Sunday, November 30, 2008

When All of God's Singers Get Home - Luther G. Presley

If I said someone named ‘Presley’ was a notable 20th Century songwriter born in the South, you most probably would guess that I was referring to Elvis Presley. Well, Elvis might be nicknamed ‘the King’, but if you interviewed residents of Faulkner and White Counties in Arkansas, they might guess that Luther G. Presley was in fact a more prolific composer than his namesake from Memphis, Tennessee. By some accounts, Luther (1887-1974) wrote 1,500 or more gospel songs, beginning officially in 1907 when his first song was published. He had in fact written his first song “Gladly Sing” some years earlier when he was just 17 years old, a few years after he had started attending music school and directing the choir at the Free Will Baptist Church near Rose Bud, Arkansas. Perhaps Presley (the lyricist) and Virgil O. Stamps (the music writer, of the Stamps-Baxter music publishing company) are most well known for the 1937 song “When the Saints Go Marching In”, but it would be unfair to limit their accomplishments to that song alone. I for one have sung many Stamps-Baxter productions that I appreciate as much or more than “When the Saints…”, and in a similar way, I also appreciate another of Presley’s songs – “When All of God’s Singers Get Home”.
Written in 1937, in the heart of nationwide deprivation, Presley’s words for “When All of God’s Singers Get Home” are nevertheless ebullient…does happiness, delight, mirth, joy, light, and bright -- all words in this song -- sound like someone singing the blues, like somebody who’s desperate? His life must have been impacted during the Great Depression, but you sense something besides his physical environment was guiding him. One could say that Luther Presley must have been Spirit-led. His music life was abundant, despite whatever his circumstances might have dictated. Frequently, after a difficult time, he’d compose when alone, a mode reminiscent of Jesus who would also escape his surroundings and go to a mountain seeking prayer time with His Father. Presley also wrote by drawing upon real-life experiences, including “I Know the Lord Is With Me” after being in a car accident in which no one was injured, and “Give Them Red Roses (The Boys Will Be Coming Home)” near the end of World War II as he thought about his sons Clarence and Leister who were in uniform in Europe. Leister says his father also drew upon his personal loss - his wife and second child died during childbirth (although what tune or tunes he wrote at this time we do not know). It is said that he always carried paper scraps on which to record his thoughts, perhaps indicating that Luther was prepared for, and counted on, the Lord making random thoughts into something special. (I confess I now feel better about all those Post-It notes I scatter everywhere!)
Yes, Luther Presley had a gift, one so amazingly employed over such a long time…it reminds me of the title of a book, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” (Eugene Peterson). I have tried to sum up Luther Presley’s life, but I think his own words say it more powerfully through the music he wrote. Do you have a favorite Luther G. Presley song, perhaps one that he wrote in collaboration with the Stamps-Baxter company (like “When All of God’s Singers Get Home”, or “When the Saints Go Marching In”)? Share it here, tell us what it means to you, and enrich the rest of us a little more.
* Much of the information gleaned from an April 21, 1998 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article written by Bob Sallee. http://www.ucalldatmusic.com/L_G_Presley.htm

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Beulah Land - Edgar Page Stites

No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. (Isaiah 62:4) Beulah Land…it sounds peaceful and beautiful, doesn’t it? A lot of people must agree, because there’s a lot of places named after it, no doubt as a method of attracting business. There are more than just a few churches with this moniker, from Beulah Land Bible Church in Macon, Georgia, to Beulah Land Baptist Church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and probably lots more in between. Farms in Texas, Arkansas, and Nebraska, a housing development in Wyoming, and a rustic resort in North Carolina all advertise themselves with this name, according to Google. There’s a restaurant in Pensacola, Florida and even a pub in Portland, Oregon that wears the name. You may remember the 1980 movie about post-Civil War Georgia, starring Leslie Ann Warren and Michael Sarrazin – Beulah Land got 6.9 out of 10 stars by reviewers. Do you like dogs? There’s a website called Beulah Land Labradors…I wonder if the dogs are always serene, of non-biting persuasion? What’s more interesting is that this name ‘Beulah’ appears only one time in the entire Bible. How would you like to have had stock in that name when it was created?! A poetic description of God’s home, like the one in a prophet’s book, has a lot of power to sway us, and maybe that’s what motivated the composer of the song “Beulah Land” to write the words that are so familiar. Indeed, anyone today whose heart has been touched by the song probably would buy stock in Beulah Land, if that were possible. Is it possible?
Christ had motivated Edgar Page Stites for many years by the time he composed the words to “Beulah Land”. In 1876, he was so moved he could only write two of its four verses at a time, on consecutive Sundays. After the second Lord’s Day effort on the song, Stites was once again overcome with emotion. “I could only pray and weep”, he says. Stites had become a believer in Christ when he was 19, during the great revival of Philadelphia, what most call the Awakening of 1857 and 1858. Soon afterwards, he joined the Methodist Church in Cape May, New Jersey and became a local missionary. He started new churches in the South Jersey area, and in 1869, Stites and other ministers and lay Christians founded the “Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association”, an organization to direct a Methodist camp meeting near Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Some say that Stites actually wrote “Beulah Land in 1875 (not 1876), along with his musical collaborator on the song, John R. Sweney, for that camp meeting association. Other well-known hymn writers of the day visited the camp during the summers, including Ira D. Sankey, William H. Doane, William J. Kirkpatrick, Fanny Crosby, Eliza Hewitt (Stites’ cousin), and others. Stites concludes the story of “Beulah Land”saying, “I have never received a cent for my songs. Perhaps that is why they have had such a wide popularity. I could not do work for the Master and receive pay for it." Perhaps Stites was truly “laying up treasure in heaven” when he refused pay for this popular and moving song. The word Beulah means “married”, an apt description of a place and a relationship with a spouse (God) who will not fail to take care of us. The imagery in the tune’s words also speak of a place that is fertile, and of an intimate bond with a special person – an eternal companion. Now who wouldn’t sign up to live in Beulah if that’s the way it is there? In our day, we cannot concretely buy stock in “Beulah Land”, but we could safely say that God does want us, like Stites did, to invest in Heaven.
Information on Edgar Page Stites was gathered from the following two websites: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/s/t/i/stites_ep.htm http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Beulah-Land

