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But Carol’s God is the God of the unlikely. He’s Been Faithful is an honest story about the struggles we all face and the power of God to help us. In its pages, we learn that our...
But Carol’s God is the God of the unlikely. He’s Been Faithful is an honest story about the struggles we all face and the power of God to help us. In its pages, we learn that our longings for God are satisfied when we come to him simply, seeking his glory rather than ours, telling him and the world around us about the great things he has done.
“For the throngs of folks like me who’ve been blessed by Carol’s music, the release of her book is good news. May these pages warm hearts and touch lives.”
As I swerve in and out of traffic on Brooklyn's busy streets, it's hard to ignore the bumper stickers pasted onto every car but mine. A few are thought-provoking, others are funny, and some are too nasty to mention. But that's to be expected in a city like New York, which is not exactly famous for its modesty. If I ever put a bumper sticker on my car, it will probably read: "She doesn't know what she's doing, she just keeps doing it." That's the joke about me that circulates in the Brooklyn Tabernacle, the church my husband, Jim, and I have loved and labored over for the past twenty-nine years.
But despite-or maybe because of-my many inadequacies, I've seen God do some amazing things. Sunday after Sunday, as I direct the 275-member Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, my eyes rest on a sea of faces-brown, black, and white-each concealing a remarkable story, each holding an incredible tale. Later, as I sit at the piano, I see men and women throughout the church, faces shining, voices raised, and I am once again grateful to be here. It's where I'm happiest. It's where I belong.
I've lived all my life in church. My father, Clair Hutchins, was an opera-singer-turned-pastor. I can remember as a four-year-old, sitting on his knee, listening to a visiting preacher. I don't remember what he said, but I'll never forget what I experienced. God's presence was so real that I felt overwhelmed. It left me with a hunger that has shaped my life.
Yes, I love the church, but not because it has formed a snug cocoon around me, insulating me from the world. Just the opposite is true. It's where I've encountered my fears. It's where my faith has grown larger; pushing me over edges I didn't want to get near. It's forced me to try things that scared me to death-speaking in public, conducting the choir in front of thousands of people, giving an acceptance speech at the Grammy's, and writing this book. Maybe things like that come easily for others, but they're hard assignments for a person like me who has always preferred to stay in the background.
At times, life in church has been anything but safe. Like the Sunday a man with a gun in his hand walked down the aisle toward my husband. Like the time a woman assaulted me outside of church. Like the Friday night nobody could leave the building after choir practice because of a gang fight going on right across the street.
Every day I rub shoulders with people who don't have a clue about my midwestern roots or my occasional longing to return to a more simple life in the middle of nowhere. How could they? They come from the busy streets of New York, from Trinidad, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. A number of them have moved to America, hoping for a better life. Some have come from unimaginable poverty, while others are business people, doctors, and lawyers-all mixed up together in the wonderful family that forms our church.
And I'm tossed into the mix as well. An introvert among extroverts. A white woman in an ethnically diverse church. Never quite confident I can do what God wants me to. Certain, in fact, that I can't unless God does something. But the beautiful thing is that he does do something. Time and again. Over and over. He comes through. And that's what I want to tell you about-how God's been faithful, year after year, in every imaginable way. I hope my story and the stories of the people I love will stir you and point you to the only person worth looking at, the only one worth getting excited about. In doing so, I hope to share a few of the lessons I've learned along the way. I want to urge you to consider your own limitations not as obstacles but as opportunities for God to show his limitless power and unlimited love.
God's favor on the church and the choir has been incredible. He's been so good to us. How likely is it that someone who barely made it through high school and who can't even read a note of music would ever stand on the stage of Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall? How likely is it that the choir would win four Grammy awards and record twenty albums? I'm not telling you this to impress you but to show you how God can create something beautiful out of our weakness.
This isn't a story about fame or the thrill of performance. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir doesn't perform. We haven't provided backup to musical superstars or sung at national political conventions, even though we've been asked to more than once. Our call, our greatest joy, is to worship God, and to lead other Christians to experience him in worship. We also want to sing the message of the gospel to those who don't know Christ. So week after week, we open our hearts to him, eagerly waiting, painfully aware that if God doesn't come to meet us, we will never accomplish our purpose.
We are not naïve about the dangers that come with apparent success, because we know that self-aggrandizement displeases God. And God won't bless us if we're out to please ourselves. I tell the choir, "God has allowed us to win four Grammys. But there are better choirs out there. The only reason he's blessed us is so he can use us to reach more people. So just remember who you are, and I'll remember who I am. Apart from God we're nothing."
So this is my story and the story of others who've touched my life. But it's really the story of what God can do despite-no, because of-our weakness. It's the story of how he loves us, of how he acts in surprising and marvelous ways to do what only he can do.
It's not always a glorious story either. Sometimes things get messy. Believe me, I have known some dark days. I promise to be as honest with you as a shy person can. There have been times I've wanted to run away from this city, taking my children with me to a saner, safer place. There have been spiritual attacks on my husband and myself. Times of doubt and illness for me. But through it all, God has given me the strength to stay and to stretch, to pray and to believe.
LIVE AT RADIO CITY
Living in New York isn't always hard work. It has its advantages, like being able to attend a rich variety of cultural events. There's Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway's theater district, Madison Square Garden, and, of course, Radio City Music Hall, whose famous stage is designed to resemble a setting sun sinking into an ocean of red velvet seats. Normally a visit there is something to celebrate. But as I discovered, it's one thing to sit in the audience and another to anticipate directing the choir before a packed-out audience.
As I sat in my dressing room one evening in April 1987, just minutes before going onstage, I felt my heart sink into an ocean of worry.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir had spent weeks rehearsing for its debut on the world's largest, most famous stage. Now, choir members stood in the basement of Radio City Music Hall, waiting to make the twenty-seven-foot ascent to the auditorium. The stage that would carry us up is supported by a hydraulic system once considered top secret because it influenced the design of aircraft carriers used during World War II. A full city-block wide, it would make for a memorable entrance.
Though God had given us a remarkable opportunity that evening, I wasn't smiling. At that moment, I would rather have climbed Mount Everest than set foot on stage. I felt blank, bone weary, and brain dead. The very first song, the one that would set the tone for the rest of the night, was tricky and hard to count through using the "click track" that synchronized the recorded orchestration with our live band. Every time we rehearsed, I had gotten the count wrong, bringing the drummer and choir in at just the wrong moment. If I missed it again tonight, I would make a fool of myself and the choir I loved in front of thousands of people.
I slumped further into my chair, realizing it was only fifteen minutes to curtain. "God, how am I going to do this?" It wasn't even a prayer, because I hadn't the energy or faith to pray.
Then, as I bent over to put on my shoes, the atmosphere of the room suddenly cleared, and I felt something come over me, rushing through me like a wave of light, clearing away the fog. Totally charged, I felt full of faith, able to do what I had to regardless of how great the pressure. I joined the rest of the choir already assembled on the giant elevator. As the stage began to rise, I felt ready for anything.
THE BIG CITY
No one is more surprised than I about the way God has worked in my life, especially when I think back to the first moment I laid eyes on New York. It was 1954, right in the middle of Eisenhower's first term in office. I was only six years old, a child stepping into a new world, unaware of anything beyond what was happening to myself and my family as we drove into the city one steamy August night. Even with the windows rolled down, it was so hot that my legs felt pasted to the vinyl seat of our blue 1954 Mercury. Whenever I tried to shift clear of the other sticky kids in the backseat, the skin on the back of my legs felt like tape peeling off a package. It must have been even more unpleasant for my pregnant mother, sitting in front next to my father.
"Who picked this place?" "We're moving here?" "There's no grass!" My older brother and sister and I chimed in as the city swung into view. We had come from midwestern roots, and New York at night was a shock for kids used to open spaces and large backyards. One of our first meals came as a shock as well. We'd never heard of pizza. Why would anybody combine cheese and tomato sauce with a whole bunch of weird stuff on a large flat crust that had been thrown up in the air and twirled around? What happened to pot roast and potatoes, fried chicken, green beans, and white bread with butter? This new food was strange and spicy, a surprising mix of ingredients just like the city itself.
My dad had accepted an invitation to become pastor of Maranatha Temple, a Scandinavian congregation in Brooklyn. Before that he had served as pastor of a church in Chicago.
A month after we arrived, I sat in Dad's office, a six-year-old girl with blond hair, perched on a table, waiting patiently while my mother pulled up my anklets and fastened the buckles on my Sunday-best shoes. All of a sudden, a young boy stuck his head around the corner and stared straight at me. That was my first look at little Jimmy Cymbala, a round-faced boy whose family joined the church shortly after we arrived. Jim was eleven and he and my brother, Richard, quickly became best friends. He spent most of his time at our house, treating me as a pesky little sister, nothing more.
Of the six children in my family, I think everyone would agree I was the least likely to grow up and do anything memorable. I was just so shy and insecure. I couldn't even bring myself to raise my hand in school.
If I could discard just one memory from those early days, I would toss out the day I took my first test. As the other first graders hunched over their papers, I sat quietly, doing nothing, not sure what I could do without a pencil to write with. Ten minutes passed before I worked up the courage to ask for one. When I did, the teacher let me have it, shouting and slamming a book onto her desk so hard I thought it would collapse. But it didn't. I fell apart instead. For a shy girl, unable to put words to her thoughts or feelings, this wasn't a great way to kick things off. School didn't click for me then or ever.
But being in church was totally different. I loved it. It brought so much excitement and happiness to my six-year-old life. And since anybody of any age could join the choir in those days, I did, pretending I could read and hoping I was fooling everybody as I held the big hymn book up to my face. Our little choir wasn't much, but at least it was backed up by a small string band and a piano.
Along with my family, I'd spend Wednesday and Friday nights and all day Sunday in church, much of the time kneeling at the altar after each service. Sometimes people would be there for long periods of time waiting on God. No one was thinking about the time because when you're in the presence of God there is no time. You never felt rushed. You never felt bored. You felt happy and at peace.
But as good as it was, my life in church was always overshadowed by the dread of school lying in wait for me on Monday morning.
School was never a safe place for me, a place to be myself, to learn from my mistakes, and develop my talents. As far as I knew, I didn't have any talents anyway, at least not the school kind. I felt fearful, unable to measure up. I was a daydreamer, a child who loved creative things and working with her hands but who hated to study. That frightened first grader, in fact, typified my experience of life for a long time to come.
Given my deep level of insecurity, you may wonder what has kept me from painting my life into the smallest of corners, making my world a safe but narrow place? If you know anything about my husband, Jim, whose first book, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, tells the story of some of the ways God has worked in our lives, you'll realize how difficult it would have been for him to be married to someone who dug in her heels, refusing to take the risks God was asking. Still, it hasn't been my marriage that has pushed me out of my comfort zone. And it hasn't been my life circumstances. Instead, it's been my sense of God's incredible love. I simply wanted to love him back the best way I could, and I've always known that loving him meant saying yes, no matter how awkward or afraid I felt. I remember as a seventeen-year-old girl, praying, "God, whatever you want with my life, whatever you want me to do, I want to say yes to you." That's all it took.
It's true that I come from a musical family. My father's mother was a talented pianist and my dad recorded several albums. Still, my natural abilities have never been strong enough to carry me past my sense of inadequacy and my fear of the limelight.
In the early years, God asked small things of me, though they felt big enough at the time. As a teenager I played the piano and organ in my father's church. Later, when I was twenty-two, Jim and I were pastoring a small church in Newark, New Jersey, where I formed my very first choir. I had invited six middle-aged women to come to my home so I could teach them one simple song we could sing together in church. How hard could that be? But I felt so young and out of place, even though my husband was the pastor. Who was I to tell these women anything? I didn't eat the whole day, and was so nervous I got sick that afternoon before they came and was sick again after the women left. But I survived.
By 1979, Jim and I were at the Brooklyn Tabernacle. By then I had about seventy choir members, and we decided to make our first recording.
Excerpted from He's Been Faithful by Carol Cymbala Ann Spangler Copyright © 2001 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 17, 2002
If you are not a Christian, but want to read a book about how the church is supposed to operate ---this is it. It is refreshing to read a Christian book that glorifies God even in the midst of some very difficult circumstances. I was so encouraged by this book. It is a wonderful reminder that Christians should live for Him, not for ourselves.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.