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"Love 'n Life"... Stories behind the songs...

“Just Add Water”

For many years I was privileged to write theme songs for youth of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Forever wonderful Conference Youth Coordinator, Nina Reeves, would call me soon after her theme committee met and say, “Our theme for next summer will be.... And the daily themes and scriptures will be.... And the theme hymn will be....” I would reply, “We’ll see what comes out,” and lots of neat songs were born because of Nina’s confidence. After her retirement, I sort of slipped off the radar for the leaders, but I overheard the theme for 2012 and just had to write this one. Water is such a life force and has such rich meaning in scripture and the church—and there are so many ways we can sprinkle it (I’m Methodist :)).   “...It’s amazing how life gets sweeter when we just add water.”

 

“Bridges”

When my friend, Dawn Smith Townsend, asked via facebook, if I had any “bridge” songs, I said something to the effect, “No, but I love the image and I should have a bridge song. This one emerged a little more slowly, mostly because the song would be shared before The North Georgia Annual Conference of the UMC, and there are no more language-sensitive, theologically thoughtful audiences/congregations. The scriptural foundation is found in 2 Corinthians 5:18ff where Paul writes of how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that now he has turned that word and task over to us. We are to build bridges of peace and understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, love. “God so loved, he came to be the first of many bridges.....”

 

p.s., When I perform this in worship or concert settings, as an intro, I play an instrumental of the hymn, “This is My Song.” If you’re not familiar with it, check out this link—performed by Cantus (I wasn’t familiar with them before—but I am now. Yay, Google and Youtube.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDXNHPeRB0k

 

“Eat, Sleep, Play”

Years ago, I read a little book entitled “Hope for the Flowers” by Trina Paulus. It was the tale of two butterflies, Stripe and Yellow, and their quest to find a life. Crawling, eating, sleeping...one day hugging... eventually climbing. In the end, life was found in dying to self (think cocoon) and rising to a simple life of love. Of course, there was the recent movie with Julia Roberts, “Eat, Pray, Love.” But “Eat, Sleep, Play” is my little take on life and how life is a gift to be enjoyed, not some burden to be endured or survived. “To a kid, it’s so uncomplicated.”

 

“I’m No Saint”

I was watching the Today Show when a feature came on about a homeless man who, at the end of his day, found a diamond ring in his little contribution cup. The next morning, he took the ring to a jewelry store to see if it was the real deal and the jeweler offered him $4000 on the spot. Initially, the man thought, "I’ll be eating big tonight and certainly won’t be on the streets or in the shelter."  But his heart got the better of him and he knew there must have been some mistake. A few hours later, a young woman came by asking about a missing ring—apparently, she had emptied her change purse into his cup, forgetting she’d put her ring there for safe keeping. He could have said he didn’t know anything about a ring, but he pulled it out of his pocket and was showered with hugs and tears and thank-you’s of a very grateful young lady. When the local newscasters caught wind of the story, they asked the old man why he didn’t keep the ring. Laughing, he said, “Why, I’m no saint, but I’m not a demon.” We all make choices every day that lean one way or the other.  “I guess I fight most all my battles here on earth somewhere between....”

 

After writing and recording the song, someone shared the follow-up story with me. After the initial story, donations began to pour in from around the country--money to help the homeless man who did the right thing. Over $180,000 according to my source... and he now has a place to live...and he’s been reunited with his estranged family. Cool story. I just wrote it out and put a tune to it.

 

“Light Up the Sky”

This one came as I overheard another North Alabama Conference summer camp theme. Allison Sligh has been a long-time director of children’s camps at our conference assembly Camp Sumatanga, and when I mentioned that I thought there was a song in the 2013 theme, "Light Up the Sky," she said, “We would love it if you had a song for us!” 


Light is a God thing... “from the moment The Word whispered, ‘Let there be light...there was sun, there was moon, there were stars in the night....” Jesus said, “You are the light of the world... let your light so shine that they may see your good works and give glory to God.” We are mortal, fallible...earthenware vessels (2 Cor. 4:6)... “but the Lord pours his light into our jars of clay, and shines out through the cracks in miraculous ways.”

 

This one has an unusual little key change that leaves most of my musical friends saying, “Say what?”


“Long Time Old Friend”

This one is one of those that just came with an insight—“It takes a long time to make an old friend.” Some folks are blessed with longtime friendships that just work, for whatever reason. They are tested by “...years of good and bad times, hanging out and hanging in there....” “It takes years to grow a mighty oak tree, that won’t be broken in the wind.” Truth is, an old friend is often more like family than folks in your family pics. They’re a gift. Don't forget to thank the Giver for that longtime old friend in your life.

 

“Love, Love, Love”

This one is just a little ditty. Singing around Nashville in the various writers venues, I just wanted something that would be fun and playful. So many of the songs in those settings are auditions to be the next monster radio hit about mud flaps on the pick-up, or buddies down at the bar. I just wanted something that would make folks smile and say, “Yep—that’s the truth: ‘Everybody wants to, I do, you do, everybody wants to be in love.”

 

p.s., Anyone in Nashville that will tell you they don’t want to write a big hit will probably lie about other things too!

 

“Made for Promises”

I wrote this song for the wedding of some very special friends in Alexander City, Alabama. The Lemmond’s—Willie, Diane, Raegan, and Renee—were always so wonderful to us when I served as an associate pastor at First UMC. When their daughter Renee and her fiancée, Josh, asked me to perform their ceremony, I had this little song come out. I really have this sense that God wired us for covenant relationships--that is, to be promise makers and promise keepers. We need to be needed and we need to know others are there for us as well. “God made us for helping and hoping and trusting and needing and sharing life burdens and always believing in us.”

 

It’s a pretty neat wedding song... my preference over some of the gushers I’ve been asked to sing at weddings through the years.

 

“Love Song”

I’ve written lots of songs through the years—songs for peace and justice and laughs and teaching and camp and community—but I had never really written a song for Jean, my wife of 35 years. She’s awesome. Maybe it was just too imposing a task. Then again, maybe I just wasn’t ready yet. “It's just the fact--some songs aren’t written in those early years and miles.”  So here is my love song to and for Jean.  It’s not to say that I got it just right, so “...if you don’t mind, I’ll just keep writing as we go.”

 

“Better Late than Never

I guess everyone has a theme Bible story. Maybe yours is the Good Samaritan. Maybe you’re a woman and the Mary/Martha story rings your bell. For me, it’s the Prodigal Son stor in Luke 15. One day, after writing a prodigal son-ish song, I started counting up the number of songs I have written around that theme...and stopped counting at twenty. This may not be the last, but it certainly resonates with my story.  Have you ever had someone who is hard to love? One who's pushed you beyond your breaking point. They've taken advantage of your good graces and, frankly, embarrassed you in front of your family and friends. Throw in the towel?... God hasn't--on you or on me.  “If it’s true a love goes on and on forever...if you still believe a God’s up there in Heaven... if you’ve prayed and hoped and loved someone whatever.... you’ll be the first to say, ‘It’s better late than never.’”


Folks, if they're still breathing, there's still hope. It's a God-thing.

 

“You are Beloved”

The late theologian and author, Henri Nouwen, wrote a little book entitled, “Life in the Beloved,” and in the earliest pages (the pages I actually read in most books), he states that if a person ever truly hears the words, “You are beloved,” it changes everything.  It liberates, reconciles, transforms.  I believe that. In case you haven’t heard it today... or just haven’t gotten it.... “You don’t need a dozen high degrees. All you really need to know to make it in this world is that you will forever be...beloved.”  Just ask Earl.

 

"Perfect World"... Stories behind the songs...

1. “Perfect World”

I’m not sure where I read it: “From the time we emerge from our mother’s womb, we are trying to find our way back to that state of safety, warmth, provision and peace.” All of our games, dreams, battles, are ultimately about finding that illusive perfect world. In the song I wrote, “Only natural we’d try to find that perfect situation; but it’s a journey, son, not just a destination.... Where a promise is a promise is a promise, and the money doesn’t matter. Where possessions don’t own us, so we’re free to be together. Where there’s a paradise ‘round every next bend... See, whenever life’s sweet and love wins...it’s a perfect world.” The big world may be a mess with war, injustice, sickness, etc., but maybe we catch glimpses of a “perfect world” as we love, share, do good, stand up for the little guy.

 

 

2. “Blessed”

I saw a Facebook photo of my grandniece’s baptism posted by her mother, Allison. Little Sara was all decked out in her handmade baptismal gown, surrounded by loving parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. She was at the altar of what will likely be her church home for years to come, being celebrated by people who will be her church family from now on. As I saw the simple, yet profound picture, it occurred to me that little Sara had no idea she had just won the Life Lotto. She was born into a family that will love her, support her, pray for her, and give her every possible opportunity in life. “No way she knows how blessed she is... blessed to be a blessing to the least of all...the lonely and the lost... the rest of us who’ve yet to know just how blessed we are.”

 

3. “A Heart and a Home”

I have written quite a few theme songs through the years for special groups and events. When I saw the new logo of The United Methodist Children’s Homes of Alabama and West Florida—a colorful combination of red, yellow and purple boxes, overlain with the outline of a simple white heart, the chorus and story came quickly. It’s a story of hope for children who may or may not have a chance without the ministries of UMCH and similar organizations. “A heart and a home... a beautiful face... a moment in time a child can find their own amazing grace. A hope and a dream, that might not have been, but for your love...a heart and a home.”

 

4. “Dog and Pony”

I guess I have always related to that Peanuts comic strip with Linus, Lucy and Charlie Brown are gazing up at the cloud formations to see what they can see. Linus and Lucy see Rembrandts and other profound events in history. When they ask Charlie Brown what he sees, he responds, “I was going to say a duckie and a horsey, but I’ve changed my mind.” I can so relate to Charlie Brown. “I’m simple, it’s true...there’s no way to hide. An average Joe just along for the ride. Well, I’ll give you my take, but just take it in stride—I see a dog and a pony.” An old Shaker hymn has reminded us for centuries: “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free. Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be....”

 

5. “I Taught Momma Well”

This one came as we were approaching Mothers’ Day a few years back. I was brainstorming “qualities found in most moms” and it occurred to me that many mom qualities are probably shaped over time as these heroes deal with the challenges and crises we provide. She learns patience through my being slow to catch on. She learns forgiveness as I give her too many reasons to exercise her forgiveness muscles. “I taught her how to dance through wind and rain... how to take a foolish boy and make a decent man. Taught her how to give and give and give again... how to forgive again. ...I’m hoping time will tell that I taught Momma well.”

 

p.s., There’s a little phrase at the end of the second verse that has been softened post-production. “At times, I gave her he__...” is probably quite true, though a little abrupt. A little more poetic way to say the same thing came late. “At times, her little angel fell...but I taught Momma well.” (Sigh.)

 

6. “Time Goes By”

Last spring, for no apparent reason, new songs began to emerge around Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” Having read the book many times through the years and shared it with groups in any number of settings, it has always been special to me. Thinking there might be some possibility of an adaptation, I was very careful not to add to the original story—just to take the emotions of the various boy-stages deeper. Due to pre-existing legal limitations, the musical may not happen, but at least we got a couple of special songs for this project. “Time Goes By” and “Take Me Away.” The little nursery rhyme interlude was a spontaneous experiment that wound up being a special moment for a lot of folks. The song is just a reminder that the “...Book of Life has numbered pages...each a gift, a golden age in time....”

 

7. “Good Man”

I grew up in Calhoun, Georgia, and like many little boys in our Norman Rockwell-ian small town, I had early dreams of playing on the CHS Yellow Jacket football team. “I wanna hear the crowds roar, when I make the big play. Read all about it in the paper next day.” I guess, through the years we have all sorts of dreams that typically seek satisfaction in one of three categories: security, acceptance, or purpose in life. I think #3 really kicks in as we hit the 40’s. We wonder why we are here. As a Christian, I think the ultimate satisfaction will come in being a blessing to God. “I wanna be a good man, Lord—I wanna bless your heart... I wanna be salt of the earth, I wanna be light of the world... I wanna see your kingdom come in me. I wanna be a good man, that’s all I wanna be.” Not a bad prayer for and old guy.

 

8. “Beautiful”

My dad, Elwyn Glenn Elder, Jr., died in late March, 2010. He was a simple man. A Christian. He respected loved his family and tried to be a good neighbor in the Biblical sense. He believed in the American Dream and the free-enterprise system and worked in sales until his health began to fail him. He loved watching sports—particularly the Braves—and playing table games with his children and grandchildren. He loved his wife, Eula Wiggins Elder, and they shared almost 60 years together. He was a positive thinker that went out pretty much everyday expecting something good to happen. The song “Beautiful” is not all Dad, but it’s pretty close...and it’s dedicated to Dad. “This day’s our greatest mountain...our one chance to get it right and dance in Ponce de Leon’s fountain. This life’s a gift at any age, so don’t be wishing away the pages! It’s a shame so many people fail to see—we wake up every day and choose to be or not to be...beautiful.”

 

9. “All Star”

The “Birmingham All Stars” is a special needs baseball league that provides an opportunity for some kids with profound disabilities to experience the thrill of wearing the jersey with their name on the back, hitting a ball, “running” the bases, having the fans cheering their names. Players from Vestavia High School and the University of Alabama (if there are others, I apologize for their omission) come out to help and to coach the special kids, and they would be the first to say it does more for them than they do for the kids. The song is really written for video, so when you get to the last verse, imagine an “Angels in the Outfield” moment. It could happen. “He’s an All-Star in our hearts! An All-Star in our hearts! May not be the Babe and drive one out of the park, but he’s all ours...and he’s an All-Star in our hearts.”

 

10. “Take Me Away”

This is the other piece inspired by a scene from The Giving Tree—where Boy comes back after a long absence, inconsolable, and just wants a boat to take him far away. Call it the doldrums of mid-life. The innocence of childhood has come and gone. Youth has slipped away and the prospects for tomorrow are not bright. Perhaps, you’ve realized many of your life dreams, but you have also come to the realization that some life dreams aren’t going to happen. “...the fear is, our best years have already been.... Is it one?...Is it two?... Is it ‘Three strikes, you’re out!’ Or is there one more chance...one more next time around. There’s a faith...there’s a hope...there’s a love, so they say. But for now, all I want is a boat to take me away....”

 

11. “Desperate People”

This is a fictional story that has, sadly, been played out too many times in real life. People who start out just wanting to do the right thing, love their families, be good neighbors, make their parents proud—until desperate life situations push them to do desperate things. Movies like “First Blood (Rambo I),” “John Q,” “Peacemaker,” all depict the same dynamic. Like “Take Me Away,” it doesn’t attempt to fix the problem so much as it bares the reality. “He was desperate for love and to prove he’s a man...lie down at night knowing he’d give it all he had... to make Momma proud and honor Daddy’s good name. Guess desperate people do desperate things.”

 

12. “In Jesus”

This song came as I was trying to recall the many the ways I had experienced the saving graces of Christ in my life. It is no accident that it follows “Desperate People” on the CD play list. If someone identified with the desperation of the last piece, perhaps there is an invitation to hope “In Jesus.” “Broken, find a healer,...Weary, find a rest... in Jesus. Stranger, find a welcome... Least and Last and Lost, be blessed... in Jesus.” The amazing thing about Christ is that He somehow fits our every need. “Hopeless, find deliverance... Tormented Spirit, find a peace...” One Christ fits all.

 

13. “It Ain’t Easy Being Jesus Anymore”

Written a few years ago while preparing for Palm/Passion Sunday, “It Ain’t Easy...” has layers. There’s the obvious story of Jesus, told in a contemporary light. After preaching love and working miracles for three years, his enormous public support fell from “Hosanna!” on Sunday to “Crucify him!” on Friday. It wasn’t easy being the only Son of Man. He even asked his Father if there was any way out. Remember?... “If it be possible, take this cup from me.” He did go on to say, “...not my will, but Thine be done,” but the prayer gave us a glimpse of his inner conflict.

 

The second layer is personal. Life is hard...and the more responsibility you take on, the more difficult it can become. Pastors and church leaders sympathize most deeply. They know how difficult it can be trying to be all things to all people. Counselor, motivational speaker, recruiter, fundraiser, administrative wonder, and lamb without blemish. Pardon the colloquialism, but “It ain’t easy being Jesus anymore.”

 

The third layer relates to the Church. The Body of Christ...“Jesus” in the world today—faces enormous challenges. Besides taking care of its own, it is called to feed the hungry, care for the poor, fight injustice, make peace, turn the other cheek, go the second mile. Add a natural disaster or two and a bad economy and it’s no cakewalk. “Well, I used to think I’d have it all and get the girl... save myself and save a dying world...a Leer jet and a ticket to the Final Four...but it ain’t easy being Jesus anymore.”   The good news...we don’t have to be.

 

14. “Something Beautiful for God”

As I have tried to identify what my music is in the larger musical scheme, I realize it is somewhat genre-challenged. It is a blend of folk, religious, country, bluegrass, musical theatre. However, it is quite specific thematically. My songs are songs mostly trying to get at the meaning of life. They pose questions—even it they don’t pose questions—like “Why am I here?... Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my X number of years? Is it too late for me?

“Something Beautiful for God” was written as a theme song for our church. The inspiration came from the story of a woman coming into a room where Jesus and his disciples were eating. She broke open a very expensive flask of ointment and poured it over Jesus’ feet. The act of extravagant love was criticized by the disciples, but Jesus stopped them—“She has done a beautiful thing for me.” Thus, the title: “Something Beautiful for God.”   “Something beautiful...something wonderful... something more than this life’s ever known before. To see something beautiful... be something beautiful for God.”

 

15. “Still Wants You Back”

The last song on the CD and the most recently written, “Still Wants You Back” has a redemptive word for anyone who has struggled. It’s the Prodigal Son story. A story that is not so much about the falling of a son as it is about the unconditional love of God. I thought it was a timely writing to round out the song list. It answers three questions... Yes, God knows you. Yes, God does love you. And, yes, God does want you back. “Back home where the love is so sweet you can taste it...where there’s peace in the valley and nothing to fear. Where His grace and his mercy are new every morning. The Gospel is clear... if only we hear... The Lord knows us completely—each sin and each scar—ain’t no secret so deep or so dark, He won’t gladly reclaim us. My friend, it’s a fact: the Lord knows you and loves you...and still wants you back.”