Tuesday, December 29, 2009

His Grace Reaches Me – Jewell Monroe“Whitey” Gleason

Whitey Gleason was rich. I don’t know if that means financially, but looking at his life in music he certainly was well-endowed with the gift for song. And, perhaps that translated into lots of dollar signs, too. The song he wrote in 1964, “His Grace Reaches Me” tells us that Whitey also must have considered himself rich. And, shouldn’t we all, if we really think about the message that he conveys to us in this song? Whitey Gleason wrote hundreds of songs in his career while accompanying various gospel singing groups on the piano (maybe at times on a Steinway grand piano, like in the picture). He eventually was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame as a member of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, but he was also well-known in several other groups, including the Gospelaires, the Sooner State Quartet, and the Jubilee Quartet. He was a minister, educator, and owner of a music store, so his reputation was established in many ways in middle America, primarily in Oklahoma and in his birth-state of Kansas, where he entered the world in 1932. Many of the songs he wrote to instruct students in geography, math, and language, so there was much more to Gleason than just mere notes on a page and pretty sounds from his fingers on a keyboard. Although we do not know the details of how “His Grace Reaches Me” came to life, Whitey Gleason’s convictions are obvious on the sheet music. If you can imagine him playing a blues-gospel tune -- something with lots of soul -- as you hear the song’s words, you can be certain how he felt about his life here and in eternity. His song’s message is foundational for every Christian. Two themes come through in Gleason’s song: first, the value of God’s grace cannot be exaggerated; and second, His gift is personal – it’s for me. There are wonders that fascinate and astound us in His creation, but they don’t compare to the gift God has given, the gift of Jesus – deity. It’s stunning, that God is willing to impart Himself to humanity. There’s no reference point for this kind of behavior, really nothing else that can be said to embellish this. It’s impossible to overstate how important the grace-gift of Jesus is. What’s more, it’s meant just for me, Whitey has me sing in his song. If I’m honest with myself, I admit that I’m in a world of hurt without Him, and can also sense that He knows me, better than I know myself. So, I sing “His Grace Reaches Me” with a renewed appreciation that God has done the indescribable for me. I can feel small next to Him, but also loved and held close by Him. Am I bewildered by all of this? Yes. Some heaven-day, I’ll learn just what it all means. See the following website of information on Whitey Gleason: http://sogospelnews.com/index/news/comments/7521/
Here’s two links to good videos showing Whitey Gleason’s inspiration on the piano accompanying the Jubilee Quartet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p4Dv74az_Q

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holy Ground – Geron Davis

Geron Davis was a 19-year old songwriter, pushed and prodded by his father to make a special moment happen in Savannah, Tennessee in 1979. Geron’s father was pastor of a small-town church that was looking forward to the dedication of a new building (probably not like St. Peters’ Basilica [see picture]), and Geron agreed that he could write a song for this occasion. Even though he waited until almost the last moment to compose “Holy Ground”, Geron says the song was written in just a few minutes. He says its introduction to the church went well…”the power of God moved in”, he says. Although he never anticipated that one day his song would stir a president, as well as a recording songstress-icon, the song’s message tells us Davis’ real audience was God, not well-known public figures like Bill Clinton and Barbara Streisand. (Clinton asked for the song to be sung on two occasions while he was president, and Streisand later cut an album…see bottom paragraph.) The song’s occasion also might make us think that Davis was identifying with Ezra and Solomon as he composed. Watching new buildings take shape is really intoxicating, have you noticed? Maybe it’s a home, or a new work-site, or a church that has captured your attention. I used to drive by a new library being built near where I live, even though the route was inconvenient on the way home from work, just to see it evolve. An engineer might marvel at how the building takes shape, but for me it’s my imagination of what the future holds -- the anticipation of potential -- that energizes the mind. Knowing what is to come makes me lean forward. Knowing what was about to take place in Savannah, Tennessee in 1979, and thinking about my own similar experiences, helps me connect with something in “Holy Ground” that others have celebrated too, even if it was thousands of years ago. Ezra and Solomon and their contemporaries built buildings too, magnificent ones meant for God himself to inhabit. That’s an awesome thought, enough to make one tremble, and certainly worthy of a “Holy Ground” echo. Yet, those people seemed not just reverent, but joyous (Ezra 6:16 and 1 Kings 8:62-66). They must have exulted, knowing that they had completed God’s work, but maybe like us today, they also had expectant feelings about what was yet to come. Geron Davis taps into that emotion with his version of “Holy Ground”. Its harmonies draw out my enthusiasm, a zeal unlike the sensation that another version of “Holy Ground” evokes (Christopher Beatty’s 1982 song, which invites me instead to revere God). I celebrate as I sing Geron Davis’ “Holy Ground”, and wonder what else God has in store for my spiritual family. Davis was asked how he felt, knowing that his song had ‘electrified’ Barbara Streisand (she later cut an album, Higher Ground, after hearing “Holy Ground”). Davis deflects the compliment…’we’re all on level ground’ when we’re on His holy ground. One source for Geron Davis’s song story is the book “Our God Reigns: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2000. See also “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Holy Ground – Christopher Beatty

The below is the text of an e:mail that Chris Beatty sent this author on December 15, 2009, telling in his own words how “Holy Ground” was written (in 1982). Enjoy! I was a young pastor in Southern California on vacation with my wife, Carole, in San Diego. As was my practice I started my day with some Scripture reading, singing and exploring song ideas. Exodus 3:5 jumped out at me as having a profound meaning, not just for Moses, but for us all. "Do not come any closer," God told Moses. "Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground." Two things immediately hit me: First, we should approach the Lord with deliberate preparation; Second, because He is everywhere we go, we can always expect a holy ground experience. There are four verses to Holy Ground, though they are not always all sung. The first verse sets up the premise that where we are, He is: This is holy ground. We're standing on holy ground. For the Lord is present, and where He is, is holy. The second verse engages us physically, acknowledging that all we do can be holy works: These are holy hands. He's given us holy hands. He works through these hands, and so these hands are holy. Verse three addresses our words, one of the most challenging areas of all to keep under His guidance: These are holy lips. He's given us holy lips. He speaks through these lips, and so these lips are holy. As this third verse repeats I like the sing the last phrase using the word "sing." He sings through these lips, and so these lips are holy. The fourth and final verse reminds us that were it not for his gift of life and time we would not exist: This is holy time. He's given us holy time. Time is His, and He's given us this holy time. Holy Ground as been sung around the world for 30 years in gatherings large and small. It is often used as congregations dedicate new worship spaces as well as in weekly worship. My prayer for us all is to remember the reality that God is in us, and around us and ever will be. See the following websites for singing advice from Christopher Beatty, who is a vocal coach – a guy who’s still behaving like he’s on holy ground, and therefore deliberately preparing others to be in God’s presence with their lips and voices. http://www.youtube.com/user/vocalcoach http://vocalcoach.com/about.html http://blog.vocalcoach.com/

Monday, December 7, 2009

In His Presence – Dick and Melodie Tunney

Dick and Melodie Tunney might not look like it, nor sound like it, but they needed help in the 1980s. This musical couple met in the 1970s while on tour with the group TRUTH, married, became well-entrenched and successful in the Christian music industry in Nashville, Tennessee, and once again toured all over in the 1980s. Busy. That’s how the Tunneys’ lives were. And, in between all this hubbub, they began raising two daughters. Sound familiar? I take a day off, just to vegetate, when life’s tempo overwhelms me. They probably did some of the same things you and I do to manage the hectic pace. On the other hand, a few words from a song they co-wrote in 1988, “In His Presence”, suggest this composition was part of an atypical therapy for them.

By 1986, both Dick and Melodie were travelling with “Let There Be Praise”, an effort that covered 150 cities over the next 18 months. Let’s see, that’s probably on average two cities every week, a really intensive way to pile up the frequent flier miles. It’s no surprise, then, that the song they wrote in 1988 might say something about this whirlwind. “In His Presence” tells us they found ‘comfort’, ‘peace’, and ‘assurance’ from the One they worship. It’s a brief, straightforward message they coax us to sing, a common thread all of us need to embrace at times. That’s really the only way to cope with turmoil – stop, and get help. No, strike that. Not help, which implies I need only assistance from God. Instead, the Tunneys asked Him to cover them, to envelop them. The next few years of the Tunneys biography tell us they took other measures also, perhaps listening to the Spirit’s call in the song they wrote. They relate that the touring had separated them periodically over a 15-month stretch, and that eventually, a decision had to be made. They returned home, to a quieter pace, after praying and listening to counsel. Their family took priority, albeit for a brief few years, and then they took their music on the road to 400 churches over a 12-year span. By the time daughters Whitney and Kelsey were high-schoolers, the Tunney parents once again slowed down.

Were they listening to the song’s message again, asking for the peace God provides? It seems to be a message well-calibrated for the Tunneys, and for me too, over the long haul. I don’t travel as much nor think I’ll write over 150 songs like the Tunneys in my life. (The Tunneys now also manage a seminar, based on the example in 1 Chronicles 25:7, to teach music and worship principles to others.) Nevertheless, there’s plenty in the space I occupy to consume this traveler’s time and effort, and so I identify with Dick and Melodie. With His presence, I don’t just exist, though – there’s more to me than the space I inhabit. I can think about transformation and renewal with the Tunneys’ song.

Information on the Tunneys was obtained from the book “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.

Also see the following websites for information about the Tunneys. http://www.tunneymusic.com/about.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_and_Melodie_Tunney

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Glorify Thy Name – Donna Adkins

It was 1976, and Donna Adkins and her family had moved to a new place, far from things familiar. Feeling alone in a strange place is not usually what I might want, but there does seem to be something essential about it when I need to be with God. He won’t shout above the noise of my activities. But, He might nudge me if I take a moment and stop to read something in His message. Donna Adkins sensed that, and says she welcomed the change, and the prospect of being with Him. It was something she noticed in how Jesus prayed, shortly before His death, which tugged at her. The result of her devotion was the simple but stirring song “Glorify Thy Name”.

The song is said to be based on Jesus’ prayer about unity (John 17). And, it was His uttering of a word (or a form of it) several times that got Donna’s attention: Glory. Glorify. Jesus sure knew His Father, and longed to be with Him in all His splendor. That’s what He prayed first, when He was alone in prayer. Jesus went off to pray in solitude other times, including in Gethsemane where He prayed for relief, yet ultimately was submissive. The other ‘alone’ prayers are mostly a mystery – maybe He’ll tell us more about their subject in eternity, huh? But, the prayer the beloved apostle records for us in such detail is revealing, and inspired Donna Adkins. She took her cue from Him about what to say to God when she was alone. She doesn’t wring her hands, with a downbeat whimper for help. No, her prayer-song soars with a potency that comes from this great truth – God’s name is worth my reverence.

Donna Adkins first sang publicly when she was two years old, because her parents were travelling singers. Singing in a church was nothing new to her then, when she wrote “Glorify Thy Name”. After more than 30 years as a singer and churchgoer, she might have tried to compose something really unique and involved, something that would occupy and consume the vacant space in her life in 1976. Instead, the song’s words and chords communicate that she still bowed in His presence like a child. The song invites a special feeling, if I let it happen. Nothing terribly complicated, but so often a child’s prayer says - in its innocence and trust – something too obvious to deny. Simple is better, and less is oftentimes more. Leave the complex to the Creator, I sense as I sing, ride on His wings, and enjoy the view.

Information on the song was obtained from the book “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006. Also see the following website for information about Isaac Watts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Watts

Monday, November 23, 2009

I Sing the Mighty Power of God – Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts was a father to many. In fact, you might say he was prodigious in producing offspring, and was a father to two different types of progeny. Yet, biologically speaking, he had no children of his own, no one to inherit the Watts name. If you think this is an unsolvable puzzle, then perhaps you haven’t been in a hymn-singing church in a while.

The ‘father of English hymns’, as Watts came to be known, lived three centuries ago, and many of his 750 poems are still sung today. “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” is still a standard in churches today, and its history tells us how Watts might have been considered a father in a second way. In 1715 Watts put together a songbook, which doesn’t really sound that unusual, right? Except that this was a songbook for children, gospel songs, in which “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” appears. Kids are usually heard singing fairy tale rhymes, or some other ditties us grown-ups think of as cute, but not especially instructive for adults. The Divine Songs for Children is thought to be the first-ever hymnal published for children, a testimony of Watts’ care for children that is so well-known that it is memorialized on a statue of him in Southampton, England. Through his compositions, Watts put into action Jesus’ directive to allow children to approach the Lord, rather than ignoring or ‘shushing’ or ‘shooing’ them away. One can imagine him guiding personally small minds with his songs, and so endearing himself to kids -- although not his own -- as a father-like figure, or perhaps a gentlemanly uncle.

The song’s text is pretty simple, with few words to confuse or bewilder the mind. It seems to come straight out of Genesis, with plain words that all humans can fathom – our mighty God made everything in the universe. It’s not a time for theological, hair-splitting debate, just worship. Look on God with awe. Honor Him. Trust Him. Just like a little child, which is, by the way, how God seems to want me to regard my relationship with Him (Matthew 19:14). I think I’ll sing Watts’ song with a newfound appreciation for what he was thinking when he wrote for someone about three or four feet tall. Maybe the position on my knees would be about right the next time I sing these words.

Information on the song was obtained from the books “101 Hymn Stories”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006. Also see the following website for information about Isaac Watts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Watts

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Praise the Lord – John Kempthorne and Edward Osler

From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. (Psalm 8:2) It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a birth, in fact many births, were observed in a hospital in England in 1796. The Foundling Hospital, as its name indicates, was indeed for orphaned children. It was established in the 18th Century Holborn section of London by seaman and philanthropist Thomas Coram. Yet, the children who were at this hospital (in fact, it really was only an orphanage) generally had already been born elsewhere. Instead, it may be said that many songs were born there, or at least became more well-known because of their association with the Foundling Hospital. Maybe it was the verse from Psalm 8 (see it above) and this child-care institution’s reputation that gave the composer his method for circulating the song “Praise the Lord”… There is still debate regarding the composer’s identity. Some people have assumed it was the English hymnist John Kempthorne who composed the original song’s first verses in 1796. Some have said that its composer is still unknown, although a final verse (or two verses, depending on which tune the song employs) was written by Edward Osler in the 19th Century. Most agree that the song first appeared in Hymns for the Foundling Hospital, the orphanage that became well-known as a music venue, not just for the children there, but also for the eminent musicians who visited there to further the children’s well-being. George Friedrich Handel often sponsored Messiah performances at Foundling Hospital in High Holborn in the mid-1700’s. One wonders if the original composer, whoever he is, was inspired by the songs of the orphans, and so brought to life “Praise the Lord”, and gave it to the children as part of their repertoire. The song seems to be a paraphrase of Psalm 148 and perhaps Psalm 150, what we as believers and children of the great Creator and Redeemer sing to Him. Here’s the additional words composed by Edward Osler: Worship, honor, glory, blessing, Lord, we offer unto Thee. Young and old, Thy praise expressing, In glad homage bend the knee. All the saints in heaven adore Thee; We would bow before Thy throne. As Thine angels serve before Thee, So on earth Thy will be done. Information on the song story is in “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006. Information on John Kempthorne is at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kempthorne Also see the below website, referring to the book “English Hymns: Their Authors and History” by Samuel Willoughby Duffield, published by Funk and Wagnalls, 1886 New York and London. (the book is part of public domain in the United States) http://books.google.com/books?pg=PA457&lpg=PA457&dq=Kempthorne%20Praise%20the%20Lord&sig=kxg5pdHM-RhxYTmFP9gpt-pFmqA&ei=NO_6SrKwCNTgnAfCrvH-DA&ct=result&id=OSkPAAAAIAAJ&ots=JILjaxGHhz&output=text Some background on the song, and the playing of the song as a completely different tune (FABEN, by John H. Wilcox) than the traditional one (PEREZ, by Lowell Mason) in Songs of Faith and Praise – 1994, is at the following website: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/p/t/pthelyeh.htm

Friday, November 6, 2009

He Is Exalted - Twila Paris

Little Twila Paris. That’s what she came to be called when she started out singing as a four-year old, and that was the name of her first record, cut when she was just six. So, it wasn’t hard to think of her as ‘little’ then, although she might have been thought of as small the way Shirley Temple was. Some 45 years later, no one probably calls her that anymore, not if they want to thank her and applaud her career, to recognize her for all the wonderful music she has contributed to Christendom. But, it could probably be said that Paris still thinks of herself as ‘Little Twila’, at least when she thinks about her calling and the song, “He Is Exalted”, that she wrote in 1985.

 In fact, she’d probably not want us to think too much about her, but instead about the one she exalts in this song. Paris thought a long time as a teenager and then as a young woman before she decided music was her mission in life, but she knew that it had to be about Him ultimately. She started producing albums by 1980, and when she composed “He Is Exalted” in 1985 she obviously had not forgotten that God’s praise was still the primary focus of her music. Look at the rest of her song library and one can see that that divine hub remains firmly in place. In fact, she’s returned to this song to re-emphasize its point to an international audience, when she recorded it in Portuguese for Brazilian churches in 1992 (It’s on the album Sanctuary.). Wouldn’t it be something to hear God exalted in every language spoken around the globe? I think, in my corner of the world, that I need to begin with that attitude in my neighborhood and my workplace, how about you?

When I think about His exaltation, I couldn’t help addressing that this week, in a way I need to more frequently. I had to summon my courage with someone I work with every day, to remind him of my feelings. I was a bit apprehensive, I admit, although I am convicted that God is indeed worthy of my praise, and of my actions flowing from that conviction. Sensitively, but firmly, I broached this with my co-worker, and guess what? It was OK that I felt God’s name should be held in respect. None of us are perfect, for I too have been frustrated and overwhelmed in the office, with spleen-venting vocal tirades still occupying my memory. But, this episode reminded me that my God hasn’t moved, and He still occupies a position that I can applaud with renewed commitment. I don’t have to go being a world-class evangelist on Broadway to exalt Him. I did that, at least a little bit this week, in my 50 X 50 foot area in a pretty ordinary-looking building in Glen Echo, Maryland. I just need to keep singing “He Is Exalted”, wherever I am.

 Some information on Twila Paris is from the following website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twila_Paris

Information on Twila Paris ia also available at the following website:http://www.twilaparis.com/

Information on the song story is in “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Is Thy Faithfulness – Thomas Chisholm

Perhaps Thomas Chisholm identified with the people of Jerusalem, at least a little – what do you think? In 1923 he wrote the song “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, a poem that calls out to worshippers from the book of Lamentations, a cry of people in abject misery. Maybe on one hand, one would have to experience war to really appreciate what Lamentations has to say. Pictures of bombed-out cities in Europe in 1945, where people reverted to wild, animal-like behavior to survive spring to mind. Have you seen the film “The Pianist”, the biography of the Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, who endured the horror of Warsaw in World War II ? That’s akin to what Jerusalem might have been like when under siege by Babylon. Yet, nothing from Chisholm’s life appears to be Szpilman-like. In fact, Chisholm says nothing especially stark in his life, including in 1923, inspired the words of the ode he composed. But Chisholm’s humble life experiences and shortcomings do relate something with which we can all probably identify, especially if we compare them to what God offers.

Chisholm grew up in a log cabin, was only minimally educated, and suffered from ill health, a chronic problem that made his lifelong income pretty limited. If that sounds like a recipe for disappointment, Chisholm must have ignored it, because he shares his ‘astonishing gratefulness’ at God’s work in his life. So grateful was he, that we know of 1,200 poems that Chisholm wrote in his 94 years. Can you think of 1,200 worthwhile things you’ve done in your life! Nevertheless, the Lamentations-origin of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” hints that Chisholm was aware of his own life’s regrets. After all, aren’t we all at times, when dealt reverses? Did he perhaps subconsciously identify with the background of Jeremiah’s message, and so compose from a visceral vantage point? The weeping prophet did not make Chisholm the weeping poet, however. No, the words of his song are no less upbeat than the few optimistic verses in Lamentations that the prophet gave us. Even a cursory, ten-minute reading of the book leaves one seeing the verses Chisholm focused on as an oasis, a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak outlook. It’s pretty heartening that a piece of Jeremiah’s song, composed 2,600 years ago, was renewed in 1923, and still has power in our century too. Does it say something to you today? It’s 2009…have you been suffering? Have you lost a job, maybe your home? How’s your health? Some of us might even feel like we’re at war, depending on where we live, or where we’ve been. But, the glimmer we all can get from Thomas Chisholm’s tune is this: God’s faith cuts through the gloom. Chisholm saw the light, despite what happened to him. So did Jeremiah.

Chisholm’s song reminds me that the Lord’s faith may be compared to His creation (verse 2), so that if the seasons persist, the stars still shine, and the sun rises and sets each day, I know God is still near. Despite the misery I may find here, God’s promises are for me. He controls. The world still turns. The Son’s life-offer endures. What a God! What a deal!

Information on the song was obtained from the books “101 Hymn Stories”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Father I Adore You – Terrye Coelho Strom

A birth took place in sisters Terrye and Cathy Coelho’s car in southern California in 1972. But, it wasn’t a boy or a girl. It could be said that in fact a ‘father’ was born in that car. What? Terrye says that car ride with her sister was where she wrote the song “Father, I Adore You”, a tune that extols the Father, and the Son and Holy Spirit too. Terrye Coelho says some other things about this song’s origin that probably seem unconventional, at least to those who haven’t been born like her.

The Coelho sisters were driving to and from a fun time in Newport Beach that summer, and doing what lots of teenagers do when on the road. Singing. I remember being on a bus with other teenagers in the 1970’s, and we sang lots of songs to pass the time, perhaps because we were all band kids and music seemed so natural to us. I cannot remember ever having sung spiritual tunes, though, so our singing never conceived nor brought to fruition anything that notable. Terrye Coelho seems to have somewhat the same attitude, saying that she was only the “vessel” through whom God worked that day. And, the song she helped God deliver that day was so simple, at least on paper it might look a little underwhelming. It contains some very simple thoughts about love and devotion, and transparency before the Holy One. One might say it’s summed up as ‘God, I’m open to you and I love and admire you’. That’s it. Indeed, the words of the song are just about that simple. Terrye says that’s what makes the song, and one other thing she and her sister did with it, such a winner.

Terrye and Cathy sang the song as a round, meaning one of them sang about the Father first, and then the other joined in singing about Jesus. With three people, a third person could join in on the third ‘round’ appreciating the Spirit. That makes it possible for a group -- like a church -- to sing to the Trinity all at the same moment. And, the musical harmony that Terrye heard the Spirit speaking to her was pretty simple too, but just as memorable as the words. Each voice sings a different part of the song’s chords, perhaps not unlike the unique, but complementary, voices of the Trinity. It’s a beautifully straightforward way to think about music – hear the chords, and just do a ‘do-mi-so’. It’s not hard, but one does have to listen and sense how one’s voice and notes fit into the overall scheme. Hmmm…kinda how one’s life fits into and around others in the kingdom, huh? Maybe God says something in music that we need to listen to and practice more intently.

 One source for Terrye Coelho Strom’s song story is the book “Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003.

See also “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.

Friday, October 16, 2009

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go – George Matheson

George Matheson’s life was about to change in 1882, and so he wrote a poem that became a song just over a year later. One can guess that something deep inside his heart, something about love, was on his mind. Was he feeling melancholy or troubled? Yes – in his own words, he was suffering ‘severe mental anguish’, although he does not say why. We know that his sister had been married that day, June 6th. Matheson’s only engagement had ended some 22 years earlier, and since that time he had relied on his own flesh and blood, his sister, to provide much of what he could not himself do in his preaching ministry in Scotland. And, we know that by this time, when he was 40 years old, George Matheson was blind. So, as he sat by himself that evening, maybe he was struggling with loneliness. ‘Why me?’ might have been his soul’s cry. He tells us that the words came quickly, as he reached out with fidelity and determination to someone he knew would not leave him. God is true and faithful, and fulfilling. That sense comes through in Matheson’s words, a hope that he was calling upon to lift his spirit that night. Every verse of his song hints that he was struggling with his own downcast emotions, and that he desperately needed his Friend, the Lord, to not just be a temporal companion, but a source of supernatural strength. We all have probably felt despondent occasionally, but how many of us have written words like Matheson’s? He didn’t just wallow in self-pity, but sought His provision, knowing that God’s presence does more than salve a hurt. God brings me to another plane altogether. That’s how He fulfills, transports me, if I let Him. Matheson’s testimony about this song’s swift creation also implies that he was hearing the Spirit speak to him that night. Maybe that’s what George Matheson discovered in writing the song’s words – that if I lay prostrate, and depend completely on Him, as Matheson’s words suggest he did on June 6th, then God can take me above the fray. God’s Spirit is available, and if I’m alone, then I can hear, really hear like I’ve never been able to before. Perhaps that was easier for Matheson, since he wasn’t bombarded with visual stimuli to distract communication with Him. I cannot help wondering if Matheson ever met Fanny Crosby, a contemporary who also experienced God’s empowering Spirit. She too was blind and undeterred, although completely dependent on others for sight. Matheson is yet another whose existence defies the word ‘disability’. Isn’t it great that God makes a mockery of that word, and reminds us of that when we sing Matheson’s tune? He won’t let me go…he turns my world inside out. My ‘flickering torches’ are lit into a sunshine-like blaze (verse 2), my life is consumed in His ocean-like life (verse 1), my tears are dried in His presence (verse 3), and my death is stood on its head in a never-ending home (verse 4). You see? George Matheson did. Information on the song was obtained from the books “101 Hymn Stories”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Holy, Holy, Holy – Reginald Heber

Reginald Heber died too early, tragically most would say. In Calcutta, India one hot, humid Sunday in 1826 he preached to a crowd, and very suddenly suffered sunstroke and died. He was just 43 years old. But, the song words he wrote to His God, and that we now sing, didn’t end with his physical demise, for his wife and friends gathered Heber’s hymns that he had written – 57 of them – and published them. The words he wrote enrich our worship of God and give us a glimpse of the man who was known for his character, his decency. It’s no surprise that Heber, a man respected by those who knew him, would be in touch with God’s holiness, and that he wrote these words to coax us to do the same. It’s said that Reginald Heber was searching for a song for Trinity Sunday (it comes eight weeks after Easter), and decided that he’d write his own words for the occasion, since he could not find another. Kind of amazing if you think about it, for the doctrine of the Trinity had been codified in Christianity several hundred years earlier. In 325 A.D., the council of Nicea (in modern-day Turkey) had determined that the Bible teaches something quite profound -- that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make up the Godhead, the Trinity. If you look on the margins of the sheet music for Heber’s song, you might even see the word ‘Nicea’ there, a reminder of that historic event 1,500 years before the tune written by John Dykes in 1861 was paired with Heber’s words to produce this song. One cannot miss in Heber’s words, and in his collaborator’s efforts too, the primacy of the message. God’s purity endures. I wonder if Heber’s last years, indeed his last moments, made this song more meaningful for him. Heber spent the 1823-26 years in India, and labored in a climate that wore heavily upon him physically. Heber’s wide-ranging responsibilities, as bishop of Calcutta, India, and of Ceylon, and Australia too, must have also been overwhelming at times. ‘How did he manage this?’, we might ponder. I might have quit, told my superiors ‘I’m chuckin’ this’, and gone home to the easier life of England, where Heber was born, educated, and ministered for 16 years before traveling to south Asia. Instead, Heber delivered God’s message, a testimony of His holiness to a nation mired in a caste system, rife with injustices. Who better than Heber, who sought God and patterned his own life after Him, to spread His hope to the poor and disadvantaged in India? How did he manage? Seeing God for who He is, in His unpolluted, unstained, eternal form can compel us, even transform us, even though it may cost us our mortality. I’m gonna try remembering that when I sing Heber’s song next time. Information on the song was obtained from the book “101 Hymn Stories”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How Majestic Is Your Name - Michael W. Smith

Do you remember what you were doing in 1981? I bet that Michael W. Smith recalls 1981. He might even say that this period was a defining moment in his life, the time when he wrote “How Majestic Is Your Name”. Smith was searching for direction after he graduated from high school in mid-1970’s West Virginia, but at first he found only blind alleys. College didn’t fit him, and his subsequent journey to Nashville, where he thought he had discovered a calling in the music industry, instead left him hooked on drugs. He was just 22 years old in 1979, and sinking fast when he finally prayed for a U-turn in his life. From that pit, perhaps, to where he began to grow in confidence and productivity, sprang the song that he wrote. It was an echo of a song written centuries earlier by another songwriter who knew what it was like to struggle, but who also knew what it was like to feel God’s saving hand.
Michael W. Smith soon met Deborah, his musical collaborator and future wife, and together they composed several songs, earning Smith a position with Meadowgreen Music as a writer in 1981. Smith must have been walking with a skip, huh? Who wouldn’t when relationships, both personally and professionally, are blossoming? The words of Smith’s song that same year make it apparent that he also must have been into God’s word, copying King David’s poem from Psalm 8:1 to create a melody for 20th century (and now 21st century) Christians. Now, thanks to Smith, when I hum the words to his song “How Majestic Is Your Name” I’m reminding myself of a bit of truth from His message to me. ‘What a Creator we have!’ I’m reminded, and He made me too. I matter to Him.
Some suggest that David might have sat in a pasture field at night, gazing at the stars, marveling at God’s creation when he wrote Psalm 8. While David was lauding God for creating, Michael W. Smith might have praised Him for re-creating. His life was in a pit just a few years earlier. Though it would be many years before he became a real star, no one would blame Smith in 1981 if he gave God credit for recreating his life. Almost everyone can probably remember a time when things were rough, maybe even critical, followed by some relief. The reverse may also be true, and that’s the scary part. If it’s great today, there’s always the chance it may fall apart for me tomorrow. And, it’s out there, the inevitable end of my mortality. Even for me, a believer, I don’t easily dwell on this. Creation is somehow always followed by extinction. But, only for a moment, because of God. Blessedly, the eternal recreation is also inevitable. So, today I extol Him for creating and recreating me, and for sustaining me tomorrow and forever.

 See the following sites for information about Michael W. Smith’s biography: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3430200066.html http://www.americansongwriter.com/2001/03/michael-w-smith-smiths-songs-reach-diverse-audience/

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Awesome God – Rich Mullins

We spend a lot of time in our cars, if you’re like me. So, it’s not a surprise that someone might have actually composed a tune or two while sitting behind the wheel. That’s how Rich Mullins came up with “Awesome God”, behind the wheel of his Ford Ranger. He was trying to stay awake, but unlike most of us, who’d probably turn up the radio, roll down the windows and let the wind blow, or maybe munch on a snack, Rich had a unique stay-awake method. It’s probably not a story that he would have told most people, this story of “Awesome God”, according to his friends. But, God can work even through the episodes that make us blush, or that seem mundane and ordinary. Rich liked humor, the weird sort that probably challenged some people. It was definitely off-the-wall, as one of his friends relates. You see, Rich preached to himself that lonely night in his truck on the way to a conference in Colorado. He made himself out to be the fiery, Bible-wavin’ madman, who had a message for sinnnn-ners! Do you ever remember watching Flip Wilson do his preacher skit on his 1970’s variety show? That’s how I imagine Rich Mullins must have sounded in the cab of the Ford Ranger on the way to a youth conference the night he wrote “Awesome God”. He was the preacher-rapper. You can hear it in the lyrics of the song, ‘cause it has rhythm. It may seem irreverent; some might even say it smacks of an unholy, blasphemous, cavalier nature. Yet, check out the song’s words. And, when combined with the music that our God gave Rich Mullins to write that night, it creates a memorable melody. God does work to make us learn a history lesson, even one wrapped up in a song. It’s tragically ironic that one of Rich Mullins’ most well-known tunes was birthed in a place that also eventually was the place of his demise. Rich died in a car accident in 1997, on a road in Illinois, and like years earlier, he was on the way to an event many miles away. Perhaps Rich was like the rest of us, who get tired on the road. He was human, after all. Yet, if the tedium got to him, there was at least one time he ignored the boredom and looked beyond the highway, beyond his fatigue. It should make us realize that God works in all kinds of situations, even on a strip of pavement that makes us heave a sigh. Our God doesn’t get tired, and He didn’t avoid the tragic either. Now, that’s truly an awesome God. See the following website for information on the song: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Awesome_God Another source for Rich Mullins story is the book “Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003. See also “The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2006.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

God Moves in a Mysterious Way – William Cowper

Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? (Job 11:7)

William Cowper (pronounced Coo-per) had evidently experienced in a personal way, and probably on more than one occasion, the mystery of God. If I had struggled emotionally as Cowper did throughout his life, perhaps I would have thrown in the towel, so to speak. After all, who would choose to worship someone he could not understand, whose ways left one feeling lost, maybe empty. Have you been there? There have been times when I’ve been blue, wondering what to do with myself. To be alone, without hope, is a pit. It’s at that point that most of us would, hopefully, be coaxed to talk to a friend or in a more serious case perhaps even a professional. Whatever the course of action, its objective would be therapeutic. Take a few moments and consider William Cowper’s therapy, which is revealed in his life-hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” that he wrote in 1774.

Cowper had occasional depression much of his life, probably rooted in early life when his mother died when he was six years old. He also struggled with memories of teasing at school and his father’s interference in a relationship with a woman as a young adult. As a young man, his father also urged him to study law, from which he suffered such mental anguish that he attempted suicide. As a patient in a mental institution, he recovered, and discovered therapy that had three legs – Christianity, poetry, and friendship. He discovered his need for God, and fused that with the poetry he began to compose, and with the camaraderie of Christians. One of them was John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace”, his collaborator throughout the remainder of his life. Together, they produced the Olney Hymnal in 1779.

“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” is, some believe, the last hymn that Cowper wrote, and though he fought the gloom, one senses in the song’s words that he had at last found a method for peace. Some believe the hymn was composed after Cowper was providentially delivered from a suicide attempt one evening. It’s said that his carriage to the Thames River became lost on the way to the place where Cowper intended to take his own life, and instead returned him unexpectedly to his home. From that incident, he may have written this great hymn. He rose above his pangs of despair with this formula: God can decipher the things in my life that perplex and trouble me. It’s said his last words were “I’m not shut out of heaven after all”, a hope-filled testament for anyone with lingering doubt about salvation’s assurance. God may often be inscrutable, but it seems as though Cowper had discovered that’s OK. If I feel mystified by things in my life, Cowper says in his composition, ‘Give it to the One above’. Who better than the Mysterious One can make sense out of riddles?

The following website has all six verses: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/m/gmovesmw.htm

Information on the life of William Cowper is found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cowper See more information on the song discussed above 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. Also, see Amazing Grace: 36 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and 101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982.

See the following blog and another website on the song’s specific and inspirational story of how it was written: http://wordwisehymns.com/2009/11/15/today-in-1731-william-cowper-born/


Friday, September 4, 2009

Come Thou Almighty King – Charles Wesley?

‘Come, Thou Almighty King’ sounds like an order, and a compliment in one statement, doesn’t it? In fact, read the words of all five of the song’s verses, and there are many statements that sound like orders for the Almighty to prove Himself, intermingled with praise offerings to the Holy One. There’s a command in almost every line, in fact, of the first four verses. The song makes one think of a Davidic battle psalm, a warrior’s shout to the Lord, a stirring appeal for God’s vengeance to come. The song’s composer is generally considered to be anonymous, but the words in it give us a hint of the songwriter’s situation, who he might have been, and of his abiding faith in the Almighty.

Many music historians think Charles Wesley composed the words to “Come Thou Almighty King”, since its call to God for protection from enemies is a familiar theme in his songs. It first appeared in 1757 in conjunction with a message by John Wesley, Charles’ well-known preacher-brother. The Wesleys were the first Methodists, who endured incredible persecution in Anglican England. So, the song’s message matches what a Wesley might have been pouring out of his soul, somewhat like what King David expressed in his psalms while on the run from his enemies. On the other hand, alert musicologists also note that the song’s meter is unlike most of Wesley’s compositions, and since he was a Methodist, he was usually predictable. The song’s arrival nearly coincided with a well-known tune “God Save Our Gracious King”, which was meant to honor England’s royalty, but was especially abhorrent to Methodists. Instead, they latched onto “Come Thou Almighty King”, which was sung to the same music for a time, but sung to an entirely different king, with gusto. (Today, the tune for “God Save Our Gracious King” matches “My Country, Tis of Thee”, but is not the tune used for “Come Thou Almighty King”. Instead, “The Italian Hymn” is the tune tied to “Come Thou Almighty King”.)

The song was also composed to remind Christians of the Trinity. In many renditions of the song, however, this original intent is blurred, an effect that would have offended its early advocates. Verse 1 is to the Father; verse 2 (and in some versions, also a third verse) recognizes the Incarnate Word – the Son; the following two verses call out to the Spirit as our Comforter, and finally to the three in one, the great mysterious Trinity. Did Charles Wesley in fact write “Come Thou …” ? Somehow, if what I can read of his life is true, I doubt he’d want us to debate it for long. He’d want us to think about the sentiment in the song. My God in His three persons is called upon with requests from the worshipper for 25 things in these five short verses (actually the last four are reminders of what we as worshippers do, with His help). (You can try counting them in the following link: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/c/t/ctak.htm). It might make one wonder ‘does He get weary of my neediness?’. Is that why there’s the three-in-one God, because I’d exhaust Him out if He were only one? No way, right? If nothing else, the song reminds me that God exists to hear my constant cries, to be my Savior in all things. Wesley (if he’s the author) had much he needed from God. Don’t we all?

See the following website for information on Charles Wesley:


The following books were also used to gather information on the song:

“The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 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.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Mighty Fortress – Martin Luther

The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:7)
There's not much one could add to the story of Martin Luther, and his great hymn "A Mighty Fortress". It's said that it's based upon Psalm 46, which many believe Luther sang often with his compatriot Philipp Melancthon when they felt their cause was in great distress. There's four theories regarding exactly when Luther wrote the song -- all were when Luther and his fellow strugglers faced a test, a confrontation with the government, or were remembering those who gave the supreme sacrifice in the struggle to reform the church. See the websites below…they will inspire and inform you. And, the next time you sing Luther’s hymn, thank God that his servant Luther stood firm, that he was girded by God’s promises – that our God is a ROCK. 

(Dec. 2019 update): Another possibility is that the deaths in the summer of 1527 of three people close to Luther prompted the hymn’s composition, those three people being Leo Kaiser (a martyr for expressing his evangelical faith), and Hanna Bugenhagen (who died from the Plauge) and her daughter who was stillborn.  
See the following websites for lotsa history on Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress”:

Also see the biography entitled “Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World”, by Eric Metaxas, Penguin Books, 2017, p. 386 for discussion of the triple deaths that affected Luther in 1527.