Tuesday, March 14, 2017

May I Call You Father? -- Reid Lancaster

It was 1974, and Reid Lancaster felt some deep regret in his Christian faith that he wanted to express. And, that’s about all we know for certain. He is otherwise anonymous, but nevertheless his words strike a chord in “May I Call You Father” that has at one time or another reverberated within the psyche of all true believers. It has the same remorseful character as the ancient King David’s Psalm 51, yet in a more condensed way. Was Reid in fact reading how David felt when he scrawled out his own few lines of lament? It’s a universal emotional state that exhibits itself across all cultures, where we could see someone prostrate himself to demonstrate the feeling is genuine (known as Dogeza in Japan, shown here). It was an era during which Reid, and others he may have known, could have been trying to address misbehavior. Does such an era ever really pass away?

Reid Lancaster wrote “May I Call You Father” during the early 1970s when the Jesus Movement was spreading in the United States and elsewhere in western culture, suggesting this phenomenon played a part in the composer’s musical effort. It was countercultural, as a response to mainstream churches and the broader traditional political landscape in America. So, was Lancaster trying to apologize for a broad spectrum of offenders – Vietnam warmongers and Watergate collaborators, to name just a few prominent ones? How about the staid, conservative, and even corrupt churches that Jesus freaks deplored? Perhaps, instead, Reid felt something was amiss more personally, since he uses the pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my’ throughout his two verses. He also mentions ‘I’m young…’ (v.2), suggesting he was indeed among that generation that wanted to turn from the orthodox approach to religion and pursue an alternative, something simpler yet stirring.  Whatever the reason, Reid’s sentiment is singularly focused as a consequence of what was gnawing at him. He evidently felt a gap between himself and his God had opened, and his only concern was to close this wound. David’s lament, in contrast, includes pledges of spreading God’s reputation to others (Ps. 51:13) and a hope that He will bless all the land David inhabits and rules (v.18). Had Reid’s wrongdoing been confined to himself and God? If it was, he shows he was willing to be vulnerable in sharing that he was guilty of transgression, and we can imagine that he probably had shared with others the circumstances that inspired this poem-song. David and Reid are alike in this respect – willing to pay the price, exposure.

Expose. It doesn’t have a nice, peaceful ring as a verb, nor as a noun when an accent is placed over the last ‘e’. Some people have actually sued others because of this word. ‘How dare you write that unauthorized book!’ Or, ‘You are a snake to publish those pictures of me!’ ‘Libel’ and ‘Slander’ – perhaps two of the most-used words in our legal system. Reid certainly might have had these legal tools at his disposal, but his poem tells us he probably didn’t haul someone into court about his uncovered sin. He didn’t try to make excuses for what he did. Instead, mea culpa -- through my fault – was his argument. Reid had figured out that that was where he needed to be in God’s courtroom.  

The background of the movement from which the composer may have come: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_movement

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Jesus Let Us Come to Know You -- Michael Card

When he wrote out the words, he did more than sing them. That’s what Michael Card would say about himself, and that’s undoubtedly what he would say to those he contacts and draws into conversation via his 1982 song “Jesus, Let Us Come to Know You”. He was early in his journey in 1982, perhaps near Bowling Green, Kentucky (see map here) where he’d gone to college, and it was not just through music that this artist sought to accomplish the goal of this song’s title. And, his journey hasn’t been one of solitude, for Card is a big believer in community, and that realizing the goal of knowing God is a learning process best met among a group of people. So, notice the words—one word, in particular--that he uses in his ode, and it comes as no surprise, once you’ve met and understood this fellow.

Michael Card was a 25-year old musician-second, and God seeker-first in 1982 when he wrote that he wanted to know God better. He probably has two people to thank primarily for his musical career – one professor/mentor (William Lane) who coaxed him to write his first songs, and a friend (Randy Scruggs) who pushed him into recording some of them. Lane persuaded Michael to write songs to accompany the weekly sermon at the church, so perhaps “Jesus, Let Us…” was one of those efforts, devised for one of Lane’s Sunday morning messages. Randy and another friend (John Thompson) then recorded Michael and some of his songs, hoping the effort would prove to record companies that their newly-minted production company was credible. Indeed it did, and their plan also unwittingly helped launch Michael on a musical ride that has continued for over 30 years. “Jesus Let Us…” underscored two things that seem to be key facets in his musical calling: First, music was not Michael’s primary focus, and second, his achievements have been in the midst of many others who’ve spurred what has emerged from Michael’s pen. These attributes come straight from Card’s official website, but they also are evident in the two verses of the 1982 song he crafted. The song’s theme – knowing the God-Son – and living among a community – evident in the composer’s recurring use of ‘us’in the two verses – tip-off the observer that these two crucial elements were at work inside Michael Card. What Michael had experienced with his mentor and his friends – a reciprocal, give-and-take relationship  – was also what he thought about God and himself, and that comes though too, in his poetry.

Michael Card is probably as well, or perhaps even more well-known for his abilities outside of his music. Author, teacher, and radio host are the other ventures that he pursues, all with the goal of living among others and encouraging them to join the journey he’s on himself. ‘Us’ is a the tiny word he employs 11 times, underscoring how he’s been conducting his exploration of God’s connection to his universe. While it’s a life-long education at which Card has excelled, he would readily admit it’s been most fruitful because of the many people with whom he’s interacted. Seeking God isn’t a solitary enterprise. Michael would probably say ‘go find a group to feed upon and feed them in return’. While you’re doing that, see if you notice Him doing the same with you.  

Biography on the composer here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Card
Another biographic article, this one on composer’s official website: http://www.michaelcard.com/biography

Saturday, March 4, 2017

In the Hour of Trial -- James Montgomery

Was he putting himself in the apostle’s shoes when he scrawled out some words, pleading with God from a troubled place? James Montgomery had been reading something pretty profound, and the ancient words resonated in his spirit. He thought of the apostle, and a bit of himself too, when he prayed with the words “In the Hour of Trial” in 1834. He’d had some rough experiences, so could what he had written be superimposed upon his own circumstances at a particular point in his life? He was aging, so maybe he was thinking about what lay not too far into the future, too.  

James Montgomery’s life in Britain was anything but a casual, carefree existence in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and that may provide a window into his frame of mind when he wrote about a trial in 1834. He was a native Scot, but moved to Sheffield in northern England as a young man, hoping to launch a literary career in poetry. He’d already had a challenging life, as his missionary parents died when he was but 12 years old, leaving him to cut his own path into the adult world. He apparently failed in school, and was subsequently apprenticed in two different areas (a baker, then a storekeeper) before finding himself in the employ of a newspaper editor. After 22 years, he found himself in charge of the newspaper (the Sheffield Iris), and during the next few years was imprisoned twice, being accused of sedition. Nevertheless, he stayed with the paper for 32 years as its editor, but garnered more notice for his poetry’s social justice themes, including abolition of slavery. He even wrote some of his most notable poetry (Prison Amusements) from a prison cell! By the early 1830s James had retired from the newspaper, but was still engaged in poetry and hymn-writing; over his lifetime, he composed over 400 hymns. It was during his retirement years, at age 63 and probably while in Sheffield (perhaps the 1809 painting here of Sheffield Manor’s ruins was not unlike what James might have seen), that he apparently read the biblical account of Peter’s denial of Christ, spurring his poem-song “In the Hour of Trial”. He evidently put himself in Peter’s shoes (v.1), entreating the Lord that He would extend to him the same grace that He had toward the Apostle. Would it be a stretch to imagine that James was in a reflective mood, thinking about his own life experiences (vv. 2-3)—his own trials as an orphan and a prisoner? Indeed, was he looking to the future too, to his own spiritual inheritance (v.4), which he gained some 20 years later?  Montgomery didn’t wallow in his trials, but made his prayer for deliverance an active, life-motivating adventure, as an advocate for people around him who were ill-treated. Casual and carefree he was not.

‘Pay it forward’ was a motto that James Montgomery might have embraced. You see conditions in your world that you think are unfair, even abhorrent? James could have just looked after his own needs, given what happened to him early in life, yet he seemed to use much of what happened to himself as a springboard – like his poetry while he was incarcerated. Sounds a little like somebody named Joseph (Genesis 39-41), doesn’t it? James wasn’t afraid to put himself at risk to speak out for others, perhaps because he’d already been in precarious spots and knew that someone was watching over him. So why not throw caution to the winds? Say what needs to be said to impart camaraderie to others about you who are struggling, and maybe your selflessness will prompt others to do the same. Then, see how you feel praying about your trials…that’s what James Montgomery did.    

The following website has the lyrics for the song: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/i/n/t/inthehou.htm

This website has the composer’s biography: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/m/o/n/montgomery_j.htm

See here also for biographic information on the composer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Montgomery_(poet)
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; and Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.  

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Open Our Eyes Lord -- Robert Cull

Somebody not knowing what this guy was experiencing emotionally at the time in 1976 might have assumed he was in a paradise-like place internally, just by looking at his physical surroundings in Hawaii (see the state’s seal here).  But Bob Cull hadn’t become so transfixed by the beautiful scenery in the Aloha state that he ignored what was happening as he tried to reach a group of youngsters. Maybe you’ve had that moment, when the crowd behaved as if you were giving the briefing right after lunch, and the topic was something rather blasé. ‘Dare to be dull’…that’s what they’re whispering, or at least their body language is giving you that vibe. You cannot exactly lob a stick of dynamite into someone’s lap to remedy this situation. You can guess what Bob Cull’s alternative solution was as you consider the title of the song lyric by this 27-year-old Jesus ‘hippie’ – “Open Our Eyes Lord”.

Robert Cull was part of the Jesus Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that phenomenon ultimately travelled thousands of miles with him along for the journey. As one of the newfound Christians of that era in California, Cull and others in that crucible of faith development wanted their beliefs and practices to be simple and focused. Jesus, in a word, was it. This simple message of God’s grace through the Son resonated with them, and with many others who’d felt discarded by their generation’s older adults. They were, in fact, a consequence of an unpopular war (Vietnam) and a national political scandal (Watergate) that embittered them and their peers. They needed and searched for something they could trust. You can picture Bob, and probably his wife Joy whom he met at Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel, strumming on a guitar, humming and singing the uncomplicated tunes of that era, and letting Jesus soak into their beings. Bob and Joy could have remained in California, but they found themselves in Hawaii in 1976, where they took their version of the Jesus Movement. Bob was talking to young people at a Christian school, evidently trying to motivate them with the same message of Jesus’ influence that had touched his own life not too many years before then. But, he says the kids were unresponsive, and he was at a loss. It must have been a jolt for this Jesus hippie to feel their rejection of a God who had captured his spirit as a young person. Was there already an unbridgeable generation gap between them and himself? What was he to do?  That’s when Bob prayed, and “’Open Our Eyes Lord” emerged. Cull had decided that only the God who’d reached inside his being years before could connect with the group to whom he spoke. Nothing intricate was needed, just eyes and ears that He could open.  

Cull’s story suggests that he was in a classroom the first time that he pleaded with God for vision. Maybe other times, it was around a nighttime campfire, looking into the darkness. Did the song’s first singers in fact find something revelatory among shadows where before they’d seen nothing? Perhaps that’s the key that Bob discovered – ask God to let you see (or hear) something you have in fact been staring at, but have not yet noticed. If you see Him at least once, maybe you’ll take a chance and look at other things and see Him there too. Try out those new eyes.     

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. 

See a very brief biography of composer here: http://christianmusicarchive.com/artist/bob-cull
See link here to examine the movement of which this composer was a part:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_music

Monday, February 20, 2017

Teach Me Lord to Wait -- Stuart Hamblen

He was a 45-year old former alcoholic, singing cowboy, actor, radio personality, and presidential candidate (see his and his running mate’s 1952 campaign button here) when he wrote something, with a little help from what he must have been reading. Stuart Hamblen certainly didn’t look the part of a shy, retreating fellow – in fact, the apparent reverse of the person that had lived four decades in the limelight -- when he made the heavenward appeal “Teach Me Lord to Wait”. Maybe he was drawing upon his family background when he wrote the words. Could the words also have been a reflection of where he’d been, the re-creation he now was, and where he wanted to go? It was mid-life for this native Texan, but he wasn’t headed downhill and certainly wasn’t all used up.      

Stuart Hamblen began life in Texas, but really hit it big in California, in more ways than one. His father was a preacher in Texas, which must have given Stuart at least some of the background for what would take place in mid-life, after a tumultuous two decades in entertainment adventures. Hamblen was a 1930s radio and country-western movie star, and it wasn’t long until he had a record contract too. He owned race horses for a time, and by 1938 even ran for Congress (though he lost in a close race). All along the way he tried to manage the stress of his celebrity status with alcohol and gambling, a descent that found its bottom via an encounter with Billy Graham in 1949. Stuart gave himself to God, and perhaps any remaining conversion skeptics began to believe when he subsequently declined to promote beer on the radio, for which he was fired from his show. Perhaps his father’s career as a minister in Texas got Stuart’s attention during this time, too; it was in 1946 that Dr. J.H. Hamblen established the Evangelical Methodist Church in Abilene. Until 1952, the converted Stuart hosted a Christian radio show The Cowboy Church of the Air, and also ran on the Prohibition Party’s national ticket for president in the same year (though losing to Dwight Eisenhower). By 1953, this 45-year old was a twice-loser for public office, but also a converted drunk and still popular country-western musician, whose Christian faith stuck with him; Billy Graham delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1989. “Teach Me Lord…” gestated in Stuart’s mind during these days in the early ‘50s, when he as a newfound believer and successful popular figure. Its words indicate he sought his direction from above; perhaps he also suspected the gracious Lord would bless him further – as Isaiah’s words suggested to that prophet when he thought of himself as airborne with God’s eagle wings (Isaiah 40:31).   

Hamblen wasn’t finished in 1953, despite losing an election the previous year. Two of his most well-known songs came in 1954 and 1955 – “This Ole House” and “Open Up Your Heart and Let the Sunshine In”. In 1963 he testified at one Graham crusade about his Christian faith and sang perhaps his best-known song “It Is No Secret, What God Can Do”. Between 1970 and 1999 Stuart became a member of several halls of fame – and those were just some of the highlights. He’d waited, and the Lord let him soar. What do you think he’s seeing from that eagle’s perch now?  

See these links for biographic information on the author-composer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuart_Hamblen
See picture of composer-author here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/h/a/m/hamblen_cs.htm