More than once on this blog, I’ve given written attention to a man admired by many:  my Granddaddy Ritchie.  His character, leadership, and personal influence are still remembered well by many around the country.  He was a persistent advocate for quality and depth in both words and music during congregational assemblies.  Here is a pic of Granddaddy in his prime, leading worship during Harding’s chapel in the 1950s.


A year before he died, the extended family had gathered for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary, and I’d been honored with the opportunity to arrange a medley of some the songs Granddaddy performed in recital (and also in the home for his grandchildren on occasion).  Last week, I unearthed the pencil/pen score and parts, produced long before music software was available.  The medley, scored for four of us cousins to play on brass instruments, included excerpts from about a dozen songs, including “None but the Lonely Heart,” “Loch Lomond,” Little Boy Blue,” “The Big Bass Viol,” “Three for Jack,” and  “Ol’ Man River,” a selection for which Granddaddy is remembered.

This day would have been his 111th birthday, and I think I might just dig up a cassette tape of that brass quartet to mark the day.  My prayer-song Lord, I Want To See, was later written in Granddaddy’s memory.

On other April 25ths during the past few years, I’ve also mentioned him, most notably in the postcript to this heavy post #1000 on exegesis of John 9, but also here, in November of 2018, just after he’d been honored by Harding University through an endowed chair.  Although he had directed Harding’s chorus for a time, from what I’ve gathered, he was perhaps even better regarded for leading the Monday evening “PE” (Personal Evangelism) meetings and for leading evangelistic campaigns during college breaks.  In his efforts to lead souls toward Jesus, and to encourage others to do the same, songs and poetry played a role.  My uncle Ed (the second of four children) wrote a fine hymn, later published in the widely used hymnal Praise for the Lord.  Here is a recording of my extended family singing it (stanzas 1 and 4 here; opens in a new tab) in 1992.  The final stanza is a prayer Granddaddy used often:

Lord, lay some soul upon my heart, and love that soul through me,
And help me nobly do my part to win that soul for Thee.

Sears, Sommerism, and Selection

I have more than one book from my Ritchie grandparents’ library.  One of them is the autobiography of L.C. Sears (later the dean at Harding College).  I inherited this particular book, I think, because the children wanted each grandchild to have at least one book.

My general impressions of “Dean Sears” are scant, but here they are:   1) although in his 90s, he is the one I think I remember walking around the Harding campus while I was a student, 2) I think he was well respected and liked as a gentleman, as a leader, and as a Christian, and 3) #2 must be somewhat true, because a Harding dorm was named after him.  Since I was interested in knowing more about this man who was a major player in Harding’s early and middle years, I read on.

Here is a passage from the early childhood section of the autobiography:

We attended church regularly every Sunday at Odon, but I noticed that wpid-img_20150520_112801_637.jpgmy father and mother were beginning to worry.  There was a lot of talking after church while we children waited impatiently to go home.  I saw some people crying.  I finally learned that some in the church wanted to buy an organ and play it as we sang.  This was the new development which was becoming quite fashionable among the churches.  My father and a number of others, however, protested that the early church never used any musical instruments, and that the apostles urged us only to sing.  In spite of their objections, however, one Sunday the organ was there.  My father and a number of others talked together, and the next Sunday we had a meeting in our home.  Then my father closed the country store and with the help of others turned it into a church building.

– L.C. Sears, What Is Your Life? An Autobiography, p. 15

On the succeeding page, Sears describes, with no detectable emotional charge, the influence of Daniel and Austin Sommer on this new, split-off church in Baille, IN.  Now, some have used the label “Sommerism” to describe divisiveness (in some cases, harsh-spirited rancor) founded on what I take as sincere but overwrought convictions — notably, those scruples related to mechanical instruments, and particularly around 1900.

If I had lived in the time of Sears’s youth, I imagine I would have been in the non-organ faction¹ by birth.  I dearly hope, though, that I would have been less dogmatically exclusive and more irenic than RM non-instrumentalists tend to be.

Having known of places in which I felt the hyper-pejorative label “inbred” was not too strong a descriptor, I found curious these lines from the chapter on the 1940-1955 era:

By “selective” inbreeding, however, we could draw as many teachers as possible from our other Christian colleges and then choose, as we had been doing, from our own graduates those who would add greatest strength to our institution.  They would be as competent as any we could find elsewhere, and because they knew and loved the school they would be more willing to accept the salaries we could offer.  (p. 148)

There is something to be said for a sacrificial mode of operation.  It certainly breeds loyalty, if the town or institution or business survives.  In the midst of the lean times, though, morale can be dismal.  I would speculate that the above-mentioned method of cherry-picking CofCers to be faculty members would be frowned on by 21st-century regulators and accreditors.  That doesn’t mean such inbreeding doesn’t exist today; it only means folks aren’t likely to be as transparent about it as Sears was.

