Monthly Archives: February 2014

Black History Month: Remembering Dr. Mack Statham

In honor of Black History Month, I want to remember an accomplished African-American who not only shaped our world for the better, but also shaped my life, too. I think we need to take the time to remember these everyday heroes– those who truly blessed the world even if their names are not emblazoned in the history books.

Dr. Mack Statham 9/24/1934-9/2/2013

Dr. Mack Statham
9/24/1934-9/2/2013

Today, I am remembering and honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Mack Statham (September 24, 1934-September 2, 2013). Dr. Statham, or “Dr. Mack” as he was fondly called, was at heart a church musician. I met and befriended him while I served at First United Methodist Church of Laurel. He was a quiet, gentle, and warmly personable man, and yet he possessed an almost unstoppable energy to play prolific music every Sunday, even while his health was failing. He took the time to help anyone further their own musical expressions, especially in worship. He was an accomplished classical pianist and organist, but far from being a diva, he was an accessible, down-to-earth musician who could work with anyone under any circumstance. His approach to music and people, given his tremendous gifts, was marked by an uncanny, Christ-like love and patience. In my eyes, he was a humble giant of a man.

Dr. Mack was born and raised in Baltimore as one of seven children. The Stathams are a musical family, and so quite naturally, Dr. Mack began taking piano lessons as a child. He excelled in music and later graduated from Hampton University with a degree in music education. (He was later honored with an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater.) He taught music in several school systems, was a veteran of the Korean War, and was a successful businessman, too.

He also spent his adult life as a church musician and music director with several churches in the Baltimore-Washington area: Metropolitan UMC in Baltimore, Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C., and First UMC in Laurel. Dr. Mack never did truly retire. In fact, he played the organ at First UMC on a Sunday morning and died that night. He truly lived out all of his days doing exactly what God had created and called him to do.

But I believe Dr. Mack’s greatest vocational accomplishment was his ability to unite whole communities of people around the gift of music. Dr. Mack was not only a world-class musician, but he was also a prolific composer. His hallmark composition was “Trilogy of Dreams” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote it for a mass choir, two pianos, an organ, and a small orchestra. Here’s the beauty of this music: it united so much of the Laurel, MD community, black, white, different denominations, Christians, Jews, politicians, and anyone else who attended what became a yearly event called “Sing for King” on the Sunday of MLK weekend. During the six years I participated in “Sing for King” as a member of the choir, I was awed by the power of one man and his music to gather a wide diversity of the Laurel community. For one day, there was no separation of white and black, Jew and Christian, religious and non-religious, and even church and state. We were one people. The bonds these yearly events created were long-lasting.

Dr. Mack demonstrated that things as simple as music and love can unite people and form new relationships of trust and cooperation. All it took was one person with a vision, good friends, a lot of persistence, and grace to make it happen. In that way, not only did Dr. Mack advocate for peace, equality, and justice, he made it happen by offering the best of himself. That’s an example we all could carry on.

As for me, Dr. Mack instilled many valuable lessons that shaped my life in the 6 years I knew him while serving as pastor of First UMC in Laurel. Here are a few of those lessons:

  • Whatever you commit to do, give it your all. Avoid half measures.
  • Whatever you commit to do, do it with excellence, striving for perfection. Avoid any notion of “good enough”.
  • Make the time to invest in someone else’s growth. Every person is worth our time because they, too are a gift.
  • Do what you love, and don’t stop, no matter the struggle.
  • Slower with excellence is far better than faster and sloppy.
  • Practice, practice, practice… It’s the only way to get better.
  • Trust God above all things and believe in yourself. No, that’s not a contradiction. (Dr. Mack showed how that is possible.)
  • Use your gifts wherever they are needed, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. It makes a difference.

As I write this, I miss my good friend very much. Mack, as I called him, was a rare gift, one of those few people I’ve met who profoundly impacted me for the better. For all the reasons he has touched my life and the lives of thousands of others, Dr. Mack Statham is worthy to be remembered and honored during this Black History Month. May we all live his kind of legacy to the glory of God and the blessing of others.

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Christian Music from the Dark Side

I once had a seminary professor who described the vast majority of contemporary Christian music as “la la la fluff”. It’s lots of smiles, joyful praise, beautiful strains of melody, uplifted hands, etc., etc. Of course, music is meant to be uplifting and inspiring. The power of music stirs within the deepest crevices of our souls. Even the most simple melodies can lift us into a near-heaven euphoria.

(I’m convinced there are several earthly things which give us the greatest foretaste of heaven to come: stirring music, savory food, and being loved by another human being. I’m going to be partial here and say that Mozart and Bach, Indian and barbecue, and a child’s hug and kiss bring the veil between heaven and us to its very thinest membrane.)

So it’s no wonder that most Christian music aims to be beautiful, to stir us towards joy, a passionate love of God, and the peace of his embrace. It’s happy music- lush, melodious, and beautiful. The problem, however, is that in some seasons of life, this kind of music sounds all too bland, sappy, and shallow.

Psalm 137Life is not an unbroken chorus of harmonious melodies. There are dissonant times- more often than we care to admit- in which the journey of faith is jagged and broken. We live with grief, anger, depression, confusion, betrayal… the darker things. Indeed they are painful to talk about, much less sing about in Christianity, but they exist. And we ignore this darker side to our peril.

The book of Psalms stand as a constant reminder that worshipping God is not always a pretty affair. One third of all the psalms are lament psalms. These psalms of lament push us to bring our darker, doubting, confused selves into worship, too. It’s not nice. In fact, this kind of worship is rough and ragged and seemingly impolite among mixed company who would rather us focus merely on the good, lovely things, meanwhile ignoring those parts of ourselves not yet healed and reconciled to God, to others, and to ourselves. Again, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to our darkness with any kind of integrity.

Take, for example, one of the more ugly, disturbing Psalms. It’s Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

Try putting that into an average contemporary praise and worship song! It can’t be done. Why? By and large that genre of music doesn’t allow for despair, anger, and thoughts of revenge. A prayer for vengeful infanticide doesn’t quite fit into a nice Sunday morning song of praise, does it?

But psalms like this must be sung. At least I thought so.

Over the last three years, I’ve suffered from two bouts of depression. If you’ve ever been depressed, you know that the serene “la la la” music doesn’t always fit where you are. In fact, it can be quite grating.

As I was recovering from depression, I turned to writing music that captured some of where I had been and the determination I had to get better. Here is one example of that:

But I also wanted to capture the jarring feelings I had of feeling stuck in “the pit”- the feelings of despair, feeling displaced, hopeless yet longing, humiliated, worthless, silent but wanting to rage out, and just raw. For this, I had written some music, but couldn’t find a suitable text. Then, I stumbled upon Psalm 137, and with a little adjusting, the music and the Scripture became a perfect match:

Aside from sharing some of my songs (and I thank you for taking the time to listen!), I also want to encourage all of us who call ourselves Christian or any other people of faith to not be afraid of bringing our whole selves to God. There is room enough at God’s altar of worship for every part of us of us– the good and pretty as well as the dark and “unpretty”. Not only can music capture the more rapturous side of faith, but it can also powerfully affirm a faith that sputters and struggles in our brokenness.

We can bring our wounds to the nail scarred hands of God who walks with us on nail scarred feet. In our pain, we walk side by side with a God whose side was pierced and whose head bore a crown of thorns. This God, Jesus Christ, welcomes my pain and my wounds, especially in music.

Only when we’ve been honest with God, with ourselves and others, can we take those next steps to healing and wholeness. As we do, our praise and worship of God will be that much more authentically deep and riveting. It will be unstoppable.

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