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Who was the guy at the piano during the Bush funeral?

KENOVA, W.Va. (BP) — As millions tuned in for President George H.W. Bush’s funeral, one element of the service didn’t quite fit with the formalism of the ceremony. Sandwiched between Baroque preludes and orchestral hymns was a Grammy-winning singer with a slight Appalachian twang.

As evangelical mainstay Michael W. Smith sat at a piano and performed an emotional rendition of his timeless song “Friends,” one of the hottest online questions asked around the globe was, “Where did this guy come from?”

But in our little railroad town of 3,000, we didn’t need an online connection to find the answer. We know exactly who that singer is. And we are proud.

When most people think of Michael W. Smith, they know of him as one of the pioneers of contemporary Christian music, a timeless leader in the industry for more than 35 years. Smitty, as they call him in pop circles, is a multiple Grammy Award winner, an artist with 18 million records sold and performer of dozens of top 10 hits such as “Place in This World,” “Agnus Dei,” “Above All” and, of course, the Bush family favorite, Friends.

But for the folks at First Baptist Church of Kenova, W.Va., we know him as the cantankerous child whose mother was our church secretary for 20 years.

To us, he’s just “Mike Smith.” This very average child with a very average name (how can you choose a more average name than Mike Smith?) came from a very average church in a very small town in a very small state.

In biblical terms, he came from Nazareth.

As Smith quipped in a recent national interview, he remembers the first time he visited the Bush White House and thinking, “How did I get from Kenova, W.Va., to here?”

A big reason Mike got from Nazareth, I mean, Kenova, to the White House is because back in the 1950s a 20-something choir director by the name of Dan Ferguson asked his senior pastor if he could introduce drums, guitars and teenage worship leaders into their Sunday morning worship services. I’m sure there was some resistance at the time, but the visionary pastor allowed his choir director to try something unheard of (at least in these parts).

Nearly 20 years later, that same choir director spotted Michael’s abilities and gave him the leeway to develop his innovative worship style for the Lord. In small-town Nazareth, the worship offerings of the secretary’s son were well-received.

As I watched the pageantry of the presidential funeral, I couldn’t help but hearken back to the real Nazareth and wonder, “What small-town rabbi helped childhood Jesus learn the Torah? Who was the rabbi who guided Jesus as He was growing in wisdom?” (see Luke 2:52).

This small-town rabbi, the one who may never have been wanted in Jerusalem or even Capernaum, took time to prepare sermons each week, delivering them unknowingly to the ears of the future King of Israel. That same rabbi likely presided over Joseph’s (Jesus’ earthly father) funeral proceedings. With such a small congregation, that rabbi had to have known Jesus’ family well.

I also wondered if, because of their less formal environment, that same nameless rabbi had more freedom to have young Jesus help lead during worship services. Was part of the reason the 12-year-old Jesus was so comfortable in questioning the religious leaders (Luke 2:41-52) because of His close relationship with His rabbi at home? We can’t know for sure but it’s likely that the man who labored in Nazareth went to his grave without sweeping acclaim.

Author David Mathis has penned: “The Old Testament never mentioned Nazareth … in what seems, at least to us today, like unusual attention to land, geography … and not one single mention of a rustic settlement tucked away in a region known for its obscurity. Nazareth was an uncelebrated, forgotten town, off the beaten path, even for Galilee. When guileless Nathanael queried a friend about Jesus, he expressed the common Jewish sentiment in the first century (John 1:46): Can anything good come out of Nazareth? And it was only a matter of time before it would be the moniker that His enemies, and the demons besides, would use to throw shade on his credibility. ‘Jesus of Nazareth.'”(1)

We know of Rabbi Gamaliel’s influence on a pre-converted Saul in the Harvard-esque halls of Jerusalem, but just as significant are the unnamed small-town rabbis who kept their hand to the plow and faithfully preached the Word to a teenage Peter, James and John.

It’s a good reminder for those of us ministering in obscure villages today. You never know, your church secretary’s son might just be headed for the White House.

    About the Author

  • Steve Willis