Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tell Me the Story of Jesus -- Fanny Crosby

What made this one special among the 8,000 that she wrote? ‘Hunt the needle in the haystack, while you’re at it’, someone says. Maybe even Fanny Crosby couldn’t identify what motivated her to write the words for “Tell Me the Story of Jesus” in 1880, otherwise we might know. So much is known about her, this woman who by the end of the 19th Century was called a “household name” in the United States. But, could the song’s own words tell us something about what she thought of her notoriety, and thus what circumstances she wanted others to know when she penned these words?  

She had quite a life story already by the time she turned 60. Fanny’s amazing accomplishments were already magnified because of their source, a blind woman, who nevertheless learned to play multiple musical instruments, write poetry, speak publicly, and organize missionary works in poverty-stricken urban areas in the U.S. We know that even among all the positives, there were disappointments too, including in 1880 when Crosby had apparently separated from her husband, Alexander Van Alstyne.  Some people might say that her choice to live in a slum in Manhattan that same year was a disappointment, too, although Crosby apparently had chosen this path as part of a recommitment to better serve the poor in domestic missionary work.  This was the time from which she served at the Water Street Mission (Manhattan). Living in a slum (perhaps not unlike this one pictured here, known as Bandit’s Roost or Five Points in a notorious NYC slum, circa 1831), helping the poor, can one imagine a more challenging environment? It was in this atmosphere that she focused attention not on herself and what she could do, but instead on Him. Perhaps she’d concluded that the best way to help the poor, and to manage her personal marital regrets, was to think about God’s son. Perspective matters. He gave up more than we can imagine, suffered poverty, and died as a criminal. Yet, that wasn’t the end of it. That’s hope for the 19th Century poor in the lowest of the low in New York.

Do Crosby’s words sound like someone speaking at a homeless shelter to a scruffy, cold, dismal group? There’s a good chance that some folks like that were among the first to appreciate her poem put to music. What’s a group that’s struggling to survive day-to-day looking for? A soul mate, someone who shares their pain, yet overcame, just might be a guy they could understand. Was Jesus’ treatment unfair? Of course. He knew this would happen, too – that’s the amazing part. Could that be why he did it, and why Crosby wanted this story to be in the ears of her neighbors? ‘I cannot help you escape your physical life’, Fanny might have said. ‘But, listen to how He came down from an incredible existence, lived among poor like us, and then gave Himself up to draw us toward Himself and a place beyond this slum’. She came to live among them, too. This accomplished, blind 60-year old woman, turned poor, knew a story – not hers. It must have captured the attention of these Manhattanites…why would she choose to live this way? Why did He? Come find the answer with the rest of us slum-dwellers!         

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