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