon a human being, the person responding came to the door and chatted, mostly friendly, outside the building. I only entered two of the 16 church buildings.

On one of those I had found an open door under a sign that said, “Sanctuary and Church Offices.” I followed signs through a narthex to a door, up a flight of stairs and to an office at the top of the stairs. A friendly volunteer pointed to another office down the hall and mentioned that to be the “Church Office.” In that office a woman was typing away at the computer. Without pausing in her typing, and without looking in my direction, but with a friendly voice, she asked how she could help me. I stated my business. She replied, “Sounds great. Just leave it there on the counter and I will see that the choir director gets it.” I said, “Thank you.” She didn’t reply. I left. I am certain she never looked on my face.


The other building I entered had an unmarked open door near what looked like a multi-purpose room. I entered and walked toward a lighted hallway. As I entered the hallway, a collared man I assume to be a pastor greeted me and asked my name. I told him my name and my purpose. He thanked me for stopping by, took the flyer, looked at it and asked about our music, where we were from, why we chose to visit his town, and what church I attended at home. After a few minutes of conversation I thanked him for his hospitality. He mentioned that he would love to come to the concert, but Saturday nights are hard for ministers. I shook his hand and left feeling, at long last, that I had visited a house of God.

I met up with my college-age son, who had been getting a lesson retail politics by posting flyers on bulletin boards and in shop windows while I visited churches. I asked him how it went. He said, “Almost everyone took a flyer. Some put them up, but others took one and said they would put it up later. I don’t know if they were just being nice or will really post the flyers.” My son replied “yes” when I asked if all of the business owners seemed friendly.

The restaurant and bar people were really nice. One guy at the Louie Bar told me to tell the choir to come there after the concert to have a drink. He joked, ‘If they sing a song for me, I might buy everyone a round.’”

A couple of decades ago, in my hearing, Baptist-turned-Anglican theologian John Claypool spoke at Candler Seminary about the hemorrhaging of members suffered then -and being suffered now- by mainline churches. He said, “The spiritual needs of Man and his thirst for God have not changed. The compelling narratives of scripture have not changed. The power of the heart to be transported in prayer and praise has not changed. The open arms of Jesus and His promise of eternal life has not changed. What has changed is the Church, and not for the better. Oh, dear God, we pray for a revival of our trust in You, and for a renewal of our purpose.”

The bartender says, “Tell ‘em to come and have a drink.” The Church says, “Please step away from our door!”

Shame on us! Lord, in Your mercy, forgive us!

Spiritual Language

Though well aware of his noted character idiosyncrasies, I was a big fan of the late political writer and language enthusiast, William F. Buckley. In fact, this very day I have a copy of Buckley’s delightfully humorous Lexicon on my night stand. The Lexicon is a small dictionary of unusual words, defined and illustrated from Buckley’s writing.

Like Buckley, I have a profound disdain, nay even disgust, for anything that smacks of political correctness. The very thought of molesting the meaning and beauty of hymns that have spoken hope and salvation to a dozen generations of the Church fills me with horror. Doing so to serve passing political trends and to bow to the extortion of the perennially aggrieved is even more reprehensible.

It is from this perspective that we address the language of the spiritual and the use of the spiritual in concert performances of serious music, and in the worship of congregations who have a serious interest in all things worthy. (Trust me, many do not.)

In the past few decades we have seen a rush of the African-American spirituals appearing in school concerts of all sorts, in the programs of choral societies, and in the music recommendation lists from church hierarchies. The theme is “The music of these populations has been ignored for centuries. It is time to make reparation and include this music in services, disproportionately if necessary.”

This is the core of Orwellian political correctness: The reality and truth of the matter must be laid aside to protect the political sensitivities of one group or another, or to assuage the feigned guilt of those in the perceived majority. I believe such a patronizing approach to be the most racist of all.

The question then presents, “Should we perform spirituals, and if so, why and how?”

Anyone who has even glanced at my career knows the answer to the first question. Yes, I believe that we should perform spirituals for the same reason that we perform the music of Bach, Byrd, or Brahms. The worthy spirituals say things that need to be said with great power and depth. They say those things in ways that no other art form can say them. They are born of a different seed, but the flower is as beautiful in its way as anything that comes to us from the great European masters.

We must, however, recognize that not every example of the spiritual laid before us is worthy in the integrity of its rendering, just as we recognize that not every piece coming to us from the European masters is worthy or appropriate to our purpose. In fact, extra care is needed with spirituals and American folk music because we do not have the privilege of knowing them in authentic form. We must rely on, and make judgements of, the renderings that are created for our use. Just as editors are responsible to balance practical and historical concerns in preparing choral arrangements, those of us who present this music in services and concerts must take equal care.

As to how to do the spiritual, I believe the music must be approached with the same level of commitment and scholarship that we would expect to invest in music of the English Renaissance, or the symphonies of Beethoven, or the chansons of Clement Janequin. Thus, we must be concerned with issues of language, phrasing, metrical architecture and rhythmic structures.

I believe, uncompromisingly, that language must form the core of our understanding of those rhythmic structures. Therefore, until we comprehend how the language of a choral piece works, especially in the context of language origins, we cannot accurately comprehend how the piece should work rhythmically.

This is a great challenge in the case of the spiritual. The West African languages from which the form descends is foreign to English-speakers because of the absence of hard consonants. The language of the slaves was further modified by exposure to Haitian French and Caribbean Spanish, before landing in the American South where the rhythms of British English were blended with the emerging tongue known today as a Southern accent.

