Saturday, April 27, 2019
This poet evidently felt a bit like he was suspended between two realities – one that was visible, and another that he saw and heard with the eye of faith and wanted others to pause and recognize. Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” in 1849 as the Christmas season was upon him and others in Massachusetts (see its seal here). It wasn’t just a Christmas merrymaking sentiment that was on his mind, however. Were the words he crafted also the thoughts of a friend who coaxed Edmund to write something for an upcoming celebration? Were one or both of these men contemplating and feeling anxious about other circumstances in the land in which they lived? One or both of them wanted their fellow men to overcome earthbound troubles by listening to angel voices, a tonic that Edmund recommended at the end of each of his verses.
Edmund Sears was a 39-year old Unitarian minister who nevertheless believed not just in the one God – a central tenet of Unitarianism – but also in Christ. So, when asked by a friend (William Lunt), who was also a minister, to craft something to commemorate the Christmas season, Sears agreed. Perhaps he imagined the angel chorus singing about Jesus’ birth, inspiring the many varied references to angels providing music to fascinate humanity and calm events terrestrially. There are hints in Edmund’s poetry that he was pondering conditions prevalent at the time, situations that caused no small amount of concern. It was 1849, and gold rush fever had struck, so was that on Edmund’s mind as he penned the words ‘…the age of gold’ in his last verse? Many have also speculated that the growing polarization of the issue of American slavery and the oncoming Civil War compelled Edmund’s words about ‘Peace on Earth’ (v.1), and ‘the woes of sin and strife’, and ‘man, at war with man’ (v.3). This Unitarian minister’s deep-felt desire for unity is plain throughout his poem, especially as he envisions all earth’s inhabitants pausing to listen to the heavenly creatures’ quiet but penetrating strains. Did the people of Sears’ era on that Christmas in 1849 grasp his meaning? Indeed, though the lack of peace has often betrayed the Christian believer’s disobedience to this foundational principle – peace, harmony with fellow mortals – maybe the delay of war for another 12 years suggests many heard and joined in singing Sears’ words with sincerity for a time.
Do the angels still bend over the earth, looking over you and me, today? Frankly, many corners of the planet might grunt negatively, if asked this. Conflict is normal, someone might even say ‘human’, while Charity is divine, otherworldly. Edmund Sears, judging by what he wrote, probably would have agreed. Did that mean he was a pessimist, unable to vocalize a hopeful note? His song is a resounding ‘no’ to that question. He saw what was going on around himself, but chose to look deeper and listen for the song others could not hear. Maybe that tuned his ears and allowed his eyes to perceive more and more the angels’ song. Don’t wait until the Christmas season to try out this Christmas song.
Information on the song was obtained from the books Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1985, Kregel Publications; The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan, 2003, Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Saturday, April 20, 2019
It’s called ‘traditional’, or ‘folk music’, or even ‘African folk music’ in some hymnals. There’s not much more that could be said about “What a Mighty God We Serve” and its author, whoever that might be. It might have traveled over the Atlantic Ocean if indeed it came from the African continent to land in the American Christian vocabulary. Who is this ‘mighty God’? He’s the One called out no less than four times with this two-word phrase in scripture across many centuries (Isaiah 9:6; 10:21; Jeremiah 32:18; and Luke 22:69 – all in the New International Version translation of the bible). If another synonym for this being is ‘Almighty’, then we meet him many more times throughout the bible’s pages – 333 times (in NIV translation). Could the exercise of encountering Him so frequently have spurred this song’s anonymous author to compose? Sheer speculation, and something we’ll have to wait to confirm in another time. But, that doesn’t mean we cannot dream a little, until then.
Without more details of the development of “What a Mighty God…”, there’s many possibilities for how the author/s devised its words. The words of its refrain regarding ‘angels (that) bow before Him’, and ‘heaven and earth (that) adore Him’ offer clues that suggest the invention happened as people read of Him in episodes in which He was acknowledged by these actors. Where do read that angels adore the Almighty? Try out Isaiah 6:3 or Revelation 4:8, and think if maybe that might connect us to the author of the song, seeing Him declared as the Omnipotent One by beings who were created to serve Him. What about heaven and earth adoring Him? Psalm 65:8 and that Isaiah 6:3 verse again may likewise connect us to the author’s motivation for writing the poetry of “What a Mighty God…”. Was there also a community of believing people where the author lived, since he wrote about a ‘we’ serving Him? We’ll know the answers someday.
He’s known by so many names, but the ones that count for us as mortal people especially are the ones that tell of His power. I count on Him having the ability to raise me, the way He did Lazarus, despite the skeptics who were nearby at that moment (John 11). He creates, and He restores the decayed so that it’s like brand new. He proved this in His own life and resurrection, so that I’m fixed on Him and what He can and will do for me. That’s Easter, in a nutshell. Happy Resurrection Day 2019!
See this link for a discussion of folk music in its many forms and origins: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folk_music
Saturday, April 13, 2019
He wasn’t the first to scrawl some words following a nature walk in the woods. And, maybe other individuals before Maltbie Davenport Babcock had likewise been enthralled with their surroundings in Lockport, New York, but he actually mouthed some of his song’s memorable words virtually every day when he went on his nature treks in the mid-to-late 19th Century. “This Is My Father’s World”, one can imagine him saying as he looked upon scenes, perhaps including the waterways of nature and the manmade locks built to manage their flow in the area (see picture). He might have focused completely on the creation that he observed, but he instead took note that it also had a Creator. That’s apparent in the first words of each of his poem-song’s six verses, and it’s an easy concept to grasp -that is, if you look at what Maltbie did with the same discerning eye.
It wasn’t surprising that Maltbie Babcock would choose to be out in nature when “This Is My Father’s World” gestated in his spirit. He was an avid athlete in college, in addition to having a high musical IQ. So, running or hiking was a routine he adopted early in his ministerial career in Lockport, his first professional assignment following college. He would probably have said a better spot could not have been picked for him, given the area’s proximity to Lake Ontario and the nearby woods and farmland. His daily jaunts to investigate ‘my father’s world’ were the source for the 16-stanza poem he crafted, much of which became the lyrics for a song that was crafted by a close friend (Franklin Shephard) following his untimely death in 1901. Put yourself in Maltbie’s shoes on one of his walks or runs near Lake Ontario, on a hilly area near some woods or a farm where all sorts of wildlife occupied the same space as this minister. Reportedly, some 40 different species of birds occupy this area, something that no doubt caught Maltbie’s eyes and ears, as he recorded in one stanza that ‘…the birds their carols raise’ (v. 2). Though he was a musician, skilled in the organ, piano, and violin, Maltbie found that the nature which fascinated him so produced a music of its own -- ‘…nature sings…music of the spheres’ (v.1). While he adored the sights and sounds he beheld, Maltbie also mentions God’s most significant creative act – providing Jesus Christ (vv. 3-5) – to underscore the goodness that is in His nature. It’s as if Maltbie, out on one of his strolls on a sunshine-splashed June day, surrounded by greenery, a bubbling brook, chirping birds and various other wildlife, stopped for a moment to reflect that he would encounter still more stunning scenery someday – meeting the One who created all that he sensed. ‘I ope my eyes…the Lord is in this place’ (v. 4), and ‘God reigns – let the earth be glad’ (v.5). Perhaps he thought to himself ‘this is all a foretaste’.
Perhaps we all need to take a walk outside more often, huh? If Maltbie Babcock saw more than met the eye, that would be faith (Hebrews 11:1), according to God’s definition. Year after year, Maltbie must have realized that the nature around himself lay dormant for a time, and then would spring back to life, right on schedule. To a botanist, perhaps that’s not extraordinary, since it happens as we expect it to so regularly. But, seeing that there must be someone behind the scenes, as Mr. Babcock recognized, allows one to magnify the appreciation of what you can experience in smelling flowers, listening to birds make music, watching animals frolic in the woods, touching velvet-like tree blossoms, and tasting a fresh-picked blackberry. Are all your senses engaged now? Can you see now who Maltbie saw on his walks?
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 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.
Also see this link, showing all six original verses and a brief recitation of the song’s story: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/t/i/s/m/tismyfw.htm