Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind -- John Greenleaf Whittier



This 65-year old Quaker was expressing his disdain for substance abuse with a poem, his most common way of taking a stand and making a plea for sanity and sobriety in the culture where he found himself. And yet, ironically, John Greenleaf Whittier may have never actually sung in a formal worship service the words he crafted for “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.  What must it have been like for such a poet, so elegant in his effort and yet wary of the adaptation of his gifted prose for worship, to see his words engage other believers in a way that was foreign to himself? Perhaps he’d seen too many so-called Christians earlier in his life whose behavior, indeed their very way of life, was scandalous. Better maybe not to sing and be a genuine worshipper, than to sing like a bird and with an emotional fervor not matched by one’s true life. That sums up this 19th Century poet.

John Greenleaf Whittier’s Quaker background and the social justice he advocated comes through in his poetry, including the one he composed as a response to passionate -- but temporary --worship in 1872. He was apparently disparaging the Hindu practice, at least among some of their adherents, of using Soma (a drug) as a hallucinogen to induce ‘an experience’. His original 17-verse condemnation wasn’t limited to Hindus however, since he’d observed many in his own country reaching out to the heavens with a fleeting energy that belied true God-belief. His own beliefs directed that a Christ-believer should first and foremost treat his fellow man with charity, and then offer his worship vertically every day. This approach had been induced to his character from childhood and from the Quaker parents who raised him. Whittier’s lifetime, during which American slavery’s scourge reached its fruition, defined him to a great extent. He was a noted abolitionist for some 30 years, making active his social justice beliefs, and undoubtedly coloring his perspective of what makes a Christian genuine. Thus, by his mid-60s, Whittier’s impressions had been developing for several decades, a period in which it is said he deplored camp meetings and revivals and their accompanying zeal. Instead, ‘ordered lives’ (v. 5) and a quiet demeanor (‘deeper reverence’ [v.1], ‘deep hush’ [v.4], and ‘calm’ [vv. 3 and 6]) were traits that the composer valued, and which he believed mirrored God’s nature. Though his Quaker traditions did not include hymn-singing, Whittier did not seem to object to them. Maybe to his contemporaries, Whittier’s well-known beliefs would have spoken loudly and clearly to those who still chose to sing his verses.

Whittier’s words and his life-example have much to say; they could compel me to say a lot less than I have been. This 19th Century poet may have noticed that God has so little to say across vast stretches of time, and when He does, sometimes it’s just a whisper (1 Kings 19:12). So, does He care that I waffle between enthusiasm and indifference? If I were more consistent, would He reward that? What exactly can I sustain? Those are all questions that Whittier may have been asking, too. Live seven days every week, just at a lower volume. Try turning down that dial for a few days, enough to hear that low hum. That’s Him.            

The following website has the lyrics for the song and a brief version of the song story:  http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/d/e/a/dearlord.htm

See biography of composer here:  

See more information on the song discussed above also 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.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and 101 More Hymn Stories, Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985.  

Link to the original poem, from which the song is derived: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Brewing_of_Soma

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

May I Call You Father? -- Reid Lancaster



It was 1974, and Reid Lancaster felt some deep regret in his Christian faith that he wanted to express. And, that’s about all we know for certain. He is otherwise anonymous, but nevertheless his words strike a chord in “May I Call You Father” that has at one time or another reverberated within the psyche of all true believers. It has the same remorseful character as the ancient King David’s Psalm 51, yet in a more condensed way. Was Reid in fact reading how David felt when he scrawled out his own few lines of lament? It’s a universal emotional state that exhibits itself across all cultures, where we could see someone prostrate himself to demonstrate the feeling is genuine (known as Dogeza in Japan, shown here). It was an era during which Reid, and others he may have known, could have been trying to address misbehavior. Does such an era ever really pass away?

Reid Lancaster wrote “May I Call You Father” during the early 1970s when the Jesus Movement was spreading in the United States and elsewhere in western culture, suggesting this phenomenon played a part in the composer’s musical effort. It was countercultural, as a response to mainstream churches and the broader traditional political landscape in America. So, was Lancaster trying to apologize for a broad spectrum of offenders – Vietnam warmongers and Watergate collaborators, to name just a few prominent ones? How about the staid, conservative, and even corrupt churches that Jesus freaks deplored? Perhaps, instead, Reid felt something was amiss more personally, since he uses the pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my’ throughout his two verses. He also mentions ‘I’m young…’ (v.2), suggesting he was indeed among that generation that wanted to turn from the orthodox approach to religion and pursue an alternative, something simpler yet stirring.  Whatever the reason, Reid’s sentiment is singularly focused as a consequence of what was gnawing at him. He evidently felt a gap between himself and his God had opened, and his only concern was to close this wound. David’s lament, in contrast, includes pledges of spreading God’s reputation to others (Ps. 51:13) and a hope that He will bless all the land David inhabits and rules (v.18). Had Reid’s wrongdoing been confined to himself and God? If it was, he shows he was willing to be vulnerable in sharing that he was guilty of transgression, and we can imagine that he probably had shared with others the circumstances that inspired this poem-song. David and Reid are alike in this respect – willing to pay the price, exposure.

Expose. It doesn’t have a nice, peaceful ring as a verb, nor as a noun when an accent is placed over the last ‘e’. Some people have actually sued others because of this word. ‘How dare you write that unauthorized book!’ Or, ‘You are a snake to publish those pictures of me!’ ‘Libel’ and ‘Slander’ – perhaps two of the most-used words in our legal system. Reid certainly might have had these legal tools at his disposal, but his poem tells us he probably didn’t haul someone into court about his uncovered sin. He didn’t try to make excuses for what he did. Instead, mea culpa -- through my fault – was his argument. Reid had figured out that that was where he needed to be in God’s courtroom.  

The background of the movement from which the composer may have come: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_movement

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Jesus Let Us Come to Know You -- Michael Card



When he wrote out the words, he did more than sing them. That’s what Michael Card would say about himself, and that’s undoubtedly what he would say to those he contacts and draws into conversation via his 1982 song “Jesus, Let Us Come to Know You”. He was early in his journey in 1982, perhaps near Bowling Green, Kentucky (see map here) where he’d gone to college, and it was not just through music that this artist sought to accomplish the goal of this song’s title. And, his journey hasn’t been one of solitude, for Card is a big believer in community, and that realizing the goal of knowing God is a learning process best met among a group of people. So, notice the words—one word, in particular--that he uses in his ode, and it comes as no surprise, once you’ve met and understood this fellow.

Michael Card was a 25-year old musician-second, and God seeker-first in 1982 when he wrote that he wanted to know God better. He probably has two people to thank primarily for his musical career – one professor/mentor (William Lane) who coaxed him to write his first songs, and a friend (Randy Scruggs) who pushed him into recording some of them. Lane persuaded Michael to write songs to accompany the weekly sermon at the church, so perhaps “Jesus, Let Us…” was one of those efforts, devised for one of Lane’s Sunday morning messages. Randy and another friend (John Thompson) then recorded Michael and some of his songs, hoping the effort would prove to record companies that their newly-minted production company was credible. Indeed it did, and their plan also unwittingly helped launch Michael on a musical ride that has continued for over 30 years. “Jesus Let Us…” underscored two things that seem to be key facets in his musical calling: First, music was not Michael’s primary focus, and second, his achievements have been in the midst of many others who’ve spurred what has emerged from Michael’s pen. These attributes come straight from Card’s official website, but they also are evident in the two verses of the 1982 song he crafted. The song’s theme – knowing the God-Son – and living among a community – evident in the composer’s recurring use of ‘us’in the two verses – tip-off the observer that these two crucial elements were at work inside Michael Card. What Michael had experienced with his mentor and his friends – a reciprocal, give-and-take relationship  – was also what he thought about God and himself, and that comes though too, in his poetry.

Michael Card is probably as well, or perhaps even more well-known for his abilities outside of his music. Author, teacher, and radio host are the other ventures that he pursues, all with the goal of living among others and encouraging them to join the journey he’s on himself. ‘Us’ is a the tiny word he employs 11 times, underscoring how he’s been conducting his exploration of God’s connection to his universe. While it’s a life-long education at which Card has excelled, he would readily admit it’s been most fruitful because of the many people with whom he’s interacted. Seeking God isn’t a solitary enterprise. Michael would probably say ‘go find a group to feed upon and feed them in return’. While you’re doing that, see if you notice Him doing the same with you.  

Biography on the composer here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Card
Another biographic article, this one on composer’s official website: http://www.michaelcard.com/biography

Saturday, March 4, 2017

In the Hour of Trial -- James Montgomery



Was he putting himself in the apostle’s shoes when he scrawled out some words, pleading with God from a troubled place? James Montgomery had been reading something pretty profound, and the ancient words resonated in his spirit. He thought of the apostle, and a bit of himself too, when he prayed with the words “In the Hour of Trial” in 1834. He’d had some rough experiences, so could what he had written be superimposed upon his own circumstances at a particular point in his life? He was aging, so maybe he was thinking about what lay not too far into the future, too.  

James Montgomery’s life in Britain was anything but a casual, carefree existence in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and that may provide a window into his frame of mind when he wrote about a trial in 1834. He was a native Scot, but moved to Sheffield in northern England as a young man, hoping to launch a literary career in poetry. He’d already had a challenging life, as his missionary parents died when he was but 12 years old, leaving him to cut his own path into the adult world. He apparently failed in school, and was subsequently apprenticed in two different areas (a baker, then a storekeeper) before finding himself in the employ of a newspaper editor. After 22 years, he found himself in charge of the newspaper (the Sheffield Iris), and during the next few years was imprisoned twice, being accused of sedition. Nevertheless, he stayed with the paper for 32 years as its editor, but garnered more notice for his poetry’s social justice themes, including abolition of slavery. He even wrote some of his most notable poetry (Prison Amusements) from a prison cell! By the early 1830s James had retired from the newspaper, but was still engaged in poetry and hymn-writing; over his lifetime, he composed over 400 hymns. It was during his retirement years, at age 63 and probably while in Sheffield (perhaps the 1809 painting here of Sheffield Manor’s ruins was not unlike what James might have seen), that he apparently read the biblical account of Peter’s denial of Christ, spurring his poem-song “In the Hour of Trial”. He evidently put himself in Peter’s shoes (v.1), entreating the Lord that He would extend to him the same grace that He had toward the Apostle. Would it be a stretch to imagine that James was in a reflective mood, thinking about his own life experiences (vv. 2-3)—his own trials as an orphan and a prisoner? Indeed, was he looking to the future too, to his own spiritual inheritance (v.4), which he gained some 20 years later?  Montgomery didn’t wallow in his trials, but made his prayer for deliverance an active, life-motivating adventure, as an advocate for people around him who were ill-treated. Casual and carefree he was not.


‘Pay it forward’ was a motto that James Montgomery might have embraced. You see conditions in your world that you think are unfair, even abhorrent? James could have just looked after his own needs, given what happened to him early in life, yet he seemed to use much of what happened to himself as a springboard – like his poetry while he was incarcerated. Sounds a little like somebody named Joseph (Genesis 39-41), doesn’t it? James wasn’t afraid to put himself at risk to speak out for others, perhaps because he’d already been in precarious spots and knew that someone was watching over him. So why not throw caution to the winds? Say what needs to be said to impart camaraderie to others about you who are struggling, and maybe your selflessness will prompt others to do the same. Then, see how you feel praying about your trials…that’s what James Montgomery did.    

The following website has the lyrics for the song: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/i/n/t/inthehou.htm

This website has the composer’s biography: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/m/o/n/montgomery_j.htm

See here also for biographic information on the composer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Montgomery_(poet)
 
See more information on the song discussed above also 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; and Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.