We can prescribe basic tools of enunciation that give us the flavor of the language… absence of hard ending consonants, absence of diphthongs, modification of R-controlled vowels and bright consonant sounds. These methods enable us to approach the sound of the melodic material in ways that reveal the metrical spirit of the music. We can also apply information that we have learned from isolated communities that had very little exposure to media until about 1970. Though not completely authentic because of the passage of time, the singing of these island communities off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia still give us greater insight than had been previously available.

Which brings us back to the political ramifications of performing this music.

I have been asked -more times than I wish to recall- whether a “white choir” can legitimately perform music of the African-American tradition. My answer is, “Yes, with proper scholarship.” A choir whose artistic profile is based in the traditions of the European masters is just as worthy to sing spirituals as the Paris-based Le Concert d’Astrée is worthy to sing the music of Austrians Mozart and Haydn.

That said, race relations in the United States in the second decade of the 21st century are still so raw and overly sensitive that one runs the risk of being accused of appropriating the music or performing it in caricature. Unfortunately, to some people, hearing “…when I comes to die…” the choir appears to be speaking/singing “improper” English. The truth is, to not sing it that way is to perform the music in a historically inaccurate dialect.

It is understandable that the leaders of primarily Caucasian choirs are reluctant to step into such a political morass. There are many wags and judges whose lack of information is only matched by their quickness to point their fingers. There are many African-American conductors who shy away from authentic language in music of their own heritage because they do not want their chorus members to feel the prejudice of those who do not have accurate historical information. Moses Hogan, the great interpreter of the spiritual at the end of the 20th century, once told me, “It is just easier sometimes not to open that question.”

Hopefully, the day will come at last when the authority of the scripture, the genius of the poetic insights of the unnamed authors and the power and beauty of the music will be allowed to speak with its own voice. In the meantime, with a nod of understanding to those who choose another path, I will thumb my nose at political correctness, stand for the historical integrity of this God-given music, and take my lumps from the artsy- smartsy crowd.


When I comes to die… When I am alone… When I wants to sing… Give me Jesus!

Plastic Heart

“I will take care of you, little buddy, because I made you …I put your heart inside.”

The words were spoken to a soccer-ball sized saber-tooth tiger perched on the back seat of the rental car between my son and his older sister. The tone of my youngest child’s voice was one of love and care, so filled with simple tenderness that my eyes glistened as I observed the scene.

I think one of the reasons I was so moved by the exchange is quite selfish. I know that childhood moments like these are soon to be gone. Zachary’s voice already shows signs of broadening. He is nearly as tall as his sister. He has noticed that the female of the species seems different in pleasing ways. Sweet affections for stuffed animals is a train rapidly leaving the station. As Daddy, a role I have cherished in life above all others, I am going to grieve watching that train as it disappears around the bend.

Of course we all know the build-your-own bear-dinosaur-tiger is a marketing gimmick. The scene is a kid- friendly restaurant in Florida, serving ridiculously expensive food surrounded by animatronic criters very large and very loud. After dinner, parents can buy the stuffing and an animal form. Children fill the form with the stuffing. Then they say a poem and do a dance before kissing a plastic heart and placing it in the chest of their newly created friend. The beast is bedecked with cute clothes and off the family goes to the cash register.

If it is a scene to tug the hearts of sentimental parents, then okay. Sign me up. You only live once on this earth and a dose of sweetness in a harsh and coarse world is worth 40 bucks every now and then.

The scripture teaches us to come to God with simple childlike faith and a heart opened to be filled. It further teaches us that God has “woven us together in our mother’s womb.” I love that imagery of God’s knitting needles carefully, individually, lovingly, tenderly sewing each of us together one at a time.

With all my heart, all my will, all my soul, and all my spirit, I believe this to be true.

And, being true, this reality brings very real implications for the Church and for those of us who are the Lord’s hands and feet in this world. For if we are individually and intentionally made, then not only is the Church an institution “ordained of God that shall endure until the end of time,” it is a body woven together of intentionally and lovingly created creatures.

Martin Luther is one of my favorite characters in history for many reasons. The fact that he changed the world is an important reason but, to my mind, not the most important. He was more than brilliant. He had a wicked sense of humor. He was a beloved teacher. He was a consummate family man and a warm and generous friend.

More than anything else, Luther was filled with purpose and passion. He didn’t make a rational, measured decision to throw down the gauntlet of Reformation. He did it because he had to. As one of the threads that knitted the Church together, and with a heart bursting with creative love, Luther was compelled to bring renewal. The fact that he could be at risk for imprisonment or execution was, by comparison, inconsequential.

My prayer for Reformation Sunday is that the Church will go about the work of the Kingdom in the knowledge that she is lovingly woven together of living, created threads. I pray that every one of us who serves the Church will have a greater awareness of our purpose and that we will be filled with such passion that, like Luther and the reformers of old, we will feel compelled to bring renewal to the Church.

I have always wanted to be like Martin Luther. I have always wanted to be scholarly, faithful, courageous, and passionate. I have prayed to be poured out for the Kingdom of God and the Church of our Lord Christ.

But today I want to be more like my young son. I want to reclaim the simplicity and tenderness that I believe God showed me when He took my form, filled me with stuffing, held my heart in His hand, said a little poem, danced a little dance, and placed my heart inside my chest.

“I will take care of you, buddy, because I made you …I put your heart inside.”