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I Can Only Imagine -- Bart Millard

Your eyes will see the king in his beauty and view a land that stretches afar (Isaiah 33:17) Most of my dreams frustrate me. Only a few times have I ever remembered more than a few hazy images of what a few seconds earlier had been quite vivid and real. Most times I’m more likely to just roll over and return to making zzzz’s. Sound familiar? If I can believe what doctors say (and what I read on Wikipedia) about dreaming, then I feel still more cheated by my own mind’s trickery. According to the experts, an average normal human being dreams two hours every night, so over a normal lifespan I will spend six years dreaming. About what?! I cannot even remember most of the details of these episodes, yet I seem to need this bizarre activity to be healthy – rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is necessary for one’s well being, they say. Is our Creator trying to tell us something about our own minds when they are let loose, when our own thoughts can create images our logical consciousness will not permit? Bart Millard, lead singer with MercyMe and writer of the hit song “I Can Only Imagine” might be described as a dreamer, for he began considering his own imagination many years ago, and his thoughts stuck with him until he finally composed what had so struck him several years earlier. You can read about Bart’s story behind this song by linking to it here http://www.christianitytoday.com/tc/2003/002/14.16.html, or keep reading below. Bart lost his father to cancer in 1991, and he relates that he turned that loss into a time devoted to thinking about what his dad was experiencing on the other side of life’s journey. The phrase “I can only imagine” captured his thoughts, so that he wrote it everywhere, reminding himself of his own destiny and also easing the pain of his earthly loss. It was not until 1999, however, that Bart and his friends in MercyMe recorded the song with that same phrase. Bart says the song was written in ten minutes after he found the words he had recorded in a notebook many years before. Bart deflects the admirers who wonder how he was able to write a hit song so rapidly “….it had been on my heart for almost ten years”, he says. “I ask Him (God) questions. I have faith that Christ is real”, Millard shares. It’s clear that MercyMe’s lead singer’s imagination is not something he ignores as a hazy picture, a subconscious mind-trick at 3:00 AM.
What do you think of when you dream about paradise, about heaven? Pearly gates? Streets of gold, or a yellow-brick road such as the path to Emerald City in Dorothy’s journey through Oz? That’s what I tend to wonder about…it almost seems similar to some of the images in Revelation. Bart Millard wonders in the song what it will be like to be in God’s presence, to walk with Him, to actually see Him. I think that, like the song says, I won’t even be able to stand or say anything for a while, if heaven and the Lord are as brilliant as I imagine. A River of Life is there, I’m told, but I still cannot really grasp that people I now see only in my mind or with pictures are there. Dad, a grandpa I never met (and who’s last words I’m told were ‘what a life’), and friends in the last few years…Bill, Sarah, Bob. They’re there. And I wonder if I’ve discovered why God lets, or perhaps makes, me dream. Is it His way of subliminally telling me my hazy thoughts, though dim, are gonna become real, someday? That I should trust my imagination, and let it run wild, to rejoice in what awaits? I’m counting on it, aren’t you?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Worthy Is the Lamb - Darlene Zschech

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song (Psalm 95:2)
You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. (1 Corinthians 14:17)

Thank you. Is that easy to say? We say it all the time, probably many times every day, right? And we might say it in various ways, with money, through a card or an e-mail, by our gift-giving, with food, or even a plaque to honor someone. Sure we mouth the words, but is that enough? When Darlene Zschech wrote “Worthy Is the Lamb”, she must have felt deep appreciation for God, for she thanks Him four times in the first few lines of this song. She says ‘thanks’ with music, a powerful method, no doubt, as it has more capacity to draw emotion out of me than mere spoken words. If I read Paul’s admonition right (see it above), though, there’s more to saying thanks that I need to know, and Darlene Zschech’s life outside of song-writing and performing probably says that better than what I can write here.

I say ‘thanks’ to others for the most simple things, but what about my gratitude toward the Lord? Can it be enough to thank Him for the life that He surrendered, as the song says? Can I possibly muster enough appreciation, and sing with complete and utter emotion and devotion worthy of God’s gift? No, of course not. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that we should sing, and that God wants us to be thankful people (see Ephesians and 1 Thessalonians), so it’s important what happens when I sing “Worthy Is the Lamb”. I edify myself and other worshippers, and I also implant a memorable tune in my consciousness that will remind me of my God and what He means to me. Yet, it’s not impossible, given our multi-cultural surroundings, that there may be someone in the worship who doesn’t understand the words I sing, despite the depth of my sincerity. I recall one Sunday when someone behind me was translating the sermon for a friend, and I think something probably was lost in the communication gap during our corporate ‘thank you’, our songs.



Thankfully, I have other times that I can express my thanks. In fact, to really thank God adequately for his incredible generosity, I need to spend my life doing so. One could probably say that Darlene Zschech has also discovered that the ‘thank yous’ in ‘Worthy Is the Lamb’ just aren’t enough by themselves. No, her life is an extension of what she expresses in the song. Her life includes ministry to the poor…among them is Hope Rwanda that she and her husband Mark founded in 2004 to “mobilize the church and humanitarian organizations world-wide into action” to make a difference in that African country still recovering from the genocide it suffered several years ago. Zschech also takes part in ministries called “Compassionart” and “Compassion” that reach out to the poor. So, when I sing from my heart, when I lift my voice to appreciate God, I need to remind myself that I too can do that every day. With my ‘thanks’, I should see the faces of those I can help, and open my arms, my wallet, and space in my daily-planner and my calendar, and embrace opportunites to share God’s gift. That’s how I enthrone God, I crown Him, and lift Him up for others to see, as the song says.

The above information on the ministries that Darlene Zschech supports and her biography are at: http://www.darlenezschech.com/pages/default.asp?pid=22

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Speak, O Lord -- Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

I have a secret I’ll share with you about one of my vocational goals – maybe it will resonate with those of you who call yourselves writers or speechmakers. I wish, just once, that I could write something truly significant, and a piece that would need no editing whatsoever, something that would be perfectly pristine. Now wouldn’t that be something! Above my desk at work, I have a rolled-up sock with an amateurish face scrawled upon it in crayon, and a jagged paper clip stuck in it. It’s my somewhat twisted way of dealing with “editor frustration”, aimed at those folks who scrutinize my work to the nth degree, it seems. As I imagine my editor’s visage in the sock, I regain a measure of composure with a jab or two, deep into the sock…ahhh. Hey, you may call me Edgar Allen Poe (a la the tormented soul in “The Tell-Tale Heart”) or a voodoo witch-doctor, but this method hasn’t backfired on me yet! Seriously, I marvel at those craftsmen of the English language who can capture the reader’s attention with seemingly so little effort. Writers of the music language, too…how do they do it? Is it magic? Keith Getty, who has written many well-known contemporary Christian songs with Stuart Townend, including “Speak, O Lord”, shares his insights into music-writing (see the link at http://www.calvin.edu/worship/stories/getty.php), and he tells me something about this art-form that maybe you haven’t heard before. Simple is better, more powerful, and more memorable. Getty says that he has two goals in front of him when he creates – teaching theological and Biblical truth that speaks to listeners in everday life, and creating melodies that large groups, like churches, can sing. “… what we sing becomes the grammar of what we believe,” he says. Perhaps Getty’s maxim for song-writing springs out of his upbringing, one which leans on Irish folk songs and the hymns he sang in a Presbyterian church in Belfast. He’s also schooled himself, not by listening to pop music, but by listening to classical songwriters like George Gershwin, and to English folk music contemporary Kate Rusby. Getty’s songs, besides being simple, powerful, and memorable, also often fit into particular parts of the corporate Christian worship service. “Speak, O Lord” may be used for sermon preparation, as the hearer’s plea for an honest, open heart and mind to receive truth from Him. If Getty’s song really is the “grammar of what I believe”, I look at its words with more conviction. Do I really believe what I sing? Do I want to stand under the light of His truth, to be changed and used by Him? Do I trust God to direct me through this life? I think I do, and the melody and its words, in an uncomplicated way, invite me to approach God at this level – I need Him, and He is available, in all His GLORY, to help simple, imperfect, little me. I may speak (or write) in a weak, trembling voice, but in love, God listens and imparts His strength to me.