Saturday, February 11, 2017

O Master Let Me Walk with Thee -- Washington Gladden



This minister never let himself, nor his hearers, be comfortable. Washington Gladden saw too much in the American culture of the post-Civil War era that troubled his conscience, and so he pleaded “O Master Let Me Walk with Thee” while he endeavored to make his faith relevant, including in Massachusetts where he was (see picture) when he composed these words. He was what sociologists/psychologists today would characterize as type-A – activist. His conscience-stricken approach evidently came with a cost, for many of his peers found his message too consistently upsetting. Understanding what was going on in his own heart, versus what he saw and heard among his fellow believers and others in the larger secular setting about him, helps us contextualize this particular episode’s resulting poetry. Social justice-seekers are not content trying to gently coax their hearers; Gladden’s original words were more like dynamite, though they were trimmed for wider general consumption.

Washington Gladden had been a newspaperman in his adult life before he became a minister, and perhaps it was the investigative journalist in him that compelled his role as a social crusader and liberal Christian leader. His activist nature was not limited to church debates, but extended to battling political corruption and helping settle industrial strikes, as well as racism issues. One episode apparently drew heavy criticism from his own congregation, as he condemned a donation from the Rockefellers that was intended for missionary work, labeling it as unacceptable because of the donor’s reputation for running a corporate monopoly. It was apparently during one of many incidents like this one in which the 43-year old Gladden sat alone to pray, to ‘vent his spleen’ even, as did many of the minor prophets in their day (similar to perhaps Amos, known also as a social crusader). It was also during his time in Massachusetts when he began to campaign for workers’ rights among the various industries, so “O Master…” may be seen in this context, perhaps. Two of the most compelling verses of the hymn show Washington’s angst and his reaction to his opponents, but they were eventually excised when the poem was set to music. He compared his critics to ‘taunting Pharisee (s)’ and complained of their ‘dullness’; Gladden obviously did not shrink from this clash. Instead, he showed that he was human, and as so many of us do when we are the objects of scorn, he responded in kind. But, he also cried out with words in four other verses that show he sought his Master’s help for his own shortcomings. He asked for fellowship with Him in order to continue serving (v.1), for Divine guidance to steer those he encountered (v.2), for patience (v. 5), and for the reassurance of eternal blessing (v.6) that would spur him onward. One can guess that he got what he prayed for, since his social work continued long afterward, including his efforts to resolve an anthracite coal strike in 1902.

Washington may not have been the perfect Christian, but one could never accuse him of being lukewarm. One can imagine that perhaps he’d absorbed what God said about being hot nor cold (Revelation 3:16), and was determined to be hot, at least in respect to activism. The historical accounts of Gladden indicate his liberal interpretation of biblical topics often drew harsh conservative reaction, and that his reputation for social economic justice was also very progressive for the time. Whatever one might have thought about Washington Gladden, one could never say he was mild in his message. You suppose that he was indeed walking with God?

The following websites have the lyrics for the song, a brief version of the song story, and the author-poet’s biography: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/o/m/l/omlmwwt.htm
See more information on the song discussed above also in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; 101 Hymn Stories, Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories – Brief Biographies of 120 Hymnwriters with Their Best Hymns, Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.  

See biography of composer here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/newell

Saturday, February 4, 2017

New Doxology -- Thomas Miller and Thomas Ken



His goal was to help others see what he had just noticed, and re-appreciated, as one morning he reflected on something he’d been reading. Thomas Miller was a 38-year old minister, five years into his role in a Texas church, when he happened to be studying and spending some time in personal worship. He’d sung the very old and familiar hymn a long time ago, but perhaps that’s what helped make it fresh to his heart once again. And so, Miller crafted a couple of new verses and added ‘New’ to the “Doxology” that awoke something in his spirit. It was a personal moment for him, perhaps not too unlike the motivation that the original “Doxology” composer, the Anglican bishop Thomas Ken, employed in the 17th Century to respond to God in his own way, despite how it challenged others in his era. Ask yourself, as Ken no doubt wanted people of his time to consider: Is God the ultimate of my existence – the Omega (see this Greek letter here in both upper- and lower-case)?

They were both named Tom, and have a common link through the hymn they both have loved, even if they had widely different experiences with others because of the Christian worship they sought to inspire. Anglican bishop Ken has already been noted in this blogger’s history (see September 17, 2010 entry for “Doxology”), so let it suffice to say he was somewhat of an iconoclast of his time – a vocal critic of those who were traditionalists, especially those who favored music as it had been practiced for many centuries. Thus, Ken’s “Doxology” was his personal worship statement, yet also an affront to others because its words were not directly from the Psalms. Some three or four centuries later, our second Tom – Miller – was also making a statement of sorts via the Doxology vehicle. He says in a video of “New Doxology” that his two verses (the second and third, between the first and fourth that Ken wrote in 1673) came to him one morning (in 2008) as he spent some time in personal worship. An old hymnal song and an even older biblical text (Genesis) ‘struck a strong chord’ within him. Ken’s original 3rd-person perspective in his two verses captured Miller’s attention, and so while this 21st Century minister maintained the same perspective as his 17th Century brother, he added the more personal 1st-person approach. His main goal was to preserve Ken’s reverential viewpoint. He says that reading about creation reminded him of the Eternal One’s transcendence – He IS, even when there was nothing else. Miller concludes that he wants churches, including the Gateway Church where he ministers in Dallas, to maintain old hymns, rather than discard them for modern choruses. He says ‘new skin’ can enwrap an old hymn, helping to resurrect something that had been dead or dormant. Following that theme, Miller muses that Christ was still transcendent, even though crucified -- a startling concept this present-day composer wants to convey with the words of his third verse.   

While Miller has not experienced the persecution that would have been familiar to Ken, his goal may have been similar to Ken’s. “New Doxology” appears on an album entitled “Wake Up the World”. He evidently wanted to cause a stir, a condition from which Ken also refused to retreat.  Isn’t it odd that both Thomases may have had the same objective in Doxology? Yet, if one considers the derivation of the word, we may also appreciate what they were both saying.  The hymn historically has concluded worship, and the word’s etymology likewise indicates it means finality. In fact, it’s a kind of show-stopping climax that is intended. Nothing tops it. Kinda tells us what Ken and Miller were thinking and feeling, doesn’t it? Our God is the last word, the only word I need.    


The following site has Thomas Miller’s own story about how he came to write the new verses to this old hymn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhN5sdKLDcQ
Link to some biographic information on the composer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Miller_(pastor)
See here for origin of the word: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doxology

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Prince of Peace! Control My Will -- Mary A.S. Barber or Mary S.B.D. Shindler



She evidently spoke the English language, but there is little more than that which is known about this poetess/hymnist from the 19th Century. Her first name was Mary, and she felt like praying, so she chose to let others know what was going on inside her when she wrote “Prince of Peace! Control My Will”. This woman felt a conviction that she needed to surrender herself to God, but admitted she struggled with some inner turmoil. Could she overcome the misgivings she sensed within herself? Her questions were probably no different than ones we might ask ourselves nearly two centuries later. Is it OK to believe God’s purposes are perfect, yet shrink from submitting to His way? This Mary wanted to say this was her dilemma, while drawing just a little closer to Him.

The Mary who called out to the Prince of Peace, and for His will and control in her life, was either Mary Ann Serrett Barber or Mary Stanley Bunce Dana Shindler. Mary Barber was a poetess from England, where many of her works were published in the Church of England Magazine, so when “Prince of Peace! Control My Will” appeared in that journal in 1838, she may well have been the source. We can assume this woman, in her mid-to-late 30s, was a member of the Church of England, though what other specific circumstances may have prompted her poem are unknown. Mary Shindler was likewise a poetess and the author of a handul of hymns, but in America, where she was in her mid-to-late 20s in 1838. She’d married Charles Dana in 1835and had a son by the time the words appeared in print, and shortly thereafter they all moved to Iowa, where she lost both her husband and son. (She later returned to her native South Carolina, where she was remarried, to a college professor named Robert Shindler.)Whether Mary was a 30-something Englishwoman or a 20-something American, this woman voiced a prayer. She longed for peace, amid a life that evidently left her feeling that some inner disorder was still present. She hints at or notes clearly this extant condition in the first three verses, so she plainly did not yet feel she’d conquered what troubled her. Sound familiar? Everybody needs order, but where does one find it?

Does anyone in their 20s or 30s ever think they’ve got it all figured out? If everyone is honest, they’d admit lots of hurdles bang their shins as they attempt to jump over the issues that block their paths. Mary Shindler and Mary Barber may have been an ocean apart, but there’s no reason to doubt that either could have authored the words of “Prince of Peace…”. The words this poetess used are so universal, that no one could feel they are foreign to his experience. Wherever I am on my timeline, I cannot divorce myself from certain reservations. I want my own agenda, but recognize that I can be indulgent and harmful to myself. Yet, can I be sure my own needs will be met if I turn to Him more completely?  Is it possible to have everything align on my timeline, with some nexus making it all work perfectly? This Mary, whether she was 25 or 35, had decided that she’d been too focused on herself, and was turning in another direction. She’d decided where, or who, nexus was. Exit doubt, enter God, was her message.    

Some information on the possible author of the hymn’s poetry is here: http://www.hymnary.org/text/prince_of_peace_control_my_will

Saturday, January 21, 2017

No Longer Slaves -- Brian Johnson, Joel Case, Jonathan David Helser



Call it a collaboration, one that developed across centuries. No less than five people were originators of the words that came together in “No Longer Slaves” around 2014. Its inception is a familiar one for those people like the Helsers (Jonathan David and Melissa) and their friends Brian Johnson and Joel Case, musicians who delve into the bible’s pages for inspiration. These four wanted to share a message of confidence, and their musical genesis was an apostle-writer’s letter they must have been reading or remembering as they thought about how to make this process fruitful. How they decided to proceed is a story of synergy, between themselves and undoubtedly directed toward those whom they wanted to communicate, in a generation some two millennia removed from the original thoughts that captured their own imaginations. Slavery is an old institution (see picture here of some Christian slaves in 19th Century Algeria), one that we humans have been fighting for a long time.

‘We Will Not Be Shaken’ is the title of the album that Brian, Joel, and the Helsers were bouncing off of each other in 2014. They’re part of Bethel Music in California, where they spent an evening in a live recording of the album, sharing with the audience what they felt about their conviction. The words of “No Longer Slaves” speak about their own certain feelings, as well as recall a history of belief in the Red Sea episode (Exodus 14). You can tell from a video story (see link below) by the Helsers how the song’s ideas helped spur them to creativity. Brian’s immediate positive reaction to the Helsers’ suggested inclusion of “No Longer Slaves” was a sign that its words had struck a chord between the group’s members. From Brian to Jonathan, and then from Jonathan to Melissa, with Joel included also, the four of them teamed up to bring to life the song about freedom from slavery. Jonathan says he had a powerful mental image of the Red Sea story that stirred him, and the great apostle’s words to Roman people (chapters 6-8) from the first century likewise resonated with these composers, too. They concluded that what worked for themselves, as 21st Century musicians pondering ancient words, would be an effective transmitter to a larger audience. But, one cannot merely mouth thoughts without first personally engaging in their meaning, Melissa says. ‘This is my testimony’ she declares, regarding the song’s title words. Evidently, she herself spent some time prostrate considering what freedom meant, before she took a stab at singing ‘You rescued me’ and ‘I am a child of God’, the song’s finishing cries. Was this a reenactment of what that 1st Century writer might have done, as he considered his own liberation?

Perhaps boring into, and identifying with the 1st Century writer’s story would be an effective strategy for all of us. An educated Jew like Paul would have known the story of Israel fleeing the Egyptians via the Red Sea, and how that motivated a nation to devotion. But, in his time, Paul must have been puzzled at times that a nation freed from slavery in one era (during Exodus) could still be in physical bondage (to Rome) centuries later. He really didn’t get it either, until a Damascus Road light opened his eyes to another plane. Get beyond the physical, he discovered. Find the spiritual. The Red Sea was just a prelude to something greater. We could say that Paul, like the Helsers and friends have written, was ‘unravel(ed) with a melody…surround(ed) with a song…’ when he met God for the first time. Had an encounter like that, yet?          

The following link tells the story of the song by the Helsers:  https://bethelmusic.com/videos/no-longer-slaves-song-story-jonathan-and-melissa-helser/#

Video of the composers performing the song:  https://bethelmusic.com/videos/no-longer-slaves/

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Shall We Gather at the River? -- Robert Lowry



He had what someone might say was a vision. And, there was lots of death about him that summer of 1864, so was he getting a preview of Revelation? Robert Lowry was a 38-year old minister who was doing what his profession required when he felt overwhelmed, and as a result wrote a musical question,“Shall We Gather at the River?” Was it the Jordan River, of biblical renown, that he envisioned (and shown here)? He must have helped many grieving families cope with death at that time in Brooklyn, New York, so he wouldn’t have been ridiculed for feeling a bit apocalyptic. Was it just a coincidence what happened to Lowry, the confluence of events that compelled his poetic spirit amidst the tragedy he was witnessing? Was his God present? These and perhaps many other questions may have occurred to this composer, and he had at least one question’s answer as he wrote out the hymn’s words that day.

Robert Lowry was, ironically, a composer who might have preferred to have not been, compared to his other role as a minister. It is reported that Lowry once noted he felt a sense of loss as he came to be more well-known for his hymns than for his sermons. Nevertheless, he wrote some 500 texts over his lifetime, including collaboratively with Fanny Crosby and Annie Hawks, two fellow hymnists in the New York area. Lowry was ordained as a minister by 1854 upon his graduation from Bucknell (central Pennsylvania), and his subsequent role in multiple churches may in fact have played a part in what took place 10 years hence. He was the lead pastor in two churches in the New York City area, as well as in others in West Chester, Pennsylvania and in New Jersey. One can imagine that Robert may have had plenty on his plate at any one time, given all these church tentacles! Indeed, one sultry July 1864 day, Lowry was apparently very fatigued as a result of overwhelming events related to his ministry to the people. A plague was killing many in the region, including members of one church and a family to whom he spoke one day. When Robert comforted them with images of Revelation and the symbolic River of Life that the beloved apostle records in a vision, his own words must have lingered in his thoughts later, as he lay collapsed on a couch. It was there that the words to “Shall We Gather…” occupied his thoughts, first as a question, and then as the answer ‘Yes…’ that he recorded in the hymn’s refrain. It must have been exhilarating to hear the question and then the answer in his mind’s eye as he lay, trying to physically and emotionally recover from the day’s and the summer’s pestilential events. Maybe that episode was one that spurred him to continue hymn-writing, seeing it as a worthy extension of his ministry. His musical career did continue for some time, as he not only wrote hundreds of hymns, but also co-edited dozens of songbooks in the subsequent years.      
   
Robert’s experience is once again a testimony that death’s impact can nevertheless have a silver lining for those listening to their insides. Robert apparently did not try to avoid what he encountered. He embraced it. He must have advised and comforted many people whose lament he heard, telling them what they needed to hear. It’s reported that Lowry had thought about death and crossing the Jordan, and perhaps therein lay his exhaustion, in the multitude of people he and others thought of as lifeless. He said he’d wondered why more writers had not focused instead on life in the crossing of Revelation’s river. The mental anguish was real in his experience, as he asked ‘Shall we gather’ – in other words will we all face death? But, in saying ‘Yes’, Robert was coaxing his listeners and himself that it’s better to think about the reality of what else, besides death, will accompany us and others in that experience. Try on a little of Revelation. It’s more than somebody’s dream.  

See information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories – Brief Biographies of 120 Hymnwriters with Their Best Hymns, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.
Also see this link, showing all five original verses:
See link here for biography of composer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Lowry_(hymn_writer)