Sunday, July 26, 2009

What Can I Do? – Paul Baloche and Graham Kendrick

Neither Paul Baloche nor Graham Kendrick planned to become musical composers when they considered their career goals as young men. Growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Baloche thought he might become a priest, while Kendrick grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Northamptonshire, England thinking he’d be a teacher. Both young men’s musical gifts called to them as they traveled, however, and in a way they’ve become what they started out to do. All Christians are priests (Peter tells us [1 Peter 2]), and Baloche and Kendrick as Christian artists have also become teachers of a new type of hymn, contemporary style. Both men are by wide acclamation leaders in the contemporary Christian music industry, and some have even called Kendrick the ‘father of modern worship music’. The words of the song they co-authored “What Can I Do?”, and the lives they live alongside their musical endeavors let us know they think of someone else as the true Father, however. In this, the early 21st Century, Baloche and Kendrick have called us to recognize two ancient, but still axiomatic things in the composition “What Can I Do?”. How much have the sky’s or the galaxy’s beauty and their testimony about our Creator changed over time? It doesn’t matter if you and I think we’re living in the “modern-age”. Some of our peers today, our co-workers and our neighbors, scoff at the simple shepherds thousands of years ago with less education who marveled at the stars. The moon’s been visited, but yet which of us can fathom the vast unknown beyond? It all speaks of God the Father today as much as it did when Moses walked the earth. That’s what strikes me as I sing the first verse of “What Can I Do?” And yet, the third verse tells me the awesome Creator of the galaxy stooped to be like me. Absurd, right? And, He let Himself be killed, just so He could rise and deliver me from a sentence I cannot escape. No one who’s ever lived on this planet has ever gotten away from death, except by a miracle. So, I may be a “modern man”, but what Baloche and Kendrick make me see in this song are two things: I cannot deny God – his sky and heavens cannot be explained by even our moon-walking astronauts, 40 years after they visited there; and, my death is certain, but God offers me a doorway to a place where that is overthrown. What’s the logical response to these two truths – the unfathomable heavens have a Creator, and He wants to help me to a death-proof existence? What can I do? When you know how Baloche and Kendrick spend their lives outside of their music, it really seems like they must have asked themselves their song’s query and answered in the only way that makes sense in our world. They’re saying ‘Hallelujah!’ in some notable ways that remind us of the Good Samaritan, shown in the picture above. Baloche has involved himself in CompassionArt. It’s a group of artists, like himself, who believe in social justice for all people, and who willingly give the profits from their musical ventures to help poverty-stricken people. Similarly, Kendrick participates in Compassion, a ministry to children around the globe, and March for Jesus, another social justice organ. In the same way that its composers have answered the call of its words, the song’s message should convict and compel me to action too. My church’s executive minister this week had a message in an e:mail about a project that reaches into the community about us …‘What can I do…he asked me and my fellow Christians to ask ourselves? Just think about how the song directs you. Look in the sky above this evening, and read the obituaries in your newspaper tomorrow morning. And, then do what seems rational.
Information on Paul Baloche’s story obtained from “Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003. Some information on Graham Kendrick’s life is in “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, July 18, 2009

Just a Little Talk with Jesus – Cleavant Derricks

If you had been Cleavant Derricks in Alabama in 1937, what would you have been thinking as you wrote “Just a Little Talk with Jesus”? One particular source indicates he was in that state when he composed our subject-song.(See Petersen book reference below.) What was his world like, and why was he praying? It was a time we know as the Great Depression, when physical needs -- to understate the obvious -- were pressing. In fact, although history tells us the economic catastrophe had eased some in the 1933-1937 period, and U.S. gross domestic product in early 1937 actually exceeded what it had been in 1929, many of the devastating effects of the national and world calamity lingered. Between mid-1937 and late 1938, the nation suffered a further downturn, a recession inside the Great Depression.

Some observers in the 1930s said Birmingham, Alabama was America’s hardest hit large city, so Alabamians had plenty of reason to complain, if we can assume the rest of the state was similarly struggling. If you had been in Alabama, where Cleavant Derricks was in the 1930s, names you might have called upon for help included Governor Bibb Graves, a supporter of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, and Lister Hill and John Bankhead, your U.S senators. You might have clung to hopes for better times, because William Bankhead, another Alabamian, had just become the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936, a powerful person you could solicit for help. Hugo Black had also just become a Supreme Court justice, and Jesse Owens from Lawrence County had won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, two reasons to make Alabama natives recover a little pride. Cleavant Derricks’ local newspapers told him all these things.

But, it’s safe to say Derricks really didn’t get his inspiration from a newspaper, nor from well-known Alabamians in 1937. Derricks song says talking with the Savior is a reliable endeavor. If you were to ask Derricks ‘Is God trustworthy?’, without hedging he says ‘Yes’. In the 1930s, that must have been a resonant theme for struggling people in the South. Despite our government’s alphabet soup of experimental programs (CCC, CWA, WPA, PWA, SEC, NRA, etc.), sometimes they failed, futile attempts at reviving hope. Derricks may have experienced this personally, and certainly felt the pinch of scant finances. It’s said that his church had no money to buy songbooks to replace the few tattered ones they had. Derricks took his only collateral – his songs – and traded a few of them, like “Just a Little Talk…”, for 50 songbooks. Is that why Derricks addresses his eternity – the most enduring and reliable state one can ever inhabit - in verse one of the song? The Great Depression may swirl about me, but so what? I’m dealing with my God, first and foremost, he says. Verses two and three hint that earthly worries intrude, yet Jesus is still dependable, he sings in defiance. My elected officials may be fallible, my government cannot always bail me out, but my Jesus is still there. It’s a theme that runs through Derricks’ three verses – just talk to Jesus.

Cleavant Derricks was a multi-tasker, whose world included church choirs, poetry, and song-writing. He reportedly wrote over 300 songs in his life, some like “Just a Little Talk…” that he sold to the Stamps-Baxter publishing company in Dallas, Texas. It’s said that Derricks did not think much of his own efforts in the 1930s, but times being what they were - no money in depression-era Alabama –this hard-working, black Baptist didn’t rely on FDR’s New Deal, nor his Alabama brothers in Washington to help him out. He didn’t call Jesse Owens, asking his neighbor-athlete for a few bucks. What did the Stamps-Baxter company see in Derricks’ tune? Perhaps they saw something that spoke of hope, hope in a timeless, Depression-proof God. It’s now 2009, some 70 or 80 years after the Great Depression, and soon there will be no one left who lived in that time. Have we learned from our parents and grandparents how to manage a flagging economy? How much has really changed here? More importantly, how much do you think He’s changed?

 Information on Cleavant Derricks and the Great Depression obtained at following sites:

A version of Cleavant Derricks’ song story is in “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, July 11, 2009

When We All Get to Heaven – Eliza Hewitt

Eliza Hewitt was once a school teacher. Since she died in 1920, it’s not really a surprise that I use that word ‘once’ in reference to her vocation in the past tense. But, people might have used this word to describe her while she was still living too, in fact long before she departed from this earth. Eliza Hewitt began her teaching career in public schools soon after graduating in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the late 1800s, but she was forced to stop by a physical disability in her spine. She was handicapped for most of her life, so we might feel sorry for her. Yet, she didn’t become disabled – far from it. She channeled her life into instruction on Sundays, and even if she couldn’t be a Monday-Friday teacher in a conventional sense, one might say she taught many more people than she might have by standing in a classroom. In fact, she still does today, through many songs she wrote, like “When We All Get to Heaven”.

Eliza Hewitt became a Sunday school superintendant at the North­ern Home for Friend­less Child­ren, and also at the Cal­vin Pres­by­ter­i­an Church, but her song-writing career contained perhaps her best teaching. She didn’t live in despair, nor in the past as a ‘once’ person. Notice the words she uses in the song “When We All Get to Heaven”. Her words, when put to music by her friend Emily Wilson at a summer camp at Ocean Grove, New Jersey, instruct us, as well as move us emotionally about our eternal home. From her words, we find that we can be confident, that we can look forward to many things up there. ‘Mercy’, ‘grace’, a home with Jesus, never-ending happiness, glory and splendor of our Master, and His divine beauty -- these are all the mental images that flowed through Eliza Hewitt’s spirit in 1898.

