Saturday, December 28, 2013

Standing on the Promises – Russell Kelso Carter

This fellow was perhaps best-described as a human jumping bean, or perhaps as a good soldier (see picture here)
who went willingly where he felt he was being directed. He marched from one vocation to another, broadening and deepening his unique experience while maintaining a connection to God. Russell Kelso Carter had anchored himself to the Divine, apparently, by the time he composed the hymn “Standing on the Promises” in the mid-to-late 19th Century. Could his words have also been a portent of things to come in his life, or did the words reflect something that was already ongoing? Perhaps it was both.

R. Kelso Carter was already diversifying his life by the time he graduated from school and began working in the late 1860’s, a blueprint he added to for the next 50 years. He’d been a standout athlete at the Pennsylvania Military Academy as a student, and later was professor of various subjects (Mathematics, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, and Natural Science) immediately thereafter. He jumped from there to sheep-herding in California, a period during which a heart condition crystallized something in his spirit, as he felt he was near death. He prayed for healing while trying to convalesce in Baltimore, and it may have been there that he really began to ‘stand on’ God’s promises as a 30-year old. He later became a Methodist minister, while continuing to involve himself in writing and publishing hymnals, novels, and textbooks in the sciences he had taught in Pennsylvania. Later, he studied medicine and became a physician in Baltimore, a profession he continued until his death in 1928. But, the principle he’d learned while healing from a weak heart was apparently something he never forgot – that all he needed was what God had already assured him could be his. He vowed to use himself for Him from that healing point forward. Was it an accident that Carter was able to do a variety of things well until he left his earthly life at 79 years old? He was a vivid example of loyalty to the God whose promises he trusted.

Carter’s hymn words for each verse begin with ‘Standing on the Promises’, a repetition that some have suggested was a reflection of the composer’s military education. ‘Don’t doubt’, you can sense Carter commanding. He’s not a God who’ll waffle. Just attach yourself to Him, and take in this part of His character as an integral element of your own makeup. Russell Carter joined this army willingly, and look at all that he was empowered to do. The hymn’s pace has a martial quality, but His is an all-volunteer army – no conscripts here. If I use Him as my foundation – not unlike a bass drum, hammering out a consistent beat – my life has certainty, though it might take turns others resist. Are you ready to be a soldier?  

Information on the song’s composer was obtained from the books “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; “101 More Hymn Stories”, by Kenneth Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and “Then Sings My Soul”, by Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2003. 

Link to all five verses and refrain of song that Kelso wrote:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Give Me the Bible -- Priscilla J. Owens

School teacher. Kids. Bible. Christian faith. Those few words could sum up what Priscilla Jane Owens’ life reflected, including what she composed in “Give Me the Bible” published in 1883.  What was it she viewed as she mulled over the words she thought children needed to hear most? Would it have been different for kids of that era versus those in other times? And, given what Owens had seen as a teacher for many years by that time, would the source of training and hope that she believed would hearten those she mentored have been a secret? Did she communicate the same in public schools as she did in Sunday schools? Did her experience in one guide her efforts in the other? These are all questions we’ll have to ask her later, but we can surmise some of her answers now. 

Fifty-four year old Priscilla had probably seen and taught hundreds, perhaps even thousands of children by the time she composed “Give Me the Bible”. She was an educator in Baltimore for some 50 years throughout her life, so as she approached her mid-50’s, Owens had seen a generation of youngsters enter and exit her classrooms. What impressed her as she wrote the four verses of this hymn, one among over 200 that she created, mostly for children? Each of the first three verses she penned conveys that she felt children arrived in her environment with troubles. They were ‘lone and tempest tossed’, had ‘broken’ hearts, felt ‘fear’ and ‘grief’, and walked in ‘gloom’. Not a very happy picture, huh? She had a counterpoint, however. The bible was no better place to start, a message she communicated on Sundays, both in the classroom and with her poetic pen. There’s no tentativeness to her approach in 1883. Her words are bold, right from the hymn’s first syllables.  We know not what specific kinds of issues she had seen in her public school role, as well as in her Sunday school position, but there must have been a myriad of them. But, was it different on Monday through Friday, versus on Sunday? We could guess that Sunday school kids needed less urging to open a bible – churchgoing parents would have already been compelling this behavior, right? On the other hand, what about the kids in her public school classrooms? Did she see they needed this instruction, perhaps in a greater way? 

Perhaps what she couldn’t explicitly verbalize for kids, she wrote in her poems. Her beliefs could have been read by any of her students in the Meth­od­ist Pro­test­ant and the Chris­tian Stan­dard, where her poems were published. It must have been an effective technique, for she wrote some 230 hymns that we still have. That’s about four or five lesson-poems for her students per year, over the 50 years that Priscilla occupied a classroom. Many have lasted well beyond her lifetime, so we could say she was prophetic, in a way. A prophet’s message is from Him, and generally outlives its messenger’s mortality.  She’s still teaching. And, the bible’s still in print.

A very brief biographic note on the composer, plus all 4 verses that she wrote for the hymn:
More biography on composer:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thy Word -- Amy Grant

It was a combination of at least two elements, with one of them something that many others had employed. But, another ingredient in “Thy Word” that this artist wrote in 1984 could not have been predicted. She could not have stumbled upon a method that included an incident like the one she found if she’d wanted to, for does anyone choose to be lost? Or how about danger…is that OK with you? The way this came about must have told her that it really was from a special, even divine, source. He works His will in unique ways, perhaps just so His servants cannot forget how He works to plant Himself inside each of us.

Amy Grant had been writing songs for several years by the time 1984 rolled around, and she’s kept going since that time, although whether she’s had any similar avenues for a song’s development is not clear. She was a 24-year old rising celebrity in the music industry that year, after having cut several albums in a span of seven years. Would she argue that it seemed as if God had shown her the path He intended for her? She met and began a lifelong friendship with Michael W. Smith, who coaxed her to consider putting some words to a melody that he’d composed. Smith had already suggested that some of the Psalmist’s words (119:105) worked well for the song’s main thought, but he admitted he had no ideas for the verses. That’s where Amy came in. Was it accidental that the two were in a wooded retreat in the Rocky Mountains, and Grant found herself in the dark one night, groping to find her cabin in an unfamiliar place? She’d left the recording studio and become lost; the words she wrote suggest she also had some fear pangs, as she anxiously crept through the wilderness without light. After all, were their cougars or other wildlife peering hungrily at her in the pitch black? Or, at least, almost pitch black. She eventually saw a small beam that turned out to be a lantern in her cabin’s window, and soon she was inside breathing easier. What would she have done without that small light?  And, as they say, the rest is history, including her singing the song the following day in that mountaintop studio.

Does God give us real-life physical episodes to reveal something of a deeper, personal level to us? Grant’s words in the verses she crafted after arriving in a warm, well-lit cabin from an apprehension-filled environment she’d experienced just moments before tell us that she sensed something more meaningful had been exposed for her. She confesses to having felt like a spiritual wanderer, even as she knew His presence and protection were near. It’s Him who lights the lamp, even as He knows it may not be visible without my lurching through the gloom, maybe in the wrong direction for a while. But, He hopes and rejoices when I squint and finally spot that tiny ray. In fact, that shaft of light’s always been there.

The song story is found here:
Information about the album on which the song first appears, from 1984:
All the original lyrics to the song:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Greatest Commands -- John, Paul, Moses, God

These composers had been exposed to something, or had become so much like what they wrote, that their words rang with an authenticity previously unheard. Consider the personal history of some of these guys, and you might have had reason to scoff if you’d heard them verbalize “The Greatest Commands” – to love, as if with a godly love. They didn’t really collaborate on the song, as far as we know, but their messages struck a common chord. A single source makes this possible, even for those of us who are multiple millennia beyond their era.

Let’s see how each of the writers arrived at the words he composed. John was the ‘beloved Apostle’, thus he wrote about behavior he’d experienced first-hand. No one might have said his expression of love was very winsome when he and his brother James walked with Jesus. They were the ones who thought they deserved more of His favor than the other Apostles (Matthew 20:20-23), and who’d wanted to call down fire on unfriendly Samaritans (Luke 9:51-54). Yeh, this was a son of thunder, not love, at that time. Yet, when he wrote as a much older man to a group that was attracted to Gnosticism, a false spiritualism, the wizened John told them the basics of true spiritualism – love (1 John 4:7-8). Love sacrificially. John must have seen a lot in that group that showed they’d twisted this love into something immoral. John’s was a message of correction. So was Paul’s, some thirty years before John’s ode to love.  This middle-aged Paul was the same guy who’d chased, persecuted, and had had Christians killed less than two decades earlier (Acts 8:1-3). Whatever happened to him, it must have been radical, right? The Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13) he addressed had lots of issues, not the least of which were squabbles among themselves, a debilitating environment for God-centered folks. Unity was impossible among such a people. Paul said God’s nature was the most perfect, a patient, resilient, trusting devotion (v. 7). But, perhaps the operative word in Paul’s thoughts is ‘all’. This Pharisee among Pharisees had all the answers, once. But the Love-God encompasses everything, not blowing up everything in His path, but swallowing it and transforming it. That rather echoes what preceded these two 1st Century composers (John and Paul), when a people prepared to enter where God had led them. Moses gave them the words (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), but it was really God’s thoughts he mouthed, and which were repeated some 1,500 years later in the two apostles’ generation. Love Him with everything you have.

Could God be laughed off as insincere, too, in matters of love? After all, He’s the one who killed an army to preserve His chosen people (Exodus 14). A God of love, hah!  But, notice His patience, watch His plan develop, and see if you can fathom how He allowed Jesus to make Himself known, and then be killed. God might seem inscrutable, but for Jesus. He made me in His image, and He didn’t stay distant. Instead, He chose to be human like me. Conquer death, de-fang this most fundamental truth of my being. Love cancels out all the minus signs. Is that great or what!

There is no source for the song story, but for background on the song,  see the New International Version Study Bible, general editor Kenneth Barker, 1985, copyright The Zondervan Corporation, for notes on Deuteronomy chapter 6, verses 1-5, and other scriptures therein. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hear, O Israel -- Moses or God

Was this a paraphrase of a providential directive by a specially chosen servant, or the direct words of God? Moses spoke most of the original words of the song “Hear, O Israel” (see all of the words of this command in Hebrew here)
to a nation, followed centuries later by the Son of God who was also speaking to a nation. Did the words sink in? One can hear them, but doing them… How would you or I behave as we prepared to accept an inheritance larger than anything we could ever imagine, with the only stipulation being unswerving loyalty to the one with the key to the bank? Hmmm. That might be a tough choice, if you think about it. Or is it?

Moses was telling the people he’d led to the edge of their new home some very important words, so important that another of God’s representatives – His own son – would discuss them again some fourteen centuries later.  Moses was a very old man by the time he said ‘Hear, O Israel’ outside of the perimeter of Canaan (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). He’d been through so much to bring the people out of bondage and entreat them to obedience. It must have also been a somewhat bitter irony for this 120-year old to speak these words, as he himself would not be allowed to enter the land because of a mistake he’d made in regard to obedience (Numbers 20:9-12; Num. 27:12-14). Were they in fact his own interpretation of what God told him to say, or God’s own words that he was merely repeating? Moses indicates that these are in fact God’s words (Deut. 6:1-2), and he would have undoubtedly been quite reluctant to alter them significantly.  The Lawgiver’s words are recalled by Jesus over 1,400 years later as he taught some devout lawyers – the Pharisees. He adds something to what Moses had said, something about how to love a neighbor (Matthew 22:37-38; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27; Leviticus 19:18). Why’d He do that? Could it be that the omniscient God – Jesus – knew honoring God and treating fellow humans charitably were not always congruous? What happens when some of us are very good at following His rules, and likewise good at catching others who’re not so good? Sound at all like the 1st Century, perhaps? Or even the 21st Century?  

The challenge in hearing what He directs is that it doesn’t stop there. I must do it. And, there’s that word all. It’s so small, but it does make this command rather comprehensive. All heart, all soul, all strength, all mind.  All of me needs to engage in this imperative. It’s called ‘the Shema’ – Hear. First spoken by Moses, it was a lesson he must have wondered ‘Will this really sink in? Will they remember that I tried and failed at this?” Love. All. They’re small words. Try ‘em out.   

There is no source for the song story, but for background on the song,  see the New International Version Study Bible, general editor Kenneth Barker, 1985, copyright The Zondervan Corporation, for notes on Deuteronomy chapter 6, verses 1-5, and other scriptures therein.