Sears had the rare, unenviable position of being involved in college administration through both the first and second World Wars, not to mention the early operation of the Selective Service.  I was impressed with his even-handed mentions of both a) those who served in the military and b) those who were conscientious objectors on some level.  One conscience-driven man — Ben Randolph, who was Sears’s roommate — was put in jail for a period of years for refusing to accept a non-combatant position.  As a dean, Sears was called on to advocate the interests and consciences of young men on both sides of the complicated, charged questions of military service; he seems to have communicated with non-preferential, dignified treatment of all.

As I made my way through the book, I found confirmed my general impressions that L.C. “Cline” Sears was a man worthy of emulation.  He happened to have married into influence — becoming the son-in-law of J.N. Armstrong, who was, by most accounts, the first president of Harding.  Armstrong, in turn, was son-in-law to James A. Harding, who had been a student under Alexander Campbell at Bethany College, and who was key in the beginnings of both David Lipscomb College and Harding College.

My father was unaware, or had forgotten, that his own letter was quoted by Sears among notes received at the dean’s retirement.  I’ll close this brief look with my father’s words from his student days in 1960:

There couldn’t be a more humble man than you.  Thank you for two wonderful classroom experiences. . . .  You are one of the real leaders at Harding. . . .  – Gerald W. Casey (p. 169)


¹ Frankly, I am in the non-organ faction today, but for different reasons:  I simply don’t like most of the (overwhelming) sounds that instrument makes, and I am disturbed by the inhibition of congregational participation.

Worship in the 80s — Part 3

80sIn the 80s, when I was at Harding University, one of the more consistently rich spiritual experiences I had was in the Harding A Cappella Chorus, then directed and conducted by the late Kenneth Davis, Jr.

Besides Grechaninov, Grieg and Give Me Jesus (all mountaintop memories for me), one of the shared experiences was a “Life of Christ” hymn/song/scripture program we frequently performed for churches on tour.  There was a sequence used for many years, with only the reader-reciters of scripture verses changed from year to year.  Then an alternate sequence came along, using many different scripture passages and songs.  The second program wasn’t quite as popular with the students, but it was just as well conceived.  I recall both these programs as generally eagerly anticipated by chorus members, richly meaningful for all, and well received by church audiences.  Here is the first of the two programs:

Tell Me the Story of Jesus, st. 1
Isaiah 9:6,7
Matt 2:1-2, 10-11
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Psalm 96:11-13
Joy to the World
Tell Me the Story of Jesus, st. 2
Matt. 4:1,10,11,13
Yield Not to Temptation
Mark 1:32,34
At Even, When the Sun Was Set
Luke 15:11-15, 17-20
Love for All
God Is Calling the Prodigal
Tell Me the Story of Jesus, st. 3
Matt. 26:36-41
When My Love to Christ Grows Weak
I Stand Amazed, st. 4 (“He Took My Sins and My Sorrows'”)
John 19:1-6a
O Sacred head
Matt. 27:46,50
When I Survey
Matt. 28:5-6
Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today
Matt. 11:28-30
Softly and Tenderly
Rev. 19:6,16
Hallelujah Chorus

I don’t know that any of us ever analyzed the content of this (birth, temptation, invitation to “prodigals,” death, resurrection, preparing for second coming).  I don’t suppose this program was completely balanced, but it was meaningful, and I’m here to tell you that we worshipped as we sang some of those songs, and as we recalled those events in the life of our Lord.


As I scan the list of scripture-reciting names on this old sheet of paper, I note, with no surprise, that there are only male names printed.  That is because tradition dictated that it was inappropriate to use women in that capacity in most/all of the church buildings in which we sang.

I also note with great interest that, of the 25 male names, I know something about most of them still today.  I don’t know where Eugene is, but he was headed into med. school.  Ed is in Richmond, Ron is in San Antonio, Mike and Glenn and Jim Bob and Tom and Larry and John are in Arkansas.  I don’t know about John or another Brian or Dan or Matt or Vance, but I know Tim moved from Nashville to Rochester, and Steve and Kirk are in Missouri, another Glenn is in OK, and Marvin is in Indiana.  At least two of the men whose names appear on this list have lost their faith, but most seem committed still.  One of these guys has died.  About half of the them are FB friends, so I hear bits every now & then but only keep up with a few of them.

Worship in the 80s — Part 2

80sIn the 80s, when I was at Harding University, I had the honor of holding some sort of office in the Band.  I forget what I was — probably simply Devotional Coordinator.

When we went on tour in March, we were to share in daily, morning devotional times, so there was some discussion about how those would go.  I still remember one friend’s sincere response to my wanting more structure:  “Oh, so you mean, like, ‘you take faith, you take hope, and you take love,'” he said, pointing successively at the guys in the room.  No, I meant a bit more than that.  I wanted to focus on God more.

I organized the week’s morning times according to the following schedule and distributed it to all who wanted to take part:

Day 1:  God’s People
Day 2:  God’s Absolute Goodness and Holiness
Day 3:  God’s Faithfulness and Care
Day 4:  God’s Strength, Power and Action
Day 5:  God’s Giving and Gifts
Day 6:  God’s Son

To try to be helpful and aid in understanding, I appended sample songs and scriptures people might use in order to plan the devotional times.

Today, I’m sorely disappointed by my isolated scripture “verses,” intended to support the concepts for each day.  Romans 12:1 for Day 2?  Well, yeah, “God’s mercies” could somehow be related to His goodness and holiness, but what about Romans chapters 7 through 11?  1Cor 10:13 for His “faithfulness”?  That “verse” became little more than an inkblot on my typed-out sheet.  “I could go on with my appalling lack of contextual awareness.”  Ps. 46 is a bit more appropriate for God’s strength and power, since it’s a) poetry and b) a reference to the complete Psalm, not just a “verse” within it.

Although my suggestions for appeal to scripture would be far different today, I would still use some of the very same songs.  For example,

God’s People (1):  The Church’s One Foundation; I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord
God’s Care (3):  Unto the Hills; Master, the Tempest; The Lord My Shepherd Is
God’s Giving (5):  God Is the Fountain Whence Ten Thousand Blessings Flow
God’s Son (6):  Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts; I Know that My Redeemer Lives

Back then, in the use of those songs, we were as sincere as anyone is today when he sings “How Great Is Our God” or “10,000 Reasons” or “Shout to the Lord” or “We Shall Assemble.”  I would add some new songs too the mix these days, but they would by no means all be “contemporary.”

We all — me included — ought to think about such things as God-oriented devotional themes and thoughts more than we do.


Having had the opportunity to be on the campus of Harding University recently, we wandered through the American Heritage Building.  In the hallway that funnels visitors in from Market Street, some pictures display life at Harding through the decades.  The pictures are great!  Who wouldn’t  want to go to Harding if life is like that?

Among the shots are a few from more distant past, including this one:


This is what it looked like back in the late 40s and 50s when college students at Harding worshipped together in “chapel.”  The leader happens to be my granddaddy, who influenced a lot of people in ways of worship in those days.  Look at the eyes of the people.  If you scanned closely enough, you might detect that a few were looking at the photographer and trying to appear more engaged than they were, but by and large, they are participating, being led, worshipping. . . .

When was the last time you knew of that much engagement and involvement in a single church assembly where you are?

The contemporary church creates spectators, and the traditional liturgical churches, bystanders.

– John Throop, The Clergy Journal, 1996

Nevermind, for the moment, that the above scene doesn’t neatly fit in either of Stroop’s categories.  The generalities stand:  we see an awful lot of un-involved gazing and gawking in contemporary churches; and in most “high church” groups, a different type kind of un-involvement.

You can say it’s the responsibility of the individual to “give,” to “be involved,” to worship . . . no matter what.  And you’ll be right.

You can also say it’s the responsibility of the church leaders to make the assemblies more like the one above.  And you’ll still be right.

Memories of Segregation/Oppression of Blacks (1)

On the heels of this year’s M.L. King Day, and as we come into what is known as Black History Month, it seems a good time to speak of race relations.  A few months ago, when I wrote about relatively minor, conflicted feelings related to race (here and here), Sally Clark, a dear family friend, responded.  Since she had some very rich experiences through the years, I invited her to write a guest post.  This is the first of her reflections, and I look forward to sharing another of her mini-memoirs in the future.


Memories of Segregation/Oppression of Blacks

Guest post by Sally Clark

As I was growing up in Oklahoma City in the 40s and 50s, my world was totally white. Everything was segregated: schools, neighborhoods, churches, colleges, friendships, busses, water fountains, movie theaters, swimming pools, restaurants, bathrooms, marriages, etc.  It didn’t dawn on me until I was a teenager that things should not be that way.  I’m not sure exactly when it hit me. I do remember a chorus from Southwestern Christian College (a black college in Terrell, TX) coming to perform in a park for our congregation.  (I think the performance was probably held in a park because blacks were not allowed in our church building, but I’m not sure of this).  As I sat there listening to the wonderful voices, it hit me that “they” were people just like us….but NEVER would we “mix.”

