Tuesday, June 23, 2009

We Shall Assemble – Twila Paris

What famous people have you met, or seen close up? Were you nervous? Did your voice crack or fumble for words? Those would all be natural reactions to meeting the President, or maybe a movie star, a celebrity whose picture we’ve seen only on screen before. I wonder, how come they don’t get sweaty palms as they come near me? After all, we’re both red-blooded, covered with skin and bones, and ridden with imperfection. A giddy, nervous, or apprehensive response would logically be more appropriate at the sight of an alien, something unfamiliar and potentially dangerous. Maybe that’s what Twila Paris was thinking in 1991 as she wrote “We Shall Assemble”, an expectant, hope-filled encounter with an alien, a being unlike us – God. Twila Paris has a lot to share about morality and her relationship to God. Both in her music and in her spoken words, you can tell she reveres Him, with her life and her avocation. What she composes for us to sing also shows she has hope, although it long ago might have been considered heresy, not reverence. You see, saying that believers, who are mere humans compared to our divine creator, will be on a mountain with Him would have been unthinkable, even terrifying once upon a time. In scripture, it’s often called a ‘holy’ mountain (Psalm 48:1), a place the average worshipper wouldn’t dare ascend. It was a death sentence to approach and see God’s face. Yet, Twila has us thinking and singing about this very thing. She’s written a book (with co-author Robert Webber) titled “In This Sanctuary: An Invitation to Worship the Savior”, and the album (also called “Sanctuary”) on which “We Shall Assemble” appears also reminds us of our privileged position, compared to our spiritual forefathers. Her thoughts resonate with believers, a fact also borne out in the Gospel Music Association’s award of praise and worship album of the year in 1991 for “Sanctuary”. Her message of an encounter with the Divine One doesn’t stop with the song or her book, either. Twila Paris tries to live her life in the shadow of the holiness she has observed in the song we sing. You can read on her website that she lives by a moral compass, including when she steps in the voting booth on election day. In her words “Human beings are imperfect. We make mistakes. It’s who we are. We’re not going to find one of us who has all the answers. The only one who has all the answers is the One who created and sustains humankind and the world in which we live. So the most important issue in any election … Do I honor God and acknowledge His authority in my life? … As God’s people, we must continually fall to our knees and find our collective voice.” Falling on our knees will probably be par for the course on the mountain. And, her message for daily living here on earth is one for any believer, not just for one who writes songs. Her music makes me ask myself, ‘Will I be on that mountain with the way I lived this week? Was I the right example today?’ Sure, I have the promise that I will be on high with God, but I need Twila’s reminder, and my Bible, to tell me that God’s home is HOLY. I hope that as I draw closer to home, my trembles will be from anticipation, not foreboding. What’s causing your goosebumps today? Information on Twila Paris available at the following website:http://www.twilaparis.com/

Friday, June 12, 2009

Just As I Am – Charlotte Elliott

I am just like you before God; I too have been taken from clay (Job 33:6) Charlotte Elliott was angry. ‘Carefree Charlotte’ was 30 years old, and loved her life in Clapham and Brighton, England in the 18th and 19th centuries as a gifted artist and writer. So why did she get sick and become invalid for the remainder of her life? We’d understand, if that’s what went through her mind, wouldn’t we? Her body made her miserable, so lashing out at a Swiss minister, Caesar Milan, was understandable when he told her she needed God’s peace. As she mulled over the minister’s visit, she later relented, and asked him how she could fix her life and come to God. Milan answered ‘Just come as you are.” She did. And, Milan’s words stuck with her for another 14 years, until 1835 when she finally composed the words of this simple, but memorable song, “Just As I Am”. This song’s history is a microcosm for each of us who sing it. Its words, first spoken by a minister to an angry, distant unbeliever, somehow stuck with her until she wrote seven verses many years later. That music still sticks with us 175 years later. Some of us, like Charlotte, will get sick and maybe even invalid at 30 years of age. Or, we’ll make mistakes, hurting people around us. We’ll be distant from God occasionally, and probably angry when some well-meaning observer tells us the truth. Yet, the song tells us that those things ultimately don’t matter. Consider the word that Charlotte chose to use over and over again. Just. Such a short word, isn’t it? I’m just human, and I’ll never be good enough for a holy God. I cannot escape Him, nor the capricious nature of my own heart. That’s the bottom line of this song, and of this life I live. I’m just me, and that’s all I can offer Him. But, God is just Himself, too. And, He’s a just -- a fair and justice-seeking – God. He cannot help being who He is, too. Is that why people still respond to “Just As I Am” in stadium crusades today, 175 years later? It’s a simple proposition… just me to a just God. You got a better deal somewhere else? Stories of Charlotte Elliot can be found at the following website: http://www.stempublishing.com/hymns/biographies/elliott.html http://www.workersforjesus.com/just.htm A version of Charlotte Elliott’s 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, June 6, 2009

The Lord Bless You and Keep You – Peter C. Lutkin


Priest: someone who administers religious rites in the church, who makes sacrifices to God as an official of the church. I have hardly ever though of myself in that way, have you? That’s the role I invoke as I sing Peter C. Lutkin’s song “The Lord Bless You and Keep You”, a scary proposition when I think about it. I don’t put on a robe, nor sprinkle holy water, but I do stand before God to make an appeal to Him to bless someone. A sincere appeal, a desire so pressing that I call out God’s name three times in this brief invocation. And this is something a body of people, not just one individual to another, has done for others, traditionally. Perhaps that’s why it taps into our emotions as believers, as we together call out our plea to Him. It’s a very basic, moving prayer, an expression of care and love among family. This was not discovered by Lutkin when he composed the song, but instead draws upon words believers have known for three millennia, first used by Aaron and his sons. Did they sing it? We can, because of Peter Lutkin.

 Peter Lutkin was born and educated in the American Midwest, although he also studied some in Europe. He began as an organist while a child in an Episcopal church in Chicago, and also sang and studied choral music. He became well-known as professor and dean of the Northwestern University’s Conservatory of Music in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and was primarily engaged in church and choral music throughout his life. Lutkin is credited with reviving the university’s music school, which had declined and was in danger of discontinuing by the last decade of the 19th Century. He was perhaps best known for organizing and leading the A Cappella Choir in 1906 at Northwestern, the first permanent organization of its kind in America, and many of his musical compositions were created for this group to perform. He composed “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” in 1900, originally for four-part vocal harmony, without accompaniment, which is traditionally sung as a closing benediction in churches, and especially at the closing of a wedding, prayer response, or as a communion hymn. One of Lutkin's most noteworthy endeavors also was the North Shore Music Festival, which began in 1910 and became internationally famous under his leadership.

 It’s June, the time of year when couples are making marital vows. Lots of teenagers and young men and women are also at turning points – graduation. So, it wouldn’t be surprising if Peter Lutkin composed this benediction as he watched students graduating from Northwestern. As we celebrate these occasions, Lutkin’s inspiration helps us link back to a centuries-old practice. I still have a hard time thinking of myself as a priest, but it never gets old to look people in the eye and say ‘take care, be blessed by Him’.

A short biography on the composer is available in the following publication: Favorite Wedding Classics for Solo Singers, by Patrick Liebergen, Alfred Publishing, publication date unknown. More information on Peter C. Lutkin was found at the website:http://findingaids.library.northwestern.edu/fedora/get/inu:inu-ead-nua-19-1-1/inu:EADbDef11/getEntireFindingAidHTML