Saturday, April 22, 2017
Whatever she felt, she didn’t want the life of ease, if we can take the words she crafted in the mid-19th Century as an accurate portrayal of her emotions. Her name was Love Maria Whitcomb Willis, and she wrote out a prayer in 1856 with words one often does not hear someone vocalize when lifting a request heavenward. How did she come to that place, circumstantially, when she said “Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer”? Knowing her background and what other pursuits she had, and whom she married some two years after she wrote these words, provides some valuable insight into Love’s motivation. It might make you ask yourself about how intently you pray to your Creator. Do you think He’s actually listening and responding in tangible ways? If you had known Love Maria Whitcomb (later Willis) in 1856, you might have said her answer to that question was an unequivocal ‘yes’.
Love Whitcomb was the 32-year old daughter of a Unitarian minister in 1856, so it was logical for her to have an inclination to pray. The events that would transpire in the next several years also casts some light upon what she might have been thinking when she wrote out her five-verse poem. As a Unitarian, Love would have grown up watching and participating in prayer in the worship services where her father ministered. By the time she was 32, perhaps in the Boston area, it wasn’t clear if she had already known the Dr. Frederick Willis that she would marry two years hence, since he was apparently a divinity student at Harvard at that time. But, two other facts in her own life and his shed more light on “Father, Hear the Prayer…”: She would become the editor of the well-known Spiritualist journal The Banner of Light, and Frederick would also become intrigued by the Spiritualist movement and eventually became a minister in this sect later after they married, in the western New York state region. Spiritualists who read the weekly journal that Love edited believed mediums (through a séance) could contact and converse with the dead. Other newsworthy items, including sermons and book reviews, occupied the journal’s pages, but the reports of contact with the spirit world were the centerpiece of its existence. So, when Love composed her poem in 1856, was this her own form of spirit-world contact? And, noting what she asked God to do in her prayer is somewhat illuminating. She must have believed that hers and others’ lives could be expected to endure hardship – and she does not ask for relief from that. Four of her five verses indicate she wanted only His presence to strengthen her. Divine presence and guidance via contact with another realm was what she sought, not ease (v. 1), green pastures (v.2), nor still waters (v.3). ‘Father, hear…’, may have been only her opening line in communication with Him. She probably expected answers in return, if her work with The Banner of Light is a window onto her beliefs.
From whom would I most like to hear, if I could contact someone on the other side of terrestrial life? It would be very moving to talk to mom and dad, but would that really affect me significantly – like changing my life’s direction? Remember what Jesus said about contact with the dead in a story He told (Luke 16:19-31)? I already have what I need to make the best choices for myself. And, I can contact someone in that other realm – it’s called prayer. Love Willis tried it, at least once. Isn’t at least one try worth your effort?
See the following links for scant biographic information on the author: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/w/i/l/l/willis_lmw.htm
See the following link for all five original verses of the song: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/f/a/t/h/fathhear.htm
Link to information about a regular publication that the author edited: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banner_of_Light
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Its origin is over 1,300 years old, and the context of its adoption as a worship-prayer also has some irony. Knowing its source and the span of its endurance tell us that its single thought is so universal for us mortals that its objective may never be realized here on earth. Only a new beginning – a New Earth – may make the peace we all want possible. Is that what the original composer, whoever he or she is, thought when “Grant Us Peace” was first written (evidently in the 7th Century, during the papacy of Sergius I, shown here)? It is a longing for tranquility, not just with each other, but with the One who made each of us, that gives the “Grant Us Peace” its thorough, all-encompassing quality. What would it be like to find oneself in a peaceful state, finally? Is that why the end of mortal existence is often called ‘sleep’, because that’s where peace is finally apprehended?
“Grant Us Peace” (some hymnals entitle it “Holy Father”) is known perhaps more commonly in the Latin as ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’, hinting at its origin in a faith system that has historically used this language. Roman Catholicism in the late 600s during the time of Pope Sergius I was in conflict with the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity because, among other things, it referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God (Agnus Dei in Latin)”, rather than as a man. Consequently, Sergius’s Byzantine counterpart, the emperor Justinian II, tried to intimidate and then arrest him for singing Agnus Dei and its concluding phrase ‘grant us peace’. An offense against what a church council in Constantinople had decreed was, after all, not a trifling matter. Sergius undoubtedly knew that singing Agnus Dei was a defiant act, certain to offend those in the East. ‘Grant us peace’ therefore makes sense in not only a vertical direction, but horizontally too as Roman Catholics sought to worship their Lamb, even if it risked strife with their Eastern Orthodox brothers. Asking God to have mercy on us, his servants here below, was one way for the worshippers singing Agnus Dei to seek peace in this life. But, there was also the people-to-people struggle they could not seem to escape, and maybe that was part of what Sergius and Rome understood when they sang ‘grant us peace’. It’s a sad irony that peace was the objective but the opposite ensued, at least in the terrestrial realm.
Another part of Sergius’s background has some irony for us in the 21st Century. His family background was rooted in Antioch, Syria, from where the chant to the Lamb of God is thought to have originated. It’s the same place where Christians were first called out by that name (Acts 11:26), and it’s part of the state where fighting goes on today, some 1,300 years after the era of Sergius and Justinian II. The struggle to call upon God, in the way people want to, is ongoing. It’s still a vertical and a horizontal issue, until one day the lamb and the wolf will live in peace. (Isaiah 11)
Read about song’s origin here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnus_Dei_(liturgy)
The pope with perhaps the closest association with the song has a link here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Sergius_I
Saturday, April 8, 2017
One can imagine this English composer (see the flag of England here) sat one Sunday evening in 1820, perhaps with some boys and girls that he mentored and whom he decided needed a lullaby. James Edmeston was a professional at something other than hymnwriting, yet he apparently took his avocation for song-making pretty seriously – probably about as seriously as he did his faith in God. So, when he called on Him with a request to “(Savior) Breathe an Evening Blessing”, he wasn’t just marking time with a hobby. He was doing what he’d do for most of his life. It lasted and impacted another composer (Edward Henry Bickersteth, Jr.) over a half-century later, so that another two verses were added to Edmeston’s initial words. People come and go, but the human need for rest and reassurance every evening continues.
James Edmeston was an architect and surveyor, but that wasn’t the sum of his life when he was 29 years old. He was the grandson of a minister, which evidently ingrained in James the Christian faith that he adhered to with conviction. He served in several positions of responsibility in the church where he was a member, perhaps serving most notably by crafting a hymn for each Sunday – up to 2,000, meaning he would have been faithful to that undertaking for nearly 40 years. Besides a professional and religious life that occupied his time, James was also reportedly a frequent visitor at the London Orphan Asylum, where he evidently crafted many hymns for the resident children. “Savior, Breathe…” has words that suggest he was trying to close a day with a prayer for rest and comfort, either for himself or others. Who would have needed that kind of entreaty in James’s life more than a group of orphans? The orphanage had only recently been established (in 1813) by a minister (Andrew Reed) in the London area, but whether James knew him or what prompted Edmeston’s involvement with the orphanage are not known. If he wanted to write song verses, perhaps he felt the orphans were a worthy environment where he could minister and simultaneously practice his hymn-writing. Whatever James Edmeston’s reason for ministry to the orphans, his hymn-poem may have been concrete evidence that he reached out to needy children who needed an adult in their lives. Did James have any children of his own? He may have in fact been the surrogate parent to many more children than he otherwise would have fathered naturally.
Abandonment, loneliness, and disaffection are traits that James Edmeston may have observed as he visited orphans in London in 1820. That downward spiral would be hard to stop without a constant, reliable presence in a child’s life. Apparently, that’s what James tried to do during his time here on earth. “Savior, Breathe…” may have been a prayer he said for himself, or it may have been one he taught children to sing, as a father teaches and encourages his offspring. If it was the latter, James gave the children a bonus -- not only his own presence, but a supernatural one. As he might have said to the youngsters, ‘are we ever really alone, if He’s with us?” See if that helps you sleep better tonight.
The orphanage where the composer was active is referenced here: http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/LondonOrphan/
Secondary composer’s (verses 5+6) biography here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/b/i/c/bickersteth_eh.htm
Friday, March 31, 2017
This 36-year old Englishwoman wrote something in 1872 she called “A Worker’s Prayer” as she considered what would be useful to members of the church where she worshipped. But, she didn’t want it to sound like she was the one giving the advice, so she said “Lord Speak to Me”, an appeal that Frances Ridley Havergal must have made many times over the course of her short life. She may have been an adult, but what she crafted indicates she hadn’t grown up too much to ask for and accept advice from above. From where did such an attitude derive, and was this song’s episode different from others that stimulated her poetic nature?
Frances was the daughter of an Anglican minister (her father) and probably never forgot the last moments with her mother, though they were some 25 years removed from the poem-song that she would write in her mid-30s. Having deeply spirit-led parents imbued Frances with a consciousness close to her Creator in ways that mimicked those who brought her into the world, most especially her father. He was also a hymn-writer, a trait that he passed on to Frances. Her mother’s influence must have also been strong, as the story of her deathbed encouragement to 11-year old Frances is known today, perhaps coming from Frances’ own memory. The Havergals’ daughter was already a bright, committed believer before her teenage years, having begun reading the bible by age 4 and writing poetry not long afterward. She reportedly learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and committed to memory lengthy portions of the bible, including Psalms, Isaiah, and the New Testament during the remainder of her childhood. So, it comes as no surprise that Frances would write dozens of books and hymns in her adult years – the fruit of her upbringing. Frances’ health apparently caused her difficulty frequently, so her death at the age of 42 was not entirely unexpected either. Perhaps it was the ill health that also drew her toward him, as well as the memory of her own mother’s premature demise but nevertheless evident heavenward devotion. “Lord, Speak to Me” can be summed up, therefore, as Frances’ life experience -- a poem-prayer to Him, as well as a model to fellow believers. She wanted to be useful, and the words she shared indicate she must have been asked by others to share what was the key to her life. The answer? Go talk to Him first – that’s in the first line of all seven of her poem’s verses.
Prayer is access for everyone, and that’s what Frances wanted everyone to realize. And, it’s not just an isolated incident between my Creator and myself. Frances understood in “Lord Speak to Me” that seeking His direction should compel me toward others here, to share what He has for them. He’s not stingy, a notion that Frances Havergal had apparently grasped and wanted to share. “Lord, Speak…” has a dual purpose; there’s the one-to-one vertical connection in prayer, but also the resulting horizontal me-to-others link. That’s what Frances wants me to see. You suppose He told her that, 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; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
Also see this link, showing all seven original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/l/s/p/lspeak2m.htm
See biography of composer here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Ridley_Havergal