July 2009

I love the “Go Figure” column in our denominational magazine, Presbyterians Today. Jack Marcum writes it, and he always has some fascinating statistics to share. In the July/August 2009 issue, Jack tells about the findings of a survey supporting the work of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS), which is working on a possible new hymnal. (For more on PCOCS, see the note at the end of this post.)

Research Services discovered from their work that a number of hymns in our Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) were neglected. Notable among these were many based on the Psalms (interesting, since the Reformed tradition once sang nothing but metrical psalms) and some of those from other cultures. But all the infrequently sung hymns shared a common characteristic: they were written after 1959. In contrast, 82% of the most widely sung hymns were penned before 1900.

That information got my wife and me thinking about how hymns really ought to be classified in the hymnal. It’s standard to arrange them around the liturgical year (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, etc.) or the work of the persons of the Trinity. There are also hymns for the time of day, the sacraments, and so on.

But it seemed to us that hymns are a great deal like food. So why not list them according to a simple menu: starters, entrees, desserts, lighter fare? In the first category might be those little Sunday school choruses or maybe some Taize pieces, something quick that won’t spoil your appetite for the grand four- or even six-verse spread to come. Of course, under “entrees” would have to be those old hymns. Isn’t it true that those are beloved because they’re like comfort food? People love them not because the words or music is particularly sophisticated or theologically sound, but because they grew up with them, and singing the songs takes folks back to their childhoods. They’re like mama’s meatloaf or some really crusty fried okra and homemade mac ‘n’ cheese. (OK, that’s my comfort food; yours may be different.)

Also under entrees could be placed those more modern hymns that have “better ingredients” (that is, theology more faithful to the denomination’s standards). They’re rather like those “heart healthy” meals at some restaurants that have a little symbol next to them to tell you they’re low in fat or whatever. So the editors of the hymnbook could put a cross or probably the denominational seal (of approval?) next to the number. And preachers and choir directors could pick them and make people sing them once in awhile, but it would be like trying to get a kid to eat veggies.

Finally, the desserts. The folks I know that love praise and worship music don’t like my saying this, but this is where most of that stuff belongs. Sugary sweet tunes and words that fill us up with empty calories and give us a bit of a high, maybe even a brain freeze. Still, who doesn’t love desserts?

OK, that’s my take on what needs to be done for the new hymnal. Now I’m going to go  sing “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” then pig out on okra.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Note: For serious engagement with the work of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS), visit their website at www.presbyterianhymnal.org. Their acronym, by the way, is pronounced “peacocks.” Long before the iconic bird of the TV network or the color revolution for men’s clothing back in the day, the peacock was a symbol of the resurrection.



The past couple of weeks Susan and I have experienced exemplary customer service as well as rudeness, carelessness, and apathy from businesses. All of it was memorable.

There was the fast food restaurant that slathered mayo on our to-go burgers despite our request that the condiment be left off. Or the lady at the cable company who was curt, then hung up on me after I suggested that they might want to update their website, which had confused me by advertising an outdated price.

But the poor service that takes the cake was received on a recent trip to Alabama. We stopped for gas at a convenience store selling a national brand. Once my credit card was approved, I expected fuel to flow, but nothing happened. I went inside to ask what was going on, and another guy and I were told they were out of regular. Their solution? “Buy another grade.” Wrong answer! What they should have done was put makeshift “out of regular” signs on the pumps, and everyone would have been saved a good deal of inconvenience. But the clerks were too lazy and inattentive to check their supply and/or to think of their customers. We left and went elsewhere to fill up. That place, selling the same brand, not only had regular, but at a lower price.

Contrast these experiences with the fine attention we received on other occasions. At an ice cream shop, we ordered our scoops and took them to the register, where we presented some gift certificates. Our purchase was less than they totaled, and the clerk couldn’t give us change from them. But she wanted us to be satisfied and feel we had been treated well. So she arranged for us to get a kid’s scoop on each of our cups, bringing our total to the amount on the certificates.

I called my cable company (the same one that later treated me badly) and arranged for faster Internet speeds at a lower price. I was promised that the change would be made in 15 minutes. When a test showed that had not been done, I called back. The rep who answered stayed on the line until she got the problem solved and temporarily gave me greater upload speed than I had ordered “because we caused you inconvenience.”

Both the clerk at the ice cream shop and the customer service rep at the cable company added value to the experience. We got good ice cream, but we also felt cared for. My download speed increased five-fold, but I also knew my needs and time were important. The solutions were imaginative, and the people at the point of sale took responsibility for our satisfaction. Contrast that with the carelessness of the kitchen at the fast food restaurant which did not honor a special order or the “my way or the highway” attitude of the clerks at the out-of-gas store.

Churches can learn from these good and bad business practices as they greet visitors, whether the first-time guest in worship or the transient needing assistance. Every church member, not just officers and pastors, would do well to remember four words: “It’s up to me.” By our attitude, our commitment to care, our interest, you and I communicate volumes about our faith, our denomination, our congregation, more than than all our websites, mission statements, and brochures.

Another lesson is to add value whenever we can. Be imaginative and creative. Take that dull as dust worship service and seek to make it an experience of God. Send the visitor away with some special gift and follow up soon with an email or call. Really care for people for themselves, not as potential giving units. Listen to their questions, discern their needs, and minister accordingly. Don’t answer questions nobody is asking.

Church consultant Tom Ehrich, one of my favorite writers, says this: “If I want to convey value, I need to give value. If a church wants to develop a positive brand, it needs to do positive things (“On a Journey,” July 10, 2009). He goes on: “Faith, like the marketplace, happens in small decisions made by individuals. The sooner churches figure that out, the sooner they will emerge from their doldrums and begin to serve confidently and effectively (“On a Journey,” July 11, 2009). (For more Tom Ehrich, especially his “best practices” and “seven key factors” for churches, visit www.churchwellness.com).

So, the question is: are we out of gas or adding value?

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

The unexpected is always before us” (Morgan Freeman,Feast of Love”).

The unexpected—quite often known by a much shorter, earthy word—happens. Like on July 4th when Susan and I and most everybody gathered for a holiday BBQ became instant cowpunchers.

We were all over at Susan’s brother Jeff’s house, which is out in the country. His neighbor has cows, who usually are content to stay inside the wood and barbed wire fence surrounding acres of roaming land. But last Saturday, one animal decided she had had enough of appropriate boundaries. Or maybe she simply got lost.

Whatever. Bottom line was she took advantage of a gap in the fence and ended up in Jeff’s back yard. It soon became apparent that Warren (Susan’s oldest brother) and Jeff weren’t going to be able to corral the beast by themselves, so the call came for the rest of us to come outside.

Jeff pressed us into service, assigning everyone a station. Susan and I were closest to the road, and were supposed to shoo the cow back toward the hole in the fence from whence she had come. The way that was to be done was to stand and wave our arms up and down as if we were about to take off flying.

That worked once, but then, snorting and bellowing, the cow came back our way, and she wasn’t going to back down. Fine. We let her through, and she ambled up the hill, then up the road, and through the open cattle gate leading into the neighbor’s property, following the moos of her companions.

What’s to be learned about confronting the unexpected from all this? First, when, uh, stuff happens, be ready to pitch in even if you have no idea what you’re doing. Be available to others who are frightened, overwhelmed, unsure. Don’t be a spectator; get involved and do what you can.

Second, follow the instructions of somebody who’s been in a similar situation or at least has a cool head and can figure things out quickly. We did what Jeff told us to do, stood where he wanted, etc. The unexpected calls for the commander style of leadership. (The others, by the way, are catalyst, encourager, and hermit.) Somebody who can take charge and help solve the problem. Maybe that will be you or me.

Third, when things go south, don’t be a fool. Neither Susan nor I were going to stand in the way of a determined and undeterred animal weighing hundreds of pounds and full of anxiety and adrenalin. So, it may be that when the situation, already unpredictable, becomes more unpredictable still, we simply have to go with it, improvise further, and do our best.

Following these principles may just mean that the next time the unexpected rushes your way or mine, we won’t be cowed.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham


The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt” (John Philpot Curran, Irish judge, July 10, 1790).

Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty” (Andrew Jackson, March 4, 1837).

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias” (Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944).

Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Jesus, Matthew 26:41).

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers…” (Paul, Romans 13:11).

Vigilare (Latin,keep awake”)

Funny how my mind works. I was out pulling weeds the other day when I thought of the famous statement usually quoted as “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”  (erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson). I suppose that at the same time I was thinking about my blog for this week, I was reflecting on how I have to keep a constant watch on the weeds or they’ll take over. And for good or ill, this post was the result of my down-in-the-dirt, on my knees meditation.

Freedom is extremely important to me. It forms a kind of trinity of essentials, along with love and truth. That’s why I’m glad I’m an American, blessed with a Bill of Rights that grants my neighbors and me freedom to worship (or not) as we please, to speak, to enjoy a press not under state control, to assemble with others peaceably, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Freedom is also one of the reasons I have chosen to remain a Presbyterian. One of our dearest historic principles is that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” (Book of Order, Presbyterian Church [USA], G-1.0300). Another important viewpoint from my tradition is that God is completely free and sovereign. Related to that affirmation is the recognition of the human tendency to try to usurp the place of God or to worship something or someone else in the place of God. Thus we become tyrants and seek to force others to bend to our control and our ideas (cf. Book of Order, G-2.0500a[4]).

For me, the greatest threat to our freedom comes not so much from outside enemies, but from those tendencies toward tyranny and idolatry that we have within ourselves. Because of our fear, lust for power, drive for control, ignorance, and whatever else, we want to restrict the freedom of others while maintaining the broadest possible set of rights and greatest array of choices for ourselves.

Ironically, some of the most vehement opponents of freedom are found among those who name the Name of Christ and profess love of America. Many preach and act against reproductive choice. Others (falsely) proclaim America a “Christian nation” and long for our land to be a theocracy, governed, of course, by their narrow interpretation of God’s law. Still more rail against the separation of church and state and/or try to have fundamentalist doctrine enacted into law or replace sound science in our schools. Freedom of thought, of exploration, of relying on one’s own moral judgment go out the window. Those of a different faith or none are looked on with suspicion, made to feel second-class or regarded as intellectually and morally inferior.

But don’t be smug, progressives! Just because you or I might have a kinder, more tolerant heart or a broader mind doesn’t mean we won’t be susceptible to the same tendencies toward tyranny and idolatry we see in fundamentalists and the Religious Right. We merely express them in a different way. So we need to be eternally vigilant, ever on the watch for those weeds of prejudice, hatred, and fear in our own lives that would lead us to be unfaithful to the One who said his Truth would set us free. Root them out lest they choke the good seed of the liberating Word. Freedom is too precious a gift not to be thus protected and allowed to grow and flourish in our hearts and minds and in those of our neighbors.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham