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.