Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Is Thy Faithfulness – Thomas Chisholm

Perhaps Thomas Chisholm identified with the people of Jerusalem, at least a little – what do you think? In 1923 he wrote the song “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, a poem that calls out to worshippers from the book of Lamentations, a cry of people in abject misery. Maybe on one hand, one would have to experience war to really appreciate what Lamentations has to say. Pictures of bombed-out cities in Europe in 1945, where people reverted to wild, animal-like behavior to survive spring to mind. Have you seen the film “The Pianist”, the biography of the Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, who endured the horror of Warsaw in World War II ? That’s akin to what Jerusalem might have been like when under siege by Babylon. Yet, nothing from Chisholm’s life appears to be Szpilman-like. In fact, Chisholm says nothing especially stark in his life, including in 1923, inspired the words of the ode he composed. But Chisholm’s humble life experiences and shortcomings do relate something with which we can all probably identify, especially if we compare them to what God offers.

Chisholm grew up in a log cabin, was only minimally educated, and suffered from ill health, a chronic problem that made his lifelong income pretty limited. If that sounds like a recipe for disappointment, Chisholm must have ignored it, because he shares his ‘astonishing gratefulness’ at God’s work in his life. So grateful was he, that we know of 1,200 poems that Chisholm wrote in his 94 years. Can you think of 1,200 worthwhile things you’ve done in your life! Nevertheless, the Lamentations-origin of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” hints that Chisholm was aware of his own life’s regrets. After all, aren’t we all at times, when dealt reverses? Did he perhaps subconsciously identify with the background of Jeremiah’s message, and so compose from a visceral vantage point? The weeping prophet did not make Chisholm the weeping poet, however. No, the words of his song are no less upbeat than the few optimistic verses in Lamentations that the prophet gave us. Even a cursory, ten-minute reading of the book leaves one seeing the verses Chisholm focused on as an oasis, a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak outlook. It’s pretty heartening that a piece of Jeremiah’s song, composed 2,600 years ago, was renewed in 1923, and still has power in our century too. Does it say something to you today? It’s 2009…have you been suffering? Have you lost a job, maybe your home? How’s your health? Some of us might even feel like we’re at war, depending on where we live, or where we’ve been. But, the glimmer we all can get from Thomas Chisholm’s tune is this: God’s faith cuts through the gloom. Chisholm saw the light, despite what happened to him. So did Jeremiah.

Chisholm’s song reminds me that the Lord’s faith may be compared to His creation (verse 2), so that if the seasons persist, the stars still shine, and the sun rises and sets each day, I know God is still near. Despite the misery I may find here, God’s promises are for me. He controls. The world still turns. The Son’s life-offer endures. What a God! What a deal!

Information on the song was obtained from the books “101 Hymn Stories”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006.

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