There’s something else, too, another small word that captures my attention…will. Hope comes through in Hewitt’s song. That seemingly insignificant word ‘will’ is pretty important, because it lets me lean forward, to vocalize my yearning for something more, particularly if life here has been hard. I have to admit, I don’t yet get this one. My life hasn’t taken an ugly, unexpected turn…yet. Eliza came at life, and this song, from an experience that makes me cringe. But, knowing that she didn’t crumble, but in fact thrived and rejoiced in anticipation of her future gives me pause. I need not be overwhelmed by physical challenge, even aging. Sure, I and my family and friends won’t always smile as we decline. I expect that I’ll creak (I already do, in some ways), and curse my own body’s discomforts at times. But, I think I’m beginning to detect a wry smirk on my face, reserved for Satan’s darts, knowing he cannot lay a hand on my future. Is that overconfidence talking, a chutzpah that hasn’t yet been tested? Maybe, but Christian examples like Eliza Hewitt help gird my faith, and I’m counting on God helping me discover more ‘songscoops’ like her. Here’s a 4th verse to Eliza’s song: “Onward to the prize before us! Soon His beauty we’ll behold; soon the pearly gates will open, we shall tread the streets of gold.”

Information on Eliza Hewitt gathered from the following website: Stories on Eliza Hewitt also in the following books: “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.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Battle Belongs to the Lord – Jamie Owens-Collins

July 4th. American Movie Classics channel. What do you guess is on? Midway…Patton…Glory…The Battle...(you complete the title of that last one). A war movie stirs my patriotism, but does it really convey the reality of what war does to someone? Can it prompt courage? How would you confront death? Or, if it’s more than just theory for you, how do you currently confront a death-struggle? Jamie Owens-Collins has written a song, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord”, that echoes how Israel faced its enemy (2 Chronicles 20) in battle – with divine protection. It reminds us that God, while often mysterious and invisible to us, can still overpower whomever He chooses, by Himself.
Jamie Owens-Collins comes from a musical family, so it’s no surprise that she might also use this medium to tell us her thoughts. Her father Jimmy wrote “Holy, Holy”, and her mother Carol wrote “Freely, Freely”, so we know Jamie observed their lives as musicians and worshippers. We might also say she saw them, or someone close by, as warriors, too when she wrote “The Battle Belongs to the Lord”. She shares with us that the Lord’s protection is not just for someone who wears a uniform, but also for me, a civilian in the secular, daily-grind world. What she says about the song’s origin, and how her own life has played out in its aftermath, is also instructive about how God speaks to those He chooses to use. Unlike many of the songs she’s written, Owen-Collins says this song was composed in short order, during a brief car ride to a church concert in 1985. “Boom! It was just there. By the time I got to the church, I had it finished.” Great! That makes me want to take up the pen and compose my own ditty, how about you? But, wait. Five years after its inception, Jamie was struck with depression, a four-year battle of her own. Was it her own? She admits that she discovered anew how weak she was, and how strong and dependable God is, during her illness. Could God have been trying to tell Jamie this, in a personal way, when she wrote “The Battle…” in 1985? One wonders.
Owens-Collins says this straightforward song speaks to her about God’s ways. “There are times when God comes in and just, boom!, answers your prayer right now and gives you a miracle. But, most of the time, He lets us really walk through the process.” The song Owens-Collins wrote wasn’t easily accepted by producers, she recounts, but “…the funny thing is, it’s such a simple song. You know, I’ve written other songs I feel were much more cleverly put together and crafted. This thing (the ‘Battle…” song) is just as simple as it can be, but that’s the one. I don’t know exactly how a song takes off.” God is often inscrutable, an enigma. And, He’s probably a vexation for the unbeliever who seeks the ultimate answers. Even for believers, this is often true, especially when trouble looms, or pounces. My only rational response is to cry ‘Help!’. I take heart that God does not fear in battle. He, as perfect love, casts fear aside (1 John 4:18). And so I hide myself in Him, and yield my freedom and the battlefield to Him, even if it is Independence Day. Information on Jamie Owens-Collins’ story obtained from “Our God Reigns: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2000.