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Kerry Ellis & Brian May (Photo by Francyne Carr)

Kerry Ellis may not be a household name in the U.S., but she certainly is in the United Kingdom, especially among those who follow musical theater.  Ellis is an extremely popular singer and London stage actress who has starred in West End productions of My Fair Lady, We Will Rock You, Les Miserables and, currently, a revival of Oliver!  However, her most critically acclaimed performance to date has been in the role of Elphaba in both the West End and Broadway productions of Wicked.  The role of Elphaba was originated in New York and London by Idina Menzel, but Ellis took over as Elphaba in the West End production after three months when Menzel made her pre-planned departure from the show.  From June through November of 2008, Ellis played Elphaba on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre.  

Kerry Ellis has just released Anthems, her debut studio album which was produced by legendary Queen guitarist Brian May.  May saw Ellis perform in My Fair Lady and recruited her into a starring role in We Will Rock You, a musical based on Queen songs and written by Ben Elton in collaboration with May and Queen drummer Roger Taylor. 

Anthems contains a couple of songs from Wicked (“Defying Gravity” and “I’m Not That Girl”), a few Brian May/Queen compositions, and other show tunes.  Among the latter is the song “Anthem” from the mid-80s musical Chess which featured lyrics written by Tim Rice and music composed by ABBA members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.  The storyline of Chess revolves around two dueling grandmasters of chess from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the height of the Cold War.  The Soviet player sings “Anthem” at the end of Act I as he contemplates defection to the West.  The song powerfully expresses his devotion to his Russian motherland, but the message of the song should strike an emotional chord with patriots from any nation. 

Ellis’ performance of “Anthem” (click the title below to listen) highlights her clear, powerful voice and includes a classic, distinctive guitar solo from Brian May playing his famous Red Special. 

Anthem” 

No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country’s heart
They rise to fail
 

She is eternal
Long before nations’ lines were drawn
When no flags flew, when no armies stood
My land was born
 

And you ask me why I love her
Through wars, death and despair
She is the constant
We who don’t care

And you wonder will I leave her – but how?
I cross over borders but I’m still there now

How can I leave her?
Where would I start? 
Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart 
 
My land’s only borders lie around my heart 

Mom & Dad circa 1958

My mother, Shelby Jean Sheffield Pyles, passed away on Thursday, September 16.  Two hours after her death, my father suffered a heart attack and several subsequent heart stoppages.  By late afternoon, Dad was a patient in the same Coronary Care Unit where he, my sister, and I had stood at Mom’s side when she took her last breath just a few hours earlier.  On Saturday, as we were traveling from Mom’s funeral service in Alabama to the burial in Tennessee, Dad was put on a ventilator and flown to Birmingham.  He remains in CCU as of this morning.  Prayers for him are greatly appreciated. 

Dad’s absence from Mom’s funeral service was deeply felt.  But, despite our concern for him and our frayed emotions from coming dangerously close to losing both parents on the same day, the service still provided our family and friends an opportunity to come together to celebrate Mom’s life and honor her memory. 

I had the honor of speaking at Mom’s funeral and graveside service.  I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it or not, but in the moment I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and peace.  Part of what I shared at the service appears below.   

______________________________________________________________ 

Mom was born on December 15, 1936 to Charles Randol Sheffield and Lila Massey Sheffield in Hentown, Georgia.  That was the day that Elinor Sheffield got a baby sister.  

Mom graduated from Damascus High School as the Valedictorian of the Class of 1954, then left South Georgia for Montgomery to attend Alabama Christian College.  She graduated from the two-year school with an A.A. degree in 1956 and immediately went to work for the school, serving as the Secretary to the Registrar, R.A. Baker.  It was while working at Alabama Christian that she met Dad, who had moved to Montgomery to teach at Alabama Christian High School.  They were married on August 29, 1958 at the Capitol Heights Church of Christ in Montgomery.  That was the first day of a marriage that lasted over 52 years.  

I have always known that Mom and Dad loved one another deeply; you saw it in the way they took care of each other and expressed concern for one another; the way they defended one another and championed one another.  

Over the last few days we have been able to see just how deep that love was.  I was amazed and awed by how Dad talked to Mom when we would go back and see her in CCU.  She couldn’t respond or speak, but we are fairly certain she could still hear us.  Dad used such amazing, tender words of affection and devotion.  After 52 years, he was still smitten with her.  I know that Dad has only ever worshipped God, but among all beings of a lesser nature than Deity, there is no one that Dad adored as much as Mom. 

Mom had a great faith in God, a strong devotion to Jesus Christ, and a commitment to His church.  Dad commented several times over the last few days about her steadfast faith.  More than once he said, “I preached it; she lived it.” 

Mom was firm in her convictions.  I continue to grapple with some areas that seem to be varying shades of gray.  But, for Mom, it was all pretty much black and white, cut and dried.  God said it, she believed it, and that settled it. 

I remember her teaching children’s Bible classes when Karen and I were young.  One Sunday morning after Mom had led our Bible class in a prayer, I ratted on a little girl named Laura and told Mom that Laura didn’t have her eyes shut during the prayer.  Mom asked me how I knew that Laura didn’t have her eyes closed.  I didn’t rat on anyone in Bible class again.  

I remember her grading hundreds of Bible correspondence courses when she and Dad served as missionaries in Liberia, West Africa, in the early ‘70s. 

Mom was a faithful minister’s wife, missionary’s wife, and Christian Educator’s wife.  She supported Dad and encouraged him in his ministry.  She was very proud of him, as he was of her.  Whenever a new challenge or opportunity presented itself, she gladly went with Dad wherever he felt the Lord was calling him; from Montgomery to Opp to Chattanooga to Ravenna to Warrior to Greenville to Louisville to Liberia to Richmond to Lewisburg to Montgomery to Huntsville to Florence to Cullman.  

Mom was an intelligent woman.  She excelled academically in both high school and college.  But she was never content with her level of knowledge.  She continued to read voraciously throughout her adult life, not only the Bible and spiritually related materials, but in a wide variety of other fields of interest as well.  She subscribed to numerous magazines and papers and could converse intelligently about a great number of subjects. 

Even though Mom spent most of her adult life as a homemaker, like the enterprising woman of Proverbs 31 she also worked outside the home at times; at a music store and a department store, as a secretary at Eastern Kentucky University and as a dormitory supervisor at Alabama Christian.  It takes a special breed of person to be a dorm mom to a bunch of college girls. 

Mom was a great cook.  Thanksgiving was always special because of her awesome dressing and pumpkin pie.  Later years brought peanut butter pie, frozen lemon pie, “slushy stuff” in the summer time.  She made wonderful casseroles and vegetable dishes.  

Though hindered by health and mobility in recent years, in earlier times Mom greatly enjoyed gardening, canning, flowers, and fishing.  She was quite athletic as a young woman.  One day when I was five or six years old, she informed me that I was going to be disciplined for something that I had done.  We were outside in the yard at the time, and I told her very disrespectfully that she would have to catch me first in order to spank me.  She caught me before I had even completed my first lap around the house.  I remember being extremely impressed with my mother’s speed!  I was also rather sore in my backside for a while.   

Mom was an extremely practical person; she had a very no-nonsense approach to life.  She didn’t go in for pretense, pomp or circumstance; she just kept it plain and simple.  

Mom’s practicality and frugality contributed greatly to our family always being well taken care of.  Even though I understand now that she and Dad sometimes had to make do on very little, we always had what we needed, and Karen and I never felt like we went without anything.  Mom was a saver.  She knew the value of things and lived accordingly.   

Karen and I feel blessed to have had a mother who loved us.  That doesn’t mean that she always agreed with us, but she always loved us.  In turn, she came to love her son-in-law Darrel and daughter-in-law Kim; her grandchildren Carter, Derreck, Hannah, and Coleman; and her great-grandchildren Bryce, Dezi, and Will.    

Mom endured far more than her fair share of physical illnesses, struggles, and pain in life.  We are so grateful to God that all of that is now over for her. 

Thanks to all of you who have ministered to her and Dad; faithful friends, church members, and church leaders at Arley and Cullman; those who sat with Mom so that Dad could go preach; those who brought meals to them, took them to appointments, and visited them at home and in the hospital. 

Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” 

Paul was very well qualified to make this statement.  He, too, had experienced more than his share of sufferings for the cause of Christ (II Corinthians 11:23-28).  But he had also been granted a glimpse of what was waiting beyond this life. 

