Saturday, April 30, 2016

Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus -- Louisa M.R. Stead

It may be the only song she ever wrote, and perhaps the circumstances of its conception made her feel that it was her last. Louisa Stead said “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” in 1880 as the result of a broken heart, but also from a faith that allowed her to survive a personal tragedy. What started as a family’s relaxing, recreational day at a Long Island beach (perhaps not too far from Montauk Point on Long Island, shown here) turned into perhaps the worst day of Stead’s life. She could not have known that the dark cloud that hovered over her at that place would somehow also have a silver lining, that out of her loss would spring something that the Providential Creator could use for good. Could it be that the bitter nature of the events at the beach pushed Louisa toward something sweet, something to salve the hurt she felt? What was it she found that evidently allowed her to go on in life?

As a 30-year-old wife and young mother, Louisa Stead’s life was at a pivotal point in 1880, in more ways than one. She’d emigrated to America from England at age 21, and had a strong urge to pursue mission work in China, which she had to postpone for health reasons. Instead, nine years later she had married and had a four-year-old daughter, a family life she was apparently enjoying as they picnicked at a beach on Long Island one day. The happiness ended abruptly when her husband reportedly drowned trying to save a small boy that day. Some accounts further suggest Louisa’s and her daughter Lily’s resulting poverty, and God’s answer to take care of their needs, helped spawn the poem she wrote in the wake of this trial. This episode would also initiate a series of events with other people in Louisa’s life that likely otherwise would not have occurred. Louisa took her youngster and set out for mission work in southern Africa following their loss, a tangible sign that Louisa did in fact still feel the pull of God’s purposes on her life, despite the calamitous event that had just taken place. She remarried Robert Wodehouse while in South Africa, and the two of them would return to America 15 years later due to her recurring health challenges, though they both would travel back to Rhodesia in Africa to resume mission work there several years later. During the interim in America, where Louisa received treatment and recovered, Wodehouse ministered at a local church. And, many years later, her daughter Lily would continue the missionary work in the same region in Africa, following Louisa’s retirement once again because of health. So, even though Louisa’s life had a moment of great misfortune, what happened in its aftermath directly altered the paths of at least two other people—Lily and her stepfather Robert—and many others indirectly on two continents. And, we still have the hymn that Louisa wrote over 136 years later, a blessing that another missionary in the Rhodesia region reported natives still sang in their own language in 1917.

Had Louisa forgotten the events on Long Island some 30 years later, in a faraway place? Someone might say she was trying to escape and forget, to forever put behind her, seeing her husband drown in the Atlantic Ocean. But, apparently a song just cannot be easily dismissed. Nor can its meaning, especially if it’s the only one I ever write – as is apparently true with Louisa Stead. Louisa must have shared with her African friends why she composed those words about sweetly trusting Jesus. They weren’t just syllables spilling from her lips, but a vow from deep within. Terrible things might happen in anyone’s life, but that doesn’t silence God. He still communicates, viscerally (inside my being) and relationally (with others). I just have to let Him be heard.        

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, 1985; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Also see this link, showing all four original verses: 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

More About Jesus -- Eliza E. Hewitt

This Philadelphian had some lofty goals as a 36-year old, particularly interesting because she could have laid down and moped because of what befell her early in life. It was a physical challenge and the resulting handicapped condition in which Eliza Hewitt found herself that in part triggered her penmanship of “More About Jesus” one year as she lay convalescing. So when she thought of more that she wanted to do to allow God to mold her, no one would have blamed her if she had begun by saying she would submit to Him if He’d first heal her physically. But, reading what she wrote makes one think the opposite had dawned on her emotionally and devotionally, almost as if she’d already acquired something from the Great Healer, though still aggravated physically. Is her response typical or in fact providential? See what you think.

Eliza Edmunds Hewitt was a teacher, in more ways than one in 1877. She began as a public school teacher soon after graduating from school herself with her class’s highest honors, so it might have appeared her future as an educator was bright. But, what happened soon thereafter, when a spinal condition—perhaps precipitated by a student’s assault--laid her out, might have imperiled her status and prospects, at least according to conventional wisdom. Yet, it is said her invalid condition was what spurred her drawing closer to the God she wanted to serve. She eventually recovered some, and reportedly was able to do still more in active ministry. Apparently, though, she had discovered her true mission in life during the extended recuperation. Hymn-writing and poetry were the foundations of her remaining life, dedicated to teaching others through the pen that she wielded so prolifically. So, when she wrote “More About Jesus” perhaps it was the taste of this new undertaking that had Eliza seeking more of what He wanted to reveal to her. Could it have escaped the attention of those who knew her that she wasn’t grumbling, but instead glowing? She is said to have been studying all about Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s promises, a process that compelled her upbeat attitude and soothed what otherwise might have been self-pity.  That’s an outlook that likewise teaches others who observe, though the source—Eliza, in this case—was unable to stand before a blackboard with chalk in hand.  She also had family and friends—still more evidence of God’s care for the challenged, like Eliza—who no doubt cheered her on. Edgar Stites, another well-known composer at the time, was Eliza’s cousin, and Hewitt also became close friends with Fanny Crosby, perhaps the most conspicuous hymn lyrics composer of that era.

God is good! One might even conclude that He’s especially so with those who hurt but soldier on to further His cause. Eliza Hewitt was clearly one of those, one who wanted more of Him, despite her own tests. She didn’t limit what she wanted to discover, perhaps as she savored Him for the first time and realized there was more, much more. Just count how many ‘mores’ she pictured in just four verses. Book knowledge (i.e. Bible); understanding His will daily; comprehending His nature more completely; being intimately involved with His mission; and visualizing in detail eternity with Him – these were just some of what she says in this concise space. There’s more she must have suspected, but could not verbalize. She went to meet Him forever in 1920. You think she found more then?

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.

See here for the brief biography and a list of some 1,700 hymns with lyrics authored by the composer:
Also see this link, showing all four original verses: 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Loved By You – Randy Gill

‘But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”’ (2 Corinthians 10:17)

You might suspect that this contemporary composer spent a little time reading what an ancient predecessor once wrote about bragging. Indeed, ‘brag’ may have been an uncommon word in the 1st Century dictionary (used Biblically just once – Amos 4:5), but check out ‘boast’ --  93 times in the Bible (in the New International Version translation). And, half of those 93 times are words written or repeated by one author – Paul. This ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’ was aware of this character issue, aware of his pedigree (see first seven verses of Philippians 3), and we can surmise that Randy Gill was too when he sat down and wrote “Loved By You” a couple of years ago. Let’s consider how far boasting gets a wrongdoer in an earthly courtroom (like the one shown here), versus another type of room we’ll all see some day, where love is the operative factor.  

It’s a revealing exercise, to research someone’s background using our world’s internet, but one can learn only so much. In Randy’s case, one gets the feeling that when he put pen-to-paper in 2014, he put his pedigree in the back seat and decided to boast about someone else instead. That’s not to say that he didn’t draw upon his varied experiences to craft this testimony. He’s been a blessed fellow – degrees from four higher education schools, and faculty assignments at a like number of institutions, and a well-earned reputation. One might say he’s a ‘Christian of Christians’, echoing/paraphrasing Paul’s sentiments 2000 years ago. As to what motivated his “Loved…” ode, Randy shared recently with this blogger this singular episode that rings true for every believer…it needs no other introductory words: 

‘That’s a very special song for me.  It was actually written during the hours I spent at my father’s bedside as he was passing from this life to the next.  He had been ill for a couple of painful years and as his body slowly shut down I found myself thinking about the spiritual legacy he had left me.  My father was a preacher who was known for his gentle and loving spirit.  From my earliest days I remember hearing him say that God loved us no matter what.  I spent quite a bit of time at his bedside with my guitar singing hymns for him towards the end.  The last few days he was unresponsive and I found myself playing the same chords over and over again and singing “I am loved by you.”  It was both a statement about the love I had experienced from the man who lay before me and the love of a Father who was waiting to welcome my dad home.  When I got back home after the funeral I had the chorus but no verses.  I was reading a little book of Puritan prayers in my morning devotional time and one of them started with the words “You have wept over me like Jerusalem.”  I had never heard that image before and it really resonated with me. As I read that prayer I pictured my heavenly father doing the same (crying) over me.  With that mental image in mind the rest of the verses and bridge came relatively quickly.’

Wow. If we hadn’t heard Randy’s personal reflection, we might conclude from his verses that  he’s gotta work on that boasting part, and Perry Mason might tell him he should highlight his own accomplishments, if he really wants to defend himself adequately. Thankfully, Randy’s not trying to usher me into a secular courtroom, but has me calling out to a judge whose throne room I long to enter – and, incredibly, I can. That’s worth boasting about to others.

Despite human foibles, Randy Gill has tapped into a crucial fact in “Loved by You”. His emotional psychology, emanating from a deathbed watch and its aftermath, may have likewise lit his path in some words he provided in a December 2015 interview, in which he talked about how the believer is formed spiritually (see the link below). To sum it up, maybe Randy wants me to realize that being loved by the Almighty revolutionizes my worship, as I reprocess that love connection over and over again – as I sing ‘I am loved by You’ repeatedly. It’s a spiritual formation—a transformation-transportation that makes me heaven-bound, to join others like Randy’s dad--initiated by Him upon my being, and it grows on me as I live and worship in various shades each day. Gill talks about being able to worship despite the crummy mood I may be in, versus the exuberance I might feel another day. In all these, He loves me, a fact that I can embrace, despite even my death. Thanks Randy for sharing and for helping me boast about this, and freeing me to be real before Him.

The composer’s song-story was shared in an e:mail with this author-blogger on 19 April 2016. (Thank you Randy Gill!)

Read a recent interview of the composer here: