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)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Friends - Michael W. and Deborah D. Smith



His name was Bill, and he must have been a pretty special friend. Deborah and Michael Smith were willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves one day in 1982, and with feelings that made them ache, “Friends” was the result. If you’ve lived among people and ever had to leave a buddy, a comrade, or perhaps someone you might have even called ‘family’, then you’re no stranger to what Michael and Deborah felt that day. Maybe you were even as close as the biblical David and Jonathan. (See this depicted here in von Carolsfeld’s 1860 painting.) The circumstances of leaving friends might be different each time, but the bottom line is the same – you miss them. How can one avoid the anguish? Maybe that was at the root of what Deborah was thinking, as she crafted the words that Michael would marry to music in just a few moments. Does our Creator know what it feels like to leave, or to see somebody special depart from us? What’s His solution?   

Both Michael W. and Deborah D. Smith had no doubt experienced this situation before, as they prepared to say ‘so long’ to their friend Bill Jackson. They’d been bible studiers together, probably providing insights and helping hands to one another spiritually and otherwise. Perhaps they might say there was even something like synergy when they were together. The rest of us might use the word ‘special’. It was Deborah who suggested they write a song for Bill’s going-away that would take place later that same day, and Michael the doubter that they could accomplish such an endeavor in time. But, once his wife – with an apparent God-given talent – gave him the poem within the hour, Michael must have known there was something exceptional in it. It captured something deep inside – could it have been the Spirit? He put it to music in minutes, and said it pricked the hearts of all who heard its debut that night. It hasn’t stopped doing so in over 30 years, he says, even inside himself when he performs it repeatedly for audiences today. Michael says kids who’ve lost friends tragically (as in car accidents, or otherwise in death), or just miss each other after summer camp, can identify with the song’s lyrics. ‘Everybody cries’, Michael says. It was part of the first album he put together, and it remains Michael’s signature song. And, its unique kind of genesis remains extraordinary, as Michael says almost all his other songs have developed with the music first, followed by the lyrics. Isn’t that interesting, perhaps even metaphorical for human friendship?

Friendship seems to be an integral part of the human condition. We don’t know exactly what’s in store for us when we encounter a new group of people, so we necessarily experience at least a few, but most likely numerous, times together before we develop true camaraderie. That’s kind of a metaphor for “Friends”, wherein experiences and the words shared between people precede the bonhomie -- the music -- of relationship. It’s glue-like, so that’s probably why it hurts to be taken apart – as when someone moves away. ‘I wish we didn’t have to say good-bye to Bill!’ Can you hear Michael and Deborah saying this about their pal? Yet, they didn’t run from it; they chose to sing about it. That was the Smiths’ solution. Lean upon the One who made us all this way. Trust the One that knows about our lifetimes, and that we can aim toward a time when friends never have to part, ever (alluded to in refrain of ‘Friends’). Do I hear ‘Amen!', somewhere?   


See biography of the composer here: http://www.michaelwsmith.net/biography.html
This link is the primary source for the song story: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=12244

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Just Beyond the Rolling River--H.W. Elliott



This Kentuckian was a 34-year old minister and-or leader in a church in the latter portion of the 19th Century, in a small place known as Walton (see an early 20th Century picture of its main street, perhaps not too different than what the composer may have seen some 15-20 years earlier). He was also apparently involved with a music company in Texas with a few others, while he also travelled to New York for a convention on another occasion, so H.W. Elliott (perhaps spelled Elliot, with one ‘t’) was certainly not as anonymous to his contemporaries as he is to us today. And, the message he delivered in his own era in“Just Beyond the Rolling River” is still familiar to us, his descendents. Elliot got around. And, he thought about, planned for, and wanted others to join him on another journey he knew he would take one day.  

We in the 21st Century have researchers and preservers of history to thank for the little that what we know about H.W. Elliott. He is nearly completely anonymous, except for a few details. Another music-lover and fellow blogger (see link below) has indicated that Elliott may be the same fellow mentioned in connection with a Walton Christian Church in Kentucky he pastored there. Another mention is made of perhaps the same Elliott, from Sulphur, Kentucky who attended and reported on mission work to a convention in New York City in 1910. Elliott also apparently wrote several songs and associated with others at the Trio Music Company in Waco, Texas. It was there that “Just Beyond the Rolling River” made its appearance in print, giving us some insight into what Elliott was thinking about his and his fellow Christians’ existence, as one century’s close drew near and another one approached. Could that circumstance have been on his mind, a dwelling on time’s passage and civilization’s eternal destiny? The ‘rolling river’ was neither a time nor occasion that Elliott dreaded, as one can fathom from his words. Indeed, he must have longed to witness the Jordan and to realize his inheritance, a place he called ‘bright and sunny’ (v.1), ‘fair’ (refrain), ‘holy (and) happy’ (v.2), and adorned with ‘pearl and gold’ (v.3). He makes it sound grand! Something else is evident in his thinking. He wanted to be there because of the others he expected to join. Elliott, we can guess, did draw others toward this goal.

The ‘saved’, ‘united happy band’ (vv.1,2) are also part of Elliott’s lexicon -- lyrical, rousing metaphors for another word he employs. We. Does anyone eagerly anticipate the hereafter alone? H.W. Elliott, this 34-year-old Kentuckian, could be described as a mystery. Did he marry, or have kids? How about other family? Frankly, we don’t know. Or do we? He thought of his next life in terms of others he expected to be with him. So, whether he had a spouse or any others who were given his name as a mortal matters not. When you’re headed in the direction Elliott looked, those in the same path become your family. Elliott says it’s ‘just beyond…’ too, so he thought it was close, something to grasp. We all have each other, and an amazing hope. What more do I need?              

Another blogger has written of the scant information on this composer at this link: https://hymnstudiesblog.wordpress.com/2009/03/18/quotjust-beyond-the-rolling-riverquot/

Sunday, December 25, 2016

God Be With You -- Jeremiah E. Rankin



He was a learned minister, and he’d preached a lot of sermons, undoubtedly after studying for a time on each occasion before sharing his messages with believers. How do you think Jeremiah Rankin typically wished his hearers well, at the conclusion of a sermon in 1880? It would have been very common for him to do as his ancestor, the Apostle Paul (see a painting of him here), did many times as he departed from the presence of various peoples. “God Be with You” would have been one way to vocalize his thoughts and emotions, but there’s a more ordinary way to express these words, a phrase that Jeremiah and others in the 19th Century would have said instead. But, without knowing the phrase’s origin, we can too glibly mutter these to our friends and family. Words do have meaning.

Jeremiah Rankin had said ‘good-bye’ by the time he was 52 innumerable times. Count the number of locations in which he had lived, multiplied by the number of people to whom he’d ministered or spoken, times the number of years he’d lived, and you might arrive at a number approximating the number of times he’d said ‘good-bye’. Born in New Hampshire, educated in Vermont and Massachusetts, Rankin was serving a church and Howard University in Washington, D.C. as he entered his early 50s. It’s said that he composed the eight verse-poem “God Be with You” as a result of discovering the true meaning of the parting words most people utter without thinking. Had he been studying one of the great apostle’s books, in which Paul likewise wished for God’s presence to be with new converts upon his departure (Philippians. 4:9; 2 Corinthians. 13:11, 14; Romans. 15:33; 16:20)? Rankin apparently composed the words for no particular occasion or people, but just wanted to underscore the meaning of the words, and to enhance the singing service at the church. Perhaps they needed a new song, and since Jeremiah had shown the ability to craft other hymn texts (he wrote at least a few dozen in his lifetime), it was not a surprise that “God Be with You” was the result. Would he have also spoken about the etymology of the phrase and emphasized for his hearers their true meaning, perhaps in a full-length sermon? His eight verses contained probably more than enough material for such an exposition. Protection was one repeated theme Jeremiah depicted in his poem. But, others emerge as well, like direction (v.1), sustenance (v.2), purpose (v.3), reminders (v.5), healing presence (v.6), saving power (v.7), and heavenly transport (v.8). He might have been a poet, but he was also a preacher!

What do I wish for someone as I depart from them? Does Jeremiah’s list cross my thoughts? Sometimes, I admit, I just want to be away from someone as I leave, so perhaps I should reconsider saying ‘good-bye’, or even just ‘bye’. After all, if I don’t really wish for God’s presence and influence to remain with him or her, I shouldn’t mouth such nice-sounding words. It’s an awesome thing to have Him near – no, inside – me. To wish that for someone else is a breathtaking thing. It doesn’t mean He leaves me, but yet He can join this acquaintance, friend, or loved one. So, what need does this person have that God can fill? Maybe it’s multiple needs that are in play. Jeremiah thought so, too.     

See more 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; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; 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 eight original verses: