Thursday, January 28, 2010

I Keep Falling in Love with Him – Lanny Wolfe

Lanny Wolfe is one of those songwriters who took the less direct pathway to his career in music. That was probably part of what he was thinking about when he wrote the song “I Keep Falling in Love with Him” that was published in 1975. Wolfe’s biography includes a nine-year period in the 1960’s in which he travelled all over the U.S. while completing three college degrees, a time when he says he really learned to trust in the Lord. He began in Columbus, Ohio, and crisscrossed the nation because a desire to engage in music for the Lord would just not be quenched. His experience helped him gain an appreciation for what God was doing in his life along the way, to let Him be the hands on the wheel. As he and his travelling “Lanny Wolfe Trio” ministered in more areas in the 1970’s, the pattern of his life continued as it had in the previous decade. Wolfe’s opportunities in music were blossoming, but he didn’t lose sight of God’s presence and guidance, even in ways that others might have missed. It was an episode, in not the most normal way, that Wolfe says inspired the song he wrote in 1975, and in his owns words, here it is:
It was one of those strange moments in a Stuckey’s Restaurant. We were out on the road and were taking one of those pit stops and there in a metal rack was a wood plaque that said: “Funny how I keep falling in love with you over and over again.” Well, probably hundreds of people had seen that plaque and had no inspiration beyond the general implication of love between a guy and a girl. As soon as I saw it though, a spiritual implication hit me that I keep falling in love with Him over and over again; because it is really true. What really happens, is Jesus brings so many new blessings into our lives; He just keeps surprising us with new horizons; He doesn’t change; He is as great as He ever was, but in our minds He becomes greater, simply because we allow Him to become greater. The more we allow Him to become greater, the more we realize how much we love, and therefore, it is easy to fall in love with Him over and over again. Makes you think again about how to regard the ups and downs, and twists and turns in life, doesn’t it? It’s probably worth talking to an older believer, someone who’s seen plenty, to see how He works in unexpected, convoluted ways. According to Lanny’s song, and reading between the lines (now that I know the story), that’s how He keeps reminding us that He loves us, if we’ll just see Him in those adventures, and love Him back. It’s a never-ending process, one that will carry us right into eternity. Check out extra words on the following recording demo of song:
Biographical information on Lanny Wolfe is from this website:
Lanny Wolfe’s story for the song was obtained via an e:mail conversation with his music production company Paradigm Music Productions on January 27, 2010. Thanks again for the story Lanny Wolfe!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

O Worship the King – Robert Grant

Robert Grant probably was probably accustomed to a big chair, if not a throne like a king might occupy. He was a governor of Bombay, India in the 19th Century, and was from a family familiar with power. His father, Charles Grant, also had been among India’s leadership, a member of the British Parliament, and a voice of influence in the Anglican Church. Robert’s adult life mirrored his father’s, from India, to Britain, and toward God. With such an upbringing, it might have been easy for Robert to assume position, and power, and even respect were his by default, perhaps even gifts from God. Yet, the song “O Worship the King” that we have from his pen shows that Grant appreciated God’s supremacy, His Kingship. Grant’s life-experience was laudable -- a medical college in Bombay bears his name – but the song gives us a better window on him than his resume might have. Grant re-worked in 1833 the lyrics that were first written by William Kethe for the Genevan Psalter printed in 1561; and, Grant’s song-poem was among several that his brother Charles had published in 1839, the year after Robert died in India. The verses I have known since childhood, and the less well-known words I have only just discovered, tell me something about Robert Grant, about his attitude. He doesn’t dwell on his own experience much, nor tries to say what God had done for him. No, the focus is on God’s attributes, about what makes Him worthy. That’s not really a surprise, is it? It wouldn’t be, if Grant were an otherwise obscure figure with ordinary talents, who needed to attach himself to something great and majestic. This was the soon-to-be Governor Grant of Bombay in 1834, and future member of Parliament. Humility -- it’s not exactly what I’d expect to find from a newsworthy, powerful governor, or some other public celebrity. Grant spends only a few words in one verse to describe each of us and himself as frail, feeble beings. Not much need for more words, is there? Part of Grant’s message is that I don’t need to say much to God to let Him know how I compare myself to Him. Did Robert Grant have some tough days in the office? Did subordinates come in with high expectations, but with problems he couldn’t solve? Probably, and maybe there were times when he felt like chuckin’ the job, the high position, and giving it to somebody else. That’s when I need my King most in my workday. Many times I’m just not smart enough to figure out things. He is. Perhaps pointing toward the King was how Robert Grant unburdened himself. Yes, I need to handle my responsibilities, but this King is my Perfection, too. Robert Grant reminds me He also is my Shield, Defender, Maker, Friend…in fact, what things is the King not able to be for me? He’s all the things I try - haphazardly - to be, but He’s perfect at them. That’s why He’s the King. 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. Also see the following website for information on Grant and more verses to the song:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Lord’s My Shepherd – King David, and Francis Rous

Was David enjoying a bucolic evening in the park, watching a sunset maybe, when he wrote the 23rd psalm? Most of the verses make one think it must have been a peaceful episode. Green pastures, a banquet table, God’s comfort, and a place in His home, all spelled out for the worshipper in this psalm-song “The Lord’s My Shepherd”. Sounds pretty inviting, doesn’t it?

One verse about a shadowy, dangerous area tells us that there was trouble brewing - - even death. But even there, the Lord Shepherd is the relief and safety valve. But, it was probably David’s experience that sparked the way this song is typically used today, a time when trouble was evident, and God was needed. David was running for his life, in mortal danger. Commentators on Psalm 23 say that he wrote it while in the wilderness of Judea, after his son Absalom seized the kingdom. The verses in 2 Samuel (15:14, 30; and 16:13) give us a glimpse of what it’s like on the run. David was tired, desperate, and feeling depressed. The way the 23rd psalm is used today, one might think that David penned it for use at a funeral -- maybe his own that he saw on the near horizon? But in the desert where we think he wrote this, it seems as if David wasn’t ready to cash it all in. The other verses Samuel records show that David was worried, sure, but also practical and plucky, with a plan and loyal followers around him to execute his counterattack. The psalm tells us David’s plan also included some internal strategy, a divine one. God. David drew on the power he knew his intimate Friend promised, a reassurance that maybe even his earthly comrades could not fathom completely. David, the man after God’s heart, shows a fidelity to the Lord, his Shepherd, in this praise. David had been in lots of scrapes in his life, so he was used to feeling God’s protection even when his surroundings called for pessimism. That’s a feeling I wish I could put in a bottle, to use when I need it most.

The “Lord’s My Shepherd”, though written by the composer-king some 3,000 years ago, has been sung as we know it today only in the last 350 years, since 1650. Francis Rous put together the Scottish Psalter for the church in Britain in the 17th Century, an effort that he felt would make all 150 Psalms, as sung by worshippers, more true to the actual Bible text. Consequently, “The Lord’s My Shepherd” allows us to echo David’s words with precision, but the song also engenders feelings, engaging the other side of me – I think with my mind, but I also sense with my spirit and emotions. The song Rous has constructed for us is that feeling of reassurance in a bottle that I can open and consume when I feel most troubled. That’s what I need at a loved one’s funeral. The song’s history now tells me that it’s more than a dirge, though. It’s for the hopeful, too, the forward-looking. No longer do I sigh and feel an unmet longing for the camaraderie that David and God shared. The words and music of the song King David and Francis Rous penned for me are a balm for all kinds of hurt. I might feel like I’m running in the Judean wilderness, but there is a way through it when my Shepherd is near.

One source for information about the song story “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006. Also see the book “Psalms – Folk Songs of Faith", by Ray C. Stedman (copyright 2006 by Elaine Stedman), edited by James D. Denney, Discovery House Publishers, PO Box 3566, Grand Rapids, MI 49501.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Amazing Grace – John Newton

Amazing Grace – John Newton

It’s a celebrated story, perhaps the most well-known account of how a Christian hymn came to life. It’s also the music chosen for use in more than one major motion picture in the 20th and 21st centuries (can you think of some?), 300-400 years after the composer wrote it. I wonder if he had any idea how often this tune would resonate with this planet’s inhabitants. John Newton was a sinner – he said it, not me. And, we all voice those convicting words -- not about Newton, but about ourselves -- when we sing “Amazing Grace”.  I looked close to see if any part of Newton’s story was familiar for me…is it for you?

Newton was taught Christian principles by his mother, who died when he was about seven years old. At age 11, Newton’s father took him to sea, to make him a seaman like himself. In short, Newton’s immoral lifestyle for the next several years prepared him to write his composition with an authenticity we all embrace. But, it was a sea-storm in 1748, which upon reflection he thought was his Jonah-like punishment that was the spark that made Newton begin to draw back from that lifestyle. And the slave-trade. That part of his life gnawed at and taunted Newton, too. He finally gave it up in 1755, and by 1764 was preaching instead. But, the life he had lived he could never forget, and in 1773 he wrote the words for a New Year’s sermon (first published later in a hymnal in 1779) that probably most households, even those who neglect worship, know implicitly. Think about what the basic elements of Newton’s experience communicate, and see if “Amazing Grace” still resounds for you.

The basics of Newton’s experience are these: He had been taught the truth as a child. He still committed wrong, contravening what he knew was right. An immoral lifestyle, mistreatment of others in his path, ultimately brought him to a low point. He had a near-death experience. He found something (Thomas a Kempis’ book Imitation of Christ) that began to turn him in a different direction. He listened. He changed. The last 43 years of his life were pointed heavenward. Yet, his reflection at 82 years old, near the end of a life spent helping abolish slavery, writing hymns, and leading others to God was still ‘I’m a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior’. Newton never forgot how he had enslaved others, but he never hid this either.

What will my hymn sound like when I look back someday? I look at Newton’s verses and wonder if they’ll say what his say. Will mine reflect a hope that transforms regret and shame? There’s always a chance to turn it around if you’re headed the wrong way, Newton says. You know you need to make a choice, one that you know deep down will relieve your fears. Once he got started in the right direction, Newton says he felt protected, and he caught sight of his destination too. That’s kinda like getting a tailwind, and it ought to make me as content and able to anticipate the future as Newton’s latter verses show he did. But, part of Newton must have still been pondering how far he’d come. From a filthy slave ship to a dazzling, everlasting home. No wonder he calls it amazing. March 2017 update: Here’s a link to a performance and an amazing story (from 2012) about the song’s musical/tune origins by Wintley Phipps at a Bill and Gloria Gaither song event. Makes this song and our God all the more AMAZING!

Newton’s tune in most modern hymnals has just four verses, but here’s a link to a version with up to seven verses.

Newton’s story can be found in many places. I used the publication Hymns of Faith, written and edited by Ken and Janice Tate, published by House of White Birches, 306 East Parr Road, Berne, Indiana 46711, Copyright 2000. See the hymn’s story also at:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Steadfast Love of the Lord – Jeremiah, and Amy Bessire

See if you can guess what the following cities have in common: St. Petersburg (alternately named Leningrad), Berlin, Warsaw, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Jerusalem. Others could probably be added to that list, especially ones you might be intimately familiar with if you were alive and living in them in Europe or Japan in the 1939-1945 period. War, and utter misery. That’s the common theme, and for those of us who watch the History Channel (some call it the War Channel), this probably wasn’t too hard to guess.

Jerusalem had an eyewitness 2,600 years ago, and he wrote some words that we sing today. Yet, these words don’t sound a lot like someone witnessing horror…in fact, they sound like words of hope and glad tidings. What was the prophet Jeremiah thinking when he wrote the words ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…’? As he watched the shockwave reverberate in Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Jeremiah found the words to describe the misery in the book of Lamentations, but amidst them he also wrote the words in chapter three (verses 22-24, Revised Standard Version) that we sing cheerfully. It’s a measure of his faith, that the prophet was able to summon these words while observing an abject nightmare. It’s like stumbling upon an oasis in the middle of a vast desert. Unexpected is too tame a word to describe this phenomenon. One would think the composer must have lost his mind, and indeed many spectators through history probably did think prophets were a bit unbalanced – doomsday predictors bent on disturbing the calm, usually. In this case, Jeremiah is doing the opposite, glimpsing the world through rose-colored glasses while all around is utter despair. How’s he do it?

Today, Jeremiah’s unavailable for interview (maybe I’ll see him in heaven?), but maybe there’s some contemporary insights from other wars that can instruct us. I watched with fascination the movie ‘The Pianist’ a few years ago, a true story of how a Polish classical pianist – a Jew – survived in Warsaw in World War II (see picture of city above). He scratched, he clawed to live in 1944-45. One of the last scenes during the war shows him performing for an audience of one, a compassionate Nazi officer who lets him live, and even gives him his winter coat and some food. It’s as if the tide has turned at that moment, when the bottom has been reached, and one human being helps another because he recognizes beauty - the Jew’s piano playing - amid the ruin. Maybe that’s Jeremiah’s secret, that he was captivated by something beautiful, despite the devastation all around him. That’s God. He’s the beauty I can see, the oasis I encounter when there’s nothing else left to sustain me. In May 2008, someone asked the music-writer of “The Steadfast Love of the Lord”, Amy Bessire, to comment on her contribution to this song. Her humble response sounds strangely similar…‘it was all God’. (She was visiting the Four Lakes Church of Christ in Madison, Wisconsin at the time). He’s the oasis, He’s beauty, and He’s music, all metaphors that Jeremiah’s and Amy’s song calls to mind as I sing about His steadfast love.

 The following website contains a comment by the composer who put the prophet Jeremiah’s words to music: