Monday, May 31, 2010

How Can I Keep From Singing? – Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Ed Cash

Ever seen a movie’s remake, maybe a generation or two after the original? How about a song’s remake -- not one or two generations afterwards, but 140 years later. Chris Tomlin says the song “How Can I Keep From Singing?” that he and two friends wrote in 2006 was discovered and adapted by Matt Redman from a 19th Century hymn by the same name. Maybe they also heard the old hymn sung on the first season of “The Muppet Show” by the dog Rowlf, although the song’s sentiments are akin to humans, not canines! The song’s theme has remained the same since it was first penned -- a commitment to God because He endures through everything.

The song was first associated with Robert Lowry, a well-known American hymnist in the mid-19th Century, although there is some doubt about who actually authored the words that were put to music. The poem was perhaps initially printed in the New York Observer magazine in 1868 and attributed to someone named “Pauline T.”, although hymnals that include the song give Lowry the credit for its words as well as the music. The song or its associated poem may be known by multiple names, including “My Life Flows on in Endless Song” and “Always Rejoicing”. These two recurring expressions are not light-hearted naiveté, but revelations of a fidelity to Him despite life’s hardships. The writer’s not asking ‘where else would I turn?’, for he’s already decided God is the answer.

OK, smart move, but yet the writer-worshipper goes further. He sings. He’s discovered that music is the Creator’s therapy for wounds. That’s a pretty challenging message for me, since I ordinarily don’t feel like singing when I’m down. In fact, my distress more often makes me blubber if I try to sing. So, is there something more I need to learn about God, about drawing on the strength in the music He gives me? It seems I must learn that Music is from Him, that I’m communicating with Him – a steady Rock - in this medium. I may not overcome everything here, but I am in touch with the Almighty as I hear music and when I sing (or at least try) it. We know not what Lowry (who was in his 30’s during the decade of the 1860’s) or Pauline T. was experiencing, but it was human, with ups and downs as the song’s original words suggest. Since it was in the 1860’s, maybe the American Civil War – which did inspire other music – had permeated this writer’s thoughts. A war might be a ‘tumult’ or a ‘storm’ (from the original hymn) worthy of music, and make someone reach for God. Fortunately for us, this song’s message didn’t go outta style with the passage of one century. And, neither does God.

(The short story of the contemporary song’s derivation taken from U-Tube video):
See following site for history of the Robert Lowry hymn:
CyberHymnal site suggests that Robert Lowry wrote the song’s words in 1860:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Day Is Dying in the West – Mary A. Lathbury

A sunset and a campground inspired Mary Lathbury to write the poetry – or maybe she was actually just reiterating some already-written poetry – for the hymn “Day Is Dying in the West”. Who do you imagine she was quoting as she penned the words in 1877? She was next to Lake Chautauqua in New York state, but the words she wrote could have been true of any place with a beautiful sundown experience. What’s your favorite one? Camp WaMaVa or Manatawny? I’d choose the sundown on a dirt-gravel road near Belmont, Ohio, I think.

Lathbury and other Methodists initiated the Chautauqua meetings as a religious/cultural/entertainment/ summer school in the late 1800s. A large tent (like the one in the picture) might have been one of the easiest ways to identify a Chautauqua meeting place, but for Mary Lathbury that summer in 1877, it wasn’t the tents she thought about when she composed. She came to that time already committed to God’s service as an artist, and was a keen observer of the creation. So, when the camp’s leader asked her to write a hymn text that they could use for the evening’s gathering, Lathbury stole some time looking at the horizon. She must have seen His hands at work as she recorded the words of the song. God is a fellow poet, she seems to say with the words she wrote…or perhaps more aptly stated, God was her poet-guide. After all, it’s His earth, His ‘evening lamps’ and shadows, and His ‘eternal morning’ that capture our attention--all poetry in motion. At least, they are if we see what Mary Lathbury witnessed that evening. Lathbury was 36 years old when she penned the words in 1877, and you might say she was already blessed with a vision. The song’s theme shows she already had a grip on life’s conclusion.

How God speaks about the end can be observed in His creation, she seems to say with each verse’s words, especially verses one and four. He tells us there will be a finish line, each time the sun sets. Does that occur to me as I travel home from work in that time of the season when the sun is low, in my face? My childhood home has a very noticeable sunset horizon, straight as an arrow, with three or four lonely trees stuck against the sky for contrast. I’ll admit that I never thought about God being a poet, that He was trying to tell me something each day around 8:00 PM during the 26 summers I spent there. With Mary Lathbury’s song, I’ll have more to consider, and appreciate about Him wherever I am, and whenever I have the chance to look toward the western horizon.

