Saturday, July 30, 2011

Great Is the Lord -- Deborah D. and Michael W. Smith

She wrote its words, and he wrote the music, at least according to what the copyright law in 20th Century America tells us. But if you listen to the story that Debbie and Michael W. Smith relate, they had some help that night in the early 1980s. Michael and Debbie are partners, and they ‘partnered’ with some others to encourage listeners to offer up their admiration to Him, using some ancient words and feelings to say in a room’s dim light what cannot be hidden. “Great Is the Lord” is a statement the Smiths make that any of us can declare, using the same method of discovery that they did that night in Nashville, Tennessee. Let’s see how they did it.  

The Smiths met as Michael was beginning his career in the period 1979-1981, while he was with a group called Higher Ground. Later, he was writing music for Meadowgreen Music as he and Debbie began their life together. They were partners not just in marriage but in music composition too, often at night, apparently because one of them (Michael) does his best work then. They also employed a method of devotion that is not uncommon to what other believers practice. They read and studied His words in the Bible, drawing inspiration from what David had originally composed in Psalm145:3 on that evening in 1982. It’s not implausible that the Spirit also steered them in the prayer they shared that night, helping guide them to their centuries-old musical compatriot’s thoughts. Not a bad place to go, to this ‘man after God’s own heart’ (1 Sam 13:14 and Acts 13:22) when hunting for words to say something musical. The couple was also working with a local church, looking for ways to add to its music. So, their intent was not entirely personal that night, but also involved their desire to communicate some fresh words for many others.  “Great Is the Lord” was one of the tracks on Michael’s first album in 1983, The Michael W. Smith Project. So, the song manifested some firsts, or at least an early effort, in more than one way – a new marriage and partnership between the Smiths, and a first album. Isn’t it interesting that they gravitated toward something old to get something new started?

Who’s my partner here? I could shrug and say I’m solo, but that’s not really so. The Smiths didn’t think of themselves as alone the night they wrote “Great Is the Lord” either. Even God’s not alone, with all of His power and creativity. The Holy Trinity, though I cannot completely fathom Them, are together for a reason. “Great Is the Lord”? Maybe Debbie and Michael felt that the Triune God is indeed one, because of their singular purpose. That singularity doesn’t stop with those Three, but will ultimately encompass all of us too, if we’ll permit it. Wanna be great? Now you know where to go to find it – no Them. Same place the Smiths went looking in 1982.  

The source for the Smiths’ song story is “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006. Also see: for a brief synopsis of the song story.

Also see Michael W. Smith’s official website:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Jesus Thy Name I Love -- James George Deck

He would be pleased if you called him ‘brother’ when meeting him for the first time. That much could easily be speculated about James George Deck, since he was of the Plymouth Brethren in the 19th Century. This composer-evangelist-missionary and Jesus-lover, because of his beliefs, would also have been happy if you joined him in the song “Jesus, Thy Name I Love”, because that would mean you shared this life’s theme with him, no matter what Christian church name you associated with. Knowing where and when he wrote this song, you get a picture of how Deck might have introduced himself, and his God, to those he was just getting to know.  

Deck’s life began in England, wound its way through different parts of Europe and Asia, back to England, and then to New Zealand (see its flag here). He was trained to be an army officer in Paris, took a commission (bought by his father, in fact) in the East India Company and served in India for two separate tours in the 1820s and 1830s. It wasn’t long before he heard a message of brotherhood in Jesus and began to ponder this alternative to the military career in which he was progressing. By 1835 while still in India, he made the commitment to full-time ministry, quit the military and returned to England with his wife and two sons. He eventually joined the Brethren, and began his life’s work. A split in the Brethren fellowship wounded Deck spiritually and emotionally, and no doubt contributed to a stroke he suffered by 1852, when he was just 45. It was then that Deck and his family departed for New Zealand. While needing to put distance between himself and the church division controversy in England, Deck still needed God, and still believed in the basic principles of the Brethren. So, he started a new life in New Zealand, in a hard-scrabble area of the Waiwero district, not far from Mouteka.  His wife died that first year in December 1853, a sign perhaps of the strain of a hard life on unforgiving land and a different climate. Eventually, Deck started a Brethren movement in this area, but that first year, he and his family were still settling into a new life. Jesus…He was the focus of Deck’s thoughts. Not controversy, not theological debates, just God, and a new beginning. This was the background for “Jesus Thy Name I Love” that Deck wrote in 1853.   

Deck obviously wanted to put some things behind him in New Zealand, and re-center on what had drawn him toward God in the first place. In the isolated area of Waiwero, though the land was tough for farming, it’s said that the Decks found Christian friends. Even the death of Deck’s wife did not leave James George bereft and downcast for long. He remarried and added several more children to his family through his second wife, although she too died some 10 short years into their marriage, in 1865. Still, Deck’s life included many fellow Christians and his 13 children. He indeed experienced brotherhood, while enduring loss. How’d he manage? The words he penned that first year in New Zealand must have been an unshakeable foundation for him. Something that would keep one standing though you might be on the opposite side of the globe from one’s birthplace…what would that be? Read James George Deck’s poem-song words, and see what you think of his solution.

A great in-depth look at Deck’s life is here:

Other biographical information on the composer: (all four verses of his song are here) (infomation on church Deck was in)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bless the Name of Jesus -- Carman Licciardello

Some people are universally acknowledged even if only their first names are used in conversation. Who comes to mind? Jesus, most notably, right? What about those among the human race, who were just human? Maybe Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone)? How about presidents whose initials prompt familiarity, like FDR, or JFK? Here’s one that may ring a bell with some – Carman. He’s the composer of the bouncy, celebratory “Bless the Name of Jesus”, that he wrote in 1983 when he was 27 years old. He is described as a ‘cultural phenomenon’, and an ‘American original’, with a unique blend in his Christian music performances that is hard to classify. Unique, phenomenon, original. Sound like anyone else?

He was born Carmelo Domenic Licciardello – maybe that’s why he’s known more simply as Carman. From his upbringing in New Jersey, he had a music and entertainment gene fostered by his mother, in whose band he played the drums.  He frequented places like Philadelphia and Atlantic City to exercise his show business skills as a teenager, and was actually approached by a Mafia crime family, who offered to help promote his career. But, off to Las Vegas he went, without making any commitment to the ‘family’. While away, he attended an Andrae Crouch concert, where he was stirred as a young man to give himself up to Christ, a great disappointment to his potential promoters, but a boon to the Christian music and entertainment genre for the next several decades. By 1980, in his early 20’s, he was making Christian music records, and shortly thereafter wrote the song “Bless the Name of Jesus”. What’s the specific story behind the song, you ask? It must be known, by Carman certainly, and perhaps he tells it during his performances. His official website says ‘…Carman's what we could only identify as a 'story song'’. He mixes multiple presentational styles - including comedy, drama, satire, preaching, funk, rock, and others – to get the message of his life across. Judging by the song’s lyrics and what one can hear and see in videos, he was overjoyed with the Lord at that time, and wanted to draw others who would listen into this festival atmosphere.  It’s a song that prompts worshippers to sing His praise over and over, not unlike what we’ll sing throughout Eternity. 

Carman is a one-name guy, promoting a God named simply, Jesus.  What Carman does may look pretty daunting, for one person. He’s a singer, dancer, writer, and an actor (in no less than two movies, as well as many other productions), and has even been politically active (spurring reportedly one million people to sign a petition pushing a constitutional amendment for school prayer). And, he’s established two non-profit organizations – Carman Ministries and Carman World Outreach. It may seem like his life is pretty complicated, with a spotlight that is often focused on him as the stage performer. Yeh, gobs of people may take notice of him. But, looking at all he does, it seems this one-name guy is really just a mirror for another.  

Biographic information on the composer at these sites:

Here’s a link that shows two verses of the song that may not often be heard, along with the well-known chorus:

Sunday, July 10, 2011

He's My King -- James Rowe

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…(Ecclesiastes 9:10)

He’d had a variety of jobs, both in his native Europe, and in America before he wrote a hymn about a different kind of boss than he had experienced in his vocational life. Perhaps not very many people would adopt James Rowe’s song words for “He’s My King” if they were thinking of the boss to whom they answered Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM. ‘Is this the guy I want to serve all my life?’, one might ask himself on a day when the job just doesn’t seem worth the paycheck. When you reach mid-life, that’s when you become fixed in your choices – at least, that’s what it appears must have been James Rowe’s response to his life, and his life’s work, when he decided he wanted to write songs. And, he made a conscious choice to whom those songs would be addressed.

James Rowe was born in England on New Year’s Day, 1865 and worked in Ireland until he emigrated to America when he was 24. He must have heard what it was like to work in copper mines, for that was his father’s livelihood. James worked for the Irish government for a few years, and then decided America was where he wanted to seek other opportunities. Along with thousands, and even millions of his Irish countrymen who came to America in the latter half of the 19th Century, Rowe sought out a new life around 1889-90, choosing Albany, New York and railroad work until near the turn of the 20th Century. He was an inspector for the Humane Society after that, but then turned to music-writing, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he had chosen to more fully devote himself to music-writing. After all, one doesn’t radically alter vocational direction – from government employee to railroad worker, then Humane Society inspector, to music-writer – without at least first experimenting with it while otherwise employed. Rowe probably had had some success with this avocation before he decided to take a run at it full-time, working for three music publishers in Texas and Tennessee. Were his words in “He’s My King” in 1911-12 an expression of satisfaction by a 46-year old who had found his life’s work, after several false starts?  He must have been pleased, to say the least, with his new ‘boss’, the divine royalty whom he lauds in this hymn. Some records of Rowe’s life indicate he may have written up to 1,900 hymn texts (including 45 shown on the Cyber Hymnal website – see below link) in this new career.

Yes, Rowe liked, even adored, his new boss. The words in his hymn “He’s My King”
emphasize how he felt surrounded by Him daily, and how he looked forward to this in eternity too. He makes me wonder, as I think about going to work on Monday, ‘Who’s my boss?’ Am I happy where I am? Can I joyfully serve at what I am called to do Monday through Friday? I serve an excellent God – what an understatement, right? If I work in less than an excellent way, failing to reflect Him toward others about me, what does that say about His impact on me? Is He really my king? Maybe, if my answers to these questions bother my conscience, I should find what I can excel at, hmmm? Maybe that’s what James Rowe asked himself, too.

Biographic information on composer:

Saturday, July 2, 2011

His Name Is Wonderful -- Audrey Mieir

The copyright says 1959, but the song was really composed during the Christmas season of 1955. Audrey Mieir’s name is on the copyright, but perhaps her brother-in-law Luther, and a centuries-old prophet also deserve some of the royalties from the song “His Name Is Wonderful”. Even some of the children in the church where 39-year old Audrey spent that Christmas (probably with a tree and loved ones around, as in the picture) were part of the song’s development, if its creation story is really examined in detail. Is it any wonder that His name is revered by believers, when He can cause events and people to intersect in a way to create something unique?

How many names are appropriate for Him? There are seven in the song that Audrey Mieir wrote that Christmas, including the one in the song’s title. And, seven is often cited as the number of completion (or in the secular world, as lucky), so is that its key to success? If it was, maybe He was at work in this way too, a not totally implausible scenario. There was a Christmas play at the church, the Bethel Union Church in Duarte, California, featuring lots of children as characters in the well-known story. That would be enough to touch most people, including the church’s pastor, apparently. This pastor, named Luther, was Audrey’s brother-in-law. He quoted the words of Isaiah (9:6) – perhaps, they had been part of the play, spoken by one of the kids. The room was hushed, appropriately following the chorus’ rendition of ‘Silent Night’, and Audrey says she sensed something special, prompting her to immediately jot down her brother-in-law’s well-chosen words – ‘His name is wonderful’. A few hours later, she used other scriptural names of Him, fitting them with the melody that was flowing in her consciousness that Christmas day. Seven names, matched – or probably even exceeded – by the number of contributors to the ditty she composed and introduced at the church that same evening. Seven, or even seventy, maybe more, could be said to have brought this tune along, considering all the various sources that Audrey heard, or read, or sensed in her spirit that day. They all coalesced for Audrey Mieir, the musical resource that God used to assemble the tune.      

His names say so much about Him, perhaps that’s what Audrey Mieir was struck by that Christmas. Focus on the names, she hints, to draw from Him what He wants to give you. The Mighty King, Great Shepherd, Rock of Ages, Master, and Almighty God is the Lord Jesus, who is Wonderful. He chose all these names for Himself, I’m reminded, as I sing what Audrey wrote. Why did He do so? Was it for me, I think as I sing? Listen close, and you might hear Him singing too, His Spirit mingling with yours. They’re His names, but I inherit and have access to these parts of Him as a believer. Now, that’s astonishing, when I think of its import. It’s wonderful!       

The source for Audrey Mieir’s “His Name is Wonderful” song story is the book “Our God Reigns: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2000; and also “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.