The Holly and the Ivy

My family’s notably-sized Christmas music library has been the soundtrack providing the backdrop to family activities, whether hanging around the house or driving to work and school, since at least a week before Thanksgiving. One of the tracks from one of the first couple of Christmas albums that we owned as a married couple came on the other day and I was struck, for the first time for some reason, by the beautiful intermingling of imagery and lyric in “The Holly and the Ivy,” as performed by Roger Whitaker. While Mr. Whitaker’s music is certainly not typical of my tastes in general, my appreciation of Christmas music accommodates a much wider circle of musical styles than during the rest of the year.

I’ve been finding myself much more appreciative of the simpler decorations of the holiday season as I’ve grown older. Driving by a house that is neatly decorated in green garland and red ribbons with simple candle lights in the windows strikes up an entirely different sentiment than the Griswold-like Christmas displays which, while I also appreciate them in a different way, seem to land further away from the true spirit of Christmas.

Like holiday decorations, my appreciation of Christmas music focuses a little bit more on the center of all that’s out there each year. It is the traditional songs, the old hymns set to music, church choirs, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Johnny Cash ring true far more than the latest contemporary version of  “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).”

“The Holly and the Ivy,” uses simple language and image association, arranged in a beautiful manner, to focus on the core message and beauty of the holiday season:

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in wood,
The holly bears the crown

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet savior

The holly bears a berry, as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle, as sharp as any thorn and Mary
Bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas day in morn

O the rising of the sun, and the running
Of the deer, the playing
Of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir

My hope in posting this bit on “The Holly and the Ivy” is simply to shed an extra sliver of light on the beauty of an old, old Christmas carol that seems to get lost in the mix of the overwhelming pile of contemporary holiday music that exists in 2012. I hope you will seek it out this year and, perhaps, enjoy it just a bit more than you would have before.

A great resource with some interesting historical perspective on the imagery in “The Holly and the Ivy”

Paradise, Uganda – Another worthy cause for “the least of these”

Paradise, Uganda


The storm surge

At once a far-off rumble

Growing as it rushes

In and against

The levees

Cracks forming

Water trickling through

A precursor to the break

Forcing me to answer


How much can I take?

Yet the still small

Voice answers

Just louder than before

Built on the past

A growth of confidence

Bought by lessons learned

You won’t turn from this

And as you carry my yoke

Neither will I

On the tail of your draft

I will fly

Holiday Soundtrack Part 2: HOLY NIGHT – Kevin Max

Holy Night is a delicious change of pace when compared with the bulk of what is released in the category of holiday music. There is tremendous consistency in style, quality, and vision from the first track to the last. The general spirit of the album is one of respect for the original historical contexts in which many of these classic Christmas songs were written and an apparent desire by Kevin Max to present Christmas music as art as opposed to pre-formatted, Christmas pop. He seems to have intentionally shunned the crowded commercial sound often employed by artists when they decide to record a Christmas album. Many of the tracks adopt a darker and more mysterious mood. For example “Joy To The World” seems closer to David Bowie than it does Mahalia Jackson. Yet reverence for the focus of the lyric is maintained and the quality and craftsmanship of the music is remarkable.
While a consistent thread of lonesome reverence is injected into each of the songs on Holy Night, a few of the tracks are hung on an up-tempo frame that, while continuing to maintain a level of intimate, personal sincerity, also breathe a sense of spirited optimism rooted in the birth of Jesus Christ. While songs like “What Child Is This” employ lush strings and the taste of a full orchestra for the musical backdrop, the basic, quick-tempo of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is much simpler, yet, equally infectious and undeniably mood-lightening. Both songs have a character that grabs the heart of the listener and makes it feel just a little bit more than it did before.
A personal favorite from this album include “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which opens treading lightly with a particularly lonely sounding piano, but, soon unfolds into what I can only try to describe (and perhaps not accurately) as some kind of Soviet/middle eastern kind of rhythm. Max’s unique and lush vocals inject an often-heard and under appreciated song with a sense of renewal that draws the listener in.
The lowest point of the album in my humble opinion (if there is one on this album) is “Greensleeves” which seems to be thematically out of place. But, one blip isn’t enough to darken the bright light that is the quality of this album from front to back. The fantastic match between Max’s unique and piercingly powerful voice and the understated, yet masterfully present musical backdrop that blankets each track on this album is indeed magical if not, at least, worth a listen.
Holiday Soundtrack Part 1: Come On Christmas by Dwight Yoakam

(post originally appeared 12/8/08)

On Grace And Karma

A great post from a friend making a point worth being stated, and restated and….

On Grace And Karma.

Life Lost And Found: Connecting My Past With The Hands And Feet Project

Anyone who knows me personally knows that the last couple of years, and the last 12 months in particular, have been a rough time for me. My Dad’s 16 month decline and ultimate passing due to a stage four glioblastoma brain tumor shook my life to the core. My wife, my kids, and I all had our happy, normal lives thrown into a hurricane spin that, nine months after he passed away, we are still in the middle of trying settle back down into some sort of rhythm.

Coming to grips with the idea that all of the conversations my dad and I have had throughout my life are now in the past is a rough, ongoing process. I always had a lot of questions for him and he always listened and did his best to answer. While the questions continue the lack of a response is painful each and every time my mind turns back to him. The only thing I can do now is to think back to what was important to him, what he loved, what he wanted for me, for my family, for his grandchildren, and honor him in that way.

He had a heart for those in need. I know that he, along with my mom (divorced as soon as I finished high school) both took a step

My dad (1940-2012) preparing breakfast for guests at the local homeless shelter

forward in faith with a willingness to adopt me when I was about a month old from a mother who I never met, but, from the accounts of those who knew her, simply wasn’t capable of keeping me. Throughout my life I watched him visit and help neighbors, elderly and otherwise, whether by making repairs, taking garbage to the dump, building something, or just visiting. Even in the last five years of his life, after moving south from New York to be with us and provide daycare for his new grandson, he continued to be a helper and a friend to his new neighbors and, on many Saturday mornings, he would pick me up around 3 o’clock in the morning so that we could go to Wal-Mart to buy and prepare food to serve to the entire population of the local homeless shelter.

He was the constant model of Jesus, to me, yet he never attended church. Fortunately, in his final months and days, he accepted Christ. It was because of this acceptance that, I believe, he finally let go of the brain tumor-induced agitation that fell like a dark and ominous blanket of pain onto his home in the final couple of weeks.

His mind and his ability to cope with the stress of the position he was in started slipping just before the tumor robbed him of his ability to form words. His thoughts and his needs were trapped in his head and, for me as his primary caregiver (as well as his brother who was also there for the final two weeks), it became frustratingly difficult to understand what he wanted, needed, and was going through, just as his needs for comfort and understanding surely hit their most critical peak.

The result was a lot of guesswork regarding what to do in various situations, consulting with doctors and hospice nurses, and, surely, a number of mistakes in how I handled things. There were times, I’m ashamed to admit, when I didn’t want him to know that I was in the room because I knew that I couldn’t help him and I didn’t know how to handle it. In fact, over the past few weeks there were distinctive moments when it seemed like my presence there was irritating him. My memory of those final days and moments continues to be heavy burden that I am struggling learn how to carry. Though, I know, I am making progress, it is slow and I have a long way to go.

What I can find comfort in is the way he responded, on the final afternoon that he was with us, after being particularly agitated and uncomfortable, when I said something to the effect of (not sure that I can remember the exact words), “Uncle John and I are doing everything we can to make you comfortable Dad. It’s up to Jesus now and he’s going to take care of you.”

It was the last thing that I said to him while he was awake. Fairly immediately, he calmed down and, before long, fell asleep. He slept for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening until, just after midnight, with my arms around him and my head on his chest, I listened to his heartbeat slow to a stop.

He had given his life for my benefit from the moment I was adopted until brain cancer robbed him of the happy life that he was enjoying as a Grandpa (my kids were undisputed joy of his life), living a mere ten minutes from our house in North Carolina so that we could spend time with him almost daily. He lived a simple life. He was selfless and he was happy. Until brain cancer ripped it all away.

Matthew 25:37-40:

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

John 15:13

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command.

James 1:27

 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world

Currently I’m in a stage of my life where I’ve never been more aware of the blessings that I have had and continue to have surrounding me on a daily basis. As somebody who was adopted into a life that prepared me to grow and develop, albeit with bumps, bruises, miscues, and detours along the way, into somebody that I know my Dad was proud of, I recognize wholeheartedly the difference that a helping hand can make.

After disbanding due to Mark Stuart’s vocal issues several years ago Christian band Audio Adrenaline has reformed, with the stellar voice of Kevin Max supplying lead vocals, with a new album and tour to come in support of expanding the orphanages that they originally established in Haiti to care for “the least of these” in 2004. In addition to the relaunch of the band, several members of Audio Adrenaline, along with others, are participating in a marathon in Las Vegas in December 2012 in order to raise funds.

When I first read about the marathon effort, as somebody who just started running in the last two years, I was intrigued. The prospect of supporting such a noble organization, that addresses the exact need the bible instructs Christians to address, by doing something that I’ve grown to love such as running really appealed to me. But, the timing, injury issues, and distance between North Carolina and Las Vegas ruled me out from participating. Since learning about the Las Vegas effort, though, I’ve learned that they are also planning a similar effort for the Country Music Marathon in Nashville in April 2013 which I am committed to taking part in.

It is because of the example set by my Dad to help others, in combination with my love of running (albeit, slowly), the biblical directive given to all Christians, and my admiration of the guiding principles of The Hands And Feet Project that I am making this commitment to participate.

If you would, please read about the Beards, Hands, & Feet Project that I am launching in an effort to raise at least $500 to fulfill the requirements of becoming a Hands And Feet Project team member in the 2013 Country Music Marathon in Nashville. Please at least read through it. Then, if you are inclined to contribute toward this effort, please do so!

The Beards, Hands, & Feet Project: Growing Whiskers In Order To Support Haitian Orphans

‘Like’ The Beards, Hands, & Feet Project Facebook Page

Check out the making of the video for the new Audio Adrenaline single “Kings & Queens” which provides a good deal of insight into the mission of The Hands & Feet Project

View the video for “Kings & Queens”

Hands & Feet (and BEARDS): Growing Whiskers In Order To Support Hatian Orphans

Day 1: Clean-cut

Feeling the seasonal itch to revel in the masculine autumn custom of whisker growing, I recently signed on to take part in “Movember,” a group organized for the purpose of raising awareness and support for male health issues, such as prostate cancer, by growing out one’s moustache. Now, while raising awareness for male health issues is, certainly, a noble and worthwhile cause, an issue that has been weighing much more significantly in my life of late is that of the plight of orphans and, specifically, those in Haiti. While the consequences of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the northeast U.S. are still unfolding, the devastating effects of the hurricane hit that Haiti took in 2008 are still being felt, as well, especially by children who don’t have families to care for them.

As a Christian, I believe that Christ’s directive to aid and minister to “the least of these” and to love others as yourself couldn’t be any clearer. This is what he wanted us all, as Christians, to do: serve and care for the most vulnerable. The Hands & Feet Project has been doing just that for “the least of these” in Haiti since 2004. Even before the hurricane, the need to care for orphans in Haiti was great. In the time since, it has become even more of a critical issue. The Hands & Feet Project is focused on providing a safe, long term environment for Haitian students to grow and develop in:

Currently we are focused on building Children’s villages in the Caribbean nation of Haiti. Each village is built with the dual purpose of caring for orphans and providing a place for partners to come serve with us on short term mission trips. Our villages are lead by American and Haitian staff members who are committed to the Hands and Feet family values.

In fact, after already establishing and maintaining two Children’s villages for orphans in Haiti, they are at full capacity and are now planning to expand by building two more Children’s villages in order to take care of more children in need.

So what does this have to do with me? …or beards in general, for that matter?

Day 5

I’ve decided to expand my “no-shave-November” focus for the benefit of the Hands & Feet project in Haiti and tie “No Shave November” in with the commitment that I’ve made to participate in the Country Music Half Marathon in April 2013 as part of the Hands & Feet team. I am committed to let the beard develop through the month of November, regardless, much to my wife’s chagrin. As much as I try, year after year, it never comes out looking like a beard should.

All that being said, I am willing, in order to benefit the Hands & Feet Project, to further embarrass myself, and my wife, by letting it go PAST November FOR AS LONG AS I HAVE THE FUNDRAISING INCENTIVE TO DO SO!

So, I’m asking friends, family, and strangers to lay down your hard-earned cash to commit to funding at least one day (or as many as you like!) of extra beard growth beyond November in order to benefit The Hands & Feet Project at a rate of $10 per day.

In fact, if you’re willing to commit to funding my whisker growth beyond “no-shave November,” during the month of November, I will gladly take pledge commitments of just $5 for each day, instead of the $10/day rate I’ll be asking for after 12/1/12, in order to help get the ball rolling!

If the support is there, I am willing to let it go, COMPLETELY UNBRIDLED(!), until the day I take part in the Country Music Half Marathon in Nashville, TN on April 27, 2013! That would be six full months of wild whisker growth – but ONLY if the charitable funding is there to egg me on in support of the orphans in Haiti being cared for by The Hands & Feet Project!

The specifics of how the funding will best be processed are still somewhat in the works, but, here are some options that you can consider to take part in this effort:

  1. Send me a check, made out to The Hands And Feet Project made out for $10 or more (depending on how long you are sponsoring my beard for) that I can send in at the end, along with other donations, in one lump sum.
  2. Send The Hands & Feet Project a check made out for $10 or more (depending on how long you are sponsoring my beard for) with “MARK ROCKWELL’S HANDS/FEET/BEARD HALF-MARATHON FUND” written on the memo line (but, make sure you let me know if you do so that I can keep track of how many days are funded and keep my whiskers safe from the razor!)
  3. Wait for the official Hands & Feet Project Team link: The Hands & Feet Project will be posting a link on their page through which you can donate specifically, in my name, to benefit the effort. However, this link may not be up until January 2013 and the whiskers are going to need some protection before then!

Day 8

If you have any questions at all (my mailing address, why I’m doing this, or just to tell me that I’m crazy and you know I’ll never be able to run 13.1 miles at once), feel free to e-mail me at

I will update my blog, Twitter ( @gracemark ), and Facebook page with updates about which days are funded and which still need funding as the ball gets rolling. If you’re generous enough, I may have to tie the beard up in April in order to keep from tripping on it while I run!

All kidding aside, this is a very serious effort and I would be sincerely grateful if you would lend me, my whiskers, and the orphans being cared for now (and in the future) your support. Please sponsor my facial hair today. I’ll be happy to start taking pledges of support….NOW! 😉