In II Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul describes how, fourteen years earlier, he was caught up to the third heaven, to Paradise.  He didn’t know if this was an “in-body” or “out-of-body” experience, but he was firmly convinced and convicted about what he saw and heard; inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak.  For a brief moment, the veil of this present world was pulled back so that he could see the glory that awaits the children of God. 

This is the place that Jesus called Paradise in Luke 23; the place that he referred to as Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16. 

That is where Mom’s spirit and soul have gone.  She has left behind her frail body of death.  She is in the presence of Christ the Lord (Philippians 1:23; II Corinthians 5:8), in a place of peace, comfort, and fellowship awaiting the last great day when she will be united with a new body, one that is eternal and imperishable and free from all pain, sickness, and sorrow. 

Thank you, Lord, for fulfilling your promises for one of your faithful children. 

We love you, Mom!

The ministry of John the Baptist continues to fascinate, intrigue, and inspire me.  He played such a vital role in the unfolding of God’s plan to redeem mankind from sin.  John was the Forerunner who prepared the way of the Lord, cultivating hearts and minds for the ministry and message of the Messiah.  His was the voice who cried out in the wilderness and heralded the coming of the Lamb of God.  Even though John wasn’t “the Light” (John 1:8), he was definitely “a light.”  Jesus said of him, “He was the lamp that was burning and was shining and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light,” (John 5:35).  John was a lamp in the same way that we are to be “lights” in this world (Matt. 5:14-16).  We, like John, reflect and bear witness to Jesus, the true “Light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5; 12:46).

Because of the way the Gospels summarize John’s preaching, one might get the false impression that he merely walked around and repeatedly shouted “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; sort of like the modern-day-prophet-wanna-be who stands on the urban street corner holding a sign which reads, “The end is near!”  But, John got very specific about repentance and what the call of the Kingdom meant for people’s lives.  He was a practical preacher, a relevant revealer, not just some earthy proclaimer of propositional platitudes.

Luke 3:10-14 provides a beautiful account of how John explained to his hearers the implications of repentance and how letting God’s Kingdom rule in their hearts would affect their lives and change their behavior.  “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.”  Some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”  And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.”  Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?”  And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”  It was the spiritual specificity of his message of repentance that got John into so much trouble with Herod and Herodias.

John didn’t make the message applicable to people’s lives, he simply drew their attention to just how powerfully and personally relevant it already was.  As Haddon Robinson wrote, “We don’t ‘make the Bible relevant’; we show its relevance.”  

John the Relevant; I like it!

Today’s post could be classified under the theme “Tell Me Something Good.”  I’m very sorry if you are unable to get the Rufus & Chaka Khan tune out of your head for the rest of the day.  If you don’t know the song, don’t worry about it.  It’s not that important. 

For the second year, the Broken Arrow church provided a summer program called 50 Days of Food and Fun for children in our immediate community.  The title of the program very accurately describes its scope.  It runs for 50 days during the summer months, 5 days a week for 10 weeks.  The program is divided into two major efforts, the Summer Food Service Program and the Summer Enrichment Program.  Basically, we feed children and teach children for 50 days. 

The Summer Food Service Program was established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1968 to address issues of proper nutrition for children during the months when school is not in session.  Of greatest concern were children from low-income families who received free breakfast and lunch during the school year.  How well would they eat during the summer?  That question is especially relevant for the Broken Arrow church and hits very close to home since about 65% of the students who attend the elementary school across the street from our facilities receive free or reduced cost meals at school.

During 50 Days of Food and Fun, any child age 18 or younger can come to our Outreach Center (multi-purpose building with a commercial kitchen) and receive a free, hot, nutritious breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.  Kitchen crews rotate throughout the week, and a licensed kitchen manager has to be on site at all times.  A total of 8,793 meals were served this summer!  Additionally, we partnered with the local Food Bank so that the neediest children in the program received food packages on Fridays to assist their families over the weekend.  A bonus blessing is that the cost of the food is fully reimbursed by the USDA as long as we meet their nutritional, administrative, and record-keeping requirements.  This is one area where I am definitely proud of how my tax dollars are being spent. 

What happens between breakfast and lunch?  That’s where the Summer Enrichment Program comes in.  It is open for children in Kindergarten through 5th Grade.  The children receive daily instruction in Bible, math, reading, character, and citizenship.  They have access to a wonderful children’s library and enjoy special learning activities through science, art, music, nature, and physical education.  Again, a big concern for young school children is learning loss during the summer.  On average, students lose 2.6 months of grade level equivalency skills over the summer months, along with regression in factual and procedural knowledge.  Losses are typically greater in children from low-income families who have less financial resources to take advantage of summer learning activities. 

This summer, we had 180 students from 123 different families registered in the Enrichment Program.  33 of those children attended our Vacation Bible School for the first time this year. 

In all, it took 182 volunteers from the congregation to make 50 Days a reality, including the vital efforts of Colleen Detherage (Administrator & Site Monitor), Julie Parette (Site Supervisor & Food Production Manager), and Melissa Gillin (Enrichment & Curriculum Supervisor).  We also had 16 additional volunteers from outside the church and participation from the local police and fire departments, the county library, Rhoades Elementary administrators and coaches, Shriners, and Safari’s Wildlife. 

There’s an old saying: “What a difference a day makes!”  I’m grateful that we had another chance to make a difference for 50 days; not just a difference in academics and nutrition, but the opportunity to share stories and truths from Scripture and to plant seeds of faith in young hearts and lives.    

What are you doing this Saturday?  I will probably get some yard work done.  Kim and I will gather with many others to witness and celebrate the union in marriage of our friends Matt & Abbey.  I’ll send out some birthday wishes via Facebook.  To commemorate the ninth anniversary of the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks on our nation, we will fly an American flag at our home to remember and honor the fallen and their families. 

Oh, did I mention that I won’t be burning a Quran on the patio?

You may have picked up on the media buzz over the plans of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, to observe “Burn a Koran Day” this Saturday.  News of the event has spread rapidly through the internet.  Protests among Muslims around the world have included the burning in effigy of the church’s pastor, Terry Jones.  U.S. and NATO military officials in Afghanistan have warned that the event will greatly increase the risk of violence against coalition troops in the region.  Opposition to the event has been expressed by numerous ministers, priests, and rabbis.    

As of today, Pastor Jones indicated that the church planned to proceed with the event, but the congregation and its leaders were continuing to pray about it as a result of both threats and expressions of concern.  I guess we’ll know by Saturday what they believe God wants them to do. 

The website for the ironically named Dove World Outreach Center provides a list of “Ten Reasons to Burn a Koran.”  The document appeals to Acts 19 as a Biblical precedent and rationale for Christians publicly burning demonic books.  The attempted correlation misses the mark badly.  In actuality, the text describes recent converts to Christ in Ephesus voluntarily destroying their own materials which they formerly held to be sacred; it was not an action of the established church soliciting and destroying books in a defiant display of opposition.

The way to bring the love of Christ into the lives and souls of Muslims is not through public destruction of the Quran.  God does not need a bonfire in Gainesville for the light of the Gospel to dispel the darkness and error of Islam.  Mirroring the attitudes and tactics of Islamic radicals will not convince anyone that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Should any unfortunate harm come to Jones, members of his congregation, or the church’s property, they will undoubtedly consider it to be the price of martyrdom for the cause of truth.  Violent acts of reprisal will be wrongfully rationalized by Islamists as a necessary defense of Allah and his will.  No hearts will be changed or additional souls saved; only more hatred, suffering, and death. 

Surely the Savior weeps.

“Come and listen to my story ’bout a man named Jed…”

“Here’s the story of a lovely lady…”

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”

“Green Acres is the place to be…”

There’s a better than average chance that, in addition to reading the four quotations above, you also sang them in your head.  For many of us, these words are inextricably linked to the tunes of the theme songs for The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and Green Acres.   

There was a time when the theme song served a great purpose for a television show: it provided a sweeping overview and explained the basic premise of the program.  It succinctly answered the question of the new viewer who wondered, “What’s this show all about?”  You could jump right in on Episode 6 of Season 3 and have a pretty good idea of what was going on. 

I heard a radio interview last week led by NPR reporter Neda Ulaby.  She spoke with Jeff Richmond, composer of the theme song for the NBC show 30 Rock.   They discussed the demise and decline of extended television theme songs which, like the giant panda, are an endangered species these days.  Advertisers have sought ever-increasing amounts of programming time in which to pitch their good and services.  Writers and directors want to maximize every remaining minute and second to develop and complete the arc of the storyline.  As a result, the theme song has slid way down or completely off the priority list.  Tuning in to a show for the first time can now leave you feeling rather Lost

The discussion of tv theme songs led me to wonder how visitors in our churches hear sermons and other messages.  For the unchurched, I’m sure that it can be much like watching an unfamiliar television show for the first time.  Those without a significant spiritual background or knowledge of Scripture can understandably feel lost and confused. 

Despite my best efforts, I know that I still use a lot of “insider” language in my lessons: theological terms that make perfect sense if you know The Story, but that are quite confusing or entirely meaningless if you don’t.

Preaching is always an exercise in balance on a wide variety of fronts, not the least of which is trying to meaningfully connect with the full spectrum of spiritual development among those who hear, all the way from the unchurched to longtime disciples with a need to deepen an already mature faith.  I have mostly erred in favor of meat rather than milk in an effort not to mollycoddle the immaturity of the spiritually negligent or endlessly re-pour a foundation of first principles for those who are content to hear nothing else.  In doing this, I know that I have sometimes overlooked the legitimate needs of those who would truly benefit from a periodic, wide-angle view of the Big Picture:  Who is God, what’s so great about Jesus, and what’s my life supposed to be about as a Christian?

Yesterday at the Broken Arrow church, I stepped back from two recent series on the life of David and the fruits of the Spirit to lead the congregation in one of our Christian theme songs.  The lesson was entitled “WDJD – What Did Jesus Do?”  No, I didn’t sing it, but I hope that the message provided some answers for those who may be in the early stages of their spiritual journey and wondering, “What’s this all about?”  In my overall efforts to “press on to maturity,” I hope that I never forget the value and the need for spiritual theme songs.       

Columbia, Tennessee, is noted for its annual Mule Day celebration which dates back to 1840.  Just down the road, Lewisburg has a yearly Goats, Music and More Festival (yes, those would be “fainting” goats).  Kim’s hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, draws great crowds each summer with its Slugburger Festival (no, not what you might think).  These celebrations, and hundreds like them throughout the country, are part of what makes American culture so wonderfully rich, fascinating, and diverse.  The premise is simple: bring people together around some shared interest or common cause, throw in some live music and great food (deep-frying is almost always involved), and you’ve got the makings of a great time and a significant boost to the local economy.

So, with that as a background, you’ll understand why my curiosity was more than just a little piqued last Wednesday as I drove through Olney, Texas, on my way to Abilene where I was scheduled to preach that evening.  Interstate 44 had taken me from Tulsa as far as Wichita Falls, but the rest of the journey would be on rural highways through several small towns.  The welcome sign on the outskirts of Olney (population 3,236) instantly caught my attention as it touted the city as the Home of the One Arm Dove Hunt.  I thought, “There has got to be a story there!”  That night at the hotel, a brief search on the internet (thanks, Al!) led me to the information I was looking for.

The 39th Annual One Arm Dove Hunt will be hosted in Olney next Friday and Saturday.  The event started in 1972 and grew out of a joking conversation between two locals known as the One-Armed Jacks, Jack Northrup and Jack Bishop, each of whom had an arm amputated at the shoulder.  You can read more details in an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2006, but the event has grown into quite a gathering for those who have lost a hand or arm in an accident, through disease, or who were born without a limb.  While there is a real dove hunt, there is also a wide variety of other participatory events: a golf tournament, horseshoe competition, skeet shoot, and a Cow Chip Chunk’n.  Participants begin their day with a breakfast that costs 10-cents-a-finger!

Beyond the initial novelty that earned the One Arm Dove Hunt the title of “Texas’ Most Unusual Event,” it has grown and developed into a deeply meaningful support network for people who share common experiences and challenges in daily life.  The website quotes C. Rodney James as commenting, “The amputees in attendance find the two-day event not only a source of psychological support but an invaluable opportunity to exchange information, ideas and technology – all in a relaxed atmosphere of fun and fellowship each shooting for a better tomorrow.”  New amputees, along with their family members, find a place where people really understand what they are going through and can support and encourage one another.

I couldn’t help but see the spiritual parallels that should characterize our relationships in the church.     

Thanks, One Arm Dove Hunt organizers and City of Olney, for what you do.  Wish I could be there next weekend to see it for myself!

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