I can remember riding the city bus and seeing the sign, “Rear seats for colored.”  It might be very crowded at the back, and there might be empty seats in the front, but the blacks did not dare sit down in the front.  They stood crowded into the small space at the back … and if the bus was very crowded with whites, the whites could even take the seats reserved for blacks.  When we went to public places, there would be two water fountains; one said “white,” and the other said “colored.”  Mother and Daddy used the word “nigger” in reference to blacks.  When they were being “polite,” they used the word “nigra.”  Over the years I really hated this; I couldn’t stand to hear them say these words.  But in even later years, I had to realize that that is the way they were brought up. They did not hate blacks; they just thought black and white were two different worlds.  They were good to the people who worked for them, but still considered them inferior.  One story that I heard about Daddy, I did not learn until after he died. In the early 1950s (long before the days of fast-food), people might eat out at a nice restaurant (I can’t recall that we ever did; we just didn’t eat out!) or in a cafe. Daddy was a contractor, and his best worker was a black man named Henry Dorsey.  One day at noon, they decided to go to a cafe.  When they entered, the owner said to Daddy, “You can come in, but that nigger boy [he was not a boy; he was at least 40 years old!] has to go around to the back door.”  Daddy said, “If you don’t serve my friend, you don’t serve me!” and walked out!  I was so proud of him when I heard that story. (I wish I had known it while he was still alive.)

1954 (the year that I started college) was a very important year regarding segregation.  That fall, it became the law that public schools must be integrated.  There were all sorts of protests and violence during this time.  Whites did not want their world “polluted” by blacks.  They especially did not want their neighborhoods to be invaded by blacks.  And the worst thing of all was the idea of racial intermarriage.  It was just unthinkable.  (It was actually illegal in most states!) There were protest marches, killings, bombings, etc., by people who did not want “race mixing.”  Harding College was totally white, of course, and this didn’t seem right to several of us “socially aware” students.  I remember (probably my junior year, when the Little Rock schools were integrated with much protest and violence!) that the Student Council president, Bill Floyd, wrote up a petition, which was very mild; it said something like, “We the undersigned wish to let it be known that IF someday in the distant future Harding decides to integrate, we will be in favor of it.”  Pretty mild.  As I recall, something like 80% of the students AND faculty signed it.  Well, the Harding president, Dr. George Benson, didn’t like this at all.  When he heard about the petition, he got up in chapel and made his famous “black birds, blue birds” speech.  He said that Harding would NEVER be integrated; it just wasn’t expedient, and it wasn’t natural to have races mix.  He said, “Just look at nature.  Even the blue birds stay with blue birds, and black birds stay with black birds.”  It was several years later that it became “expedient” to admit blacks, but for many years, there were still rules against interracial dating.

In 1964 when I was on my way to Miami to get a plane to Peru, my friends Jeanette Read, Gloria Shewmaker, and Eunice Shewmaker were with me as we drove along through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia (from Texas, where we had all gotten together).  We were in a car with NJ license plates (since that is where we were all teaching at the time), and we were sort of scared.  It was very dangerous for “outside agitators” (people who came down south from the north to help with civil rights, helping blacks register to vote, etc.).  Just a few days before we drove through Mississippi, there had been a murder of three northerners—Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodwin (I think those were the names)—who had come down to help.  When we entered our motel room that night, we wondered if the car would be vandalized—or worse—while we were sleeping.  Nothing happened to us, but we were glad to get away from there.

I remember a “bus incident.”  It was probably in 1956 shortly after Rosa Parks (black maid) was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus.  (She was arrested in 1955, and bus segregation became illegal in 1956.)  It was after working at Rothschild’s one day, and I went out to catch the bus home.   It was VERY crowded with lots of whites standing.  There was one empty seat; it was on the aisle next to a black woman sitting in the window seat.  NO ONE (white) would sit by her … but I did!  As I sat down, everyone was staring at me, and giving me the “hate stare.” A favorite expression to describe people who did what I did was “Nigger lover”… and I’m sure that that is what the people were thinking.

As the years went by, I became more and more interested in equality and saw the total ignorance of people who thought that whites were superior to blacks.   A book which made a HUGE impact on me was Black like Me by John Howard Griffin.  The book was published in 1961, two years after he learned what it was like to be black.  John Howard Griffin was a white Texan reporter, who in 1959 took some capsules (prescribed by a dermatologist), exposed himself to ultraviolet light under a sunlamp, and stained his skin to make himself appear darker.  In this condition, he traveled in the Deep South and “passed” as black for a month, experiencing what it was like to be perceived and treated as a black.   It was just unbelievable!   It really opened my eyes.  So many things were horrible for him—for just one month—and I could only imagine how it would be to live that like all the time.   As I write this, it makes me want to read the book again; I just went to my bookcase to get it out, but it’s not there; I guess I gave it to someone.

Many more things happened in my life as I got more personally involved in interracial life, but I’ll tell more about that when I write about interracial adoption.

To be continued . . .


Special note:  since Ms. Clark authored this mini-memoir, a widely publicized article was posted by an Arkansas journalist.  For this even more informative (although less personal) treatment of the same topic, click here.

These articles may also be of interest:

USA Today article on the healing of racial divides in the Church of Christ

Feature blog on two men in the center of black-white integration at Abilene Christian University

Full-length article on the above men (move to p. 51)

Twila over Paul

She’s still meaningful and trustworthy — and I doubt she was ever “crazy” — after all these years.

Funny story:  I know a couple of guys who were in a singing group, at an Arkansas Christian university, when Twila Paris, then unknown, presented a few of her songs to them.  As I heard it, the group laughed behind her back when she left, thinking she would come to nothing.  Later, many of her songs, such as “We Shall Assemble” and “How Beautiful” and “He Is Exalted” and “We Will Glorify,” became widely known and loved by believers of many stripes.  Twila isn’t the kind to enjoy a last laugh, but she deserves to have had it!

Like way too many other Christian believers, Twila Paris recently expressed overwrought, ramped-up concerns over temporal politics, but she is as sincere as the day is long, her character is un-impugned to my knowledege, and her songs point us Godward.

I happened on an old cassette a couple weeks ago — Twila’s Sanctuary album.  I put it on.  Now, call me a trained musician, and you’ll be right.  I was still bothered by her huffy-puffy, gasping, uninflected, monotonous vocal non-style … but I was just as impressed as ever by her sincerity and trustworthiness.  Would that more Christian “artists” today could write and sing such things, remaining with us for decades.

I wish we all and could live lives consistent with our worship yearnings.  “After all these years,” some may be “still crazy,” but it’s far better to be still worthy.

Slogans in context

My undergraduate institution, Harding University, toward which I still feel some fondness and loyalty, once used this slogan on its advertising materials:

Educating for Eternity

I think this slogan was coined before the days of so-called “public relations.”  Perhaps those more skilled in advertising would have nixed this idea because of its double meaning.  Sure enough, some rogue-comedian student wrote something in the student newspaper about the 5th- and 6th-year seniors who were engaged in an apparently eternal education process.  The parents who were footing the bill probably weren’t amused at the double entendre.  🙂

In the context of the Church of Christ of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, though, that slogan was an apt one.  Most of Harding’s constituencies, I’m convinced, would have latched onto the idea of “educating for eternity” fairly easily.  The slogan wouldn’t have drawn many outsiders, but it wasn’t supposed to.  Subsequently, though, Harding “progressed” and began to revision itself, for better or worse, as the “Harvard of the South.”  The constituencies were broader and more numerous; the context for the slogan therefore changed, and eventually, so did the slogan.

Here’s another Harding slogan.  I’m pretty sure this one had its origin in the servant heart of one very likeable, charismatic (in the non-miraculous sense), little, white-haired, charming man.  It’s so simple that it’s almost timeless, context-less.  But the logo aspect appears passe, doesn’t it?

[Aside:  I don’t recall if any of the graduate institutions I attended for one or more courses had slogans per se.  No matter what the marketers think, for all their well-intentioned work, those costly wordings and images don’t stick with some of us.]

~ ~ ~

The institution at which I now teach, Houghton College, had this slogan emblazoned on its fleet vehicles and letterhead when I arrived five years ago.

A Higher Purpose in Mind

I kind of liked that one.  But when it went the way of the mammoth and mastodon, I realized that it, too, was a slogan that had outlived its contemporary context.  Actually, it was probably ill-advised at the outset, not unlike “Educating for Eternity.”  Yes, I get “higher purpose,” and the inclusion of the mind is clever for a higher-ed institution, and especially one that has way-above-average aggregate SAT scores.  But … imagine the constituent of another “Christian institution”¹ as the Houghton van passes by.  “Hmm.  We are trying to be Christian, too.  Do they think they’re better than we are?”  Or, worse, imagine the basic, secular person who might have heard of Houghton but who knows nothing about it.  The phrasing “Higher Purpose” might have sounded differently cocky and/or out of touch.

~ ~ ~

Postcript   These educational institutions’ slogans bring to mind that education occurs regardless of marketing.  Personally, I’m learning some tough lessons recently, and I’m not learning them very easily or willingly.  I’m also learning biblical Greek in a much more intentional way than ever before.  What are you learning these days?


