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.

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