“Bye Bye Love” by The Everly Brothers – 40 Days of Country – Song #23 – Lent 2016

“Bye Bye Love” by The Everly Brothers
40 Days of Country – Song #23 – Lent 2016
The steel-guitar country rock and roll sound fused with incredibly tight dual vocal harmonies gave the Everly Brothers not only a signature sound, but also earned them a place in both the Rock & Roll and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Born in Kentucky in the 1930’s to a coal-mining family, the brothers were encouraged to follow their passion for music, and by the 1940’s, they already had their own show, singing on local radio stations.

While perhaps their greatest known tune is the classic “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” in 1957, the Everly Brothers opted to a record a song that had already been declined by thirty other artists. That song, “Bye Bye Love,” became one of their greatest hits to date, topping pop and country charts. Like many country songs, the tune is a lament, the refrain crooning, “Bye bye love. Bye bye happiness. Hello loneliness. I think I’m-a gonna cry. Bye bye love. Bye bye sweet caress. Hello emptiness. I feel like I could die…”

The idea of personifying emotions like happiness, loneliness, and emptiness is a familiar concept to many of the Psalms in the Bible as well. As Psalm 25:16 writes, “Turn to me, God, and have mercy on me because I’m alone and suffering.” Meanwhile, in Psalm 13, when the Psalmist feels abandoned by God, the poet laments, “Look at me! Answer me, Lord my God! Restore sight to my eyes! Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death.” However, in any true lament, the psalmist always ends with a note of hope, such as Psalm 118:17, which declares, “I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done.” When we feel empty and alone, we can be confident that “God’s faithful love lasts forever,” (118:29) and that the Lord will always be here for us.

God of Steadfast Love, there are times when we feel like we have been left alone. There are times when we lose hope for a better tomorrow. Restore our faith in your promises and grant us assurance that your grace and love are always present for us, and that you are constantly at work providing us with opportunities for a future of joy and peace. Amen.

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“Fancy” by Reba McEntire – 40 Days of Country – Song #24 – Lent 2016

“Fancy” by Reba McEntire
40 Days of Country – Song #24 – Lent 2016

Sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Country,” Reba McEntire is best known for her string of country music hits in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Not only has McEntire had an award-winning career as a country music singer, she has also experienced some acting success, with appearances in feature films and her work on sitcom, “Reba,” earning her a Golden Globe nomination.

In 1991, Reba McEntire released one of the most successful (albeit, controversial) songs of her career, a cover of Bobbie Gentrie’s 1969 song, “Fancy,” about a young, poor woman who overcomes her own circumstances and poverty to become a self-made socialite. While “Fancy” begins the narrative living, “in a one, room shack,” by the end of the song, through her wit, determination, and feminine charm (in truth, the song implies prostitution), she, “ain’t had to worry ’bout nothin’ for nigh on fifteen years.” While the song attempts to unravel some of the complexities and injustices faced, especially, by single women living in poverty, it has also been celebrated as a piece of feminist liberation.

Far from judging the title character of the track, “Fancy” may be surprised to find some female heroes in the biblical narrative that share her experience. First, in the book of Joshua 2:12-13, Rahab, a prostitute living in Jericho, assists Jewish spies on the following terms, “This is because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below. 12 Now, I have been loyal to you. So pledge to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal loyally with my family. Give me a sign of good faith. 13 Spare the lives of my father, mother, brothers, and sisters, along with everything they own. Rescue us from death.” As a result, when the walls of Jericho “come tumbling down,” Rahab and her family are spared. Later in the Old Testament, the book of Esther tells the story of how one young girls marriage to a foreign king eventually saves not only her own life, but the lives of her entire people. We may not always know the future God has planned for us, but like “Fancy,” even those in the most unlikely of circumstances can overcome their condition and be used for greatness.

Liberating God, we confess to the brokenness of our world, and ask forgiveness for any role we may have played, through our silence or through our action, for the injustices faced by so many living today. Help us become agents of hope for your mission of liberation to all people. Amen.

“Smokey Mountain Rain” by Ronnie Milsap – 40 Days of Country – Song #25 – Lent 2016

“Smokey Mountain Rain” by Ronnie Milsap
40 Days of Country – Song #25 – Lent 2016

With over 40 number one hits and six Grammy awards, the career of Ronnie Milsap, which primarily spanned through the 1970’s and 1980’s, is not only marked by acclaim; the singer-songwriter and pianist is also one of country music’s first blind artists to successfully cross-over into the pop and r&b charts. Abandoned by his mother as an infant in North Carolina, Milsap was raised by his grandparents in the Smokey Mountain region, which served as inspiration for one of his most recognizable songs.

In 1980, Milsap released, “Smoky Mountain Rain,” which became his first song that landed in the number one spot on both the country and adult-contemporary Billboard charts. In 2010, Tennessee elected to name the song as one of the state’s eight official songs. The song tells the autobiographical tale of the narrator who left his lover at home to test the fast-life out west, only to realize to late that he never should have left and his love didn’t wait around, hence the hook, “Smoky Mountain rain keeps on fallin’. I keep on callin’ her name…she’s somewhere in the Smoky Mountain rain.”

Jesus tells a similar tale in Luke 15 in the parable commonly referred to as “The Prodigal Son,” only, instead of leaving romance behind, it was his family that was abandoned when, “The younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living,” (v13). However, unlike in Milsap’s tune, when the young man decided to return home, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him,” (v20). As Christians, we can be confident that know matter where we go or what we do, we will never travel too far away from God, and when we make the decision to repent, to change our attitudes and our behaviors, Jesus Christ will always be there waiting to embrace us with open arms.

Merciful Savior, forgive us for all the times we have strayed from your path, following our own desires instead of your will. Teach us repentance, and strengthen our resolve to walk in your way. Amen.

“Love Me,” by Collin Raye – 40 Days of Country – Day #26 – Lent 2016

“Love Me,” by Collin Raye
40 Days of Country – Day #26 – Lent 2016

It would have been easy to leave Collin Raye off this list. He was certainly tremendously successful in the late 80’s and 90’s, but he never quite reached the level of some of his more popular contemporaries. But here’s the thing…Collin Raye, the first concert I ever attended, is my absolute favorite singer of all time, so if I’m doing a list of the best country songs of all time, I’m going to include Collin Raye. His 1991 hit, “Love Me,” is not only one of my favorite songs of all time, it is also a song I sang for my dad on his 50th birthday, a song I sang for my grandparents at my dad’s restaurant and sports bar, and the song I danced with my mom to at my wedding. Needless to say, this song has had a significant impact on my life.

By January of 1992, “Love Me,” had become Collin Raye’s first Number One single, and essentially served as the formula for a career of sentimental, romantic ballads and love songs. The song tells the tale of a child discovering a love note between his grandparents, in which his grandfather explains, “”Boy, you might not understand, but a long, long time ago, Grandma’s daddy didn’t like me none, but I loved your Grandma so.” This was always meaningful to me, because my grandfather had to fight to earn the love of my grandmother, then my dad had to earn the approval of my grandparents to marry my mom, and it took five years of my wife and I having no interest in each other whatsoever before God revealed other plans.

In fact, the Bible is filled with love stories that should have and would have never happened if it weren’t for God’s surprising grace. In Genesis 29:27, after serving his uncle seven years, Laban made Jacob serve another, “seven years,” to earn the hand of Rachel in marriage, a sacrifice Jacob was more than willing to name, because, according to Genesis 29:18, “18 Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Finding the love that will last a lifetime in marriage is not always the easiest task, but if your are so inclined, I can attest based on my own marriage, it is one of the greatest decision you will ever make.

Lord of Love, for those who are searching, help them find a love they can commit their lives to. For those who do not feel a need for love in their life, help them find love in their activities and pursuits. And for those of us who have committed our lives to another, may we love our spouse (or partner) with a love from you that will never fail. Amen.

“It’s Your Love” by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill – 40 Days Of Country – Day #27 – Lent 2016

“It’s Your Love” by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
40 Days Of Country – Day #27 – Lent 2016

In defining the greatest country music stars of all time, especially if you are including contemporary artists in the conversation, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill must both absolutely be included in the conversation. On one hand, Tim McGraw, especially in his later work, embodies a grass roots musical talent not often heard on radio, while his wife, Faith Hill, is easily one of the best selling pop-country acts of all time. While each deserve their own place on any countdown, their 1997 hit, “It’s Your Love,” showcases both of their talent and offers a genuine romantic element hard to find amidst the sea of country love songs.

The song begins on a practical level as McGraw sings of, “Dancin’ in the dark,” with his wife, but the song soon moves into cascading waves of sentiment with the refrain hyperbollically proclaiming, “It’s your love. It just does something to me. It sends a shock right through me. I can’t get enough.” McGraw goes on to declare the most desirable of marriage attributes, including how his wife makes him, “Better than I was” and “more than I am,” and “all of this happened by taking your hand.”

While not every marriage is destined to end in eternal true love, it is refreshing to have a model of fidelity and faithfulness in Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, especially when so many celebrities seem to offer a mockery of marriage every time we turn the new on the television. As tradition holds, King Solomon teaches in Ecclesiastes 9:9, “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.” Contrary to what Solomon might believe, a life dedicated to the love of another is quite more than meaningless. Sure, there may be times when ending a marriage is better than remaining in it, but when true love is found, and as great as it may be at first, it will eventually require a committed effort to maintain. As Mark 10:9 teaches, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Loving God, teach us to love others the way you have loved us, and especially, when we proclaim our love to another, if ti be your will, strengthen us to commit to that love with every fiber of our being. Amen.

“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Ol’ Days)” by The Judds – 40 Days of Country – Song #28 – Lent 2016

“Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Ol’ Days)” by The Judds
40 Days of Country – Song #28 – Lent 2016

Mother and Daughter duo, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, are not only one of country music’s all-time most successful acts, they are also one of the most beloved by fans. Despite a a relatively short career, spanning only from 1983-1991, before Wynonna began her solo career, The Judds earned five Grammy Awards, Eight CMA Awards, and fourteen number-one hits.

In 1986, The Judds scored perhaps their most well-known hit with the song, “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Ol’ Days)” off of their album, “Rockin’ With The Rhythm.” The song is an honest lament, with the narrator expressing discouragement over some of the changes society had undergone, with the fundamental attitude that not all progress is good progress. Through the lyrics, the mother and daughter duo reflect how “the world’s gone crazy” because of people’s hectic lifestyles and declining moral values. While a litany of subjects that were better “yesterday” are offered through the verses, the chorus drives the message home, asking, “Did lovers really fall in love to stay / Stand beside each other come what may / Was a promise really something people kept / Not just something they would say / Did families really bow their heads to pray / Did daddies really never go away.”

What my be surprising to some listeners is that the song was actually even more autobiographical than it sounds. Naomi, herself, who grew up playing piano in church, was the daughter of divorce, and soon moved from the comfort of her southern home to fast-paced California with her high-school sweetheart and newborn daughter. However, her marriage also ended in divorce, and she ultimately moved home with her daughter whom she renamed, Wynonna. With this in mind, the song becomes much less cynical and much more of an honest, painful reflection on a difficult life complete with unfulfilled desires and dreams.

The “lament” is a traditional form of poetry in the Hebrew Bible that isn’t discussed as often as some of the other, more popular songs of praise and thanksgiving, but is incredibly powerful and meaningful. Much like The Judds, In Psalm 143:4-5, the poet laments, “My spirit is weak inside me—inside, my mind is numb. I remember the days long past…” However, despite these painful circumstances, the poet is hopeful that God is capable of bringing him/her through these trying times, saying in verse 11, “Make me live again, Lord, for your name’s sake. Bring me out of distress because of your righteousness.” The world will never stop moving forward, but we can have faith that God will always be with us, moving us forward into a future filled with hope.

Eternal God, it is easy to remember “the good ol’ days,” when we are facing difficult and uncertain circumstances. Remind us that no matter where we come from, or what we’re going through, you have promised us your love, your grace, and a future filled with your glory. Amen.

“How Do I Live” by LeAnn Rimes – 40 Days of Country – Song #29 – Lent 2016

“How Do I Live” by LeAnn Rimes
40 Days of Country – Song #29 – Lent 2016

With a Grammy Award winning song at the age of only 13, LeAnn Rimes began her musical career as one of the youngest country music stars of all time. With comparisons to Patsy Cline, LeAnn Rimes rose quickly through the country music ranks in the 1990’s, earning herself ACM, CMA, Grammy, and Billboard awards along the way. In 1997, Rimes scored one of her biggest cross-over hits with the track, “How Do I Live.”

At the time, the song, “How Do I Live,” set Billboard records for number of weeks on the Hot 100’s top 10 and top 40 charts. With over 3 million copies sold, the song was the highest certified country single of all time for twelve years, until it was eventually surpassed by Taylor Swift’s, “Love Story.” Originally recorded for the film “Con Air,” the song is a pop ballad of hopeless devotion and dependance, singing, “without you there would be no sun in my sky, there would be no love in my life,” and “oh I need you in my arms, need you to hold, you’re my world, my heart, my soul.”

The biblical authors had a similar understanding of our need for God. From Genesis, when God created the sun and the earth and humans alike, to Exodus when it was God who delivered the people from slavery, to Jesus who delivered all humankind from sin and death. The poet in Psalm 16:2 captures this sentiment when he (or she) writes, “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord. Apart from you, I have nothing good.’”

Life-Giving Creator, it is good for us to ask the question, “How do I live without you?” because the answer is simply that we can not. We thank you for the life you have given us, abundant and ever-lasting. May we use it for your glory. Amen.

“Guitars, Cadillacs” by Dwight Yoakam – 40 Days of Country – Song #30 – Lent 2016

“Guitars, Cadillacs” by Dwight Yoakam
40 Days of Country – Song #30 – Lent 2016

Born in Kentucky, raised in Ohio, and made famous in California, Dwight Yoakam’s road to country music stardom was anything but traditional. Insisting on his own brand of honky-tonk (hillbilly) style in an early 80’s era where Nashville producers were veering towards pop-oriented, “urban cowboy” singers, it took Yoakam playing in the underground roots rock and punk rock venues of L.A. to make a name for himself. Upon amassing a dedicated following, Dwight Yoakam would go on to become one of the most successful country music acts in history, and still holds the honor as the most frequent guest on “The Tonight Show.”

In 1987, Dwight Yoakam earned his first of 15 Grammy Award nominations with the song, “Guitars, Cadillacs,” from the album of the same name. The song went onto make pop headlines when it was featured in the Hollywood smash-hit, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.” With a hook that sings, “Guitars, Cadillacs, hillbilly music,” the tune celebrates the lifestyle Yoakam was most accustomed to. In fact, his own humble upbringings in Kentucky in Ohio are chronicled against his decision to move to the bright lights of L.A., singing, “Another lesson ’bout a naive fool who came to Babylon and found out that the pie don’t taste so sweet.”

The Israelites in the Hebrew Bible had a similar experience with, “Babylon,” though it wasn’t by their own decision that they left their homeland. In the early 6th century BC, the people of Judah were forced to leave their homes and resettle in Babylonian Empire after a sound, military defeat. A psalmist lamented on their fate in Psalm 137:4, singing, “how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?” For those of us who have ever left home, either on our own accord or due to circumstances beyond our control, the transition can be difficult, but we can also be comforted by the knowledge that our Lord goes with us, wherever we go.

Ever-Present God, we sometimes find ourselves in places where your presence is hard to realize. Open our eyes to the truth that you are always with us, wherever we may go. Amen.

“The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers – 40 Days of Country – Song #32 – Lent 2016

“The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers
40 Days of Country – Song #32 – Lent 2016

Country Music Hall of Fame artist Kenny Rogers is not only one of the greatest and most recognizable country singers and songwriters of all time, with over 120 hit singles and over 200 weeks spent on pop and country music charts, Kenny Rogers is certifiably one of the most successful artists of all time. Whether it is the romantic sentiment of songs like “Lady,” or the common wisdom offered in songs like, “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers deep, passionate, approachable voice has been a mainstay in American music for sixty years.

While an argument can be made for which of Rogers’ hits are his greatest, no song has made as much of a cultural impact as, “The Gambler.” Surprisingly, Kenny Rogers was not the first to sing the song, originally written by Don Schlitz at the young age of 23. It was poet Shel Silverstein who finally managed to get a recording artist to give the song a shot, and even country music legend Johnny Cash recorded it at one time. However, it was Kenny Rogers’ version on his 1978 album of the same name that became famous. The song tells the tale of a late night meeting between the narrator and a character known only as, “The Gambler,” who offers this sage like advice. “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em., know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table, there’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”

While, as a good United Methodist pastor, I can’t condone gambling, the Bible does offer sentiment similar to Kenny Rogers’ famous song. In 1 Timothy 6: 12, Paul encourages us to, “Compete in the good fight of faith. Grab hold of eternal life—you were called to it…” and continues in verses 17-19, “17 Tell people who are rich at this time not to become egotistical and not to place their hope on their finances, which are uncertain. Instead, they need to hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment. 18 Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. 19 When they do these things, they will save a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future. That way they can take hold of what is truly life.” According to Paul, it really doesn’t matter how much money is on the table because treasures of this world are fleeting. Instead, we should commit ourselves to always playing the hand of good works, sharing, and generosity, so that others might experience our blessings, and we might receive blessings of eternal consequences.

Gracious God, amidst all the uncertainty we face every day of our lives, we rest in the confidence of the one thing that is certain, that your love for us will never fail, and that your mercies are new every morning. Guide us as we share that love and mercy with others, in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.