 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 this site for information about the Chautauqua movement that Lathbury helped start:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

How Deep the Father’s Love – Stuart Townend

Will Stuart Townend, a 40-something from West Yorkshire (now he lives in Brighton) in Britain, someday be compared to Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley? They’re all English Christians, and all songwriters of some renown. And, Stuart Townend has probably sung some of Watts’ or Wesley’s hymns, since he mentions their history in talking about the song “How Deep the Father’s Love”, his own effort at hymn-writing that he created in 1995. Townend says he had a feeling that he was going to write a hymn one day, and what he’s produced is an essay, his personal reflection on the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. You can read the story behind the song in Townend’s own words (see the link below).
If you’re a traditionalist, and believe an abundance of verses and a variety of words are what make a hymn a hymn, then you’ll probably examine Townend’s song and say ‘yep, that’s a hymn’. But, this hymn, like those of Watts and Wesley, also contains deep truths from God, has phrases to remind us of His messengers’ words, and is a fusion of lyrics and music that draw out the profound emotion of a believer. Townend says the music’s melody came first, and rather easily as he dwelled on Christ’s cross, about his own debt to Him. Though he says the words took longer, the end product makes one suspect that the Spirit was surely at work in this British modern-day hymnist. Townend’s effort makes me identify with what Peter and Paul must have felt, as well as the emotions of others who witnessed Jesus’ torture. I’m Peter, thrice denying Jesus when I sing this. I’m Paul, whose guilty conscience won’t let me forget the smirk I wore while watching Stephen get stoned. I’m in the crowd shrieking ‘Crucify him!’, and I feel the sting of Peter’s message in Acts 2:37. I am also Jesus, feeling abandoned, desolate, at my flogging (see picture above) and at Golgotha. And yet, magically, I can ‘boast’, Paul says when I take on Christ. These run through my mind as I sing Townend’s song.
How deep is God’s love? Answer: How deep my sin is. God’s love is surreal, even bizarre, by human standards, but only because it’s a function of my need for Him. It’s too easy for me to trivialize my sin, to marginalize its gravity. Next to Him, I’m vile and I’m rotting with a disease. My descendants in Jerusalem were so ridden with and blinded by this disease, they killed the Healer. Sin doesn’t get any lower than it was on ‘Good’ Friday. Unless, I know all this and still ignore Him. How deep is God’s love? He’s already answered…how do you and I respond?
The story behind the song is at this site:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Let Every Heart Rejoice and Sing – Henry S. Washburn

It was the 4th of July, and there was a celebration. Independence and the thankfulness he felt as a citizen of America was no doubt on the mind of Henry Stevenson Washburn that year in Boston, Massachusetts. Where in Boston was Washburn that day? Fan­euil Hall (pronounced like ‘manual’ or ‘panel’), otherwise known as the marketplace and a meeting hall in Boston, was celebrating its 100th birthday that year. So, there were multiple reasons to congregate and celebrate, and being a native of Massachusetts (born in Kingston, Mass.), Washburn was aware of that day’s significance for Faneuil Hall, as well as for the nation at large. It was the historic site of speeches by men who led the American independence movement, and its inspirational legacy was still operative that day, even if Washburn might not have realized it then. He wrote words in the song “Let Every Heart Rejoice and Sing” that would have sounded familiar to patriots, as well as to God-fearing people.

Because the song was written for the occasion, Washburn probably intentionally chose some words that would be appropriate for a partisan crowd feeling proud and joyous over their freedoms. ‘Anthem’ is used twice in the song, and calls to mind a nation’s melody, its “national anthem” (although The Star-Spangled Banner would not be officially designated the American national song until 1916 by Executive Order, and then by Congress in 1931). ‘Honor’ and ‘our fathers’ (like our nation’s fathers) also hint at the loyal feelings Washburn wanted to engender. But, Washburn’s focal point is God and His glory and goodness. It’s said that the city’s Sunday school kids sang the song that July 4th, 1842, but in reality adults could have sung this song too as God’s children.

Patriotic feelings come easily for me, how about you? What about Henry Washburn? There is enough we know about him to suspect his life by 1842 had gone well. In 1842, he was 29 years old, and had been blessed to have a higher education, at Wor­ces­ter and Brown Un­i­ver­si­ty. Later in life, we know he became a businessman in the man­u­fac­tur­ing industry in New England, and eventually in 1875 was pre­si­dent of the Un­ion Mu­tu­al Life In­sur­ance Com­pa­ny. He was also a secular poet, known for “The Va­cant Chair,” a tale that later also became a song about a young officer from Massachusetts who died in the Ci­vil War. The song became popular in both the North and the South. Washburn evidently wasn’t content to be blessed for his own sake, for he tried motivate others to a higher moral ground with his words. His poetry in both the spiritual and secular worlds reached his peers, and survives still today. His example should say something to me. If I’m blessed, if I have freedoms that I might not otherwise enjoy, tell others to join me in saying ‘thanks’. Tell others I’m blessed, first, because the Lord is good.

See information on Henry Washburn and his song “Let Every Heart…” at:
See following for information on Faneuil Hall:
See the following about the poem Washburn wrote :