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Story by Fred James. Photo by Susan Brown.

I am not a fan of Valentine’s Day. I have long contended that it is a legal extortion racket perpetrated by the Greeting Card/Chocolate Industrial Complex. Any link to the actual St. Valentine has long been glossed over in the name of “romance.” Give me a break! With that said, my lovely wife, Julie, and I had an acoustic Gospel musical performance scheduled on the morning of Valentine’s Day 2015 at Glenburnie Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Richmond.

Fred and Julie James

Julie and Fred James

With our two children in tow, we arrived with less than ample time to spare due to the efforts of our four-year-old daughter. When we started setting up, there was a lady parked in a wheelchair where we usually perform and a table with Valentine’s Day refreshments where I usually place the guitar cases. Already a bit mentally scattered, I had to get the instruments and equipment in place while Julie got the kids situated. The room was fairly packed so the children had to sit directly behind us with very little room to stretch their legs. They saw what we saw.

Once we were ready to start, it occurred to me that our capos (clamps placed on guitar necks to adjust pitch and to allow for certain chord-fingerings) were nowhere to be found. I could have sworn that I packed them, but I couldn’t find them. We had to get creative very quickly because we use them for many of the songs.

The day before, I read an article about my guitar-hero Eddie Van Halen. He spoke to an audience at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. about innovation and what it means to be an American. During his remarks, Van Halen referred to “throwing yourself down the stairs and hoping you land on your feet” when performing live. He also stated that it was more important to capture the emotion of the moment than to hit the right notes. When you play as many notes and are as gifted as Eddie Van Halen, the law of averages would dictate that you hit more good notes than bad. Distortion pedals, tremolo bars and inebriated audiences also help his cause. Unfortunately for me, the songs we play are acoustic, the solos are more melody-driven, and I don’t convert guitar keys in my head, on the fly particularly well.

But this was our situation, and Julie and I had no choice but to perform in front of a wheelchair-bound audience, with one of them reminding us that she was hungry. At this point, I referred to Eddie’s comments and said that we were going to throw ourselves down the stairs and try to land on our feet. Julie and I would briefly confer on how to do a song and then were off and running. Some songs she sang higher, some lower, and some I managed to convert successfully.

We were actually doing fairly well until “Love Lifted Me.” We started in the key of A, but it quickly felt too low. We then realized it was in C. No capo needed. Julie did not accompany me on the guitar and instead stood up and “worked” the audience. Immediately, the entire room was singing at the top of their lungs and well within the key of C. At the end of the song a woman kept singing in her own melody “God Lifted Me! God Lifted Me!” I thought of Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Take My Hand.” The entire song proved to be one of the most purely joyful moments of my life. After the song, I shouted, “We ALL threw ourselves down the stairs and landed on our feet!”

We went on to perform with confidence and emotion and even played two songs from our wedding, “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” We finished with “Amazing Grace” and our son Ian joined us on the ukulele.

At the end of the performance, I told the audience that I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Valentine’s Day than with them and glorifying God through music with my beautiful wife. I believe one of the reasons God joined us together as a couple is to make music together for Him. The other reasons were sitting behind us watching the whole thing.

Afterwards, it occurred to me that our Christian walk is a lot like playing the guitar. Spending too much time trying to hit the right notes is like our futile attempts to obey the law. Without heart or genuine faith, we end up making noise, not music.

Author’s notes: I found the capos in my jacket pocket as I was packing up after the show. And the next morning, Sunday, February 15, the first hymn we sang with the congregation of FBC was “Fairest Lord Jesus.”

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Story by Allen Brown. Photos by Allen Cumbia, Win Grant and Allison Maxwell.

Easy to Follow His CallOn February 12, 2015 Becky Payne completed 25 years of extraordinary ministry as a member of the staff at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. During that time she has served as organist, soloist, children’s choir coordinator, accompanist for choirs, ensembles and soloists, advisor for senior adults, handbell choir director and ringer, and organizer and director of the JoySingers and the Youth Girls’ Ensemble. Becky has taken additional responsibility for many mission trips and choir tours and for a long-running Bible class for FBC members who live at Lakewood Manor.

In a recent interview Becky shared about her ministry at FBC.

Leaving First Baptist Church, Jackson, Mississippi, a place where you served happily and successfully for 11 years, was a major step for you, personally and professionally.

Yes, but for me the call of God was to “go.” I saw it not as a “leaving” but a “going.” Believing fully in God’s faithfulness, I found it easy to follow His call.

What are some memories of those early years at First Baptist?

becky-friends_350pxThe surprise of renovation. I had left a church which had just finished a major renovation, then learned that we were to do the same here. The renovation process causes big adjustments for an organist and accompanist. Also, I remember that it took time to balance staff responsibilities, each finding our niche and then finding ways to support each other.

Then there was the surprise of process, finding that the pace of most everything was much slower, especially in church life. In my previous church, things happened quickly and, other than scheduling, without needing the approval of deacons or committees.

Other vivid memories include the illness and subsequent death of our senior pastor’s son. The love and support shown to their family by FBC people told me so much about my new church home. (Dr. James Flamming was pastor from 1983 to 2006. His son Dave died in 1991, a year after Becky’s arrival.)

In your many roles since you arrived, what have been the most meaningful personal and spiritual parts of your ministry?
Worship and relationships. When I am using music to help people feel the presence of God, it is fulfilling. When the people sing “Worthy of Worship” or “Amazing Grace,” for instance, these become holy moments for the church family. But it is not about me—God is using my hands and feet and talents to glorify Him—to point people toward Him.

Personal relationships have been so important, especially walking through difficult times with someone. One of my spiritual gifts is discernment. I can feel the pain and share in the difficult but special process of walking with them.

Tell us some warm memories or “aha” moments.
becky-directing_350pxThere are at least three music moments that are special. One is our congregational singing of “The Lord’s Prayer” after communion. Another is when we sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. Those two moments make me fully aware of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ and the power we share in that relationship.

The third is when the Youth Girls’ Ensemble sang “Blessings.” The phrase “what if the trials of this life are blessings in disguise…” When I selected music for the Ensemble, I looked for text more than melody. As they practiced, they sang the words over and over. For this piece they internalized a great truth: If we let Him, God uses what happens in our lives for good. I was glad to be part of their learning this lesson.

One memorable personal event occurred after I had been here about 10 years. I was driving home from a conference and realized for the first time that I felt I was coming home. This was my place and still is.

How do you feel about your work with seniors?
When I was new to Richmond, I met the Wendy Bunch (a small group of couples who met on Sunday nights after church, first at Wendy’s, then in homes) – the Seldens, the Dixons, the Shearons, the Harringtons, the Lucys, the Elmores, and others. They embraced me with such love and care that I knew I was in the right place.

As my work with seniors grew and became a significant part of my ministry, I found my life enriched on every level. We have studied together, laughed and played together, prayed together, grieved and celebrated together. Our senior adults are the heart of this church. I love them.

You’ve gone on several mission trips. How have they changed you?
beckywithchild_350pxI was a Sunbeam and a GA (Baptist missions organizations for children), and I had a missions-minded mother, so of course I’ve always had a desire to see God’s world and His people. But nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced in Germany and Indonesia.

In Essen, Germany, I learned what it felt like to be considered part of a cult (how many Germans view Baptists). That sense of separation was overcome as I watched a young girl weeping when she sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” in German while some of us sang in English. I realized anew that God is everywhere and that we serve the same God. And I have lasting friendships with members of our host church there.

The two trips to Indonesia were medical missions. It was a life-changing experience to be among people who had lived through a tsunami, who had never seen a doctor or white people. Many of them walked for hours to wait all day, hoping to be treated. Yet there were always more than we could possibly see each day.

Despite that disappointment, blessings abounded. Indonesia is a place where I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. I witnessed a miracle as our group prayed for a girl who was obviously demon-possessed, and we saw her healed. Also, relationships among team members were deepened. We became more accessible and more important to each other as we recognized a new meaning in being brothers and sisters in Christ.

You are truly ministering to us through your exceptional instrumental and vocal skills. Tell us your feelings about this.
My calling is to teach others about the love of God through Christ Jesus. Music is the means, not the end. My abilities are God’s gift to me and He has been generous. I believe the greatest ability is availability—to be willing to use what God has given me to point others toward Him.

Editor’s note:
Becky’s last day as FBC’s organist will be June 28. She will retire on June 30, 2015.
View a video about Becky produced by Sean Cook and Allen Cumbia.


Allen BrownAllen Brown was Minister of Music in Baptist churches in North Carolina and Virginia, before becoming Director, Department of Church Music, at the Virginia Baptist General Board, from 1962 until his retirement in 1993. He has served the Music Ministry of Richmond’s First Baptist in many ways, including as a member of the search team that brought Becky Payne to FBC. He has been on Partnership Mission trips to Brazil, Germany, Slovakia and India. Allen and his wife, Charlotte, have two sons, four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.

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