Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sing to Me of Heaven -- Ada Powell

Ada Powell. Few other details are known of her, or even if this composer was a her, although this name is normally given to a female. Ada could have been a shortened version of Adelaide or Adeline, but there is more significant information than her name that one could gather about Ada from the words she composed for the song “Sing to Me of Heaven” early in the 20th Century. What motivated her poetry can be surmised, at least speculatively, from the verses she recorded. And, since she doesn’t appear to have been a complete novice at verse composition, we could imagine that she engaged in similar activity over a reasonably lengthy period, either professionally or certainly in a semi-serious way. In other words, she was keenly involved in her walk of faith, and probably sought the companionship of others whom she hoped would reciprocate. What picture of heaven did she and others imagine – was it like this one, shown here?

Ada Powell authored at least a few dozen hymn poems over her lifetime, including this one about heaven that was first published while she was still a relatively young woman in 1914. As a 32-year-old poet, Ada most likely had been engaged in previous efforts, perhaps in a collaborative way as “Sing to Me of Heaven” proved to be. While she wrote the verses, her musical comrade, at least on this occasion, was Benjamin Beall. The music to another of her songs (“Do Something for Jesus”) was written by another composer (Benjamin Hultsman, Jr.), so evidently Ada was not entirely anonymous among her contemporaries. Her theme through the three verses of “Sing…Heaven” suggests Ada’s premise for writing was either personal or group-centered. ‘Sing to me…’ is a hint, not unexpectedly, that she was among other believers from whom she needed to draw strength or who were in need of her fellowship. In short, this group needed to be each other’s angel chorus, to simulate what each longed to experience in another realm. Did 30-something Ada feel life’s weights (v.1), suffer with loneliness (v.2) or depression (v.3)? Or, did she know others who knew these sensations too acutely to keep silent? Even a relatively young person could probably say ‘yes’ to either of those questions. The world was a complicated, busy, stressful, and challenging place in 1914 – at least for Ada and her friends.   

She might be mostly anonymous, but Ada Powell said something over 100 years ago that certainly sounds familiar. Heaven has a reputation. Some people with near-death experiences say it’s wondrous. Our bibles say something about it being a glorified earth. It’s the upside of death’s journey, the alternative to the horrible. Ada said it’s a place that’s sweet, bright, and gleaming like a pearl. She hadn’t been there either when she wrote these words, yet she was willing to take a chance on it, probably as she thought about earthly days in comparison that were none too pleasant. Are you like Ada? 

A list of the songs that the composer generated is here:

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Jesus Is Coming Soon -- Robert Emmett Winsett

What would you expect to hear from a 66-year old Pentecostal preacher in 1940s Chattanooga, Tennessee (which might have looked something like this picture, shown here)? Considering the era and the background of Robert Emmett Winsett, one would not have been surprised to hear him utter the words “Jesus Is Coming Soon”. He’d already lived through plenty that would give him reason to say such a thing, but the words would continue to ring loudly for a few more decades in the ears of its hearers, culminating in this poem-song’s award recognition a quarter of a century after he first sketched out his thoughts. Why would a 25-year-old song provoke such an episode? Robert might say the words never go out of style.

Robert Winsett’s Pentecostal beliefs and the times that he lived through, including their impact on him personally as well as on those around him, certainly must have molded the ideas he expressed in “Jesus Is Coming Soon”. Winsett had lost two people close to him – his first wife and a son -- some 10-15 years earlier, so he was intimately familiar with personal tragedy, though he’d since remarried and had additional children. Winsett was said to be somewhat of an introvert, preferring to be in the woods for long hours, a trait that must have contributed toward the approximately 1,000 hymns and multiple songbooks he authored over his lifetime. By 1942, his 66th year, Winsett would also have been witnessing the third war of his lifetime (Spanish-American War [1898], World War I [1914-18], and World War II [1941-45]), a particularly resonant event to make one aware of the mortality of oneself and those around him. Can you hear Winsett preaching the first words of this 1942 hymn ‘Troublesome times are here…’? They must have been effective with his hearers, who would have believed that ‘freedom …is at stake’ (v. 1). It would be much later, however, when Winsett’s words would actually earn the song the Dove Award for Gospel Song of the Year, in 1969. Were 1969’s events, amidst yet another war (Vietnam), enough to make Winsett’s words meaningful again? We can guess that Winsett and other Pentecostals were also reading apocalyptically from their bibles (including from 1 Thessalonians). Winsett’s world must have borne heavily upon him, but also made him aware and expectant for the coming heaven-bound events (see song’s refrain).     

Does Winsett’s message still make sense? Since his departure for another world, the world has hardly had reason to scoff at Robert’s sense of things. Wars and the trouble that accompany them are just one of the phenomena Winsett probably observed. Many ‘evils abound’ (v.2) terrestrially; but, heaven and my destiny there allow me to feel ebullient. Is that why Winsett’s tune to accompany his words, though entitled ‘Troublesome Times’, feels like a sprint, with a jaunty skip to them?  We believers will rise at the trumpet sound, meet each other in the skies, and greet Jesus. Takes the breath away, doesn’t it? And, it takes the wind right outta that doom era (refrain), at least for the saved. Are you dreading the doom, or looking around the corner past it?

These two links record a brief biography of the composer:

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Blest Be the Tie that Binds – John Fawcett

He must have thought he could leave, but the raw emotion of the moment took him by surprise. As he reflected on what had overwhelmed him a week earlier, John Fawcett poured out these emotions in six verses of “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” one day in 1772. Wainsgate, England (see its flag here) was his family’s home, and so they reversed themselves and discarded what would have undoubtedly been a more comfortable and financially prosperous tenure in the big city. Was there something else going on at Wainsgate that was like a magnet for John, his wife Mary, and their family, or was it just some perpetual sentimentality that bonded them like superglue to that church?  Was their experience perhaps a microcosm of another home and family one might encounter?

John Fawcett had a well-developed sense of appreciation for Christian fellowship and its personal impact on him by the time he wrote the six stanza-poem in 1772 that was eventually published some 10 years later. He was a child from a poor family, was apparently an orphan by the age of 12, and for a time worked long hours at something like slave labor. Converted at age 16, and then having begun by age 25 his first ministry at Wainsgate in northern England’s West Yorkshire county, he no doubt must have identified intrinsically with those whose hard-scrabble life mirrored his own. John’s preaching reputation nevertheless had earned him some notoriety, and an offer to switch to a much wealthier church in London. For his wife and young family, this must have initially seemed like a God-send after seven years in what someone might have derisively labeled ‘the boondocks’. Who wouldn’t have accepted, as the Fawcetts originally did? But, with their belongings packed and a church crowd gathered to bid them farewell, the hearts of John and Mary were pricked. Did someone perhaps read from the episode of Paul’s departure from Ephesus, to memorialize this sad event (Acts 20)? Was it the thought of leaving these poor folks deprived of not only their friendship, but also other considerations that gnawed at them? How would this Wainsgate group fare without the Fawcetts? In that moment, the Fawcetts concluded, and decided, to live out the truth of the aphorism ‘there are some things money cannot buy.’ As John later admitted, he had temporarily overlooked the other riches he and his family enjoyed there. They spent 54 years in Wainsgate, evidently because they sensed that the benefits of that poverty-stricken church outweighed the alternative in London. This place and people were home.

John originally entitled his poem “Brotherly Love”, and it says all I need to know about the Fawcetts’ choice that day in 1772. What was on their minds? The key word is ‘our’. Our hearts (v.1). Our Father’s throne, our ardent prayers, our fears, our hopes, our aims, our comforts, our cares (v.2). Our mutual burdens (v.3). Our courage (v.5). You get the feeling John and Mary had just completed a mental, or rather heart-level, survey of what they’d been doing with this group for seven years. And, they must have thought this home was too valuable to dismiss so easily. Would the new crowd in London have grown on them too? You think they missed an opportunity? Look at what they already had. Our is what we all aim for up there, isn’t it? In 1772, John and Mary Fawcett had it, and decided to keep it. Start acquiring it now, if you can’t say our.

The following website has all six original verses, and copy of the song story:
See the song story in these sources also: 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 A Treasury of Hymn Stories, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.  

See this link for picture and background on the church where the composer wrote the hymn:

Sunday, August 7, 2016

How Sweet How Heavenly -- Joseph Swain

This English poet must have really valued the ‘family’ of which he was part. Indeed, perhaps he was so moved by the camaraderie, that he described it as sweet and heavenly (“How Sweet, How Heavenly”), as he turned a corner in his life’s purpose. Joseph Swain might be viewed with poignancy, because of what would ensue just a few years after he wrote this hymn about brotherhood (he died just four years later, at age 35). But, at the time, this 31-year old must have felt anything but angst in the atmosphere in which he and his fellow believers shared life. Was it because it was something he had missed for so long, which accentuated its sweetness for him? How would one picture something that had characteristics that Swain described? Perhaps it would be like seeing family members embrace (not unlike this 1789 self-portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun).   

Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that Joseph Swain’s early life and eventual transformation had their fingerprints all over this fellow’s heart when he put pen to paper in 1792? He was an orphan from early childhood, so that may have spoken to him as he sought relationships in the empty family environment where he found himself. He was converted to Christianity at age 21, and by 1792, some 10 years later, had begun his ministry in a London district church at age 31. His three decades without blood relatives evidently didn’t mean his heart was cold – probably anything but. His poetry had become his calling card over the previous decade, and this continued when he crafted the five verses about sweet and heavenly sights. He’d just begun his public ministry in the London church, so perhaps he wanted to remind himself and his hearers what struck him most in their exercise of faith together. This minister-poet-hymnist, and former orphan, thought a lot about love. He uses the word five times in four of the verses, so one can imagine what a Joseph Swain message from the pulpit might have sounded like. The people to whom he spoke were undeniably part of his being, and part of each other’s being. Love wasn’t an isolated or one-way street. It was sensing one other (vv.1-2), experiencing union or bond (vv. 4-5). In Swain’s mind, someone else’s heart and eye were his, too (v. 2).

Picture-perfect? Swain was most likely not a naïve, rose-colored glasses-wearing minister. He evidently knew what envy, scorn, and pride (v. 3) looked like, or he would not have been able to notice their absence. Have you ever been part of a group that always functioned ideally? Hopefully, you’ve been part of one where at least occasionally the sweet and heavenly have been evident. Joseph either saw it or wanted to promote it. He probably needed it, given his background. Don’t we all?

Biography of composer here:
Some biography here also:
See the site here for brief biography of composer:
See this site for all five original verses: