Saturday, August 25, 2012

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross -- Isaac Watts

What would someone say about the most significant human event that would challenge conventional wisdom? Isaac Watts might have asked himself this in 1707 as he pondered what the Messiah’s sacrifice meant. Get outside of the box, and think like He did. Watts’ hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” relays a personal reflection that even in its title may have elicited some frowns and puzzled expressions. How could a symbol of  execution be wondrous? And, how could the unjust capital punishment of a perfect person be a reason for singing?   

Isaac Watts was known for pushing the envelope, as did his father. Christianity was intensely personal for this family, so much so that the elder Isaac was twice imprisoned for his views. The son followed a similar path as he wrote hymns to express himself, personally, to others with whom he shared the same faith in old England. Perhaps it was not just old, but also stale, for many of the faith still held to traditional songs set exclusively to the Psalms. The 33-year old Watts evidently wanted to share himself in the hymn he wrote for one Sunday’s communion service. The second word of the hymn may have broken the rules for many…’I’ would not have counted for much in the traditional way of worshipping. But, Watts wanted to laud Christ, even while recognizing his own humanity. His first two verses indicate he was had some pride and earthly wealth, feeling their impact on his conscience as he compared himself to the Holy One. To admit that openly was revelatory. Perhaps Watts drew upon this also when he spoke as a pastor to the assembled believers, connecting their everyday life with what they were singing. ‘Make it more real to your daily life’, one might have heard Watts say.  Watts’ hymn evidently spoke deeply to many, including Charles Wesley who followed in his footsteps and reportedly thought it was of higher value than all the thousands of hymns he himself would eventually compose.

While Watts made his hymn a personal testimony, he didn’t elevate his personality above the hymn’s main theme.  While all six of the original six verses show he had focused his heart on Christ, there’s less notice of his competing human character in the last four verse when compared to the first two. That says something about the effect of viewing the cross, doesn’t it? Gaze at it, think of its value, and your own worries and mortal thoughts shrink. Jesus got outside of conventional wisdom in order to sacrifice Himself. He invites me to do something rather unusual in return – think about and trust in the consequences – in fact, the power -- of a death sentence.  That’s what Isaac Watts did in 1707. Still works 300 years later.

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

See the following website for the hymn’s six original verses:

See following for biography on Watts:

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beneath the Cross of Jesus -- Elizabeth Clephane

She must have suspected that her life was going to be short. That might be a compact conclusion you could surmise about Elizabeth Clephane if you look at some words she recorded in 1868. Perhaps others wondered about this too when the words to “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” were published in 1872, a few years after her death in 1869. One year removed from her thoughts, she was gone forever, a sobering thought for any us who would choose to write something before ‘forever’ begins. What could one say, particularly if you were known as an upbeat personality? Read on, if you want to see how Elizabeth handled this challenge.

She was called ‘Sunbeam’, despite a life that might have left her jaded. Elizabeth Clephane was a native of Scotland, who might have been known only as a sheriff’s daughter if she hadn’t also been engaged in so many charitable activities. Her chronic poor health stood in contrast to how she lived her brief life of helping the poor and disabled. Perhaps it was her own subpar physical condition that compelled her to take care of other’s needs. Medicine being what it was in the mid-19th Century may have also helped Elizabeth realize her time terrestrially might be cut short. That might also explain why she is known to have written only eight hymns, including just two that have survived in contemporary collections. She was engaged in living and acting out the Christian life, not necessarily in recording inspiring words for posterity. Yet, her own mortality’s certainty must have occupied some mental energy, as suggested in one verse of “Beneath the Cross…” that is less well-known than the other four stanzas normally appearing in hymnals today. She refers to the ‘gap’-ing and ‘awful grave’ in this verse, a hint that she, like any of us, dreaded what lay ahead. The words she uses elsewhere in the hymn are in fact not her own, showing she knew from where to draw courage for what was approaching the following year. The Bible – that’s what she leaned upon. Several phrases from her study of scripture call out from her hymn’s first verse. They were, for those who never heard her words while she was still living, almost certainly a posthumous encouragement to friends and neighbors who mourned her early departure. Our fear of the grave is normal, but let our biblical ancestors’ words engulf that emotion, she seems to say. My demise need not torment me.  

Is that why God gave us the bible? Is that why one might observe so many elderly people clutching the Holy Book? She might have been only 39 years old (38 when she wrote this hymn), but Elizabeth Clephane orchestrated something with her words that belies her age. Wisdom – where’s its origin? Elizabeth’s example answers that it comes not from aged human thoughts, adorned with wrinkled skin and white hair. No, the aged thoughts she used are much older and wiser. They confound some people with talk of a bloody Cross that saves, and Elizabeth’s words might elicit the same reaction. But, what’s your alternative, as you near the finish line?

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

See the following website for the hymn’s five original verses:

This site lists the handful of hymns credited to the composer:

Saturday, August 11, 2012

At the Name of Jesus -- Dennis Jernigan

Someone might have asked him ‘Are you having a mid-life crisis?’ After all, he was turning 30, and he’d just shared something with a crowd of people, something that most of us would feel ashamed to say in public. But, hearing what he wrote later, and recognizing the source of the words makes one see in a different light what he must have been thinking. Dennis Jernigan knew how to excise the guilt from his consciousness, and it meant being totally transparent, and trusting in the foundation of Him about whom another wrote centuries earlier. Jernigan’s words in “At the Name of Jesus” are so similar to an ancient passage, that we can be certain what he was doing when he was inspired to write a contemporary version of that same text.

Jernigan’s story is so well-known today that we might forget there was a time when he had not shared it, but had kept it hidden. He “came out” in 1988 from behind the veil of homosexuality that had haunted his life, even after his marriage to his wife Melinda some five years earlier. His testimony and the songs he’s written carry a consistent theme about freedom for the wrongdoer – ‘sinner’, in biblical terms, a word that our culture doesn’t want us to acknowledge.  Dennis seems to say that he had taken our culture’s advice for too long, even while being a believer and knowing that God is omniscient. Eventually, he knew he needed to take away the ammunition of the Enemy (‘Satan’ – another term our pop culture does not take seriously). So by mid-1988, Dennis was standing before his spiritual family and confessing his previous life’s perversity. We can know from the words in his song “At the Name of Jesus” that he must have been an avid bible reader at about that same time, perhaps as he sought freedom from his conscience-stricken condition.  What made him apparently draw upon the great apostle Paul’s words (Philippians 2:10-11) for this song? Was he longing for the time in the hereafter, when his mistakes would no longer dog him? Don’t we all? It must have been some moment when he was reading this letter from a spiritual brother 2,000 years old, and he understood ‘I don’t have to wait.’ Was he intrigued that someone could write something so full of joy from a prison? Dennis wrote his song to say ‘praise Him’ now, for what he knew would one day be true, despite the mess that was still trying to cling to him in the 1980’s.  

Did it occur to Dennis Jernigan that Paul and he were both prisoners, at least at one time? Jernigan’s a smart, sensitive guy, so it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that he adopted Paul’s method for prison-life management on purpose, in order to seek his own cure. Read the apostle’s words about civilization’s destiny, call upon His name, and usher his kingship into your life, Jernigan says with his renewal of the ancient words. Are you in prison? Think about the future, Dennis and Paul might say. Count on the time when He will overwhelm every evil deed and thought, every injustice. His name and its owner will be all that matters then. Do you hear the call of His name?   
Some biographical information on Dennis Jernigan:

And, see this book:  Giant Killers: Crushing Strongholds , Securing Freedom in Your Life, by Dennis Jernigan. WaterBrook Press, 2005.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

In My Life, Lord, Be Glorified -- Bob Kilpatrick

Bob Kilpatrick was doing something that all believers do when they’re alone and need something from Him. He prayed. Not quite in a closet (like the one shown here), but close. It would have been hard to get his guitar, and his bible, and some light in such a confined area, but with the rest of the family somewhere else in the house, he settled in for some solitary moments in one room. Sound familiar? My version is at this keyboard in a mostly dark basement, hoping that this is a most special place between Him and me, as a personal declaration to Him, and a way to enrich my life just by connecting with Him. That’s what Bob Kilpatrick was up to that day in 1977. You can tell that Bob did not have claustrophobia – or ‘closet’-ophobia – when he was alone with God. Put yourself in his shoes and in the thoughts that he recorded, words that millions of others have tried on for size.

 It’s awful hard to close off the mind from the day’s events…to forget and stop replaying human-to-human (not always positive) interactions. Bob Kilpatrick, as member of the human race, must have been there that day too. He knew what he needed, as he pondered the music ministry he and his wife Cindy were beginning. Like other musicians, the Kilpatricks wanted to make good music that would reach other believers. But that day, Bob composed for just One, while sitting in his mother-in-law’s house. Read the song’s words. It’s evident who that was. Bob thinks that may have been the key to the song’s success - -that it started with a pure objective. He adds that it was really others, including Cindy, who pushed the song’s introduction to a wider audience. ‘Lord, I’m turned toward You…I want to stay that way’, Bob might have said very plainly. It’s an attitude that he’s not limited to just this one song. He’s written a book ‘Secrets of the Silence’, counseling his readers to do what his well-known song did for himself long ago – find a quiet place and time to be with Him. ‘Physician, heal thyself’, someone might say, but it seems that Kilpatrick’s tonic has me looking upward, not inward, for the ‘Physician’.

Bob Kilpatrick found a way to say his simple prayer, set to equally simple music, a statement that I should remember. Think of Him. Think of myself and Him, of drawing closer to Him. This may challenge your inhibition, being alone with the Omniscient. But, He’s also known as Life, Truth, and Justifier, among so many other names that are uniquely His. So, I let no one nor nothing else get between Him and me. That was Bob Kilpatrick’s method in 1977. Have you got your solitary place picked out yet?

The source for Bob Kilpatrick’s 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.

See also this link for biography of composer:

See the composer’s official website here: