Saturday, October 25, 2014

My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less -- Edward Mote

Edward Mote must have been thinking about the contrasts of his experience during a few days in 1834, differences that nevertheless did not leave him confounded but rather upbeat and confident. He was observing at least two parts of life at the time that he composed “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less” in 1834. The hymn’s alternate contemporary title (The Solid Rock) is more revealing about his conclusion regarding what he was observing, and his original title for the song is still more indicative of Mote’s position. “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope”, or “The Gracious Experience of a Christian” – do either of those convey how I approach my time daily, despite the slow decay of life?

Edward Mote was a cabinetmaker and believer in England during the early part of the 19th Century, a dual-track life that gave rise to his composition as a 37-year old. He’d been used to fashioning wood into cabinets for about 20 years, and it was no wonder that he might have been thinking about a piece of wood one day on his way to work. What kind of wood might it have been, perhaps something pretty hard and sturdy, like oak? (See cross-section picture here of an oak.)
He must have observed or been lectured as an apprentice about the imprudent use of other softer wood in his craft. Something difficult to cut would have the advantage of endurance, he knew. It’s said that Mote thought of the hymn’s chorus—the solid, rock-like, and unsinkable nature of Christ—as he walked to his work that day. The verses came later, perhaps as he continued to ponder his work and his faith, and how the former held lessons for the latter. A visit to a friend’s dying wife the next day must have been still more instructive, where he couldn’t have missed noticing how fragile life might become. Wood, even an oak, might eventually succumb to beetles or disease or just age, even as one’s body does. How much rotten wood do you suppose Edward had seen in 20 years? More importantly, a disintegrating human life, even if it’s measured and grace-filled, is still certain. So when Edward shared the verses he’d just penned, probably for the first time with this couple (their surname was King), was it accidental that he just happened to have them in his pocket when he came calling?

Was ‘the sweetest frame’ in Mote’s first verse a cabinet he was especially proud of making that week, contrasted with Jesus’ gift toward him and his fellow believers? Wood, though the structure of probably most buildings of Mote’s day, could fail because of fire, wind – acts of God, as they might be characterized in most insurance policies, right? Compare that fact to what He’s like, what we can depend on, Mote reflected. It’s not known if Mote talked with this couple about his work—including what ‘sweetest frame’ meant—but his words resonated, reportedly. I have to work and make a living, just as Edward Mote did. I wonder if I might learn something at my labor this week that could show up on a musical score…what might that resemble?

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; The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.; and 101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985. 

See also here for four verses and refrain of hymn, and the hymn’s story:
See also here for history of the hymn:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Here We Are But Straying Pilgrims -- Isaac Newton Carman

He was a relatively young man who wrote some thoughts to describe his outlook as he prepared to enter his professional life. What would his contemporaries have expected from Isaac Newton Carman in the mid-19th Century as he studied in Appalachia, apparently for a career in church ministry? One can assume that the theme of his composition “Here We Are But Straying Pilgrims” emerged from what he was learning, probably influenced to some degree by one or more his professor-mentors.  Was he struggling or watching others contend with difficult circumstances? If so, we could gather that he and his acquaintances with whom he shared his thoughts were also cheered by the song’s confident refrain. It was a buoyancy that must have stayed with him for decades.

Though very little is known of Isaac Carman, a few details provide a rough sketch so we can fill in some of the important blanks of his life. He was reportedly attending Bethany College in western Virginia (it would be part of the state of West Virginia, less than a decade later) , from where he graduated in 1855. (See picture here of the Bethany church built in 1852, contemporaneous with Carman’s college career.)One of his chief mentors may have been Alexander Campbell (of the Stone-Campbell movement, the genesis of the Church of Christ in the Appalachian region of the U.S.), from whom he must have been encouraged to pursue his faith, not only through some song-writing but also in formal ministry. Carman was apparently still a minister in Rochester, New York in 1906, some 50 years after graduating from college in the West Virginia hills. Isaac is credited with just a handful of songs, perhaps the best known of which is his description of himself and his contemporaries as ‘straying pilgrims’, written perhaps in 1854 just before he acquired his college degree. What was on the mind of this 25-year old student? Problems were certainly not invisible to Carman, if his penned words are true to his impressions of life at that juncture. He saw the way of Christian faith was frequently rather obscure (verse 1), tiresome (verse 2), and fraught with danger posed by his enemy (verse 3).  Yet, he maintained that the reward of the next life would be worthy of our stamina. Was that idealism, the zeal of a college student ready to take on the world? If it was, he must have gathered some of that exuberance from those around him, including Campbell, and made it his own philosophy.  How else could one explain this fellow’s ministry in Rochester fifty years hence? He may have written a bare few tunes, but perhaps this one and the others nevertheless proclaimed his conviction loudly enough.

I believe, and yes I know struggle, but I keep on going. That’s the one sentence sum-up of how Isaac Carman might have described the journey upon which he’d just begun in 1854. You might add a couple of more words, though. We, Our. Small words, but Carman uses these plural pronouns ten times in his three verses, and twice more in the refrain, evidence that he depended on the fellowship of other believers. Let’s all go together, he says, a sentiment still worth repeating today. I or you might get lost--stray, like a dumb animal—but there’s others on the path to reach out a hand. Stick out yours to help or be helped today.        

See here for very brief information on the song and its composer:
Also see here for more scant information on composer:
See here for more information gathered by another hymn blogger enthusiast:
One original source for information on the composer is referenced here:

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Glory-Land Way -- James Samuel Torbett

This fellow was a teacher, composer, encourager, and finally a happy citizen of a world about which he wrote and eventually sang to himself as he prepared to exit this one and go there. (It’s difficult to depict, but try this one attempt at Heaven.)  
James Samuel Torbett must have been thinking a long time about his eventual home by the time he composed “The Glory-Land Way” in 1921. He’d spent decades communicating the elemental truths he thought his students should know, so when he wrote out the words, they were the summation of his life’s purpose over the previous three or four decades. And, they weren’t just a tick list of items, but really a window revealing how he felt about his existence, a finite period that he did not bemoan. See if his recipe for life might have some ingredients still worth consuming.

James Torbett grew up hearing music, a medium that evidently captured his imagination and endured until his very last mortal moments. One of his brothers provides much of what we know of James and how he made such a musical impact upon those he encountered (see links below). He was an eager learner himself, including under the tutelage of his father, who was a church song-leader and a model for the youngster. The Torbetts’ music teacher-neighbor Mrs. Gillespie evidently also was a crucial piece in his youthful development, and by the age of 20 he too, like his mentors, had begun teaching music.  For the following decades, James travelled about, evidently in his native Deep South, perhaps Georgia and Alabama, which various sources alternately indicate were his birthplace, but likely also Texas where he eventually died by 1940. His routine was to form classes of up to 25 students for singing lessons. But, singing was not the only purpose – it was the avenue for communicating God’s message. It’s said that “The Glory-Land Way” was Torbett’s most well-known song, and its words indicate he must have learned something too while teaching thousands of students. There’s an ebullient flow to what he says in 1921, his 56th year. He felt upbeat and expectant, writing that ‘heaven is nearer…and clearer” at this time of his life. Perhaps as he aged, James was saying that he was more and more capable of focus, of letting the potential distractions fade. Do you think he had seen the good fruits of his teaching, perhaps numerous times over, by this time? Maybe others had also taken up the faith he’d expressed musically, a good reason to make someone exult about travelling the ‘glory-land way’. And, his life wasn’t winding down, as some do. No, he felt something, a life with an eternal purpose, pulling him along a path. It’s said that he sang this song on his own bed and passed into eternity shortly thereafter in 1940. But, he wasn’t feeling that life was over – far from it.

James Torbett evidently taught for 35 years, beginning as a young man of twenty, so “The Glory-Land Way” is from the heart of a fellow looking back over his life of mentorship to others, but also looking forward and appreciating his own mentor-God. He was ‘smelling the roses’ a little, perhaps, and that’s OK if one is remembering doing good in His name.  He was letting the music and joy of his lifestyle speak to others. He wanted his hearers to know there were no regrets. Do you have disappointments? I sure do, too often. Too bad Torbett’s no longer here to personally tell me of his alternative…or is he?

See this link for birthdate and death information on the composer:
See here for very brief biographic entry on composer:
Also see here for more biographic information on composer:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

I Am a Sheep -- Dennis Jernigan

He’d begun a new life five years previously, but was still at the beginning of his music ministry life. The 29-year Dennis Jernigan was sorting through a past that still brought back memories, and as he pondered his next steps while living in Oklahoma, “I Am a Sheep” flowed from his spirit in 1988. It was a sense of his relationship to the Creator-Protector that he still remembered over two decades later, as he testified in a video to help his own children who were apparently heartbroken over something. That microcosm of Dennis’ life tells us something – incidents and feelings that are decades old can still be used by Him to salve hurts. Is that part of why we so often have difficult experiences?

Dennis Jernigan had plenty of experiences to draw upon, even as a 29-year old, which you can read from his own pen at his website (see below). His past homosexuality is something he shares openly, as he seeks to help others see how he was transformed—or rather, WHO transformed him. By 1988, he and his wife Melinda had been married five years and had children, so all his past was forgotten and buried, right? No way, Dennis would say. In fact, in mid-1988 he felt the great need to confess all of his life to the church where he was ministering. His compulsion to do so was probably reflected in what we can see in “I Am a Sheep”, in that he felt He was with him to cover his guilt and permit him to share what he had not shared before. Dennis’ use of words like ‘watching’, ‘guarding’, ‘shelter’, ‘rescue’, and ‘victory’ indicate how he felt at the time, though still reminded of his past. A great protection was available to him. The Protector in fact had been with him even during his ‘dark’ years, Dennis will tell you. Jernigan also writes that there were new vistas he gained after he opened up about his life in July 1988. His example coaxed others to also expose the dark areas of their lives. The next year he also learned that God had begun this great work on him while he was still a child, as his grandmother watched and prayed over him. So, it was with a deep sense of personal gratitude and reflection across decades of his life when Dennis first sang ‘He is my shepherd’, learning of the various ways this relationship had been  manifested in his experience, and the new ways it was developing too.

He shepherds me, not just to shield me from my past, but to use that to transform and reenergize my existence today. You can hear this in Dennis’ words – the sheltering, guarding scope of God’s role leads to ‘victory’ in the culmination of “I Am a Sheep”.  The experience of Dennis Jernigan in 1988 tells me that he found his shepherd is not only a protector, but also a propeller.  He knew that God had watched over him, but this 29-year old composer also felt He was urging him to acknowledge his experiences openly. He had more in His plans for Dennis and those He could touch. In 2010, Dennis still knew that, as he drew upon the song’s message for his own children’s struggle. Do you think Dennis and Melinda Jernigan knew how to guard and help their kids in 2010? They had a pretty good idea, don’t you think?

 Some biographical information on Dennis Jernigan:
What Dennis says about this song in a U-Tube video in 2010:
And, see this book:  Giant Killers: Crushing Strongholds , Securing Freedom in Your Life, by Dennis Jernigan. WaterBrook Press, 2005.