Saturday, March 29, 2014

There Is a Place of Quiet Rest -- Cleland B. McAfee

He felt this deep inside, as an open wound that needed salve. It was an episode that you might guess is the most difficult for any person who has family that has died suddenly. Cleland McAfee was stricken when he composed the hymn “Near to the Heart of God” in 1901. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up the mental imagery and experience the emotion that McAfee, his family, and his friends endured at that moment. How does one bear such an overwhelming load? McAfee, though a man of God himself, had no immediate answer. But, he knew where to look. He must have found something restful, perhaps like this meadow scene here.

Cleland McAfee was a Chicago pastor, husband, and father in his mid’30’s soon after the turn of the century when he received some terrible news.  He was well-equipped musically, as the choir director at the college church where he served, to minister through song to his fellow believers in time of trouble. Yet, this was a time when he was nearly incapacitated, struggling to find words and music that would suffice. His brother and sister-in-law’s two daughters had died of diphtheria within a 24-hour period, producing a heartache that was universal for Cleland and the rest of the community. He was a father himself at this point, probably, and could imagine the pain of losing his own children. The anguish he felt was magnified by this familial tie, as he pondered the message and the song he’d agreed to sing for the funeral. He turned to Psalms as he sought God’s solace, something that would comfort his family. “Near to the Heart of God” was what Cleland wrote and sang, a poignant message with a singular focus. One direction, one destination are quietly, but intently urged in his prose. There’s no other place that will do, except His great heart. His is a place where I can excise all my sin, pour out all my sorrow, find respite from life, and be transformed in His embrace. You can sense that McAfee, even if he was a pastor, must have had an extraordinary moment when his heart became like David’s - a heart after God’s. It’s said that he choked back tears as he performed this song for the first time, outside his bereaved brother’s house. No wonder. The choir sang it again the next day during communion at the church. Can you see the scene?  

Once I know the story, perhaps I’ll never sing the song again without some pain. Part of it is imagining the unavoidable losses I’ll experience in the next few decades, and the association that this song and others like it will have with those events. But, there is something else in McAfee’s words that are significant, too. Drawing near to God can be scary. He’s too big for me, too pure. He packs a lot of voltage for my being. Yet, there’s a point—and the points become more frequent as I go on—where I find that I cannot escape. Only an abyss awaits, if He’s not there. You think He’s scary? Consider the alternatives.     

See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
See a biography on the composer here:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Shelter in the Time of Storm – Vernon John Charlesworth

Did he have a memorable boating experience, or know sailors whose stories he just couldn’t forget? Or, was he thinking of the climate where he lived, and from that drew an analogy for some of the youngsters who were in his care? Vernon John Charlesworth might have penned some words for “A Shelter in the Time of Storm” in 1880 for both reasons when he composed that year. Could it have been that he was also thinking of one or more episodes from his own life that reaffirmed his need for spiritual protection?  He’d been a caretaker in a church for many years prior to this time too, and so he may have felt this message would resonate universally amongst people he knew. It still does.

Vernon Charlesworth was an Englishman who’d been ministering to people of all ages by his 42nd year. He’d co-pastored a church for over a decade in one London area congregation while in his 20’s in the mid-19th Century, so hearing of the challenges facing members of his spiritual family and trying to minister to them must have become a well-beaten path for Charlesworth by the time he reached his early 30’s. It was then that he switched gears and became the headmaster of the Stockwell Orphanage (commonly known as Spurgeon’s [Child Care], seen here in the picture)
in 1869, where he spent the bulk of his adult life – the next 46 years. He was a bit more than a decade into this new role when he wrote the words about the “Shelter” upon whom he’d come to depend. With so many youngsters in his charge, Charlesworth must have taken seriously his role to educate them, not only scholastically but holistically. These were kids who already had a strike against them – absence of parents or other adult relatives. So it wouldn’t be surprising if this composer-headmaster’s primary audience for his poetry were the children he saw every day, and to whom he probably wasn’t shy when it came to recommending the eternal brotherhood of Jesus. This would have been crucial for those who lacked earthy relatives and the moral and physical support they provide. This Englishman also must have had an intimate familiarity with storms, too, and undoubtedly that’s why his words would strike a chord with so many fishermen on the island nation’s northern coast. Its popularity with the locals and its resulting publication in a London newspaper captured the attention of a songwriter—Ira Sankey—whose music paired with the words further helped expose Charlesworth’s thoughts to the public.  The rest, as someone has said, is history.

Think about Vernon Charlesworth’s poem the next time you’re stuck beneath an umbrella, in traffic with the wiper blades flapping back and forth, or staring out a window pane at the leaden sky. No one stands in the rain unprotected, or strolls calmly along as the lightening and thunder crashes, do they? So why do some people stand in a spiritual tempest and try to make believe they’re OK?  One wonders if Charlesworth may have come across some folks who acted as if they were immune, sparking his words in an effort to jolt such people into reality. That might be a conversation worth having with someone, the next time the raindrops fall. Maybe you and I should think about that, as we open up the umbrellas the next time.        

The following website has a soundtrack for the song:
See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.

See a very brief biography of composer here:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Glory to His Name -- Elisha A. Hoffman

This composer was a widower at the time of one of his early writing efforts, with three kids and adjusting no doubt to his role as a single parent. Elisha Albright Hoffman’s life had just taken a new turn when he wrote “Glory to His Name” in 1878, probably a transition he hadn’t wanted to endure. How’d he manage this experience? What would you or I do in such a situation? Is it possible that God heard the words Elisha wrote as a pledge of loyalty, and that He crafted a response – perhaps even a reward -- for this servant whose heart must have been broken?

Elisha Hoffman had been a lover of music directed vertically since his childhood, and would remain so for a lifetime, even as he was challenged at one point.  In the Pennsylvania community in which he was reared, Hoffman learned the love of music from parents and the church in which he was nurtured. He was the son on an evangelical minister, so it wasn’t a surprise that he devoted his adult life to ministry. Before his ordained ministry however, he worked for just over a decade with a publishing house, a period which must have also spawned his lifetime energy as an editor of songbooks (he edited some 50 songbooks over his life). He’d been in ministry just three years when his wife died, leaving him alone with three sons as a 37-year old in 1876, perhaps the pivotal point in his life. It was in this period prior to his 40th birthday that he wrote the words for “Glory to His Name”. Reading the words, it is not apparent if he was struggling with the recent turn of events, but instead quite the opposite. He’s clinging to the Holy Redeemer with devotion, an appreciation of his eternal assurance. Could his wife’s death have crystallized something, perhaps bonded him stronger still to his God, even if his upbringing, education, and ordination had informed him of His presence as one would expect? Perhaps this time was a crucible for Elisha, wherein he discovered the glue he had with God was deeper and much more meaningful, an unbreakable thing. Is it just coincidental that Hoffman wrote the words in 1878, and remarried the following year? Or, that he went on to minister, beginning in 1880, in three churches over the next 42 years, and composed over 2,000 hymns, most of them in that four-decade stretch? What would you say?

What is the way to respond to a personal crisis? What prepares one for it, or does it happen randomly? Ask Job. He may have endured more than 10 believers are supposed to suffer. Elisha Hoffman must have had moments when he too cried out in despair as his 40th anniversary on earth approached, yet his words in 1878 sound like a man who had decided he was “all in” with this God. Job’s and Peter’s replies sound similar -- to whom shall we go (John 6:68)? Maybe he’d had some ventures with the secular world that schooled him, educated him that a more reliable partner was needed. ‘Accidents happen’, or ‘life’s not fair’, someone says, but thank Him I’m not an accident, and He’s not unfair!           

See following links for song words and a biography of the composer:

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Let God Arise – Elizabeth Bacon and David

It was a sentiment that she appreciated and wanted to repeat for herself and her generation. Maybe she admired its original writer’s reputation, and his impact on his own generation and the many that followed him, some 2,000 years before her life began. Can we also surmise that she was managing a circumstance similar to what often plagued that ancient king, whose words she called out in this echo? Elizabeth Bacon remains anonymous, with a story that we do not know…yet. She used only a few words of her predecessor, but they tell us the essentials. She believed, and she called on Him to intervene. Searching one’s own life-experience, how often would you or I call out to Him with these words…’Let God Arise’?(…with a result that scattered enemies, perhaps not unlike what we might have seen Samson do in his era [see picture].)

It was 1993, some two millennia after the poet-king David first penned them, when Elizabeth Bacon dusted off these words and voiced them again, though many generations had undoubtedly used them in the intervening centuries. After all, David recorded them and they have stayed in our bibles as the introductory words of Psalm 68 since their inception, so they invite us to reexamine them and draw strength from His power. David wrote them, remembering how the Almighty advanced by leading the Israelite nation out of the Sinai. And, he certainly felt in his own walk  -- or should we say, escape – the assurance of His Lord’s presence and working in his own rise to Israel’s throne. How many enemies did God scatter, as the people made their hazardous journey toward the Promised Land? How many times did He bail out David along his circuitous procession? So, they were words reminding its hearers of royalty’s preeminent status, of its glorious history. Nevertheless, the words do suggest that there are times when God is not exercising His full capabilities, otherwise why would anyone need to exhort others to stir Him to action – asking Him to arise? God’s not asleep, but maybe sometimes He does observe longer than we’d like, before He arises.  Was such an episode reminiscent of Elizabeth Bacon’s life in 1993? David’s psalm indicates he knew that God helped the fatherless, widows, lonely people, prisoners, and the poor (vv. 5-10). Walk in Elizabeth’s shoes for a moment. Was she in any of these conditions that David describes? These would indeed be intractable enemies, except for the provision of God.

He provides. He’s a God who can deal with physical and invisible enemies, who wield weapons intended to maim, discourage, and strike me down. If Elizabeth reads this, clue us in. What was going on when you remembered these words? Obviously, you must have been reading your bible for encouragement and instruction. Did the words force the enemy to relinquish his grip on you, as the Almighty’s power overwhelmed the situation?  Did your experience coax others to look in His direction? Thank you for doing something I should do more often. Learn from my biblical progenitors, and then do what they did when an adversary threatens. Remember His faithfulness toward His own people. What or who could stand in His way when He’s standing?     

The Biblical background used in the above is obtained in the New International Version Study Bible, general editor Kenneth Barker, 1985, copyright The Zondervan Corporation.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Faith Is the Victory -- John H. Yates

His words resound like those of a soldier, one who’s just heard the general’s pep talk before the battle with the army’s sworn enemy. This otherwise mild-mannered former shoe salesman and hardware store manager must have had something burning deep inside though, even if there’s no real evidence that he ever experienced the threat of an actual adversary’s bullets and war’s bloodlust. (Certainly not like this scene pictured from Custer’s Last Stand in 1876, an episode that took place in Yates lifetime.) 
Just what was John Henry Yates doing and 
thinking in 1891 when he composed “Faith is the Victory” ?

From what we can discover in record books, only a few details emerge about John Henry Yates that shed light on this 54-year old’s state of mind at the time of this hymn’s origin. He had grown up in the Civil War era in Batavia, New York, but apparently did not serve in that war because of a foot disability. Nevertheless, this defining war’s episodes probably imprinted upon Yates many unforgettable images, even if from a distance as a civilian during the conflict. Had he heard stories from peers his own age (also in their ‘20’s) during the 1861-65 period? That era had other songs develop with vivid war imagery, and he was probably familiar with them. By the time he wrote “Faith…”, apparently decades after the war, he’d become a newspaper editor, though writing had been his avocation or his part-time occupation for some time already. He must have been an avid bible student too, for much of his prose seems rooted in various scripture, from Song of Songs in the Old Testament, to three books of the New Testament -- Ephesians, 1 John, and finally Revelation. It’s not surprising to learn then, that he’d had a ministerial background with the Methodists and Baptists for many years before writing the words of this hymn. What specific episode spawned the words he recorded are not known. But, like the president whose Civil War remarks on many occasions drew from the Bible for inspiration, Yates too found insight that resonated in his spirit from its pages. Though the war may have been long over, its impact continues even today, and so does the Bible. Two great sources – a war and revelatory messages from scripture – should be enough to motivate any writer.

What spiritual struggles or opportunities might have been affecting John Henry Yates as he lived in his sixth decade? Why didn’t Yates write something happy and light, in keeping with the ‘Gay-90s’ of his era? Was he instead shaped in some way by the Indian wars in the western U.S. following the War Between the States? Perhaps it is more likely that Yates, being of a spiritual mind, would have been aware of what’s called the Third Great Awakening, a protestant revival among America’s churches that spurred phenomenal growth. That would have excited many writers, eager to encourage evangelism. Many people were open to God’s message then, in contrast to today’s American culture, some might say. But, are the two periods really that different? Have we experienced battles today? Is the Bible still in print? You know the answers. They were present in John Henry Yates’ memories. How about yours?

The following website has a soundtrack for the song and all four original verses:
See some scant information on the song and its composer discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.

Also see here some brief information on the composer:
Also see a great blog entry by another hymnody enthusiast on the song here:

See these links for some background on 1890s era: