Sunday, December 25, 2016

God Be With You -- Jeremiah E. Rankin



He was a learned minister, and he’d preached a lot of sermons, undoubtedly after studying for a time on each occasion before sharing his messages with believers. How do you think Jeremiah Rankin typically wished his hearers well, at the conclusion of a sermon in 1880? It would have been very common for him to do as his ancestor, the Apostle Paul (see a painting of him here), did many times as he departed from the presence of various peoples. “God Be with You” would have been one way to vocalize his thoughts and emotions, but there’s a more ordinary way to express these words, a phrase that Jeremiah and others in the 19th Century would have said instead. But, without knowing the phrase’s origin, we can too glibly mutter these to our friends and family. Words do have meaning.

Jeremiah Rankin had said ‘good-bye’ by the time he was 52 innumerable times. Count the number of locations in which he had lived, multiplied by the number of people to whom he’d ministered or spoken, times the number of years he’d lived, and you might arrive at a number approximating the number of times he’d said ‘good-bye’. Born in New Hampshire, educated in Vermont and Massachusetts, Rankin was serving a church and Howard University in Washington, D.C. as he entered his early 50s. It’s said that he composed the eight verse-poem “God Be with You” as a result of discovering the true meaning of the parting words most people utter without thinking. Had he been studying one of the great apostle’s books, in which Paul likewise wished for God’s presence to be with new converts upon his departure (Philippians. 4:9; 2 Corinthians. 13:11, 14; Romans. 15:33; 16:20)? Rankin apparently composed the words for no particular occasion or people, but just wanted to underscore the meaning of the words, and to enhance the singing service at the church. Perhaps they needed a new song, and since Jeremiah had shown the ability to craft other hymn texts (he wrote at least a few dozen in his lifetime), it was not a surprise that “God Be with You” was the result. Would he have also spoken about the etymology of the phrase and emphasized for his hearers their true meaning, perhaps in a full-length sermon? His eight verses contained probably more than enough material for such an exposition. Protection was one repeated theme Jeremiah depicted in his poem. But, others emerge as well, like direction (v.1), sustenance (v.2), purpose (v.3), reminders (v.5), healing presence (v.6), saving power (v.7), and heavenly transport (v.8). He might have been a poet, but he was also a preacher!

What do I wish for someone as I depart from them? Does Jeremiah’s list cross my thoughts? Sometimes, I admit, I just want to be away from someone as I leave, so perhaps I should reconsider saying ‘good-bye’, or even just ‘bye’. After all, if I don’t really wish for God’s presence and influence to remain with him or her, I shouldn’t mouth such nice-sounding words. It’s an awesome thing to have Him near – no, inside – me. To wish that for someone else is a breathtaking thing. It doesn’t mean He leaves me, but yet He can join this acquaintance, friend, or loved one. So, what need does this person have that God can fill? Maybe it’s multiple needs that are in play. Jeremiah thought so, too.     

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 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories – Brief Biographies of 120 Hymnwriters with Their Best Hymns, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.

Also see this link, showing all eight original verses:

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Faith of Our Fathers -- Frederick W. Faber



He was a fence-rider, in a sense. Perhaps someone might have said this about Frederick W. Faber, even after he left the Anglican Church, England’s state church, for Roman Catholicism in the 1840s. Not only his remembrance of church history, but an active effort to remind other believers of our predecessors, as in “Faith of Our Fathers”, reflected Faber’s endeavor to reach back to his Calvinist roots and simultaneously serve his new Catholic brethren. Where would Christendom be without the sacrifices of people from centuries long ago? (Especially, Faber was thinking of those who’d been punished under Henry VIII, shown here.) Even in what historians now characterize as ‘the dark ages’, somehow faith survived. Deep in his inner being, Faber wanted to honor that past through ‘high’ worship, to evoke a congregational spirit he must have felt was missing in his newly adopted church. He didn’t wallow in frustration, but took action, perhaps with the same courage he thought his ancestors had possessed.

Frederick Faber looked backward as a 35-year old to grasp some things from not only his own past, but from hundreds of years before. At first he was an Anglican minister, like his father before him, following his graduation from Oxford University as a 29-year old. But, he’d become acquainted with a movement, probably while at Oxford among his brethren, that emphasized the practices and their meaning in congregational worship. These spoke to his heart with such force that he drew closer to a body of believers whose worship underscored this approach. Catholic history, particularly in1500s England, reminded Faber of how much he owed much to God and these forefathers. But, while Catholic worship appealed to his sense of awe in a liturgical way, he missed the singing and the sense of fellowship this engendered in his Anglican roots. So, why not return to the Anglican Church? One can imagine there must have been some tension in his life, especially with his own father, after his open embrace of Catholicism, an organization he himself had once criticized. Yet, he reasoned that devotion to his own upbringing was outweighed by what had happened many generations earlier. And, he yearned to fill the singing gap he observed with new songs, even if he felt inadequate to the task. He crafted some 150 new hymns by the time of his premature death at age 49, so one could say his will had conquered the insufficiency that competed with his insides. “Faith of Our Fathers” was among the first batch of hymns he produced, a reflection of his preoccupation with those who’d been executed under King Henry VIII’s reign. He called out to their and his God, thanking his ancestors for the ‘fires’, ‘swords’, ‘dungeons’, and ‘chains’ they had endured. One can imagine Faber saying to himself, ‘God must have meant so much to them!’    

There’s a group today that Frederick would no doubt appreciate.  The Voice of the Martyrs (https://vom.com.au/history/) reminds Christians today that there are still believers who are punished because they choose God, despite the consequences. We Christian believers can have honest disagreements with other folks, because of the way they express their beliefs, and even when they worship a God or gods we don’t recognize. But, we no longer accept that force is a method we use to convince belief in the Divine. And, we acknowledge that we may in fact suffer at the hands of others who use the methods we’ve discarded. Instead, we lift others of like faith to Him, and trust that the examples of faith survive and overcome, for eternity’s sake. Sounds like something that Frederick Faber might have said, doesn’t it?

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 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985.
See also a brief biography of the author here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/f/a/b/faber_fw.htm
Also see this link, showing all four original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/f/a/i/faithoof.htm

Monday, December 12, 2016

Farther Along -- W.B. Stevens or W.A. Fletcher or ??



It’s a mystery, though there are at least two theories about its authorship. One says a composer crafted at least the original first verse, and his own experience may have inspired additional verses by his contemporaries. This Missourian, W.B. Stevens, knew something about emotional hardship, for it seems he wished to know in the future – in a “Farther Along” that he composed in the early 20th Century -- the answers to his troubles. Another theory is that another composer, W.A. Fletcher, had also experienced some loss and composed the verses to “Farther Along” in 1911. Both were ministers, and both had evidently experienced a common malady as mortals – mortality.  

Whoever composed the words to “Farther Along” must have felt that life was unfair, perhaps even in its potentially most lethal way. The most prevalent hypothesis is that a minister in Queen City, Missouri (in Schuyler County – see its courthouse here in 1878, a site he may have seen frequently) – W.B. Stevens wrote at least the first verse upon the occasion of his young son’s death. Stevens had counseled others in similar circumstances, yet this time he found it impossible to accept his own oft-given advice. Other evidence suggests perhaps the editor of the first songbook in which “Farther Along” appeared in 1911 – Barney Warren – had written some of the verses. Yet a third theory is that another minister – W.A. Fletcher – had penned the words during a train trip to minister to Indian country while his absent wife was preparing to give birth to their first-born. He, too, must have felt or had encountered someone else whose situation seemed unjust. What’s the answer when you’re feeling His way for you has become strewn with potholes? Whether it was Stevens, or Warren, or Fletcher, what’s the remedy the poet prescribes for the sense that one’s state of affairs has become untenable? In Stevens’ case, the most difficult for any believer – death of an innocent child—how could one manage such an incident?  Fletcher missed his wife and the unique event he longed to witness – his child’s birth; how could God insist he be elsewhere, even if it was to do a great work? Their words, or at least the feelings they shared, tell us 100 years later how they handled the disappointment. It’s called the future. And, it’s described in more than one way, perhaps because different expressions of the same concept reach different people in their own way. In just a few verses, the author or authors assign various names to the future, in addition to the song’s title ‘farther along’. ‘Sunshine’, ‘beautiful gate’, ‘glory’, ‘home in the sky’, ‘bright mansion’, and ‘by and by’ all portray a time and place where life’s inequities are overridden, nullified. Those who are there won’t feel as we who remain here. That’s the challenge, isn’t it?

I need patience, I’ve discovered, and “Farther Along” underscores that reality. But, you and I are not alone in this, our composer-friend/s tell us. Maybe ministers just see this truth biting people more intimately and frequently than the rest of us do. Their prescription is one they’ve recommended many times, probably because there is no alternative. If the present is too unfair, overlook it. Don’t try to decipher my world’s inconsistencies. Instead, gaze at the finish line; in fact, stare at it, dwell in it. The afterlife is the only way to make mortal life livable.      

See more information on the song discussed above in 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 composer is also the subject of another blogger’s post here: https://hymnstudiesblog.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/quotfarther-alongquot/
This site suggests another composer was the originator of the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farther_Along_(song)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sing On Ye Joyful Pilgrims – Fanny Crosby



She was so well known and abundantly productive that she decided to become a more shadowy presence in one of her best works. What? It’s reported that Frances Jane Crosby did in fact use a fictitious name when she set about publishing “Sing On Ye Joyful Pilgrims” in the late 19th Century; she passed herself off as Carrie M. Wilson, most likely because she thought her song would have a wider audience if her real name was left out of it. Perhaps she thought the song’s three verses and refrain possessed something too valuable to risk being ignored because of her own notoriety. Did she try out her tune on her friends and acquaintances first (including some at the Cremorne Mission in Manhattan [shown here], one of the missions that she supported at the time), discovering its message of hope and ecstasy had a rare quality? Perhaps it summed up her own life to that point with a focus she wanted to underscore and use to propel herself forward.

 Fanny Crosby is such a notable hymnist, it is hard to exaggerate her musical impact and her broader life’s influence on Christian faith expression. What brought Fanny to the point where she resided in 1866, and what carried her forward, is not a mystery. A 66-year-old who’d already written thousands of words in tunes and poems, both secularly and in Christian circles, could have been content to stand in place. Yet, that was not in Crosby’s character. She was, in her mid-60s, in the midst of a rededication of herself to helping the poor in one of America’s worst slums – New York’s Manhattan. And she didn’t just visit the area and then leave it daily for more comfortable surroundings. She lived there, among those who needed and probably were inspired by her example. So, it’s not difficult to imagine, though the precise circumstances of “Sing On…” are not recorded, that Fanny was communicating something she thought would resonate with her neighbors and fellow believers. We’re all ‘pilgrims’, you can hear her saying in her three verses, and not just struggling, muddling-through pilgrims, but ‘joyful ‘ ones because we can see that light at the opposite end of where we are. Imagine being in a gray, dirty urban area, inhabited by long faces, disease, and day-to-day scuffles just to stay alive. Poverty is a given, and handouts in the various street missions in this pitiable New York borough are absolutely necessary for many. Fanny not only probably helped provide some of the food these people needed, she also gave those who shared her faith a sturdy place to make their stand. It must have made a difference to those in the slum who knew her, and from what perspective she wrote.

She may have been blind, but Fanny Crosby saw just what her neighbors needed. Our neighborhoods are ugly, in multiple ways, and that hasn’t changed in the 100+ years since Fanny wrote her words. She did her part to help those imprisoned there, but not so much by cleaning up things. No, Fanny said look through this garbage-strewn street, as if through a mental telescope, and gaze in wonderment at the sight over there. Let its beauty and certainty for you gird your being. This 66-year old had her own shortcomings, physically, so for her to say ‘It’s gonna be incredible where I’m heading’ was a testimony that spoke to others in the same boat. Which way are you looking?