Thursday, June 24, 2010

In Remembrance – Ragan Courtney and Buryl Red

I’m a signpost. I hope that I’m a good one for God, and as I offer this scoop, I’m a double-signpost, one who’s pointing to a fellow signpost named Ragan Courtney, who in turn is engaged in pointing us to the Holy One. He offers this scoop in his own words below, telling us how he came to write the words in the song “In Remembrance”, and also how he felt when he heard the music that Buryl Red composed, bonding with his words and making this poignant melody. Its beauty and its viewpoint suggest to the worshipper that God is speaking to us – and that makes its message impossible to ignore. This song was written for the musical "Celebrate Life!" The Baptist Sunday School Board had asked me and Buryl Red to write yet another musical cantata to reinforce some particular catichemisic ideas for young people. It was not something that I found particularly exciting, so I put it off as I was busy with my life in the theater in New York City. A musical that I had written and acted in on Broadway had just closed and I had to face the fact that I had failed at my life's dream. In a deep scene of failure and depression, I went to an island in the Caribbean to try and recoup some sense of self esteem. I became deeper and deeper depressed, and in despair tried to take my own life. In the attempt, I was powerfully reminded that God loved me even as a failure. I turned from brokenness and found that Christ was there for me. In this renewal I began writing the book and lyrics to "Celebrate Life!" In the euphoric high of a new beginning, I understood the powerful words of the title that the Baptist had given me as a new musical work; but, suddenly, it was full of possibilities and I wrote it very quickly. If I had missed the gospel most of my life, perhaps others had done the same thing. I need to tell them that life in Christ is a celebration. I remember writing "In Remembrance" so quickly that I thought that it could not be a very good lyric. It poured out of my pen effortlessly. A couple of months later after I heard the music that Buryl had set to my words, I was stunned at its beauty. I really had no idea. Now years later it is in many hymnals and I hear from people all around the world who have used this song to aid them in worship. "Open your heart and let your brother in" the lyric says. That is what I did thirty-nine years ago and I am still celebrating! Ragan Courtney Thanks to Ragan! Your authentic story makes God’s movement in the song you and Buryl wrote very special and memorable. It’s great to remember that Jesus gave His life, and saved yours so He could touch you to write this song for all of us. What a great God! The text of Ragan Courtney’s story is from an e:mail he shared with me on 6/21/2010.
(site of the Sanctuary Church where the Courtneys minister)
( the song is part of the musical ‘Celebrate Life’)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Be Still and Know -- Anonymous

I cannot say I’ve ever met someone with a messianic complex, have you? Oh, lots of individuals think pretty highly of themselves, and maybe even some could be classified as true nutburgers that really believer in some warped way that they are a divine gift to the rest of us. But really, what would it be like to hear the following sincere words that go something like this? ‘I’m the Lord God, and you can be certain of this, so you’d better listen to me if you want me to help you’. No sane person would claim the copyright on this statement. Only the true God Himself could author words like that, and back them up with action. Perhaps that’s why this song “Be Still and Know” has no acknowledged composer by name.

Although the song “Be Still and Know” has no earthly individual composer that is known, its inspiration can be traced with some specificity. The words that match the song’s title may be from one of the Psalms – Psalm 46:10. Commentators and editors of the Bible indicate that some professional worshippers, Korahites, may have been the originators of the words written in that Psalm, and therefore the composers of at least some of the words that we sing. Korahites were not just any worshippers, but as the name suggests they were descendents of Korah, the great-grandson of Levi. He was a privileged servant in tabernacle worship, but in his conceit and jealousy for more, he rebelled against Moses (Numbers 16). And so, God had him swallowed up in the earth, along with scores of others, because of his impudence. Do you think generations later, the oral history of Korah’s demise was remembered by his descendents? Check out the other words in Psalm 46, and God spells out the context of ‘being still’ before Him. There’s turmoil on earth, fighting that God terminates (v. 9) so that the creation will be silent and in awe of Him. I have thought of “Be Still and Know” as a tender, soft prompting by God, but thinking of Korah, I wonder if this isn’t instead a warning that his grandkids and great-grandkids want me to heed. The words of a 2nd verse of “Be Still and Know” -- that the Lord strengthens us – may have derived from the ages in which God promises healing (Exodus 15:26). Which one of us doesn’t need this promise, either physically or spiritually? Perhaps this original pledge to Moses’ people for deliverance from Egypt is the same one that prophets (Isaiah 41:10 or Zechariah 10:6) picked up later and echoed for worshippers.

There’s a hope ringing in these words for us who feel beaten. If not now on earth, then later, I hear Him say. Does worship really connect me with Him, one might legitimately ask? If I pay attention to the words, it seems the intended audience of most of the songs I sing are either others around me or God Himself – both very appropriate, as I edify others or offer my praise directly to Him. “Be Still and Know” is most unusual, because the singer is actually God, who’s using my voice to vocalize His message directly into my being. I become His audience. Someone might say ‘all worship songs are from God’ if a composer allows the Spirit to work in their creation. True. I don’t have to be retold that truth in“Be Still and Know” – I just listen.

Information on Psalm 46 and other Bible verses from which part of the song “Be Still and Know” may have sprung was obtained from study notes in the NIV Study Bible, copyright 1985 by the Zondervan Corporation, general editor Kenneth Barker and associate editors Donald Burdick, John Stek, Walter Wessel, and Ronald Youngblood.

Friday, June 11, 2010

How Great Is Our God – Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jesse Reeves

How does one describe something he’s never seen with the naked eye? Or, how would you paint a picture of an invisible person? Chris Tomlin doesn’t try to make it too complicated for us with his song “How Great Is Our God”, his way of answering someone who says ‘what’s God look like?’. What he says about this song’s development suggests that just maybe that’s the way God wants it. Just celebrate Him, and that’s enough. Almost sounds too easy, and that was kinda how Tomlin thought about it too, at first.

Tomlin recalls that the song’s development began with the chorus section ‘how great is our God…’ , and that that’s all he was able to come up with initially. He says he almost felt regret when he said to Him in effect ‘...this is all I have Lord, there’s no other words I can summon in the English language to describe how great you are.’ Evidently, Tomlin then offered some other words to go with the chorus, but he says the refrain became the focus of the song, after he took to heart some comments by friends. As a result, he says the song’s spotlight shone more brightly on the Holy One’s nature, versus what it was originally when Tomlin focused more on what we as Christians get from Him. Light, majesty, a creature that’s both lion and lamb, and a three-in-one concept none of us can honestly fathom…those are mysterious words that Tomlin uses to try to capture God’s visage. Think of a brilliant light hidden in a cloud (see the picture). Still, the song’s simple yet potent declaration of God’s supremacy is the overriding message.

Maybe that’s all the Lord wanted Chris Tomlin to think and sing about, nothing else but God. And, maybe that’s the secret of its success, why it was a number one hit song in 2006 and in 2008. Could that be why we don’t know more about Tomlin’s motivation for this tune – because why he thinks God is great doesn’t really matter? And, why I think He’s great doesn’t add or subtract from Him, either. Sure, I have Jesus to show people God, and His creation says volumes about Him too. And, my story of devotion to Him might resonate with a neighbor, or maybe a coworker. But, ultimately, if I position myself properly next to Him – on my knees, or prostrate before Him – then all the flowery phrases I could use to describe Him leave me. How great is God? He’s in a category all by Himself. He just IS.
(Chris Tomlin’s biography)
(song’s history)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hallelujah Chorus – Charles Jennens and George Fredrich Handel

I think like most observers, or more appropriately listeners (since the subject is music), I have thought that the great composer George Fredrich Handel was the creator of the Hallelujah Chorus. After all, how many of us have attended performances of ‘Handel’s Messiah’ just to hear this celebrated chorus at the end of Part II? Even hymnals credit Handel with the words, as well as the music, to this seminal work. But, that is only partly true, in fact. Charles Jennens (see the picture) was Handel’s collaborator and librettist (the writer of the words in any musical piece like an opera or oratorio like Messiah) on many productions in the 18th Century. The words in the chorus must have inspired both Handel and Jennens, both avowed Christians. What was it that made Jennens draw upon particular verses in the Bible for the words he chose?

It’s said that Jennens wanted to convince some religious adversaries (deists) in England who did not believe in Jesus’ divinity, and so he wove different scriptures together to compose a case for Christ in Messiah. Jennens chose stirring words from the Bible’s final book (Revelation 11:15; 19:6,15) for the libretto, which he then coaxed Handel to envision with music. What a challenge! How does one make music that properly addresses seeing the Lord of the universe, the way the beloved apostle saw Him in heaven? Inspired is probably too tame a word to describe what Handel must have experienced in his musical vision.

Multiple sources relay that Handel needed a boost emotionally when he began to compose Messiah’s music in 1741, and that he and Jennens were in close contact while Messiah was being brought to fruition. Handel may even have stayed at Jennens’ home during the process, a period one might imagine was pretty lengthy. Indeed, Handel apparently told his partner Jennens that he estimated it would take him a year to complete the project. Instead, in an amazing feat of energy, Handel finished Messiah in less than a month. At one point, with his depression transformed into ecstasy, Handel was overcome – “I believe I have seen the face of God!”

I wonder what Jennens’ reaction must have been, knowing the words he chose, mingled with Handel’s composition, had brought the great composer into God’s presence. To see King George II and the entire gathered assembly rise at the chorus’ performance must have been a heady experience too. (The Messiah oratorio, of which “Hallelujah Chorus” is the most well-known part, was actually premiered in Dublin, Ireland, rather than in London, England.) But, given what the beloved apostle wrote, it’s no wonder that spectators felt obliged to stand. We all will, someday. The next time you stand for Hallelujah Chorus, think of it as a warm-up for what’s to come.

 See these sites for the story of Handel’s and Jennens’Messiah:

The following site is a brief biography of the Librettist (composer of the song’s words), Charles Jennens:

See also the book Messiah, The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece, by Jonathan Keates, Basic Books; Hachette Book Group, New York, 2017.