Friday, December 28, 2007

A different Christmas

This year our children went to be with their other families for Christmas Day. Beth talked with Katie and Kirk, and worked out the idea of opening gifts on Sunday morning when I was off work.

On top of that, the Knutsons were very...friendly, asking us over one evening for dinner, and calling about going to the movies. Kirk, Sarah, and Joanna showed up on Thursday and the family time began.(This is actually a picture from winter of 06)

Beth is always thinking about her mother. She wonders if her mother is all right, and she thinks about ways she might make her circumstances better. Mom lives at a nursing home, alone after her husband's passing in October.

She finally figured out that we could take Mom to church on Christmas and then bring her over to the house afterward. This is something we have discussed several times, but Mom is very weak, wheelchair bound, and subject to physical constraints having to do with the bathroom.

Then the Lesondaks invited us to have Christmas dinner with them; I guess the word got out about our children.

The day went well, surprisingly well. I set up the church and then joined Beth at the nursing home to get Mom into the car and her wheel chair into the other car.

On the way over to the nursing home I had an artsy moment. I was sitting in the car at the light on 23rd Street, and WUTC was playing Handel's Messiah. "Every Valley shall be exalted..." sang the tenor, and the prophecy of Jesus' coming to a broken world was repeated in my thoughts. As I waited at the light, an ambulance came through the intersection and turned down Dodds, wailing into the distance. A young man in a red hoody walked alone down the sidewalk. It was all sad, with the message of scripture speaking into my emotions and thoughts. I cried a little.

After we got to the church, I scrambled to find a hearing impaired unit that worked and we were cool.

We had tea and a biscuit at out house afterward before going to the Lesondaks. "Beth, you've really made this your own house, now," Mom opined. "I always went for the cozy feel." We decided that she meant that Beth had taken down the fluffy curtains she had in the living room.

The time at the Lesondaks was warm, happy, and inclusive. Kathy and John are wonderful parents and loving people, after a career in missions.

We dropped Mom off and dropped into the lazy boys at home. A truly merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Church with the Knutsons

My daughter and her husband moved back to Chattanooga last year at Christmas. It was an exciting and chaotic holiday with the Knutsons-- Joel, Katie, Josiah, and Eden-- all added to our household!

When they lived in ATL, they tried various churches in the Vineyard network, and even one or two that were general charismatic congregations. You see, they have decided to leave the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, and become charismatic.

So when they moved to Chattanooga, they found a small Vineyard on the North Shore that seemed to suit them. We visited this church with them last Christmas and found it to be a fairly calm fellowship made up of white families, mostly millenials, with a scattering of boomers and homeless people. This church actually serves Sunday dinner to homeless people, and invites them to come to the service afterward, which meets at 5:30 PM.

The leaders of this flock are Bucky and Becky Buckles. Katie said they are from a United Methodist background, and grew up going to the Resurrection Youth Conference in Gatlinburg, TN. The significance of this is that I was engaged as the guest worship leader with band and production for that event for over ten years in the 80s and 90s. So Katie's new church, including the worship leader at this Vineyard, is connected to our families' experiences and to my performance talents.

We worshiped there Sunday evening on my day off from our church, and it became apparent that this is a good choice for our daughter and her husband. The people are similar in economic and professional status, and the group is small and warm. Many seem to be on the rebound from traditional churches and the whole service has the tone of the emerging church movement.

The first time we visited was different. It seemed unfocused and ill planned. Now the ill planning is actually a specific avoidance of traditional plans. It is almost as if there is a concerted effort to avoid churchiness. There is little or no explanation of what is happening, and the music flows without comment. There was one glitch in the program when the children came up for a song and the praise team didn't even stop to acknowledge them. The kids left the stage ignominiously and came back when they were supposed to!

Narrations came via microphone from the back, and were accompanied by simple slide shows on the screen. The message of the evening was read by a woman from an article on the subject of peace on earth, and contained a decidedly anti-war tack. This is obviously not a preaching movement.

It took us back to the 1970s when we started our own church. Our church, however, began with a distinctly social action theme and the form that our worship took was not anti-establishment that I could tell, aside from our economic limitations and our modern music. The radical element in our store front work was its focus on mercy and justice, the amplified music and mixed racial agenda, and the pseudo-hippie look.

Bucky and Becky came out of the United Methodist Church, and the service showed their own cultural roots. It's definitely not Methodist culturally, but it fits with UMC theology.

One thing we appreciate about North Shore Vineyard is that they welcome homeless people into their service, and feed them on Sunday afternoon.

When Beth and I were married, we came together from two different denominational focuses-- Reformed Presbyterian and Reformed Baptist. In turn, we joined a church movement that departed from our upbringing in the form of urban ministry.

Now our daughter and her husband are joining their marriage with a unique fellowship that establishes new traditions and ecclesiastical paths for them and their children.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Faith takes a Vision

Faith takes a vision
Makes a dream into a mission
When he calls you, don't refuse
'Cause it's faith and it's vision
he can use.

This morning, I read Psalm 138. Verse 2 reads, "I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word."
Here I read that God has exalted his name and his word above everything. As a result, the Psalmist will bow to God, and praise God for his love and faithfulness.
God keeps his word, and he has told me that he loves me and will be faithful to me, even when I am unfaithful.
No matter what happens in my life's events, and no matter what flaws there are in my performance, God will still love me and his word will keep him honoring his promises.
The world has so many dreams and passions that contend for my attention. I am fascinated by the drive for success and for stardom that entertainment personalities have. I know that part of this fascination is my own occupation in music and performance, that gave me a certain level of public reputation. And yet God's word and his name are above everything that interests or appeals to me, by his own act.
God's name is many faceted and filled with vast implications for power, creativity, and sovereign choice. His word started in the garden with a declaration of love for his creation, and also a warning of its limitations. His word continued to ring out with truth and justice, as well as covenantal faithfulness, throughout biblical history and beyond.
His word says that we must have faith in order to please him, and we must diligently seek his face and his will.
I have found my own grasp of his word to be foggy lately. We see through a glass darkly, yes, but I also lack the persistent seeking of his word in my daily life that results in weak faith and poor vision.
Even though I have a deep and abiding knowledge of God's written word, it is still possible to lose a clear vision of his word for today, for right now. One may even do the right things, but lack the faith behind these good acts. It is dangerous ground to have a whole life style of good works, and lack faith and spiritual sight.
Would I hear his call, if he did speak?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


This weekend I experienced the strong effect of affirmation.

We had a performance at the church of our Christmas program for the adult and youth choirs. As is my custom lately, we included a jazz piece in which Leland played trumpet and flugal horn.

Leland was a music major in college years ago, and also plays piano and organ. He has written several new tunes to classic hymn texts like "Nothing But the Blood" and "Deep Deep Love of Jesus." Our church loves his songs and we sing them often. I have the feeling that he has several others and is waiting for the opportunity to introduce them. That would be great.

Leland's daughters are also in the youth choir, so he is a significant participant in the music program.

Last spring, Leland came to the Covenant College Jazz Band rehearsals two afternoons a week. He entered into the tunes and worked to understand jazz harmony and melody. During that experience, he mentioned to me a couple of times that he was learning a lot.

He recruited another Covenant alumnus to play with us-- Jim Pettit, who is a trombonist. And together they began to plan a missions trip to Ireland under the auspices of Mission to the World. They began talking to me about the possibility of putting together a jazz-style band for a music missions trip, and I offered a few suggestions for tunes and personnel. Anthony Griggs(guitar) and Ryan De Waters(bass) agreed to go as well. Ultimately a very fine pianist and educator from Georgia named Larry Barker accompanied the trip. He probably made a huge difference, since I heard that he mentored the younger players patiently and ably.

So after the Christmas program this weekend, Leland passed me in the hall.

"We have a fantastic music program here at our church. The music we do is just incredible. You are a gifted musician, Jim. Thanks for all you do."

Leland had already shown his dedication by agreeing to play trumpet in the jazz ensemble for the program, even though he had to go straight to work afterward and work all night.

I don't know how I can ever show my appreciation to all the people who affirm me in my work. In this case, I just said, "I love you, Leland." It just came out, and I rarely say it to anyone except my family. To me love means a willingness to go to the wall for someone, like I Corinthians 13 says.

But sometimes love is the only explanation to a person who shows appreciation and it is obviously not flattery nor excessive. I love Leland and numerous others who have been there consistently during my work and my life. They keep on saying yes, and showing up without needing a lot of attention.

Today, as I go to work, Leland's affirmation is ringing in my heart. Thank God for his kind encouragement, bred of experience and insight, mixed with personal commitment and his own family's benefit.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


My early years of performing included some affirmation from music critics, people in the business, and even Larry Norman, a seminal Christian rocker who pioneered the field of Christian rock recording and performing.

Larry had done a show at Geneva College for which I opened, and he tried to sign me to a 5-year deal that night. And I had a brief relationship with Bob McKenzie, a gospel music power broker in Nashville, who helped me sign my songs away to his publishing company, and then presided over the 3-hour recording session of my second album, "James Ward: Himself." More about Bob later.

Other positive feedback came from Hans Rookmaaker, the Dutch art critic. Rookmaaker had been a part of the Schaeffer Conferences of the early 70s at Covenant College, and later wrote me a note. He refers to the McKenzie recording.

"Dear friends,

Just a note to say thank you for the fine record. I already 'had' it, i.e. on tape, after a copy of Graham Birthwistle. In fact, I don't have mine anymore, as my daughter (who studies musicology) has taken it with her. Anyhow, it is listened to, we think particularly fine the piano.

You got to make songs (as Schubert etc. did) on good texts--poems by classics like Cowper, Coleridge, Christian poets today, etc. That would be a new venture. Doesn't matter...if the critic writes that influences of Afro-American music are discernable.
I also bought book when at Philly. Sorry we did not meet at that conference.
Thank you again,
in the Lord

H Rookmaaker

This is profoundly meaningful to me. Dr. Rookmaaker wrote several books on the subject of art and Christianity, and one of them was entitled Art Needs no Justification. This book gave me courage to be a self-employed musician in 1973 when we were just getting started. The book described a society where artists and musicians would be doing their craft without pretense, and yet also making a living. It gave me a vision for my life as a musician, and it gave me a point of reference for the years of diverse experiences to come. Rookmaaker was a major source of affirmation for me, and he was an art critic!

During the years 1975-1978, I discovered that other musicians valued my opinion and respected what I had done. I joined a band which moved to the Pittsburgh area and we rehearsed for originals and cover tunes for concerts and dances. This was my first encounter with fellow musicians of my skill level as we worked on and performed pop music.

Although the drummer was stylistically at variance with the kind of songs I did, he challenged me to grow in my keyboard skills and gave me jazz books and albums to study. One time we were in Boston for a gig, and my bandmates urged me to take a lesson with a bop pianist there. It cost me $50 hard earned dollars, but it gave me a regimen for the next 15 years of performing and striving to improve. It included rootless voicings in 2 positions for all keys, based on the standard "Autumn Leaves."

One of the other musicians was quite enamoured of my talent, raw or otherwise. He had originally joined the band because I was going to lead it and he and his wife were classically educated music educators.

It was one thing to have members of a concert audience affirm me, but this was a musician with experience playing and teaching. He made expansive pronouncements about my ability to communicate and especially my lyric writing.

I was almost embarrassed by his compliments, partly because I perceived him as needing my chops for his own livelihood, and therefore feared that he was flattering me. I later realized that he and his wife were sincerely responding to the spiritual and aesthetic content of my early songs, and out of their insight they were desiring to be a part of this experiment.
I will always treasure the Rookmaaker letter, and I will always value the encouragement of these my musical colleagues when I was 26. I was getting more than my share of positive feedback from critics, industry people, and fellow musicians. I was getting a lot of approval, but I was doing what I thought I should be doing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Blue Believer

It's flattering to know that people around me look for affirmation from me. As my life continues to mature, and the task that I have been given becomes more rich and varied, certain folks I work with look to me for approval.

Let me back up and say that I am a man, age 57, with a music career that has had several stages.

From 1970-1972, I was a college student on a small Christian college campus that was culturally starved. I brought energy and excitement to the campus with musical groups and performances that were edgy and creative by the standards of the time, and I became convinced that music was my career path. After graduation and marriage to my college sweetheart, I embarked on a self-employed vocation of playing, writing, and singing my own songs for audiences that would have me. I made calls and met people who might be interested, and much like a roofer or a contractor, I developed a clientelle based on good work, reliability, and meeting the needs of the customer.

I gotta go now, but I want to finish this thought of how one should respond to the apparent need of those around you desiring your approval or encouragement.

Blue Believer is an album I did in 1988.

About Me

My photo
I am a person who is perceived as youthful, although I am in my late 50s. I play and sing music, and it tends to keep me in the culture, like a lot of young people do. I am a "high I" on the DISC Behavioral Test, which means I'm optimistic, enthusiastic, a team player, and I motivate others toward goals. I don't like exercise, but I have a high metabolism, so I don't tend to be overweight at this time in my life! I have recently been doing moderate exercise and physical therapy for a shoulder condition.