Saturday, January 31, 2015

Living By Faith -- James Wells and Robert Emmett Winsett

One of these names and his biography are virtually anonymous, and while the other is more well known, his temperament made him more or less an introvert. Did they know one another…perhaps? They certainly shared something theologically and musically, as they both contributed some thoughts about “Living By Faith” in the early 20th Century. James Wells wrote three-quarters of the song’s message, one of how to live terrestrially, and Robert Emmett Winsett added a verse to coax us to look beyond this earth, to see the end (perhaps not unlike how Michelangelo did in The Last Judgment, shown here).   As people, Wells and Winsett may have been in the shadows, but what this tandem says is not hidden, revealing that they identified with what I and every other person face – how to manage a life filled with challenge and a certain conclusion.

James Wells is about all that is known of the primary composer of “Living…”. I’ll have to be satisfied with just his name, the only facet of him that saves him from complete anonymity.  Or is there more that we can know? On the other hand, Winsett’s name is accompanied by well-known details that show this Tennessee native had a music education, wrote up to 1,000 songs in his lifetime, operated music publishing enterprises, and contributed the fourth verse to “Living by Faith” in 1918 when he was 42 and probably living with his first wife and family in Arkansas. Yet, it’s said that Winsett kept to himself somewhat, socially outgoing mostly at church singing events. The bookish Winsett enjoyed solitude in the woods with God, or in his study. We know nothing of the circumstances of how four verses came into being from the hands and thoughts of Wells and Winsett, yet their words are windows through which I can dimly peer. Wells’ words suggest he was a confident believer, yet not one with rose-colored glasses. Tempests, storm clouds, rain, shadows, overcast skies, and evils…these were conditions in Wells’ three verses that indicate he knew them well, yet he treats them as asides, nuisances to the main storyline – God overcomes. The middle-aged Winsett consummates the thoughts begun by Wells with the rapture…a believer’s buoyancy here on earth will be rewarded when He comes and takes home the saved. So we have one fellow (Wells) who was examining how to manage the temporal, or rather how to vault over it, through it, or around it. The other fellow (Winsett) had his mind’s eye on the finish line, a character trait he probably nurtured through countless hours in the woods or in his study with the Savior. Which way works best?

“Living By Faith” shows it was Wells and Winsett who decided that both ways they emphasize could inhabit the same life. I must decide which verses of “Living…” resonate most loudly for me from day-to-day. There are times when I do feel I’ve met a challenge successfully, and I let out a little cheer for His Providence. Thank you, James Wells. Other things linger, however, and gnaw at my conscience or my physical well-being.  I respond by glimpsing the pinprick of light at the far end, a steady presence that seems to be growing. Thank Robert Emmett Winsett for this vision-reminder. It may be that the urgent (today) or the important (certain future) call out at the same time…whaddya think?    

See here for biographic information on one of song’s composers:
See only very scant information on primary composer here:

See all four verses of the hymn here:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Joy of the Lord -- Twila Paris

She was a 32-year woman, who reportedly was washing dishes. Does that naturally bring joy to most people? Apparently something was intertwined with this mundane activity one day in 1991, when Twila Paris pulled something from inside herself and said the “The Joy of the Lord” was present. This Arkansan (see state seal of Arkansas here) gives one a personal look at herself and the joy she has kept discovering, even just lately as described in a magazine article (see first link below) despite some personal challenges. In short, it sounds as though she found a place that has protected her…a sanctuary.  This word has been expressed in more than ways than one for her.

By the time 1991 rolled around, Twila Paris had been travelling extensively and producing Christian music for more than a decade, but what she said in “The Joy…” that year was something that had already been ongoing and would continue to play out for many more years. She grew up and still resides in Arkansas’ northwest portion, so many who know her might say home and family there are the sanctuary for Paris. It would be easy to imagine that, and see Twila decompressing one day after returning home to Arkansas from a concert tour. Just being at home, doing something that allows the mind and the body to relax in some activity’s routine, even if it’s something rather ordinary like washing dishes. She might also have been reading her bible, recalling the story of Nehemiah the governor and the priest Ezra (Nehemiah 8) as they reminded the Israelites of the Holy One’s words. They calmed the people’s grief, telling them they could become stronger through the Lord’s joy (v. 8). That must have spoken to Twila, too, centuries later. Whatever the reasons, Twila’s album that year was titled Sanctuary on which “The Joy of the Lord” appears. More recently, her husband Jack’s chronic fatigue has been a challenge for the both of them, but Twila says having the source of real joy has allowed them to endure.  Perhaps she’s re-read Nehemiah, remembering the people’s sorrow at separation, yet their perseverance through encouraging words of mentors. One cannot have too many of those, including close family, friends, and fellow-believers, as Twila and Jack have discovered (see article link below).

According to Twila Paris’ words, one might come up with the following arithmetic expressions:  Joy=Strength= Courage (verse 1); or how about this one?: Joy=Strength=Redemption (verse 2). Finally, Twila has said Joy=Strength=Trust (verse 3). Which one do I need to draw upon at this moment? It doesn’t mean I forfeit the others while I drink from one particular cup of encouragement. Their all linked together, and therefore all tied to Him. Think that could be why the cup overflows, as you might have heard someone say? Have you had anything to drink today?

Brief biography of composer:
Link to album (Sanctuary) on which the song appears:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

There Stands a Rock – Tullius C. O’Kane?

He was most likely in Ohio or travelling somewhere in his home state when he composed some words that his mind’s eye could see a large gathering of people singing. It was probably during a songbook project that Tullius Clinton O’Kane was working to assemble when he wrote down at least some of the words (according to one main source—see first link below—he wrote at least the refrain and all of the music for the song) to “There Stands a Rock” in 1871, which he later put to music. He was evidently inspired by the metaphor of Jesus as ‘a rock’ as he pondered his prose and meter. His stimulation in this episode was not an isolated event, but one that he revisited many times over several decades, a habit that allowed this ‘Professor’ to be a teacher even though he’d left that professional calling in the classroom by mid-life.  Could you or I be called ‘professor’?   

Tullius O’Kane evidently learned some habits early in life that stuck with him and led to compositions that still remain in the Christian musical lexicon today.  He attended, graduated from, and taught at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware (central Ohio, just north of Columbus, see picture), but evidently not formally in music. Instead, his calling initially was in mathematics, a subject he tutored others to better understand, while he maintained a musical avocation through the campus chapel and choral group that he organized. Professor O’Kane furthered his commitment to instruction when he became principal of Cincinnati schools for a four-year period in the early 1860s. But, even after leaving this position to work with piano and organ companies over the next several years, he didn’t stop teaching.  This professor wrote dozens of songs and assembled 16 songbooks over the next 40-50 years, and travelled extensively to conferences and conventions where his musical inventions could bless the large crowds. It’s said that he was especially gifted in leading large gatherings to learn and appreciate the spirit and enthusiasm he and his songs brought to them. One can imagine the confidence expressed on 41-year old Tullius’ face, and the spirit he felt, according to those who observed him, as he led their voices to praise this Rock in “There Stands...” in 1871. His poetry conveyed a devotion to a holy God for certainties he possessed, contrasted in the song’s refrain with how he must have observed some secular commentators viewed life. Perhaps this contrast was something he wanted to confront, to tell others to look beyond the temporal and draw upon the assurance of what awaits all of us in God’s presence.

O’Kane’s song and many others in this period inhabited the third “Great Awakening” of the late American 1800s, a time when a message like O’Kane’s coaxed a revival. We can picture Tullius travelling all over Ohio, telling people to place their trust in a Holy God, in the Rock he called a ‘tower’ and a ‘cross  (with) arms outspread’, a resting place for weary people.  ‘Professor’ O’Kane may have been a mathematician to some, but he evidently ‘professed’ on other issues too. “There Stands a Rock”, it’s safe to assume, probably helped soften and turn some toward Him. Its messenger was sincere and eager to share – both of which are qualities hard to ignore. Both of these traits also come from Him. Are you ready to profess, or to be revived?
See the site here for words of song and brief attribution to potential composer:

Brief biography of composer:
See here for social context of the period of the composer’s life in late 1800s:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rise Up O Men of God -- William Pierson Merrill

Without knowing this story, someone might glibly dismiss him and his effort as an example of male chauvinism. He does seem to leave the female population on the sidelines – but why? William Pierson Merrill, despite how it might have looked, was indeed pitching “Rise Up O Men of God” at the masculine gender as he pondered an issue he wanted to address in 1911. He must have thought there was a pressing need as he penned the words, but how would we know that if all we had was the text he authored? Who would you think of if you wanted to capture some mental imagery of men serving God? Do some missionaries come to mind, or, closer to home, how about workers in a soup kitchen (like those shown here)?  

William Merrill’s call to action in 1911 might have been interpreted by some as an aggressive, chest-beating battle-cry—since it was directed at men. But, anyone who knew him probably should have known this minister was an advocate of an entirely different agenda. He’d been a pastor (minister) for over 20 years, including the previous 15 in a Chicago area Presbyterian church, from where he’d been trying to spur men to be more active in the church. He was a noted pacifist, indeed the first president of the Church Peace Union, in an era when the war drums were beginning to beat louder prior to the planet’s first global conflict – World War I. Perhaps those years’ atmosphere helped feed Merrill’s outlook, his great desire to motivate men to God’s work, and particularly the brotherhood movement within Presbyterianism, to complement more robustly the work Christian women were pursuing. An editor nudged Merrill to compose a hymn to further this cause, and while aboard a ship on Lake Michigan a magazine article extolling strong men in the church caught his eye, and the rest, as they say, is history. William had written the song before the ship docked. He called upon men to prepare and take part in a different battle than much of the world was forecasting. Nevertheless, the exclamation marks punctuating his words belie any tranquility his professional demeanor dictated, instead showing the urgency of this service call he felt compelled to make. 1911 was also a transition year for Merrill, when he left Chicago for New York City and the Brick Presbyterian Church, where he ministered actively for the next 27 years. Could “Rise Up …” also have been Merrill’s parting message for his Chicago hearers?  If so, it was a message not meant exclusively for Chicago’s environment.

Merrill must have seen much in Pennsylvania where he started in 1890, in Illinois where he was inspired to compose this message for his fellow men, and probably later in New York. The words he wrote apply universally, prompting devout believers to address social ills through sacrifice, a strategy necessary in any American city, and throughout the world too. Maybe it was part of Merrill’s pacifist message, that church work that ministered to hurting people was a stronger antidote for conflict than bullets. Is there still conflict today, somewhere on planet earth? Someone says our inner cities are combat zones, with poverty, crime, substance abuse, and other maladies rampant therein. Am I hearing what William Merrill is saying…do you?

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; and in Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990. 

See story here also:

See biography of composer here:

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Seek Ye First -- Karen Lafferty

Be a learner, and then be a teacher. That may be the best way to describe what Karen Lafferty did when she wrote “Seek Ye First” in 1972 as a 24-year old ‘Jesus people’ person. Actually, she might have been called an imitator, too, because she was really repeating words that others had first spoken centuries, in fact millennia and more, earlier in history (see picture here of one – Jesus at his most well-known preaching venue, the Sermon on the Mount). Was it a one-time lesson that she was learning, or in fact something more enduring? Can one teach while still learning? Those are questions perhaps best answered by examining the roots of this seeking episode that Karen let speak to her in the early 1970s.

Karen Lafferty’s evolution as a Christian and music-maker prepared her for “Seek Ye First” in some challenging ways, perhaps a tone not unlike what her spiritual predecessors experienced in the biblical era when words she would later echo were first articulated. Lafferty had reasons to believe success was within her youthful grasp in her early ‘20s. She’d competed and nearly been crowned Miss New Mexico, while she had been busy obtaining a music degree and honing skill in several musical instruments -- oboe, piano, saxophone, guitar, and of course her voice. She had a job singing at a popular club in New Orleans, and the stepping stones seemed to be in place for a career in show business. Looks and talent is a strong combo, after all. Yet, when Jesus’ spirit captured her heart, that’s when life got more turbulent, less certain. She was turned down by the Campus Crusade music ministry, and was having trouble making financial ends meet, since she no longer sang at the club because she felt that was at odds with her newfound walk as a Christian. Churches paid meagerly for her musical efforts and the guitar lessons she tried to offer more widely fell on almost barren soil too. It was one evening during this bleak period that she studied with other believers, and the topic was Jesus’ sermon on a worry-free life (Matthew 6:25-34). His teaching to ‘seek first’ indeed infected Karen, and she almost immediately matched His words to a tune she’d created. Verses 2 and 3 also soon flowed upon her study of other portions of Jesus’ early ministry (Matthew 7:7, Matthew 4:4) and Moses’ life also (Deuteronomy 8:3). Besides these biblical stories’ convenient phraseology, the characters’ life examples—of faith, despite challenges—must have likewise caught Karen Lafferty’s attention.   

Moses and Jesus have vivid lives that have inspired millions. But, have you noticed that their stories don’t promote ‘peaches and cream’? Moses’ words (verse 3 of Lafferty’s song) remind the people they had had to learn that sustenance came from God, not from food. Moses wasn’t immune to physical hunger—perhaps the most basic human challenge. Nor was Jesus in the wilderness when he repeated those words (Matthew 4:4), but He learned, and then taught others this axiom.  Words are good, but His are matched by experience. When my stomach growls, my muscles ache, or some privation invades my life, “Seek Ye First” reminds me the words were preceded by a walk, a real life. Try seeking and finding and living.  

Sources for the song story are the books “Our God Reigns: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2000; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.