Friday, May 19, 2017

Tarry With Me -- Caroline Louisa Sprague Smith

How does a 25-year old woman come to write a song in the first-person, imagining what an elderly person might be experiencing? That’s the curiosity of what Caroline Smith wrote in 1852, probably as she sat one day in her Andover, Massachusetts home, and said musically “Tarry with Me”.  Some of the credit for what Caroline penned may be attributed to a minister she’d heard speak about that time, too. Apparently, she wanted to provide words for senior citizens, perhaps even some she knew, that would resonate with how they felt when approaching the end of life. Undoubtedly, it’s a consequence of advancing age, when those people lose with increasing frequency members of their own generation. Oh, there are still others around who they may know, but what’s it feel like to see life’s light growing dimmer?

Loneliness. That’s the overriding sense of what Caroline Louisa Sprague Smith gathered from a sermon she’d heard. Not difficult to imagine, since most people have probably been there at least once. But, few people besides the elderly live with this creeping phenomenon in quite the way they do. So, the words of a sermon that Caroline heard in Boston, not far from her Andover home, must have had some special quality to motivate this young woman’s poetry. 'The Adaptedness of Religion to the Wants of the Aged' was how a minister named Dexter entitled his thoughts that consequently inspired Caroline. She made two attempts to urge her poem’s publication: once, soon after the sermon she’d heard, in 1852-53; then, over 30 years later, when she was about 57 years old, and just two years shy of her own mortality’s conclusion. Was she suffering in 1884 with the loneliness of which she’d written as a 25-year old? She subtitled her poem with the words ‘An Old Man’s Prayer’, so we can assume it was a man to whom she intended to give voice with her words, though we know not his identity; perhaps it was a male relative or acquaintance. Asking God to keep one company as life fades is analogous to watching a day’s light vanish bit by bit in Caroline’s thoughts. ‘Darkness’, ‘shadows’, and the ‘evening’ are linked with the ‘grave’ in “Tarry with Me”, but Caroline doesn’t wallow hopelessly or become maudlin with this thought. ‘Rest’, ‘sleep’, and even ‘cheer’ are present when the Lord tarries. I can endure this, if He is here.

Caroline Smith had a message, not just with the words she composed, but the position from which she wrote them. If I’m young, I can act like life is carefree, or I can empathize with those who are emotionally slogging through something. Whatever they’re feeling just might afflict me someday. That’s Caroline reaching out with her heart in 1852. And then, just as she suspected, the words she’d written connected with reality for herself three decades later. She must have remembered, too, how the ‘Old Man’s Prayer’ found solace. The Divine One’s the tonic, my companion-remedy, for this malady called the blues.  

See these two sites for accounts of the song story used as basis for this blog post:

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Thank You, Lord -- Dennis Jernigan

What else could he really say? It was 1990, and Dennis Jernigan was a 31-year old Oklahoman (see his home state’s seal here) who evidently was still basking in the glow of his redeemed life; it was in this spirit that he said “Thank You, Lord”. Would he have been capable of detailing more of why he felt so appreciative? Certainly, because there were plenty of reasons, perhaps more than most people might have had, for the gratitude Dennis felt. The depression’s depth that he’d lived was perhaps matched in its extremity only by the opposite height that he’d reached. And, maybe since so many people had heard about his 180-degree turnaround, Dennis didn’t feel any other words were necessary. That didn’t stop him from saying the words over and over, however. He’s probably still saying them, because the blessings of his turnaround are indeed living before his eyes.

Dennis Jernigan’s story has so many ‘thank-you’ points to it, it’s not a wonder that he wrote a song to repeatedly vocalize those words. In 1990 he was just a year or two on the other side of totally admitting to others what kind of life he’d been living 10-15 years earlier. Take a look at what he’s written in his testimony on his official website, and you’ll read an amazing, unique story. As you read, you might start counting and find that Dennis, though he struggled with what he considered a dark secret – homosexuality – for over a decade, had many thankful moments amid that time too. He had almost as many thank-you moments then, as he did in the post-1981 period, according to the story he’s written there. (I counted some 20 specific things that Dennis indicates were parts of his life for which he’s been thankful.) It’s because he now realizes God was working then, from his times of learning piano at his grandmother’s home to understanding his father’s distance from him was actually not so distant after all. He also had lots of extended family background and a close friend in a faith community that ministered to him – his grandparents, a church that utilized his musical skills in his pre-teen years, and a friend who stood by him at the end of his college experience. Dennis also describes two supernatural episodes that he’s convinced were God communicating with him to manage his life -- a life-changing concert, and a cloud-filled sky that helped him face his life. Dennis has such a vivid memory of his life, probably another of God’s gifts that allows him to see events now with a new clarity, and with an effervescent gratitude. That’s probably what compelled him to share openly with his church family, first in 1988 and multiple times since then, what he went through and how’s he come onto the other side of it all. It’s still going strong.  

After changing his life, Dennis and his wife Melinda have had a blessed union that has yielded tangible results not only for themselves, but for those who have heard his story. The Jernigans have nine children, and one might say their family in the spirit is immeasurably larger. The churches where he’s shared have hosted people who’re touched by Dennis’ story, so that they share their own hurts and begin to heal. His music, over 2,000 songs, allow his story of God’s work in his life to hit many different chords, and reach an audience that he could never have addressed without the unique blend he brings. No one is quite like him. But, Dennis wouldn’t want you and me to think that, and so limit His power. He’d say that I can admit my hurts, get healed, and live like never before, because of the truly unique One.    

See the following site for the composer’s biographic information:

Saturday, May 6, 2017

I Love You Lord -- Laurie Klein

This 24-year old mother needed an emotional lift one morning in 1974. And so, Laurie Klein asked her God to provide the words for “I Love You Lord”, and perhaps He could fill the gaping void she felt was overwhelming her. Stuck in central Oregon – that’s how she felt. Fortunately, Laurie was a blank slate (kinda like the map picture of central Oregon here, without much detail, other than some color), allowing her to be a vessel that He could fill. It was the last part of the song she sang that lonely morning that has been most significant for her, the words that she wants to remember as her life theme. Although she felt empty, she wasn’t unaware of what ancient character she thought she was mimicking, at least in part. She’d not been completely like that person from centuries earlier, yet she saw enough resemblance to believe He could bring her up from the pit where she’d fallen. Is that the key to accessing Him – see yourself in stark relief compared to Him?

Laurie Klein had many factors working against her spirit that morning in the autumn of 1974, yet only one thing really mattered that day, as it turned out. Money – she and her husband Bill had little of this to live on, since she was a full-time mother to a one-year old and he was a full-time college student. Home – a mobile trailer, which you’d know is cramped, if you’ve ever been in one. No friends. No driver’s license. No church home. So nearly everything she had (except for Bill), was apparently cooped up with her in that small trailer. In that emotional and physical wasteland, Laurie says she remembered that God had pledged to redeem his people, like the ancient prophet Hosea’s stray wife, Gomer, by first taking them into the desert (Hosea 2:14). So, perhaps God was the only presence that really mattered that day, especially when she asked Him for a song, and did He ever answer! It came effortlessly in moments, with just her voice and His ear contributing to its development. When she related all of this to Bill later, the words imprinted on him so readily, that he suggested she sing it for others. The rest, as they say, is history. The second part of what she’d sing, the ‘sweet, sweet sound’ she so wanted to soothe her spirit, is what Laurie thinks of most when she ponders being His servant. It’s a lot more than the musical notes making a beautiful melody that, translated through someone’s voicebox, finds God’s approval. For Laurie, it’s everything else she does and says that makes a full-life, comprehensive declaration to the Giver of “I Love You Lord”.   

Find a desert. Although Laurie Klein may not have many pleasant memories of central Oregon and 1974, what washed over this forlorn young woman should make any serious believer and music-lover wonder if he shouldn’t be hunting the desert more intentionally. What was it God said about ‘poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3), or about the desert (again, see Hosea 2:14). People see him there (Exodus 16:10), it’s where David sought Him (Psalm 63:1), it’s where he can transform the barren into the fertile (Isaiah 51:3), where He will make the desolate and sad joyful again (Jeremiah 33:9-11). From Moses (Ex. 7:30) to Jesus (Matthew 4), the barren place is an awaiting encounter with Him and a place where He can be present to chase away evil, despite what the surroundings look like. Spend some time in a desert, at least once.      

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; and Our God Reigns: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2000.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Be With Me Lord -- Thomas Obediah Chisholm

This senior citizen was most likely living in the Vineland, New Jersey area (see NJ’s great seal here), where he composed a prayer that reflected, in a way, the profession he’d been pursuing for over 25 years at that point in his life. There’s perhaps no more important matter in a God-believer’s life than asking Him to “Be With Me Lord”, especially if living becomes more difficult as one ages. But, was it necessarily the physical frailties of his aging body that gave Thomas Obediah Chisholm his most anxious moments, or something else? Ask another 69-year old today, and see what you might hear, including whether it sounds like what Thomas said in 1935 while in New Jersey.

