Monday, May 30, 2011

How Sweet the Name of Jesus -- John Newton

Did John Newton know that his composition would mean so much to himself twenty or thirty years later? What will I do that will stick with me two or three decades into the future? These are questions that Newton’s hymn “How Sweet the Name of Jesus”, which he wrote in 1779, might make a believer ask, if you put yourself in his shoes. Since he recalled this hymn at a point near his own life’s end early in the 19th Century, it might be assumed that this work, among all the many that he composed, was special in some way to John Newton. Let’s see what can be found.

He was 54 years old when he apparently wrote “How Sweet the Name of Jesus” in 1779, a time of change and accomplishment in his life. Newton’s life story as a converted slave-trader is well-known. By the time he was 35, in 1755, Newton wanted to give his life completely to ministry, an objective he fulfilled over the next 47 years of life. Along the way he wrote hymns, including many apparently during his first 16 years in ministry at Olney in Buckinghamshire in south-central England. With his hymnist collaborator, William Cowper, they published the Olney Hymnal in 1779, at least nominally the year of both “How Sweet the Name of Jesus” and Newton’s most well-known “Amazing Grace”. Now, did Newton actually write both hymns the same year, or does the year 1779 merely reflect their common publishing date? Probably the latter, right? 1779 was also the year that Newton took on a new job to minister in London, where he spent the remainder of his professional life. However, Olney must have been considered home by Newton, for that is where his remains are buried.

Olney stuck with Newton over the last 20-30 years of his life, despite his move to London, and so too must have the words to “How Sweet the Name of Jesus”.  The story is told that one of Newton’s last messages from the pulpit in 1805 ended with his shout that “Jesus Christ is precious”, and that the assembled worshippers sang this hymn at his request. We can guess its words must have conveyed something Newton thought was important for people to hear in his 80th year. He evidently hadn’t forgotten his transgressions, judging from his poem’s words, but Newton knew how to find his way out of moral prison. And, maybe he saw in the faces of his hearers some of the guilt they still carried with them, and that they needed this name – this escape - too. Five of the hymn’s seven verses (see the link below) extol the value of His name over the broad sweep of one’s life. It’s more than a pleasant sound. It reminds me of His forgiveness, sustaining power, protection, and finally the resurrection that awaits, despite my mistakes. In short, from spiritual cradle to the grave and to rebirth, I have this name. ‘Jesus’ is a key to unlock all that might bind me in this reality…including a slave-trading reputation, or any other horror I could imagine. Grab that key and get yourself free!   

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “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 websites for information on Newton and the seven verses of the song:

Background on Olney, where Newton is buried:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I Stand Amazed – Charles Gabriel

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

An amazing person, who wrote that he was in fact a quite ordinary, feeble being compared to the incomparable God. That’s how one could describe Charles Gabriel in the early 1900s when he composed “I Stand Amazed”. But, like the apostles who had been with the Christ, Gabriel must have encountered Jesus (in a figurative sense), motivating his prolific life and this spellbound reflection that he put to words. Examine Gabriel’s life, and see if his prodigious nature was superhuman.

Charles Hutchinson Gabriel was an Iowa farm boy, who had little formal educational background that hinted he would become a musical master. Like others in mid-19th Century rural America, one can imagine that Gabriel may have attended one-room schools for his general education. His musical upbringing in the family home, where his father guided singing schools, undoubtedly gave the young Charles an advantage that his formal education had left vacant. With the family’s reed organ, Gabriel taught himself the basics, and by his mid-teens he actually was teaching others, and reportedly composing for his local church. Through the rest of his life he may have composed between 7,000 and 8,000 songs, becoming known as the ‘king of gospel music’ while composing for well-known names like Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver. Was he a ‘prodigy’, a savant perhaps like Mozart? Someone who heard music in his head, and composed as easily as the rest of us breathe? Astonishing, amazing – where did it come from? Perhaps while in the womb he heard his own father singing and teaching. With this ability, maybe Gabriel himself wondered and marveled at this God-given talent.

The words of the gospel hymn “I Stand Amazed” were written in 1905 when Gabriel was 49 years old, after more than three decades into his life’s work in music. The hymn’s words indicate he was not self-absorbed, as some with his talent over such a long stretch of time might have been. Instead, Gabriel focused his attention on the One who had gifted him musically. Gabriel’s composition shows he saw his own faults (a sinner, condemned, unclean – verse 1), but that’s not where he dwelt. Gabriel evidently had emerged from his own struggles – including his father’s death when Charles was still a teenager, and his failed first marriage - to recognize the Lord’s work in his life. Look at Him, hold Him in awe, and open your mouth in joyous response as you look forward to a face-to-face encounter. That sums up Gabriel’s song-message. It’s not hard to find something amazing about Him – you just have to look.

Information on the song was obtained from “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:

More biographic information on composer:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Alleluia Alleluia Hearts to Heaven -- Christopher Wordsworth

It was Easter that Christopher Wordsworth was considering when he wrote one of his two hymns for that holiday occasion, “Alleluia, Alleluia! Hearts to Heaven” in 1862. He was an educated, multitalented man, with his heart bent toward Him in his life of scholarship and poetry that is thoroughly evident in this great hymn. His life’s purpose and ability merge in the composition, a compelling statement that one feels Wordsworth must have felt from deep inside. It was something he was saying after many years of development as a believer and a scholar. It was the most basic - and powerful - message one might hear.

Wordsworth’s London upbringing in a theologically and academically gifted family played no small part in his development. One might say that the publication of his first collection of hymns in The Holy Year, otherwise known as Hymns for Sundays and Holy Days Throughout the Year, and for Other Occasions, in 1862 (his 55th year) was a window on his family’s life. The poetry with which he was gifted was also shared by his famous poet-uncle William Wordsworth; Christopher won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1827 and 1828. One wonders if Uncle William had previewed and edited his nephew’s prose. The hymnist was also a writer of topography and archaeology, including a notable work in epigraphy (study of ancient inscriptions). His father, also Christopher, was a doctor of theology, and his brothers, John and Charles, were scholars in their own right. Several of his own children and a son-in-law likewise were accomplished scholars or professional educators. So, the songs he wrote must have been the product of his erudite environment, too, and undoubtedly approved by those closest to him. Even the athletic ability he and his brother Charles possessed may have contributed to the agile words he composed. Indeed, the faith that shines forth in “Alleluia, Alleluia! Hearts to Heaven” shows a healthy mind and body were Wordsworth’s.

Wordsworth believed, like many hymnists of that era, as well as those of today, that compositions should teach truth. Oh sure, Easter is an immutable fact, the most important of all scripture, someone says, but aren’t there other truths? Wordsworth and his family certainly knew and discussed others. Nevertheless, the resurrection’s reality hadn’t dimmed for Wordsworth. His poem’s five verses restate Christ’s seminal moment in various forms, telling us that its author never grew tired of his faith’s foundation. My favorite verse is the one that translates His risen state to me, describing me as harvested grain. I hope I’m continuing to grow and ripen as the tall stalk, which Wordsworth writes is fed by Christ’s light. That’s great imagery, meant to touch my emotional center. God, too, is a poet – just look at Christ’s words. And, so I’m reminded by the composer that He’s trying to reach my soul – my emotional hub. He wants to draw me to the universe’s emotional-spiritual axis. So that’s what His resurrection is for.

Information on the composer was obtained from the books “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and “A Treasury of Hymn Stories (Brief Biographies of 120 Hymnwriters with Their Best Hymns)”, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.

Also see the following websites for a brief biography of the composer and some information on the hymn, which has five verses (according to two of the sources):

Friday, May 6, 2011

Heavenly Father, We Appreciate You – Anonymous

Why do I need God in three forms? Otherwise put, why the Trinity? Isn’t it confusing relating to one Divine Being, not to mention three? There’s many art masterpieces that depict the Trinity, most often with the Spirit as a dove, while in contrast the Father and Son appear human-like, rather than God-like. (I wish I could write something stunning to match one of these masterpieces, like the one shown here by Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo, painted circa. 1665-1670). Well, maybe the writer of the song “Heavenly Father, We Appreciate You” had figured out the answer, or perhaps had struggled through this conundrum like me in order to come to some understanding of Him. The song’s writer is in fact not known, so in this anonymity, each of us is free to write his or her own song story here. Just for ease of discussion, let’s pretend that all of us are the writers of this song’s words, and we’ll call ourselves collectively the anonymous writer ‘Anon’ (short for Anonymous).

Anon must have gone through various phases of relationship with Him, based on the three verses he has us sing. Father, Son, Holy Ghost. The Father, the One to whom I prostrate myself -- a ‘bowing down’, as I conclude the opening verse. I think that Anon must have felt particularly humbled because of his own most recent experience in sin (whatever it was), and the utter ignominy he felt that contact with the Most Holy One inspired. I might feel this way, acutely, only occasionally. But, its remnants stick with me, and I need genuine submission and the resulting freedom from guilt for a healthy faith. The Son causes Anon to marvel. He came to become less than God, somehow – an amazing thing. And, He must have known I’d be incapable of recovery from contact with the Father, if the shame were not excised from my consciousness somehow. In a word, He gave Anon and the rest of us a MIRACLE, a way out of jail for every wrong thought, deed, or word. Anon, like me, must have had plenty of those in his debt column when he wrote this song. The Spirit is here to keep me company, but not just for friendship, but advice too. Anon probably felt lonely at times, and empty about his life’s purpose. With his companion, the vacuum disappeared, at least when he maintained contact.

Sound familiar? There’s many facets to any relationship, which may explain why He’s three persons for me to know and appreciate. Appreciate? ‘Is that too tame?’, someone complains. Maybe, if you’re trying to thank Him or say you love Him. But, appreciation can also mean (according to Websters’) that I value something justly, that He gets from me what He really deserves. Something of true value also appreciates over time; it gets better and better. That’s God, when I keep messing up and He refuses to discard me or demote me when I come running home. His Son’s blood keeps on washing…keeps on amazing me with its endless cleansing power. The Counselor-Comforter-Friend stays with me, but refuses to overpower me, even when I douse Him. He knows me, even better than I know myself. Still think of yourself as ‘Anon’? I bet God doesn’t call you that.