Sunday, December 27, 2015

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning -- Philip P. Bliss

It must have been an illustration that was unique, involving perhaps the speaker’s delivery or the poignancy of the story’s ending, capturing Philip Bliss’s attention one night, causing him to imagine and create a song. “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” were actually some words that Bliss’s friend spoke that gave him the mental picture and the words he needed to spark this musical creation in 1871. Had the 33-year old Bliss been at sea before, heightening his awareness as he listened to the speaker that night?  Did he know someone who needed to heed the words he composed? What are lower lights, and why are they apparently necessary if we have lighthouses (like the one shown here)?

Philip Paul Bliss was a gifted hymn-writer of the 19th Century whose career output was only abbreviated because of his untimely death, five years after he composed this song about lights. He reportedly heard many messages that spurred the poetry he composed, including through the well-known speaker Dwight Moody.  It was one of Moody’s stories, told of a ship that foundered on a rocky shoal in Lake Erie outside of Cleveland, that gave him the inspiration for “Let the Lower Lights…”. From a far distance, a lighthouse is all a sailor needs to safely guide his navigation, but that changes the closer one draws to land. Rocks and sandbars are a deadly hazard, which ‘lower lights’ illuminate – if they’re working. One hardly hears about these lights, perhaps because the bigger, more obvious lighthouses get the attention. In Moody’s narrative, the failure of these lower lights left the ship blind, and ultimately wrecked with loss of life. The analogy is clear. God – the lighthouse – never fails, but we mortals cannot do without other, lesser lights to help us through difficult passages. Moody and Bliss wanted their hearers to notice that in God’s Divine wisdom, He needs us to watch out for each others’ welfare – we’re lights for our peers. I warn you, and you warn me, when danger is nearby. You and I help protect each other.

Whatever trails he followed, Philip Bliss needed others to help his feet see the hazards, just like any of us. Ironically, it was a train wreck due to a collapsed bridge that ended the composer’s life in 1876. Mortality touches all of us. What about the life of my soul - what threatens it? These are easier to discount, since no immediate, tangible, penalties may result. But, Bliss and Moody would warn us of these, and the ‘Father’s mercy’ (verse 1) and ‘sin’ (verse 2) we need to see. These fellows traveled a lot, spreading the news about God, so they must have been conscious of things that might go wrong along the way, including transportation that would falter. Whether it’s by land, or sea, or air, no method is failsafe, particularly when it gets dark. Is there a light where you’re headed? If you’re safe, even after tripping, are you warning that next person behind you?

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Rescue the Perishing -- Fanny Crosby

“Rescue the Perishing” was a line that stuck in her head one summer night in 1869, and Fanny Crosby just couldn’t ignore it. How could this 49-year-old blind woman rescue anyone? Wasn’t she herself at risk, visiting a rundown neighborhood inhabited by desperate men? This Bowery area of the Manhattan borough (see a look at it in 1910 shown here) was not for the timid, who might encounter the “Bowery Boys” street gang or other reminders of urban blight. Not a wonder that its residents might turn to alcohol as a means of escape, and find themselves needing help as life slid into one of the many gutters there. Maybe this is where Fanny had an advantage. Since one of her senses, eyesight, did not function, she could not shrink from people with the same revulsion that sight might have compelled. Thankfully, she did not ignore her other senses, including her heart.

Crosby’s life and work especially among missions in New York City are well-known, but never grow old. This 1869 episode took place early in her hymn-writing career, which had only started a few years before, though she had been a notable writer of secular works for some time already. It could be said that the hymn’s poem had gestated in her spirit because of the work in which she was engaged that day, and also was spurred by a musical friend’s idea. Her friend Howard Doane had proposed the ‘Rescue the Perishing’ theme to her a few days beforehand, and it was still stirring within her as she spoke to a crowd that evening at the mission. Her urgent appeal struck a chord with one 18-year-old, whom she implored needed God if he ever expected to join his mother in eternity. This was a defining moment in these two lives, apparently, as he accepted her leading and God’s place in his life. The young man reportedly encountered Crosby decades later to tell of his faithful service for God. For her part, Crosby went home that evening following their initial encounter and wrote the lyrics for “Rescue…”, a hymn that still survives one hundred years after her own death in 1915. And, the Bowery Mission still goes on too, with this story – and probably many more – that relate how the blind woman helped others to see. How many people did Frances Jane Crosby show the way, and still does through her poetry?

Urban, suburban, rural, and especially the third-world…how would Fanny Crosby have regarded residents of these areas today? There’s still poor in every one of them, though an economist might claim the world has come a long way in the last 150 years since Fanny thought about rescue. She’d be somewhere helping, and teaching, and making music too, no doubt. There’s still lots of people in trouble, and plenty who try to help others in ways that remind us of her. Fanny was special because she merged her gift - her musical ear- with a mission for the destitute. She was genuine, with hymns flowing from a reality she experienced. Hers were not just ideas, but authentic life. Maybe that’s why her hymns still reach us. What might yours or my life have to say?            

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

See this site that describes the ministries of the mission where the composer had the experience that birthed this song:

Saturday, December 12, 2015

To Love Someone More Dearly -- Maude Louise Ray and F.(or S.)H. Pickup

They wanted to say what motivated their lives, their work, their energy.  One was a poet and the other probably a minister, though little else is known of either of the composers who wanted to share their thoughts about what moved them to faith in the early 20th Century. “To Love Someone More Dearly” may be the only hymn associated with either Maude Louise Ray or Stanley Howard Pickup, but they nevertheless were in touch with the same train of thought. Did they know one another? Work was evidently important, and especially what Christian labor should encompass, a theme relevant not only in their era but for us a century later.  How should we think of our life’s energy, versus what a scientist name Joule invented centuries ago – a crude but useful machine (see it here) – to measure energy?

Maude Ray, according to limited information, was a 23 year-old New Yorker, while Stanley Pickup was a 36-year old Canadian when each of them composed verses a decade apart in the early 1900s. Maude had begun her work, soon after graduating from college in Poughkeepsie, as an editor for a magazine in 1901-02 that became known as Christian Work, so it seems more than just coincidental that her poem’s two stanzas a year later addressed what she understood was her ‘task’. Was this part of her editorial frame of mind as she helped steer the magazine’s content? Less is known of Pickup (including how his name might have morphed into F.H. , versus S.H.), but he was possibly a Methodist minister from Ontario. His third verse came in 1913, indicating he was aware of Ray’s work relatively soon after her initial two verses. Perhaps Ontario’s proximity to New York, separated by a mere few hundred miles, helped spur his awareness of her efforts, too. While they must have appreciated each other’s perspective, there are differences in what they chose to express. She focused on what her work should be terrestrially, while he looked vertically, to the culmination of earthly work. Maude said love, serve, and guide others here, and devote oneself to godliness and purity; those were things on which to meditate and in which to rest, to really be content. Stanley must have surmised that yes, Maude was correct, and just imagine knowing the reward of such a life! It must have been a message Pickup promoted often in his position.

How does a 23-year old New Yorker and a 36-year old Canadian come to these conclusions? It’s as if they had already seen what a wizened, gray-haired believer could reflect on after many more decades of experience. Maybe, in fact, that’s what was ‘at work’ – the life-examples of one or more others nearby showing them what practically a life ‘at work’ should resemble, as decades upon decades accumulate. It makes you wonder, does work ever really stop here? God ‘worked’ right from the beginning (see Genesis 1 and 2) – in fact, ‘work’ is in the Bible more than 500 times. Another preacher said we should enjoy work (Ecclesiastes 3:22), and yet another said essentially the same centuries later (Colossians 3:23). Think Maude and Stanley learned from those guys, too? Can you and I?        

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Freely, Freely -- Carol Owens

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. (Matthew 10:8)

She and her husband had a charge, not from just one man but from two. ‘Tell others what you think is most important about the church’, Carol Owens heard one man say. And so, the genesis of what she and her husband Jimmy would include in a production began. At some point soon thereafter Carol investigated the roots of their beliefs and decided that ‘Freely, Freely” was a very key concept they should communicate to observers of the musical they would be presenting. It would be a crowd of not just observers, but seekers whom they wanted to introduce to the second man Carol had heard as she and Jimmy set about constructing the message to convey.

Carol and Jimmy Owens had bought into the Jesus movement in the countercultural environment of the late 1960s and early 1970s and made it their mission to introduce others to the Jesus they knew. So in 1972, 41-year old Carol and her husband must have found it pretty self-evident on whom they should focus a musical production that a church leader suggested they design. The Church on the Way in Van Nuys California (Los Angeles area –see map), where the church leader (Jack Hayford) ministered, no doubt reflected their own views and also one of the church’s members, Pat Boone, with whom they collaborated on the musical. They saw Jesus as the focus, but must have wondered at some point what of His divine message they should repeat in the production. He said many things, but which one was most important? Perhaps they put themselves in the shoes of the Apostles who also had a message to deliver (Matthew 10), and decided that the Master’s directions from that 1st Century episode were still good enough two millennia later. It’s free. That’s what they thought would resonate with a broad group of people who needed to heed Jesus’ words. It was no accident what they predicted would result from this central theme, that people would “Come Together” as the musical’s title proclaimed. The Owens-Boone show went on the road, including England, in hundreds of venues. It started with a Messiah some 2,000 years before them who said his envoys should heal the sick, revive the dead, and point toward the Divine source – all for free. It would stun anyone in anytime to witness such events, something Carol must have surmised as she read from Matthew.  

Can you imagine what a sensation it was when Jesus came for a visit? ‘Just believe’, He said. No one went away sick, usually. Our medical practices today deliver far less and cost a lot more. He offers even more that no one here can pretend to mimic in even the smallest way. And, it’s still free, a foreign concept on this planet where priceless products always seem to have a price. So, that’s probably why the Owens song doesn’t have me focus on the methods He employs or the results of an encounter with Him, although those are fascinating details of a Jesus visit. Notice throughout her words that Carol says ‘in Jesus name’. I cannot buy what only He possesses. He’s the sensation.     

See more information on the song discussed above in this source: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.

The following websites have information on the church where the composer developed the song:
Here’s a link to the broad movement in which the composer and her spouse found themselves at the time of the song’s composition: