I am fascinated by song stories...the glimpses of composers' lives that their creations permit us to see, although oftentimes not so readily. Here are my my "scoops", posted here for your enjoyment, and for what I hope will feed our mutual curiosity about His musical purposes for us. Join me in this history adventure, as we find what circumstances coalesced to create the songs we all love! Play detective with me, and tell me what song "scoops" you may know that I don't...yet.
If you watch the evening news frequently, you have felt some anxiety on occasion, am I right? Indeed, the world’s events seem like a great weight, for who can control them, or predict their course? One would have to be a prophet to do that, you answer. What must it have been like to be a prophet in the old earth days? An Elijah? The earth’s behavior was less well understood then, more of a mystery, holding humans in a fog as they encountered life-changing calamities, or at other times perhaps God’s favor. Earthquakes, floods, eruptions, hurricanes…all are described as ‘biblical’ events or ‘acts of God’ when we read the fine print in our insurance policies. You cannot stop ‘em, and although we’ve come two or three millennia since Elijah, we really haven’t found our way around (nor above or beyond) the earth’s fickle behavior. That was Robin Mark’s reaction in 1994 when he wrote “Days of Elijah”.
Though he’s been a Christian in Belfast, Ireland and a worship leader for some time, Mark has asked himself if God is really in control at times. The composer was watching the news in late 1994, and he admits he despaired at what he saw, for it was the year of Rwanda, when a million people perished. To call it a tragedy is an understatement, but what else can we do but cry out to God? Mark’s conversation with the Lord informed him, he says, that God is present. He calls us to be people of right-living, and trust-giving – to Him. And, though 21st Century humans may think they’re far-removed from somebody like Elijah, Mark sees him, and events in our day too, as signposts for the Creator. Famine, but also harvest opportunities are evident in our time, Mark tells us musically, and it’s no accident that they are reminiscent of Old Testament events. And, Mark’s words also draw upon the biblical imagery of bones knitting together in Ezekiel’s day to remind us that we as a church should unite, to proclaim a cohesive message of hope in the Lord. We as His people should, above all else, be worshippers, Mark says, an imperative that “Days of Elijah” proclaims as well.
To sum it up, Mark says the song gives us four directives: “….declaration, righteousness, unity and worship. I chose to express these thoughts by reference to the characters that represented these virtues in the Old Testament. It is in essence a song of hope for the Church and the world in times of great trial.” So, remind others that God is watching; He wants us to act with integrity; the Lord yearns for His people to come together; and the Holy One communes with us in worship. Hard to go wrong with those, huh?
You can read Mark’s “Days of Elijah” story in his own words, and read some about his life with the links below:
Urban blight…crime…drug gangs…slums…prostitution. Could you ever imagine feeling positive about this kind of existence? Would you have dared to live in Sodom and Gomorrah, or maybe Nineveh? The characters we read about in the Old Testament who visited those diseased places were repulsed too …after all, who wants a mob pounding on your door, demanding you hand over your guests for gang rape (Lot’s quandary in Genesis 19) ? I’d have run away, wouldn’t any sane person? Who willingly goes to such places, especially after seeing the pictures of squalor? But, hold on! If you see the pictures of a contemporary Sodom-like city, it does look rather enticing. The travel guides know how to dress up a place like Pattaya Beach, Thailand (see the picture above). I wonder if the members of the Irish band Bluetree knew what awaited them when they prepared to visit Pattaya a few years ago.
Bluetree -- the band’s name tells Christians to stand out from the crowd, like blue trees in a green forest – is from Belfast, Ireland. That was how the group’s lead singer Aaron Boyd says they must have appeared to a crowd in the “Climax Bar” – basically a brothel -- in Pattaya. After all, why would a group of Christians sing for two hours in such a place, and in a city of such infamous reputation, considered to be a world-renowned hub of the sex industry? Boyd admits he and his bandmates were leery of this proposition at first, but their powerful witness in the song “God of This City” came to them as they considered the city’s lifestyle and its poverty, afflicting the spirit as well as the daily life of its residents. You can read about their story and even see a video by Boyd, who tells of the experience in Pattaya, with these links:
Bluetree has not forgotten Pattaya. They are preparing to begin a charity in May 2009 called "Stand Out International", an effort to save kids from the sex industry. Boyd relates their attitude about themselves and the world about them, in an age when morbid news can desensitize even Christians …"you eventually grow so numb that when you hear that a car bomb killed 10 people, you immediately go on with the mundane business of the day without as much as giving it a second thought." Boyd doesn’t want his Christian message to stop at the stage, and Bluetree’s charity raises the bar for all of us. I can be like Lot, and try to live in my own cocoon inside an evil that will eventually claw at me. Or, will I be like Jonah, angry and dismissive of the depraved, wishing for their destruction? It's tough to be a lonely blue tree, but with others we might persuade to paint themselves this garish color, maybe we can turn the green forest into a brilliant sapphire.
(The Clownfish and the Sea Anemone share the ocean floor)
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had (Acts 4:32).
Do you remember hearing this one growing up -- ‘Now share that toy with your brother’? Or, maybe it was a lollipop or the TV control your momma had to pry loose from your fist. Would Halloween exist if neighbors refused to share with kids, maybe even kids they don’t know? And what about Christmas? It’s down the tubes without that holiday giving spirit. How about our roads or even our global economy…what if we refused to share the transportation routes, or commercial goods with others? I confess that sometimes I have really wished that someone would get outta the way on I-495, or that I wasn’t all that fired up about Halloween or Christmas. How about you? Bryan Jeffery Leech has written a song that calls us to share, but curiously to share someone, rather than something. How do we do that? His song’s words tell us how, but its genesis also shows us something else, a reality we often miss or under-appreciate about God and each other.
Leech was born in England in 1931, and came to the U.S. in 1955 for part of his ministerial education at Barrington College and Chicago’s North Park Seminary. But, he did not take up the composer’s pen for several years, not until he was in his mid-30’s. One might say, with hindsight, that maybe the Lord was patiently preparing him. Leech has authored over 500 tunes, written several plays and books, and pastored several churches from coast-to-coast. Still, when he wrote “Come Share the Lord”, Leech remembers he had a creative block that was broken only by sharing. It was 1982, and that autumn Leech had fixed in his mind that he would write a communion hymn, but then forgot about his resolution. Or, had he? At Christmas in England with his family, Leech composed a melody, “but my mind was barren of any lyric ideas”, he admitted. It wasn’t until the next summer that he played this orphan tune for a friend, in order to get an objective opinion about its utility. His friend’s reaction -- ‘It’s obvious: Holy Communion.’ Spurred on by this, Leech says he wrote the song’s lyrics that same hour. Do you think he realized how important, even crucial, sharing with someone else can be after this? Indeed, the song’s words, which had been gestating for months, gave birth in rapid fashion to a message, the same message that Leech discovered was active in his own experience – sharing.
Leech is living evidence that God is a patient, but not inactive, being. When we know this, and can live it, our world changes. He provides, most notably in the people He puts around me. I guess I have forgotten this at times, if I’m honest. But, a great principle is at work in Leech’s composition, one that should motivate and energize us, and make us appreciate and spur forward each other – like Leech’s friend did for him. It’s called symbiosis in the science world, like the sea anemone and the clownfish that mutually provide for each other in the ocean (see picture above). We have each other as a family, as the song says, and collectively have the Creator as our model. A great, amazing calling is ours. His church should be the world’s greatest creative engine, but perhaps only when we share with each other, and thereby draw on one another and upon Him too. He may seem absent at times, but realizing that the great creative force who made me is nevertheless present is more than just comforting – it unlocks something inside. I love to think that I am mimicking God when I’m creative, and that He’s put this family around me to help me be more like Him.
It won’t be long now, I thought, until the grass starts to grow, the plants leap outta the ground, and the trees begin to bud. It wasn’t hard to conjure up thoughts like that as I walked through the yard on a warm March Saturday morning. I have two trees, a maple and a dogwood – about 25 bags of leaves every autumn. Every spring, the dogwood blooms are a shade of pink, and come out first, followed by the Maple that comes on in a flash in a two-week stretch in May. That’s about as much notice as I give ‘em, really, and it shows. Another maple I used to have was taken over and eaten by beetles (or so I was informed by tree experts) because I didn’t see what was going on in time … and neither did my tree experts! How about your trees…do you notice ‘em? Most of us know about a tree that was made into a cross 21 centuries ago, even if we haven’t been to a church in ages, or maybe go just occasionally. Many songwriters have thought about this famous tree, but perhaps none have written about it with more memorable words than George Bennard, who wrote “The Old Rugged Cross”.
Bennard wrote “The Old Rugged Cross” in 1913 at a time when he was going through a difficult, though unspecific, experience. It made him think about Christ’s cross suffering (Philippians 3:10) and how the Lord’s redemptive act for mankind was so central to his faith. He soon penned the songs’ words and gave them to Charles Gabriel, a leading hymn-writer in the early 20th Century. As someone has said, ‘Now you know the rest of the story’, for the song has been so well-loved that by some estimates it was America’s favorite hymn in the 1925-60 period. Three towns -- Albion, Michigan; Pokagon, Michigan; and Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin -- have claimed to be the birthplace of Bennard’s song. In Reed City, Michigan, where Bennard spent the last years of his life, the Chamber of Commerce put a cross near his home, and a museum has been dedicated to his work.
This song appears very different from the hallelujah psalms that Jesus and His Apostles might have sung, with words like ‘cross’ -- a very cruel instrument of death -- and ‘blood’, ‘suffering’, ‘slain’, ‘reproach’, and ‘shame’. Not much praiseworthy there, right? But, as I read a little more about “The Old Rugged Cross”, I discovered something that struck me. George Bennard began his Christian life as a worker in the well-known relief organization The Salvation Army, when his father died and he needed to support his mother and sisters. Bennard and his wife served in the Salvation Army in Illinois, and later he was ordained as a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church and conducted revivals in New York and Michigan. Think about The Salvation Army -- the good-hearted folks who stand in front of K-Mart in the cold in December, ringing bells and asking for donations -- for a moment. We don’t ring bells, and the collection plates don’t look like kettles at the church (usually), but we do have one thing in common with Bennard and his co-workers. We who are saved are also part of God’s Salvation Army, and we (like Jesus, see Hebrews 12) overcome our sadness because of the joy set before us. When he wrote that he loved the old cross, George Bennard wasn’t expressing an illogical attachment to a hunk of wood…he was zeroing in on Jesus’ deepest act of love toward him, and reflecting that devotion back to the Lord through a song. So, don’t avoid the cross, nor those words ‘blood’, ‘suffering’, ‘slain’, ‘reproach’, and ‘shame’. Join with the Army of God, and sing Bennard’s reminder that we’ve overcome!
Sources for the song’s history and its composer obtained from the following site: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/o/r/oruggedc.htm
Also see the following books:
“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.
“The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2006.