Although he’d tried various careers by 1935, the longest-lasting, and therefore probably the most influential was the insurance business at which Thomas Chisholm had been engaged since 1909. Chisholm had started as a teacher in Kentucky in his mid-teens, and then was very briefly a minister before poor health put an end to that pursuit. He was also an editor of The Pentecostal Herald while in Kentucky, before moving with his family to Indiana in the first decade of the 1900s. That’s where he switched to the insurance business, a vocation he maintained when the Chisholms moved to New Jersey in 1916. He was 50 years old at that point, and would live another 44 years in that area, writing poetry for hymns – 1,200 by the end of his life.  So, though he’d had to abandon formal ministry, Thomas was able to participate in ministry through another avenue. And, how much his 25 years in insurance impacted his expression of faith in his hymn-writing by 1935, versus what he might have done if instead he’d been a minister is a debatable subject. Thomas sounds a bit like an insurance salesman in his four-verse “Be With Me Lord”, calling upon God for His strength (v.1) and presence (v.3), as a guard against dangers (v.2), loneliness and pain (v.4). He doesn’t sound despondent nor desperate, but confident like someone who has invested in a Being whose reputation is solid. As a 69-year old, how many times had Chisholm talked to and convinced wary customers that they needed insurance? How best does one sway a potential client? As the poet-hymn-writer, Thomas sounds like someone whose tried-and-true method was to try out his own prescription before recommending it to others, probably the best way to make one’s product – in this case, God --credible.

Chisholm didn’t wear rose-colored glasses – that’s why he sold insurance. He notes there are ‘loads of life’ (v.1), ‘storms of trial’ and ‘lashing seas’ (v.2), and that he expected to ‘weep’ in ‘fires of pain’ (v.4). Yet, he didn’t wallow in these prospects. Perhaps he prevailed with the same method that another showed us how to employ so long ago. How does a man ponder and overcome the unpleasantness, even something appalling?  Being able to see the goal line, an objective that is undeniable, was the key for this man (see John 13:1-3). He had insurance that was like a rock, impregnable, like the Prudential Insurance Company’s logo (the Rock of Gibraltar). Prudential was, interestingly, started in New Jersey where Thomas Chisholm also lived. You can try Prudential, but Thomas would probably tell you to try Providential instead.      

See the following for information on the author:
See article here on Prudential Insurance Company (not necessarily the company for whom the hymn-writer sold insurance, however)

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer -- Love M. W. Willis

Whatever she felt, she didn’t want the life of ease, if we can take the words she crafted in the mid-19th Century as an accurate portrayal of her emotions. Her name was Love Maria Whitcomb Willis, and she wrote out a prayer in 1856 with words one often does not hear someone vocalize when lifting a request heavenward. How did she come to that place, circumstantially, when she said “Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer”? Knowing her background and what other pursuits she had, and whom she married some two years after she wrote these words, provides some valuable insight into Love’s motivation. It might make you ask yourself about how intently you pray to your Creator. Do you think He’s actually listening and responding in tangible ways? If you had known Love Maria Whitcomb (later Willis) in 1856, you might have said her answer to that question was an unequivocal ‘yes’.  

Love Whitcomb was the 32-year old daughter of a Unitarian minister in 1856, so it was logical for her to have an inclination to pray. The events that would transpire in the next several years also casts some light upon what she might have been thinking when she wrote out her five-verse poem. As a Unitarian, Love would have grown up watching and participating in prayer in the worship services where her father ministered. By the time she was 32, perhaps in the Boston area, it wasn’t clear if she had already known the Dr. Frederick Willis that she would marry two years hence, since he was apparently a divinity student at Harvard at that time. But, two other facts in her own life and his shed more light on “Father, Hear the Prayer…”: She would become the editor of the well-known Spiritualist journal The Banner of Light, and Frederick would also become intrigued by the Spiritualist movement and eventually became a minister in this sect later after they married, in the western New York state region. Spiritualists who read the weekly journal that Love edited believed mediums (through a séance) could contact and converse with the dead. Other newsworthy items, including sermons and book reviews, occupied the journal’s pages, but the reports of contact with the spirit world were the centerpiece of its existence. So, when Love composed her poem in 1856, was this her own form of spirit-world contact? And, noting what she asked God to do in her prayer is somewhat illuminating. She must have believed that hers and others’ lives could be expected to endure hardship – and she does not ask for relief from that. Four of her five verses indicate she wanted only His presence to strengthen her. Divine presence and guidance via contact with another realm was what she sought, not ease (v. 1), green pastures (v.2), nor still waters (v.3). ‘Father, hear…’, may have been only her opening line in communication with Him. She probably expected answers in return, if her work with The Banner of Light is a window onto her beliefs.   

From whom would I most like to hear, if I could contact someone on the other side of terrestrial life? It would be very moving to talk to mom and dad, but would that really affect me significantly – like changing my life’s direction? Remember what Jesus said about contact with the dead in a story He told (Luke 16:19-31)? I already have what I need to make the best choices for myself. And, I can contact someone in that other realm – it’s called prayer. Love Willis tried it, at least once. Isn’t at least one try worth your effort?      

See the following links for scant biographic information on the author:

See the following link for all five original verses of the song:
Link to information about a regular publication that the author edited:

Link to information on the faith background of the author: