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: 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Grant Us Peace (Holy Father) – Anonymous

Its origin is over 1,300 years old, and the context of its adoption as a worship-prayer also has some irony. Knowing its source and the span of its endurance tell us that its single thought is so universal for us mortals that its objective may never be realized here on earth. Only a new beginning – a New Earth – may make the peace we all want possible. Is that what the original composer, whoever he or she is, thought when “Grant Us Peace” was first written (evidently in the 7th Century, during the papacy of Sergius I, shown here)? It is a longing for tranquility, not just with each other, but with the One who made each of us, that gives the “Grant Us Peace” its thorough, all-encompassing quality. What would it be like to find oneself in a peaceful state, finally? Is that why the end of mortal existence is often called ‘sleep’, because that’s where peace is finally apprehended?

“Grant Us Peace” (some hymnals entitle it “Holy Father”) is known perhaps more commonly in the Latin as ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’, hinting at its origin in a faith system that has historically used this language. Roman Catholicism in the late 600s during the time of Pope Sergius I was in conflict with the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity because, among other things, it referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God (Agnus Dei in Latin)”, rather than as a man. Consequently, Sergius’s Byzantine counterpart, the emperor Justinian II, tried to intimidate and then arrest him for singing Agnus Dei and its concluding phrase ‘grant us peace’. An offense against what a church council in Constantinople had decreed was, after all, not a trifling matter. Sergius undoubtedly knew that singing Agnus Dei was a defiant act, certain to offend those in the East. ‘Grant us peace’ therefore makes sense in not only a vertical direction, but horizontally too as Roman Catholics sought to worship their Lamb, even if it risked strife with their Eastern Orthodox brothers. Asking God to have mercy on us, his servants here below, was one way for the worshippers singing Agnus Dei to seek peace in this life. But, there was also the people-to-people struggle they could not seem to escape, and maybe that was part of what Sergius and Rome understood when they sang ‘grant us peace’. It’s a sad irony that peace was the objective but the opposite ensued, at least in the terrestrial realm.         

Another part of Sergius’s background has some irony for us in the 21st Century. His family background was rooted in Antioch, Syria, from where the chant to the Lamb of God is thought to have originated. It’s the same place where Christians were first called out by that name (Acts 11:26), and it’s part of the state where fighting goes on today, some 1,300 years after the era of Sergius and Justinian II. The struggle to call upon God, in the way people want to, is ongoing. It’s still a vertical and a horizontal issue, until one day the lamb and the wolf will live in peace. (Isaiah 11)  

Read about song’s origin here:
The pope with perhaps the closest association with the song has a link here:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Savior Breathe an Evening Blessing -- James Edmeston (and Edward Henry Bickersteth, Jr.)

One can imagine this English composer (see the flag of England here) sat one Sunday evening in 1820, perhaps with some boys and girls that he mentored and whom he decided needed a lullaby. James Edmeston was a professional at something other than hymnwriting, yet he apparently took his avocation for song-making pretty seriously – probably about as seriously as he did his faith in God. So, when he called on Him with a request to “(Savior) Breathe an Evening Blessing”, he wasn’t just marking time with a hobby. He was doing what he’d do for most of his life. It lasted and impacted another composer (Edward Henry Bickersteth, Jr.) over a half-century later, so that another two verses were added to Edmeston’s initial words. People come and go, but the human need for rest and reassurance every evening continues. 

James Edmeston was an architect and surveyor, but that wasn’t the sum of his life when he was 29 years old. He was the grandson of a minister, which evidently ingrained in James the Christian faith that he adhered to with conviction. He served in several positions of responsibility in the church where he was a member, perhaps serving most notably by crafting a hymn for each Sunday – up to 2,000, meaning he would have been faithful to that undertaking for nearly 40 years. Besides a professional and religious life that occupied his time, James was also reportedly a frequent visitor at the London Orphan Asylum, where he evidently crafted many hymns for the resident children. “Savior, Breathe…” has words that suggest he was trying to close a day with a prayer for rest and comfort, either for himself or others. Who would have needed that kind of entreaty in James’s life more than a group of orphans? The orphanage had only recently been established (in 1813) by a minister (Andrew Reed) in the London area, but whether James knew him or what prompted Edmeston’s involvement with the orphanage are not known. If he wanted to write song verses, perhaps he felt the orphans were a worthy environment where he could minister and simultaneously practice his hymn-writing. Whatever James Edmeston’s reason for ministry to the orphans, his hymn-poem may have been concrete evidence that he reached out to needy children who needed an adult in their lives. Did James have any children of his own? He may have in fact been the surrogate parent to many more children than he otherwise would have fathered naturally.    

Abandonment, loneliness, and disaffection are traits that James Edmeston may have observed as he visited orphans in London in 1820. That downward spiral would be hard to stop without a constant, reliable presence in a child’s life. Apparently, that’s what James tried to do during his time here on earth. “Savior, Breathe…” may have been a prayer he said for himself, or it may have been one he taught children to sing, as a father teaches and encourages his offspring. If it was the latter, James gave the children a bonus -- not only his own presence, but a supernatural one. As he might have said to the youngsters, ‘are we ever really alone, if He’s with us?” See if that helps you sleep better tonight.     

Brief biography of primary composer (vv.1-4) is here:

The orphanage where the composer was active is referenced here:
Secondary composer’s (verses  5+6) biography here: