Saturday, July 22, 2017

What a Friend We Have in Jesus -- Joseph Scriven



He was in a place called Port Hope, Canada (in southern Ontario), but his heart almost certainly was across the ocean in Dublin, Ireland (see its coat of arms here). He’d had a pretty rough decade, so when Joseph Scriven sat thinking about what to write to his ill mother, whom he could not go to see, he may have thought that she had been anxious about him. After all, his life had been turned inside out as a result of what befell him. Not to worry, he wrote to his mom, for “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, and therefore someone to whom each of us can always turn. Joseph had in fact been trying to emulate his God-friend, so he may have been testifying to her what in fact it meant for him to be a friend to others, to mimic what he saw in his Creator. What would one friend say to one another, if that listening friend was actually the Almighty?

Joseph Scriven’s misfortunes and then his response to them speak volumes about the strength of his bond with God. Joseph tragically lost two women to whom he was engaged to marry – one to drowning as a 25-year old and the other to tuberculosis many years later. And so, apparently between these  two episodes, he set his sight on complete devotion to helping others in need in Port Hope, emulating what he’d appreciated most about Jesus in scripture that he read. It was also during this interlude that he learned his mother was seriously ill back in Dublin. In his mid-30s, Joseph wrote her the four-verse poem that ultimately became his hymn about friendship and prayer, and sent it to her with a letter offering his long-distance comfort as best he could. Even after his second fiancĂ©e died, Joseph continued his personal philanthropic lifestyle, showing the bond between himself and the compassionate Lord was stronger than any tragedy that could come his way. Most people would consider loss of clothes and money as signs of desperate conditions, yet that’s where Scriven strove to go in the wake of losing his first love – to live Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in reality. Is it possible that’s the state where he discovered something deeper, more long-lasting, and certain than anything his relationships or earthly goods had thus far delivered? Perhaps he felt he had found the blessed life of which Jesus had spoken (Matthew 5), and had challenged others to join. After joining with Jesus in this way, Joseph must have felt it only made sense to address Jesus in prayer and call upon his divine friend in all circumstances, especially in the turmoil that life can bring.     

Joseph’s poetry suggests he saw lots of struggle as he lived out his version of blessedness according to Matthew 5 (vv.3-12). He’d had his own share, and would see more beyond 1855 when “What a Friend…” was composed. Five years later (1860) was reportedly the time when he lost a second love to untimely death. And, his own life would end at 66 due to a delirium-induced drowning (in 1866). In between these two calamities, he threw himself into the lives of the needy in tangible ways, responding to their own struggles in which he observed them. He certainly earned the name “Good Samaritan of Port Hope”, while making no known enemies, and likely drawing more than a few to pray to the One he tried to imitate. How does one make others think of God as their friend? Joseph Scriven didn’t just write out an answer. Go live it.  

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 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson publishers, 2003; and Hymns of Faith, edited by Ken and Janice Tate, House of White Birches publishers, 2000.  
Also see this link, showing all four original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/w/a/f/wafwhij.htm

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Lord's Prayer – Jesus



It’s a unique message, but do we realize that when we vocalize it? Perhaps we say the words so often that sometimes we do so without giving them much thought. Were the original hearers appreciative of its value when they heard the God-man utter “The Lord’s Prayer”? Jesus was trying to say something that the Apostles and others within earshot would apply in daily life, something that would be genuine before God. Just how important is it really, to pray correctly? After all, it’s just a few words between Him and me, not really involving anyone else. Are there not other significant worship acts that He cares about more? Jesus does mention a couple of others in close proximity to His instruction on prayer, but He seems to say something common in regard to exercising all three of them. What He says should make me reevaluate how visible my worship should be.

Jesus probably was in his early 30s, at least as a human being, when He found Himself before a large crowd seeking to hear what He’d say about life’s meaning.  He addressed many issues during His long talk (according to Matthew’s account, chapters 5-7), but at around the halfway point, He taught them how to pray. There were two other religious customs He likewise told them to re-examine, implying that they had been doing or thinking incorrectly about these things. Giving to the needy and fasting surround Jesus’ discourse on prayer, so contextually He is trying to let them into His mind regarding three pretty common worship practices. At least two of these – giving and praying – are still routinely followed by believers today, and the third (fasting) is a perhaps more exceptional devotional tool for true believers seeking Him in worship. In all three, Jesus says to either do my worshipping in solitude (giving and praying) or make it not easily detectable to others (fasting). ‘Don’t do it this way, do it thus…’ is Jesus opening for each of the three, indicating there must have been lots of so-called religious people who were showboating when they gave, prayed, and fasted. Yet, Jesus recognized that public praying was a fact of religious life, evident in the words He employs in His prayer-teaching (Matthew 6:9-13). He begins with ‘Our Father’, and similarly uses ‘us and other plural pronouns in the following few verses, signaling that He understood that praying among crowds, perhaps even very large ones, would be appropriate.  But, keep it short and simple, He says. In a nutshell, He says to enthrone Him and ask only for the basic physical and spiritual necessities. God honors that which is offered in humble submission, each of us realizing his position in relation to one another and before Him.

Not many words, but they are sufficient when one’s heart contains the impulses to do what He motivates me toward. Perhaps that’s one of the unspoken messages of Jesus’ teaching before the crowd. If I say a lot of flowery words on Sunday that others applaud, should I wonder if I’ve hit the mark? Jesus might say ‘yes’, if what I do on Monday turns His stomach, meaning I don’t practice the eloquence I verbalized the previous day. Am I really capable of superbly managing my world, the other people with whom I associate, not to mention my own urges? That’s where my prayer-rubber meets the road, so someone says. Perhaps I shouldn’t say more on Sunday than I can deliver in the following six days. Maybe that’s what Jesus was trying to tell me on that mountainside.        

The only resource used for this song story is the bible (New International Version Study Bible, and accompanying notes/charts, General Editor Kenneth Barker, 1985, Zondervan Corporation.)

Friday, July 7, 2017

Lord We Come Before Thee Now -- William Hammond



This Englishman may have been renewing his faith through an association with a Christian group that was spreading its influence to his own country from continental Europe in the early 1700s. William Hammond and others in this same group may have been heard at that time calling themselves ‘brothers’, though today we would know them as the Moravian Church. The Moravians’ brand of Christian faith was very intently personal, so it was not unexpected to hear that Hammond had crafted something he called “Lord, We Come Before Thee Now” to focus himself and his brothers on the discipline of prayer. Their influence in Hammond’s homeland may have been notable, if in fact a portrait during this period showing some Moravians with the English king (George II) (see it here) depicts an authentic event.  Hammond’s prayer was sixteen verses long; how do yours and mine compare?
     
The 26-year old William Hammond may have been searching for something in his faith for a while during the period in which he crafted “Lord We Come…”. It’s reported that he joined the Calvinistic Methodists in 1743, perhaps shortly after graduating from St. John’s College in Cambridge. Two years later, he linked himself with the Moravians, the same year that at least some of his hymns—including “Lord We Come…”--were published in Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs in London. Whether his composition preceded or followed his Moravian initiation is not clear, but its qualities are consistent with a couple of Moravian characteristics that might have drawn him closer. Their love of music and a pious nature would have been apparent to William, two traits encapsulated in his hymn. Was the Moravian missionary zeal also influential in William’s acceptance of this group as his own? If it was, this was not emphasized in his poetry. All eight original verses (in our time, each is split into two) instead center on the personal redemption, occasional physical healing, instruction, and spiritual adoption which Hammond experienced or aspired to achieve. And, though undoubtedly personal, William very obviously wanted the experience of God to be enjoyed corporately. ‘We’, ‘our’, ‘us’, and ‘all’ dominate the pronouns William used to convey who is addressing God throughout his prayer. Not even once does he employ ‘I’ or ‘me’, indicating he expected others to join in, using his words in a way that recognized each other’s membership in this faith family. We help each other express our hope and loyalty to our Creator. That was indeed a Moravian brother speaking.

If I am honest with myself, what is it I seek when I pray? My prayers most often seem almost at odds with William’s. I want stuff, or I ask God to help heal someone. By contrast, William and his cohorts seem to have thought much more about being in God’s room, about acquiring His nature, and about glowing in his redemptive power. The other aims of prayer—healing, overcoming terrestrial challenges—are present (in Hammond’s 18th Century verses 6 and 8; our contemporary verses 11, 12, and 15), but seem more like background elements in William’s 18th Century prayer. Am I part of the ‘ME’ generation, to a fault? William might say we need to be in His presence, most of all. Grasp that concept, before ‘I’ and ‘me’ are on your lips.         

See following site for scant information on the author/composer, and the original 16 verses (written as eight verses in his time in the 1700s): http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/h/a/m/hammond_w.htm
See this site for history of the faith group with which the author/composer identified:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moravian_Church

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Now the Day Is Over -- Sabine Baring-Gould





He was a 31-year old Anglican minister, with a home-church crowd that must have included some children. Sabine Baring-Gould had been a minister for perhaps a year, and had a small gathering that apparently met late enough in the day to see dusk. So he crafted a poem to remind this group that “Now the Day Is Over”, as they concluded their time together with a song and a scripture reading. He was fond of the kids in this group, and he did what many of the adults wanted for their children – to reassure and remind them that God is the creator and protector. ‘Rest easy’, he said musically.

Sabine Baring-Gould was an Englishman who entered the ministry at age 30, so “Now the Day Is Over”  may have been one of his first written hymns that he composed and which first appeared in print in 1865. With a small but soon overflowing group that met at his tiny apartment soon after his graduation from Cambridge, Baring-Gould was apparently quite attached to them, particularly the children. His eight-verse song-poem indicates his feelings were not a passing emotion, but something he wanted to preserve with meaningful words. It’s said that he based the song’s words on Proverbs 3:24, and being a minister, perhaps this was the text of a talk that he’d delivered that same evening. Like all people who long for rest, how does one achieve that? Sabine’s role as a minister would have placed him in a position to hear the stresses of others, and to offer words of advice. Sabine would likely have used a King James version to read When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet. Sweet sleep, ushered in with a lullaby -- that’s what Sabine’s church kids would experience with his help, he hoped. Did some of them in fact drift off while still at his apartment? A peaceful scene that must have been, and little wonder that this little group grew to fill his abode, for who couldn’t be soothed and attracted to that atmosphere? That’s what family is, a group where children are coaxed to slumber, and anxious parents’ spirits are eased. One can imagine this somnolent musical effort was repeated by the same parents in their own homes later that same evening, and many more evenings thereafter.

Baring-Gould’s reputation evidently grew over the succeeding years, as he was multitalented with many accomplishments to his credit. His published books on a wide variety of subjects reportedly outnumbered those of any other author in the British Museum Library at one point in his life. Besides these, Sabine was a gifted archaeologist, artist, architect, and teacher. In short, name a subject, and he could likely speak with some measure of competence about that. Yet, perhaps it was his ability to persuade children to sleep as a 31-year old that meant most to the folks who knew him. “Suffer the little children …” someone once said (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). This someone was a pretty appealing guy 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 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Unto Thee O Lord – David



He was a powerful king, a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). So, how did he come to contemplate shame when he considered his conversations (prayer) with the Almighty? David had many moments of which he was not proud, so when he called out “Unto Thee, O Lord” in one of his songs, he felt the need to ask his Creator to help him with this particular emotion. It’s a sensation we believers still find disturbing, so it’s not surprising that a 20th Century composer (Charles Monroe in the early 1970s) crafted his own tune to David’s poem, thereby permitting Christians to vocalize musically what was first expressed some three millennia ago. Its history tells us its theme hasn’t waned. In fact, its words are some I probably should sing every day.   



David’s life had plenty of valleys to keep him humble, in spite of the mountain-top peaks he also experienced. Whether it was being on the run from a jealous predecessor, or committing a series of heinous errors while stealing another man’s wife, to mishandling his family relationships, David had lots that gnawed at his psyche. At what point in David’s life did he consider his disgrace when he wrote Psalm 25, the text for “Unto Thee…”? Biblical commentators offer no insight, but there might be clues in what he wrote to suggest David’s circumstance. He indicates ‘sins of my youth’ as a concern (v. 3 in song; v.7 in Psalm 25), so is it more likely these are the penned words from an older man’s hand who's looking back with some regret? It may have been a series of errors, or those made over many years, that this individual recalled, since he uses the plural ‘sins’ rather than a solitary misdeed in his confession. Guilt is a powerful inducement to confession, an avenue to a profoundly deep mood that the Psalmist initiates with the song’s opening words. David wants to ‘not be ashamed’ before other people, perhaps his most pressing disquiet, since he uses this phrase twice in the first three verses of the Psalm, and then again near the Psalm’s conclusion (v. 20). That sounds like a king aware of his need for a merciful God, and yet conscious of his public image, too. How does a man look at his own warts and ask God to remove the stain of ignominy? How does one overcome humiliation? You can sense David’s soul search in the psalm has found an answer – God’s teaching, and His nature (vv.4-6, 8-10, 12, 14-15). David’s still human, with his own situation seemingly paramount (vv. 15-21), but does v. 22 indicate King David perceived his own flaws had brought trouble on his people (‘Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles’)? On both planes – his own, and that his people – David seems to know where to reach for help.   


Where’s that reach for help begin? David might have said it started for himself when he acknowledged in his own inner being his iniquity (v.12). Doing this somehow does not disallow his calling upon the Holy One. This act, in fact, draws David toward Him, perhaps mostly because he doesn’t enjoy the consequence of his wrongdoing. It’s enlightening to see this king exhibit this propensity for straying, and yet returning to God like the thirsty man needing an oasis in a desert. My body needs water, one of the most fundamental of His creations. But, I need Him, the creator of that water, most of all.