Saturday, June 27, 2015

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms -- Elisha Albright Hoffman and Anthony J. Showalter

How long to do suppose hugging between humans (like what’s in this picture) has been around? Forever, right? And yet we don’t seem to get tired of it. In fact we need it, like medicine or daily bread. Babies are said to be underdeveloped if they don’t get this treatment, in fact. So, when Anthony Showalter received a couple of letters one day in 1887 that reached out in heart-brokenness, he responded, even though the fellows whom he sought to embrace were not within arm’s reach. “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was what he and his collaborator Elisha Hoffman composed to salve the hurt of not just two broken hearts, but countless others who might hear of their remedy for this condition. There’s not only a mortal quality to this therapy, but also a divine one that carries the ultimate cure.

Showalter was a 29-year old music teacher from Georgia, who happened to be in Alabama, and sought out his 48-year old friend Hoffman in Pennsylvania, with help from inspired words Moses spoke in a wilderness thousands of miles and years from 1887. Two former students had lost their wives in death, and somehow they each knew to whom they could go for solace – their former music teacher, Mr. Showalter. He didn’t disappoint them, offering sympathy in letters, referring to Moses’ words about God’s ‘everlasting arms’ to his people as he prepared to leave them in his own death (Deuteronomy 33:27). But, he didn’t stop there, feeling moved that a hymn worth remembering was hidden inside this episode. So, when he wrote his friend Elisha with the words to the chorus and what motivated them, his cohort responded with three verses. Anthony soon had the music written to match the words Moses, Elisha Hoffman, and he had authored. An amazing thing had happened, even though it took fatal blows to generate the product. Moses’ words came as he thought about his own passing, and they echoed centuries forward as A.J. Showalter confronted the same issue. Did the dual nature of his former students’ loss accentuate the experience for Showalter? Perhaps he felt overwhelmed by his young friends’ despair, an engine that propelled him to Moses’ episode and a people preparing to move on without him. The potion the two 19th Century men and their forefather Moses prescribe for this death struggle we all face, probably numerous times in an average lifetime, never loses its potency. Their words in “Leaning…” say that it grows stronger, in fact.  

This story tells us something about the nature of us, passed on from a God in whose likeness we’ve been constructed.  That the hymn has survived into the 21st Century shows the three who gave us the words (Moses, Showalter, and Hoffman) knew what power lay in the words, necessary for humankind to endure its final tragedy. How did Showalter know to go find these biblical words? It must be that he’d discovered he couldn’t escape inevitable death, even if he himself hadn’t yet reached 30 years of age. Instead, embracing is the answer. This includes other people, and Him, too.

Information on the song was also 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.; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sing and Be Happy – Emory S. Peck

He probably had lived in northern Georgia. He might have been a native Georgian, or spent much of his life there. But, we know not much more than that, or do we? Emory S. Peck told us something pretty important about himself when he composed “Sing and Be Happy” in 1940, if you can peer inside the words he wrote, think about what message he had, and ponder a few other details of his surroundings. He was a 47-year old believer, and knew of a recipe for relief from a difficult time, judging by what he says in the three verses he jotted for us to examine. Maybe he himself stayed in the shadows so that his message might attract more light.  Maybe that’s what we ought to do, too.

He’s anonymous, but Emory S. Peck does have a biography that someone knows, and a must have said some things in “Sing and Be Happy” that resonated with others. His grave is in a cemetery called Alta Vista, outside of Gainesville, Georgia.  It’s a small town, or technically a small city (population 33,000-plus), the seat of Hall County, and nicknamed the “poultry capital of the world”. There’s several notable people who are from Gainesville, but Peck isn’t listed among them. Maybe it’s a mirror of his less-than prolific musical output, which one source indicates was just three songs. Or, perhaps Emory hailed from somewhere else in Georgia, and then made his home in Gainesville at some later point. Or, maybe he was just a happily-ordinary Christian, with this upbeat tune in his toolkit, which he could haul out to dispense advice to others having a bad day. He must have crossed paths with others, or felt this way himself – depressed and burdened (verse 1); tired, grief- or pain-stricken, feeling that life was unfair (verse 2); or feeling forgotten (verse 3). Emory’s solution was consistent. Trust that there’s a brighter end of the road, a goal that will not vanish, one about which we can sing. Focus on that, Peck advises.

This fellow Emory Peck was a 40-something, living in a world with lots of anxieties in 1940. Most historians will quickly surmise that maybe Peck, as perhaps many other Americans experienced in that era, were worried that war (World War II) was on the horizon. Did Emory have sons he thought might be compelled to wear a uniform and a helmet in the near future? His age suggests he had been a young man in his 20s—draft-age--during the first world war. Was Peck a Roosevelt democrat, enamored with FDR’s theme song (“Happy Days Are Here Again”), who decided that he could echo that theme in his Christian walk? Maybe he’d been outta work in the decade of the 1930s, and thought his president’s jocular suggestion was a good one that was beginning to bear fruit as the new decade dawned. It doesn’t have to be a year or a even just a day in the midst of an economic storm, or a looming cloud of global conflict on the horizon to dim one’s outlook. But, hearing these words from a guy who must have had many pressing issues to think about during a time I can only imagine makes me think again about how to respond. None of these concerns were invisible to Emory. He just knew how to see thorough them. (This site indicates he is buried in north Georgia. So, was he a Georgia native, or lived a significant portion of his life there?) (site shows three songs attributed to composer)

Friday, June 12, 2015

My Faith Looks Up to Thee -- Ray Palmer

Ray Palmer was just a young fellow, but he had feelings and physical symptoms that belied his age and clouded his future. So in 1830 he composed a poem “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” as a very personal prayer – a needy individual calling out for divine help. Its creation offers a method that other writers may find is not easily duplicated, for did Palmer really intend the outcome that came about when he sat down and poured out the words in despair? Would anyone else intentionally submit to such a process? If they knew that’s how God works, would that alter their music-writing ventures?  

Ray Palmer’s first effort at songwriting would not be his last, and his first had been incubating for perhaps several years before it was hatched.  Palmer’s schooling as a teenager had been suspended for a time out of financial necessity, but his education continued later in his youth and coincided with his heart turning to God. He eventually attended and graduated from Yale University with an aim toward ministry, while coincidentally teaching part-time at a girls’ school in New York City – no doubt a taxing schedule. He had been ill, both physically and emotionally, for a year when he sat down as a 22-year old to reach inside himself and find God’s help through words from his heart. He wanted something that he could carry as a reminder, to lift his spirit daily, for he must have seen a long road in front of himself. ‘Would the previous year’s experience be what ministry entailed?’, he may have worried. His devotion to God had spawned in his teens, and he was still clinging to that faith and to the road to ministry he had set before himself. But, there was no denying that loneliness, depression, and sickness also inhabited his being – he admitted this too. He kept the four-stanza composition in a notebook in his coat pocket. His poem might have remained between himself and its addressee (God), if two years later he hadn’t bumped into his friend Lowell Mason, a music-writer who was hunting new songs for his latest project. The rest, as has been said, is history. Palmer would write a few dozen other song poems during his life, yet he may have employed the best technique for this part of his ministry just as he was beginning.

Palmer probably never forgot how his prayer played out – that we know the story of its conception assures us of this. It really sticks with a believer, to sense when God has heard and delivers His response. Ray admitted to Him how he felt in his verses – guilt, weakness, fear, overwhelming sadness, and even some distrust. Perhaps Ray felt that he had nothing to lose at that point. After all, the year had already been pretty tough on him, so why not be honest, while telling Him you still think He’s capable of delivering the Providential goods? That Palmer was still engaged in ministry two years hence, when he encountered his friend and shared the poem, tells us that God did reply. Maybe God taking his servant’s request-prayer to the next level—making it public, and lifting it for others to see for the last 185 years--was what Palmer could not have anticipated. What do you think Ray would say if he were here today? He’d probably say ‘See, God’s still here…and He may have a surprise for you’.     

Information on the song was also obtained from the books  Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; 101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Thou My Everlasting Portion -- Fanny Crosby

She must have really meant what she said, someone might have observed when examining Fanny Crosby’s situation in 1874. How she chose to live really was reflected onto the page as she wrote “Thou My Everlasting Portion”, also known as “Close to Thee”. As a 54-year old woman, Fanny was blind and in poverty, by all appearances. And yet, if asked, she probably would have contended with such an assertion. Who could say they’re poor if they have God, despite what one’s surroundings in a New York City slum (one that could have looked like this picture in Crosby’s neighborhood) might tell you? And not just as a far-off, hoped-for future, but a present power – that’s what seemed to embody Crosby.

Frances Crosby (more commonly known as Fanny) was an amazing testimony to hope in Christ. Her life story is well-known, even among secular folks, because of the stark nature of her challenges compared to her accomplishments. One might suspect that the former (her challenges) actually spurred the latter (her accomplishments). Knowing a little of the background to one of the many songs she composed in 1874 leads one to suspect this synergy was a fact in her existence. One account of “Close to Thee” indicates she employed a method that was familiar to many of her song-writing ventures – someone played a tune, which sparked some words from her to match what she heard. This version says a hat salesman, Silas Jones Vail, probably one of her Long Island-Manhattan neighbors, played her one of his tunes. Her ear and her spirit must have already had quite a reputation, for someone to bring a nameless piece of music and expect Crosby to respond with meaningful prose. But, she didn’t disappoint, saying that one repeated phrase in Vail’s tune called out ‘close to thee’ over and over. Another source reports that Fanny was pondering God’s proximity late one day when the song’s words just leapt out of her. From what we know of Crosby’s life, the mid-1870s were a rough period, one in which it’s thought she was impoverished, deep in the heart of New York. That makes her words all the more special – they are a personal pledge she was vocalizing to her God. The words ‘everlasting portion’ also suggest she was reading Psalms, and echoing the songwriter’s words of utter dependence on Him (Psalm 16:5; 73:26; 119:57; 142:5). Was she struggling to feed and clothe herself, to stay warm? No matter, Fanny says. He’s all I need. I only require His companionship.

Fanny’s life among the poor spoke credibly of her beliefs, about the closeness she felt toward God. She seems to have viscerally understood that knowing Him meant living like Him. Maybe she believed that the poor would listen to a God-message, since they had little else to lean upon for support. Or, maybe she felt more like she had a secret to share…that the weak (like herself) were the really rich ones. Attached to Jesus, being like him in His common estate, and connected to the One who transcends earth – that would get anyone’s attention. She might not have seen with her eyes, but her vision let her reside with contentment in an area that depressed others. Am I better or worse off than Fanny?

Information on the song was obtained from The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc; and from the website:  
See biography on composer here: