Sunday, December 30, 2012

Nailed to the Cross -- Carrie E. E. Breck

She was probably doing two or three things at once that day in 1899. Perhaps they all fused in some way as Carrie Elizabeth Ellis Breck mulled over something and composed “Nailed to the Cross”. ‘Whistle while you work’ might have been her motto, except that she really didn’t have the gift of music, at least as most people might have understood it. Nevertheless, she did seem to have rhythm, that sense of timing that made her in step with what is crucial in hymn-writing. And, she also began with a foundation that allowed her to overcome a gap in music-making that otherwise might have discouraged her. If you can ‘carry a tune in a bucket’, also consider Breck’s methods and see if they improve your musicianship, and more importantly your worship. Try it out, as you do some of your duties around the house, like running the dishwasher (see picture).   
Carrie Breck’s characteristics might have been considered rather ordinary except that they fostered a prodigious exhibition over her lifetime. By the time the middle-aged Breck neared the end of the 19th century, she was doing what most women of her age did at the time. She was a housewife raising children (she and husband Frank had five daughters), modeling the childhood she’d experienced with God-believing parents. And, although she lacked the gift of pitch, and therefore the voice to sing, she wrote poetry, even as a child. Was this poetic sense super-developed to compensate for her pitch deficiency? One might conclude this, as her ‘voice’ reportedly produced up to 2,000 poems by the time of her death in 1934. Her mode as an adult, evidently, was to ponder while engaged in household chores – doing the dishes, sweeping a room, holding and feeding a child. She also apparently had a bible handy to bide the time and occupy her mind, another habit she developed from childhood. She apparently felt this was her meter, her tempo for creativity. Housework, bible study, meditation…she had an innate sense of what worked for her, a combination that she had used even as a youngster to create prose for some publications.       

What would an observer of “Nailed to the Cross” think about 44-year old Carrie Breck? She must have been thinking what the great apostle Paul had written, probably to the Colossians (2:14) and the Romans (8:1), words that she echoes with her prose, both in the hymn’s refrain and in verse 2. Like any of us, Carrie must have felt her life came up short at times, some guilt or regret that hung over her. Don’t brood, she seems to respond, but seek out what He’s done for you, even as you engage in the tedium of daily responsibilities. You’re not condemned, even if you are pushing a broom or cleaning up a child’s mess! In fact, these tasks may be His way of reserving time to speak to you. Seek Him out, especially when you think you’re alone, doing some mundane chore. He has a way of remaking that moment, like He did for Carrie Breck, some 2,000 poems later.   

Some biographic information on the composer was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; and “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.   

See these sites for further biography:

Friday, December 21, 2012

I Love the Lord – Tommy Wheeler

I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice 
and my supplications.
(Psalm 116:1)

He wrote something as he neared mid-life in 1969 that he probably felt he needed to say. Tommy Wheeler indicates he often listened to his insides, jotting down musical phrases “as they might come to him”, anticipating using them in his songs. It wasn’t surprising that he declared “I Love the Lord” that year, because he already had been engaged in loving Him for some time. But, one might ask ‘why?’ What prompted him to jot down these words then? Besides loving Him for the past, one other focal point is evident in the thoughts he recorded that year, and Wheeler’s own memories of that time also help us answer these simple questions. 

When he composed that day in 1969, 38-year old Tommy Wheeler had been involved with music for decades, and would continue this path long after his mid-life musical statement. In a way, 1969 and “I Love the Lord” might be described as a hinge-point for other events in his life too, a looking back behind what he’d experienced, as well as looking forward to where he was headed. His cousin, Max Wheeler, remembers Tommy was at a “serene point” that year, after enduring the death of someone he loved years earlier – a crucible for faith growth, huh? Early in his life, Tommy was blessed to grow up in a musical family, under the tutelage of his father who was a minister and musical director. Through high school, Tommy sang and wrote music in many choral groups. This continued through college, and he also obtained some practical teaching experience as a young man. Later, he began writing more music, including much of it for the Stamps-Baxter company while he remained engaged in singing and working with local churches. So, one might say the Lord and music had been cooked into his blood. He was hooked, apparently, on serving God through music. In fact by 1969, Wheeler says he thought of Psalm 116 and how that ancient songwriter’s prose could be woven into his own verses, echoing back another biblical love passage – John 3:16. Wheeler has maintained his path after this 1969 hinge-point, writing or co-writing at least a dozen more songs through the early 21st Century that are published in many contemporary hymnals today. But, “I Love the Lord”, which Wheeler first published in his own hymnal Gospel Gems, is perhaps the most well-known, for a good reason – its message sums up succinctly why any believer feels the way he or she does. 

The door was beginning to open wider for Wheeler as the 1960s concluded and the 1970s dawned, as it would for anyone reaching mid-life. He’d experienced much that had blessed him, including a family -- three children, and after his first wife died, a second marriage -- and his cousin Max with whom he shared the musical gift of composition. His childhood, youth, and young adult years now behind him, he wrote of his eternal years in his love song. ‘He has been so good to me’, Wheeler reminisces in the chorus, one reason to devote yourself to the Holy One. But, he goes further in all three verses, setting his gaze ahead, to the period beyond earth’s time. These emotions resonate with most humans who consider their lives closely, so it’s no mystery why “I Love the Lord” is sung in other languages besides English, including Russian and Portuguese. Glancing back, yes, but looking forward too, and saying something that transcends any language. I plan on talking to Tommy more, if not here, then up there in the ‘Great Ahead’…maybe I should learn some Russian or Portuguese before I get there, whaddya think?

Biographical information on the composer obtained from the book “Our Garden of Song”, edited by Gene C. Finley, Howard Publishing Company, 1980.

Also, many thanks to Tommy Wheeler for sharing his personal reflections on the song with this SongScoops blogger in December 2012!  

Also see following sites for information on the song:  

Friday, December 14, 2012

I Believe in Jesus -- Alton Howard

Entrepreneur. That’s the word someone might use to describe Alton Howard. How about in 1977, when he wrote the song “I Believe in Jesus”; was he out of character, or was he saying what he lived then? Was song-writing the same thing for Alton Howard as opening a new store, or taking an idea and turning it into reality?  What moved this West Monroe, Louisiana (see map) resident to express something in words that some of his peers in the various business fields he pursued might have ignored or considered too risky? Meet Alton Howard.

Alton Howard had been up and down many avenues in life by the time he composed a song about his deepest, fundamental beliefs in his early 50’s. He’d served in the Air Force in World War II, flying many times over Germany as part of his duty. Perhaps his war experience was a motivator, for over the next 60 years Howard seemed unafraid to take risk, to reach for something different in a variety of business ventures. He must have had a good sense of what would work too, for if he hadn’t he might have eventually collapsed permanently. From various retail stores, to restaurants, to insurance companies, and then publishing, Alton Howard must have been like a blur to those who know him. An idea man, who knew how to turn them (ideas) into action…that was Alton Howard. And, that didn’t stop with his faith, either. He wrote relatively few songs, but was a leader for over four decades in the church he attended, and started a church youth camp and helped begin a radio ministry. One might say he really believed, and knew how to turn his own belief into something that others soon believed also. Perhaps that’s the basic life message he communicated with his song words in “I Believe in Jesus”. He didn’t think his own belief was sufficient, or was something he could just keep to himself.

Alton Howard lived a message, and wrote about the fundamentals of this message in his composition. We don’t know the precise circumstances in 1977 as he penned the words to “I Believe in Jesus”, but they appear to be consistent with what we know of his lifestyle. From what he wrote, Alton was moved by the miracles of Jesus’ ministry, such that he felt the key to life’s answers were embodied in Him. Jesus wasn’t just fascinating and fantastic. He was a reasonable alternative, perhaps in part for Howard because he’d been a onetime-wartime flyboy who’d faced death and survived. It’s as if Alton had placed himself at the disposal of God, the preserver and sustainer of life. ‘Use me’, Howard might have thought, and so the 60-plus years of his life after the war’s conclusion say something. Has God been my protector at some point? How about you? What – or in whom – do you believe?      

See following links for information on the composer:

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I Gave My Life for Thee -- Francis Ridley Havergal

Was it because His body looks horribly scarred? Or was it the blood that’s dripping down His forehead? Instead, was Frances R. Havergal overcome by the look of resignation on His face, His hands bound? The inscription below the painting (see it here) also must have stuck with her that day in Dusseldorf, as she contemplated its import and scratched out the first few words of “I Gave My Life for Thee” while sitting in that mid-19th Century gallery. She wasn’t the first person to be moved by staring at Christ’s beaten visage, but what she created from that moment is somewhat rare. Read on to see why.

Havergal was no doubt influenced by many factors that 1858 day in Germany as she gazed upon the painting called Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) and composed something special as a result. Not the least of these influences was her father William, a minister and writer and hymnist also, who would have a profound impact on his daughter, including in her development of this hymn. This 22-year old was affected deeply by the painting, and its message got inside of her, particularly the caption that she echoes in the song’s first verse. Yet, the poem she began that day she nearly discarded in the flames of a stove, thinking it was a failure. It’s said the paper was inexplicably saved from the fire, and then found by William who urged Frances to persist in its development. What he saw in it we do not know, but perhaps it was the poetry’s rare quality that makes it so different from most other hymns. Pick any church hymnal, and you’ll notice that most of what we believers sing is from us to Him. Frances Havergal sensed something else, in a different direction entirely as she composed.  Her words have us vocalize Jesus’ words, from Him to us, and then back to Him again. One might deduce that Frances had the Spirit from deep inside her being coaching her efforts that day.  How else might one create something that stands apart from most other music?  

‘Who’s the audience for what I’m singing?’, her words make me wonder. Am I really thinking about the words and their origin? What must it have been like for Jesus to leave His home, endure agonizing torture, die in disgrace, and then offer rescue to the people who killed Him? Those are the four divine sacrifices that Frances must have been mulling over, and her own answers to them. How could I mimic Jesus? As I think about the audience, about Frances’ audience in 1858, I come upon something I don’t often consider as I sing and offer praise. He’s not just above. He’s also inside, urging me, coaxing me, convicting me if necessary. Jesus listened to His insides, and He asks me to do the same. That’s how I can start to imitate Him. Am I listening to what’s coming from inside? Are you?

 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; “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; and “Then Sings My Soul”, by Robert J. Morgan, 2003, Thomas Nelson, Inc.   

See this site for further biography: