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.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Psalm 137 -- Anonymous, an Exile to Babylon

He was an exile, or someone who had once been there and remembered this time with bitterness. Babylon was the scene (see the accompanying picture here, from the Chludov Psalter, of that episode next to the river) in “Psalm 137”, a centuries-old lament. A prisoner’s reason for writing doesn’t need to be further explained – he’s in detention where his will has been conquered. Vengeance is the resulting operative emotion that the writer expresses, and God’s word doesn’t conceal or sugar-coat this deep anger. What does one do with such a memory?

Was the composer one of the prophets, perhaps Jeremiah or Ezekiel? Or was it one of the Levitical composer-musicians who lamented this time, allowing the nation to recall and so purge from their collective soul these feelings? Some sources indicate that Jeremiah was the source of this prose, perhaps alternately called out as ‘Jeremias’ in an ancient superscription. Or, was Ezekiel lyrically recalling his personal Babylonian experience that he referenced in his prophecy’s first few lines (Ezekiel 1:1-3)? That the nation is derisively encouraged to sing for their captors suggests this recollection was especially offensive, conceivably because singing was normally reserved for voluntary expression to Him.  That would be the complaint of a godly musician, right? Someone who reserved his musicality for the Holy One would find a pagan’s requirement for this form of expression unforgivable. A song to recall these acidic sensations must have come from a personal witness to their origins.  Yet, a composer willing to expose his own heart’s disturbing desire – to see his enemy’s infants crushed (Psalm 137:8-9) – is someone whose connection with holiness is false, isn’t it? How low does the human spirit sink, despite the test given it in a depraved time? The words of this composer, no matter who he may be, read like those of a war-weary soldier, someone with combat fatigue.    

Is the anonymity of the Psalm’s writer by accident? Who would want to own the feelings of revenge that this writer expresses? Is it possible that the writer recognized his own condition, as he concluded his composition? The song’s last sentence, “So let the words…be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord”, read like someone who’s seen his own degeneration and wants to recover. Indeed, that may be one of the most common themes of the Psalms and other biblical songs – they’re therapeutic. I can’t hide my insides from Him. Admit them, give them to Him. He’s the only one that can heal me of this wound.

There is no source for the song story, but for background on the psalm, see the New International Version Study Bible, general editor Kenneth Barker, 1985, copyright The Zondervan Corporation, for notes on Psalm 89 and the song’s original biblical-era composer. 

Also see this site for background and potential author of the psalm:

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Precious Book Divine -- John Fawcett

What companion would be closest to a man who was a theologian? Could it be that someone posed this question to John Fawcett, and the answer he gave was his composition “The Precious Book Divine” that appeared in a collection of poems that was published in 1782?  Despite Fawcett’s humility that accompanied his poetry, he wasn’t shy when it came to sharing how his companion helped him, and coaxing others to foster the same relationship. To him, there was another metaphor besides ‘friend’ that his composition suggests applied to the companion he carried with him each day. What ones would you use?     

The Englishman John Fawcett’s path to Christianity was set early in his life and led him to a faith and scholarship that endeared him to those who knew him.  He was brought to belief during the ministry of George Whitefield at the age of 16 in mid-18th Century northern England. At first a Methodist and later a Baptist, Fawcett ministered in the small, humble surroundings near his native area. He later nearly accepted a position in a London church, but apparently had discovered that the close fellowship with his home church was too much to dismiss so easily. He remained at the Wainsgate Baptist Church, despite yet another offer to greater benefits at an academy in southwest England many years later. Instead, he ministered through writings and preaching where he’d begun, producing several written works, including the Hymns Adapted to the Cir­cum­stanc­es of Pub­lic Wor­ship and Pri­vate De­vo­tion in which “The Precious Book Divine” appeared when Fawcett was 42 years old. He evidently thought this collection was unworthy of England’s more sophisticated worshippers, judging from what he wrote in the work’s foreword. Nevertheless, he pointed fellow believers to the ‘precious book’ he’d grown to love. Even a humble man can be bold when he’s certain of his divine Guide.

Fawcett’s hymn words communicate that he was not immune to emotional troughs and tedium. ‘Gloomy’, ‘fainting hearts’, ‘vale of tears’, and ‘rising fears’ emerge from his being onto the musical page. Yet, he has found the solution, he tells us. To Fawcett, the bible as a light is what compels him. Fawcett must have returned repeatedly to its pages, finding direction and inspiration. His humility was not hostage to a gloomy spirit, but one that found its place in the shelter of His word. Was “The Precious Book…” the product of a specific circumstance, or Fawcett’s mid-life appreciation of his journey’s escort? No particular episode is recorded, but that doesn’t diminish Fawcett’s expression. ‘Recognize how you’ve arrived at this point’, the writer says, and ‘keep it up’. Dust off that cover, OK?    

See this site for recitation of the hymn with a tune that may not be too familiar, and for the original verses:

See these sites for composer’s biography:  

Monday, November 11, 2013

I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord – James or Fred Fillmore, Ethan the Ezrahite

What kind of education might have been intended so long ago, and was sought after centuries later, in the words of an ancient psalm by a fellow named Ethan? He began “I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord”, as he mulled over the circumstances that brought him to put ink to paper. The situation was in fact the opposite of what would make an ordinary person offer such an exclamation to God. Some 2,400 years later, could it have been possible that two brothers, musical successors to the psalmist whose words they read, were seeking instruction too? This praiseworthy phrase’s background induces the worshipper to reconsider why one would extol Him.

It began in a time when the people of God were being threatened and finally exiled, and then continued centuries later. Psalm 89 begins with the words of this song, suggesting that its author -- probably a Levite named Ethan, according to this psalm’s superscription – had experienced a great blessing from the Lord. But, in fact the rest of Ethan’s words, particularly the latter one-third of them, paint a much darker picture, one in which the Almighty has seen fit to punish and cause the downfall of His people. The historical episode in fact may have been the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s attack and subjugation of the people of Jerusalem, around the year 597 B.C. (See picture here of a coin with Nebuchadnezzar’s picture on it.)
In context, therefore, how does one interpret Ethan’s words? Is he offering praise in a plea for God’s renewed favor? The psalm’s superscription also contains ‘maskil’, a word that may be musical in purpose; but, it may also indicate the composer’s purpose was to teach us something about godliness.  What might Ethan have learned about Him, about His nature? That He experiences pain and disappointment with his children, and dispenses discipline, even at the risk of His own divine reputation, is a lesson not exclusive to Ethan’s generation, certainly. Did James and Fred Fillmore intend this same message when they recaptured Ethan’s words in the late 1800’s in Cincinnati, Ohio? I cry out in pain that He is pure, and I seek His intervention, His Divine help. I’ve forsaken Him, I admit, even as I hope my cries may yet move Him to mercy.  

Ethan’s lesson is not an easy one. And, if we could talk to him, he might further lament that God’s mercy doesn’t work according to the human timetable. It was several decades until some of the people were allowed back to Jerusalem. In God’s estimation, it must have taken that long for His purpose to sink in with His people. There’s a point in any mortal’s life, perhaps when the inescapability of God can no longer be denied – He exists, and I have nowhere else to turn – that I submit. Am I there yet? Are you?  

The source for the song story is the book “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006. Also, see the New International Version Study Bible, general editor Kenneth Barker, 1985, copyright The Zondervan Corporation, for notes on Psalm 89 and the song’s original biblical-era composer.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

You Are My Hiding Place -- Michael Ledner

Michael Ledner felt really vulnerable as he reflected on his circumstances one day in 1980. He couldn’t ignore how he felt, though he was a firm believer in the One to whom he turned as he sat on a bed with a guitar and his bible close by. “You Are My Hiding Place”, he called out to God, using the words of David, his ancient spiritual compatriot who likewise sought Him who can reassure the lonely. He wasn’t completely certain he wanted to dwell in this place, however, or if he wanted to share with others the feelings the song evoked. It was a private moment. It took his travelling halfway around the globe to discover others needed to link with that intimacy, to rest in the comfort He offers.

Up and out of the pit came Michael Ledner, from a low moment into a broader appreciation for His God and the life he began to experience after this difficult period. Ledner was separated from his wife at the time and living in a tiny room in Arizona, so small that it must have been easy for him to feel isolated and forgotten. But, he clung to something – or rather, someone -- one day as he read Psalms and strummed his guitar. King David’s Psalms 32 (one of the ‘maskil’ Psalms) and 56 provided the inspiration that Michael needed, as he pondered and worshipped alone, but not without purpose. He’d often turned to music, not unlike his predecessor whose words struck him and provided the prose Michael used to vocalize his own hiding place, some three millennia later. (David sometimes sought physical refuge in a cave, not too unlike the manmade one shown here, along a coastal area in Israel.)
But, as he reflected for some time afterwards, he wondered how wise it would be to share his feelings. Was he being a weakling?  He recorded the song for himself a couple of different times, including once with a few friends, but he didn’t really share it otherwise in churches he visited for a while. It was still a difficult part of his life, as his marriage finally and permanently dissolved. Many months later, he was in David’s homeland, and again he shared the song with some visiting friends. Unbeknownst to him initially, they took the song back home, where it found wide acceptance; a formal recording by Maranatha Music soon ensued. From a private, difficult moment, to another where his experience found broad camaraderie with other believers, this was a sweet turnaround for Ledner. It was his renewal moment, and his life progressed positively after that. Many years later, he’d become a pastor and was married again, feeling as though he’d learned a valuable lesson from the day he sat in a small room with his guitar, bible, and feelings he didn’t want at the time.

Don’t run away, or try to ignore the pain – that perhaps best sums up what Michael Ledner discovered from a challenging episode in his late 20’s. He wasn’t alone after all. There’s no place to hide, but there is a person who can hide me. Seems kinda strange to realize this, until you understand, as Ledner probably did, that hiding in a place only makes you lonely. Hiding in a person is radically different.    

Sources for the song story are the books “Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.