¹ Strong, well-founded feelings of lots of Christian college teachers and administrators to the contrary, I’ve been unconvinced for more than 20 years that the “Christian institution” notion is one grounded in reality.  The people are generally much more than nominally Christian:  most at Harding and Houghton, for instance, are more serious than the average bear about their Christianity.  It’s that the organizational workings of an institution are so often at odds with the needs of individual Christian disciples, and a world apart from the priorities of the Kingdom of God.

Leading singing in Searcy (3 of 3: College Church)

[continued from here]

III.       At the College Church

The College Church of Christ is an iconic CofC that isn’t necessarily the oldest in town but is the largest and has been the most influential over the long haul.  Since I didn’t jump on the College Church bandwagon while a student and take the convenient route to the church that was closest to campus, I was never a privileged student leader there.

Once, many years later, a couple months before a visit to Searcy, I wrote to an old college friend, who was then involved in worship planning, to see if there might be a Sunday night I could lead at the College Church.  I didn’t hear from him at all; instead, I got a “blind” note from … wait for it … the preacher (aarrgghh).  I hadn’t addressed the preacher (whose name I didn’t know at the time), he had no relationship with me, and he didn’t even tell me what his official capacity was when he wrote me tersely to say “thanks, but no thanks.”  As I discovered later, the College Church’s refusal to admit me (on a one-time basis) to their sacred ranks all went to a relational issue that was obsolete and mostly, if not completely, in the minds of a few.  I get a little upset when I think about this still, even though it occurred more than two years ago.  I wish, frankly, that I hadn’t cared, but there was something about the experience of leading at this church, and the history of relationships there, that made me care.

Now, back to our unscheduled program.  Back in the day, the College Church was famous for having only-professional-quality song leaders.  Not a first-string and second-string group, but an only-string group.  High levels of proficiency and “professionalism” (although that term wasn’t as common back in the day) were expected.  Only two or three music professors — and two or three others who could have been music professors — were “allowed” to lead.  I don’t believe this amounted to a draconian ousting of the inept.  Back then, people weren’t as likely to be offended at not being included; it was simply the way it was.  Quality was expected, and the regular rotation selected quality material for worship and led in a generally well-above-average way.  All but one of these men I remember as the “A” list have moved into the land of the eternally living now.


Don’t let the modern logo fool you; the College Church strikes one as relatively conservative in structure and practice.  It possesses a powerful legacy — and perches high atop a pedestal in the eyes of many, including a fair number of its own congregants.  I don’t think I ever personally idolized the College Church; yet, deep within, there was for a long time a faint, but persistent, yearning to be included as a leader there.  Even one appointment would be sufficient.  I wanted to be able to say that, once in my life, that I was one of the few, the gifted, the chosen … that I had been presented with the opportunity to do what only a relatively small number of leaders had done:  leading singing at the College Church in Searcy, Arkansas.  This was the town that produced, through its College-turned-University, what were considered by many to be the finest a cappella choruses known in our fellowship of churches.  This was the small town that had four fairly large churches of our stripe, and lots of capable student and faculty leaders (all “laity,” mind you).  And in this town, College Church was king of kings.

One time, a couple of years ago, I sort of slipped in and led at the College Church — by quasi-approval, during a free-for-all singfest in which multiple leaders were leading two songs each.  The opportunity presented itself, and I took it, and now, I don’t ever need to lead at College again.  I’m persuaded now that I do more effective work in other scenaria, and I’m happy to do things I think are more important in the Kingdom than to lead singing at a place where there is such an auspicious history of song leaders, and where the congregation is so large that actual leading and following are not options, in any real sense.


Leading singing in Searcy was an important part of my earlier Christ-ian history, and the experiences were positively formative for me.  These days, I continue to treasure opportunities to do such leading; this particular species of opportunity now comes every few weeks in Rochester, New York.  There, our Lawson Road Church is a rare one in which depth of content is valued above style, speed, and glitz — and in which a nicely disproportionately large number of mature believers have leadership qualities and inclinations that are well suited to worship in the assembly.  Yet I am convinced that with current developments in Christian music and church-growth thinking, congregational singing is deteriorating.

Never will congregational singing be the same, yet other aspects of church are being bolstered.  It’s no case of “easy come, easy go” for me:  worship and a mutual sense of what we’re gathered for are a high priority.  Although I was for years a champion of “contemporary music” in my congregation–using overhead transparencies before PowerPoint and projectors were affordable, editing and compiling two hymnal supplements, and leading with the teenagers — I am no longer as concerned with contemporaneity in worship content.  It is, in the final analysis, all about content.  Who are we to say that Matt Redman and Casting Crowns and the erstwhile favorite Twila Paris are more soul-enriched than Charles Wesley, L.O. Sanderson, William Cowper, Clement of Alexandria, and even Fanny Crosby?  Content is content, and style is style.

As strong congregational singing declines, I am wistful and more than a trifle sad.  But I am saddened less now than I was when I first began to perceive and comment on this decline.  Maybe it’s creeping apathy in that causes my sadness to be less painful.  Or maybe it’s that I am finding other ways to serve in the Kingdom.  May God keep me from apathy and move me more into valuable service, wherever I am.  No matter whether worship and congregational song leading in a decade looks anything like it did in the 50s, 80s, or 90s, the Kingdom of God is forever.

Leading singing in Searcy (2 of 3: West Side)

[continued from here]

II.        At West Side

Again, as with my Harding University-related leading opportunities, my family reputation preceded me:  as a 17-to-20-year-old, I was pleased to be entrusted with regular leading responsibilities at the church I attended — the West Side Church.  I rode a bus there, since it was about two miles away.  One of the elders—a dear professor named Baggett, for whom my parents had sung when he directed the Christian academy chorus, and a man my other grandparents counted as a friend—put me in front of the church about once a month for the three and a half years I was in college.

I don’t remember the weekly planning process, but I don’t think there was anything submitted in advance for a bulletin or “worship program.”  I don’t believe anything was coordinated with the preacher or other leaders.  I would simply choose songs from the hymnal, a copy of which I owned, and then I showed up to lead.  There were no “contemporary music” options available at that time, but I would have led a balance of songs that ranged mostly from 50-250 years old (plus one from the 3rd century) from the hymnal, and would have chosen appropriate songs and stanzas well in advance.  Thinking things through is always good.

Although I have few specific memories, I can guarantee you that there was bona fide worship content when I led.  I had been taught well by my grandfather, father, and others.  Songs like “Lord of All Being, Throned Afar” and “Day Is Dying in the West” and “Father and Friend, Thy Light, Thy Love” would have been likely choices for me during this period (and beyond!).  I believe that much worship occurred during such times, no matter whether I was leading or someone else, as in certain churches today that think they’re worshipping more, and better.

Despite my youth, I put relatively mature thought into leading and did some good things.  Since I had some prior experience leading in my home church, at youth events, and at camp before coming to college in Searcy, I was accustomed to conventions such as writing out lists of song numbers, inserting prayers and readings at the “right” spots with other men’s names filled in (often, at the last minute when brother so-and-so didn’t show up to fill his assignment), announcing song numbers twice in two forms (“four hundred fifty six . . . four-five-six” [to make sure someone didn’t accidentally turn to 466), and holding up fingers to indicate stanza numbers.

Since leading at the West Side Church was a regular thing for me throughout my undergraduate college “career,” I probably owe Eddie Baggett (the elder, professor, and family friend) a lot more than I’ve realized for giving me the opportunity to develop as a leader at this important time of life.  He and his wife are now in their upper 80s, and we had a nice visit with them a few weeks ago in their home.

To be continued . . . 

Leading singing in Searcy (1 of 3: Harding)

This mini-memoir is about my song leading experiences in Searcy, Arkansas—a little town in which I’ve spent, in toto, about 4.5 years of my life.  Searcy (pronounced “SUR-see”) is one of the beloved homes of colleges affiliated with my church “fellowship.”[1]  Although Searcy is just one college town, and although it is probably no more representative of Church of Christ experience than others, it is the town I know, and I figure it’s beneficial to think about where I’ve come from.

Searcy has pretty much always been a town where it’s not only safe, but quite comfortable, to be a Christ-ian.  A quick glance at its daily newspaper’s website shows not only the Christian influence, but something of the place of Harding University in the community.

Aside:  and what about other CofC college towns?  I’ve only spent about 8-10 waking hours of my life in Abilene (ACU)–an ugly town with a more open breed of university and a somewhat more progressive church climate–and no more in Henderson, TN (FHU).  Have been in Oklahoma City (OU) and Vienna, WV (OVU) a bit longer but still have no real basis for comment there.  Absolutely no sense at all of Lubbock (LCU) or Kissimmee (FCC).  I have a fairly decent handle on Nashville (DLU), but that city is in a class all its own, since it is Jerusalem for CofCers and spawned such relatively avant garde efforts as are found within Woodmont Hills and Brentwood and Otter Creek and Zoe.  In Searcy, a true CCCCS (Church of Christ College City-State) — for me, at least — stuff including the leading of congregational singing is more analyzable, memorable … and, well … iconic.

It bears mention here that my maternal grandfather, Andy T. Ritchie Jr., was for years a well-known, much-loved-and-respected leader of worship in congregational singing.  He sometimes traveled far by train and car to lead worship as others preached, and to preach himself.  He was a cross between George Beverly Shea and Billy Graham — in our milieu, which is of a much smaller scale.  I genuinely feel blessed to have experienced Granddaddy’s leading on several occasions — both in my home church in Delaware and in Searcy.  He was known for his strong voice, his eventual blindness due to detached retinas, his expressive leading well into his 60s, and his personal, persistent communion with God.  If I have one-quarter of the relationship with God that Granddaddy seems to have had, I’ll be well off.

Whatever your precise background, your connection with Church of Christ college towns, and your inclination or disinclination toward the CofC or congregational worship of times past, my hope is that a few dozen of you will find this more interesting and constructive than old “home movies.”

I.          In Harding University’s Chapel Assembly

During my college years, I was privileged to lead congregational singing about once a semester in Harding University’s chapel.  The first time I led there was during my freshman year.  Know first that all congregational singing was sans instruments (which, incidentally, isn’t exactly the meaning of “a cappella”).  No special choir was involved.  Yet University choral director Uncle Bud (Dr. Kenneth Davis, Jr.) was responsible for lining up the song leaders, and he knew my strong family background in congregational singing, so he put me up there in chapel fairly early—during my first fall semester, I’m pretty sure.  Although one faculty member had been ridonculously spacey in front of the chapel audience of 2,800—actually forgetting which hymnal was used in chapel and calling out song numbers from a different hymnal—I made no such mistakes and was “successful.”  I remember overhearing, after I had led, that some upperclassman music folks were envious that I hadn’t made a mistake in chapel.

Big deal.  No mistakes of the technical variety.  I’m afraid that that’s kinda how I’m remembered as a Harding student.  I was so associated with technical correctitude — perhaps extended to a perceived lack of ability to relate to the common person? — that I wasn’t elected president of a music ensemble.  I understand now:  no one wants to have correctness inflicted on him at every turn, and although I was respected, I wasn’t loved by the masses.

I have no memory of what specific songs I led that day in chapel, or whether I was really leading or just beating time and getting the right pitch and not fouling up the words.  This memory of chapel song leading is not all that strong, I’m afraid.  It was just a given — a male with musical proficiency and the spiritual desire to lead the student body and faculty could do so, about once a semester.

Coda:  On Tour

A brief tag-on to the above:  I remember that Uncle Bud would have opportunity on a few occasions to select a student or two to lead singing wherever the chorus found itself on Sunday mornings while we were on tour.  I was honored to be one of these guys on a few occasions.  Again, no specific memories, but I’m glad to have had such opportunities to lead and to observe as the chorus traveled parts of the country.  This kind of experience could only have strengthened and broadened me as a person and as a leader.

To be continued …

[1] In the CofC, “fellowship” is the inoffensive way to say “denomination.”

Mountaintops (2)

The surprisingly elusive messages of Amy Grant and Gary Chapman’s old song “Mountain Top” come into my consciousness every few months.  Here are some of the words:

I love to sing and I love to pray
I worship the Lord most every day
I go to the temple and I just want to stay
To hide from the hustle of the world and its ways

I love to live on a mountain top
And be fellowshippin’ with the Lord
Love to stand on a mountain top
Because I love to feel my spirit soar
But I must come down from that mountain top
To the people in the valley below
They’ll never know that they can go
To the mountain of the Lord

Do these words encourage or discourage “mountaintop” experiences?  Does the song say “yay, mountaintops! go for them!” or “put the ‘mountaintops’ in perspective”?  I’m not sure I can tell, based on the last two lines.  The song’s musical style is kinda calypso-ish and fun, but its message confuses me.

Recently, I heard a sister affirm those around us who seem to live on these spiritual mountaintops.  She was gracious and genuine in the affirmation, but I couldn’t help but think, “I really don’t resonate with those mountain-people’s words very often.”  People who walk about saying, “Oh, the Lord’s been teaching me so much this week!” and “God is good—all the time!” seem as though they live in an alternate universe–one that realizes the absolute goodness of God, yes, but one that doesn’t seem in touch with humanity.

A poem quoted by Avon Malone in Bible class years ago at Harding University sticks with me:

To dwell above with the saints in love
Aye, that will be glory!
But to dwell below with the saints I know–
That is a different story. . . .

Q:  Does the Christian walk strike you as a series of peaks, or more of a ridge, or a series of hikes up and down, into and out of valleys?

Tomorrow:  mountains in scripture