Monday, May 27, 2013

Jesus Calls Us – Cecil Alexander

She had someone or a group of people in mind as she penned words for a song to accompany her husband’s upcoming sermon one Autumn day in 1852. Thirty-four year old Cecil Alexander evidently wanted to draw some parallels between her neighbors or fellow churchgoers and a well-known apostle (see his picture here, along with his brother Peter and the Christ, by Caravaggio). It may even be assumed that her preacher-husband gave her some thoughts to get her prose rolling that day when “Jesus Calls Us” was written.  That she had been most accustomed to writing children’s songs may have also been why she needed the advice and encouragement of another adult when she went about composing this hymn for grown-ups. Do the words resonate with you, as an adult?

Cecil Alexander’s composition “Jesus Calls Us” indeed was something of an unusual exercise for this composer, considering the audience for the song and what was her routine for her poetry. She’d written many of her poem-songs for children by the age of 20, really not that long after she had left her own childhood behind. These had been published by 1848, and then she married two years later, an occasion that most people regard as entry into the adult world. Her husband, William, a minister in a poor local church in Ireland, was preparing one November to deliver a message based on the example of the apostle Andrew – a called individual. William asked his wife to think of a hymn for adults as the Anglican holiday, St. Andrew’s Day, approached on the last Sunday of the month. He evidently wanted a memorable song to accompany his sermon, and knowing his wife’s pedigree, he must have felt pretty confident, though most of her experience had been writing for children. But, her experience also included ministering to the people of the area herself, with lots of sick, cold, and hungry people that she saw daily. So, she no doubt had a personal and practical familiarity with a calling to help others. The ‘tumult’ and ‘sorrows’ she wrote about must have been not just in her imagination, but in fact real hurts that she witnessed every day, just as were the ‘vain world’ and ‘idol(s)’, interspersed with a few ‘joys’ and ‘pleasures’ that she observed also.

Her husband’s influence also showed in the words she wrote, although the verse she composed that he read in the church service has not normally survived in our modern hymnal texts. That’s unfortunate, because it helps communicate the hymn’s background, its genesis (see the link below). She calls out Andrew’s example of dropping his profession, literally, and following the Master upon encountering Him. That episode must have been electric, wouldn’t you imagine? It makes one ponder … to what does He call me today? Should I stop working? Is there a greater task He has for me to do? Cecil must have seen and heard a lot from her neighbors that had her thinking they needed to reach beyond their own world, perhaps because there was just too much privation, too much disappointment where they were. Would it be an ironic twist, if I have so much, and were less inclined to turn my head when he calls out to me?  He offers more, incredibly more, even if I am very physically blessed here. Read Cecil’s words, and see if they make you re-think things.           
See more information on the composer and the song in Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 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 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985

See the link here for a 2nd verse rarely seen in print, which really lends some context to the circumstances of the poetry that Cecil Alexander wrote – a reference to the subject of her husband’s sermon that day in November 1852.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Surely the Presence of the Lord -- Lanny Wolfe

Surely the Presence of the Lord -- Lanny Wolfe

It might alternately be called ‘Floyd’s Song’ because of the circumstances surrounding its genesis. That’s the subtitle that Lanny Wolfe gave to the words and the music for something he wrote back in the 1970’s (about 1977) for an event where he and his group were waiting to join in a celebration. Sure, Lanny and his friends had been asked, so their attendance at the church building dedication was not a surprise, but when Lanny heard a small but distinct voice tell him some words for a new song, that was unexpected (or, was it really?). “Surely the Presence of the Lord” was born on the spot as the Lanny Wolfe Trio prepared to sing, and the way it’s been used since then makes one think God must have had more than one episode in mind when he whispered the words to the composer that day.

Lanny Wolfe was certainly struck by how “Surely the Presence of the Lord” worked its way into his being the very first time, perhaps because of the multiple incidents over the following decades in which it played such a memorable role in his and others’ lives. The minister’s name at the church in Columbia, Mississippi was Floyd Odom, and he’d invited Lanny and his group to sing as the members of the church there marked the completion of the church building. So, Lanny must have thought that Floyd was the reason for the song’s origin - -without that moment and the gathering of joyful people eager to thank the Holy One for His work, maybe the song would not have come about. Indeed, Lanny tends to remember lots of the Trio’s songs with subtitles that say they are some person’s song…perhaps his way of saying that songs inhabit us personally, not just events or places in time. Lanny says the song’s words came quickly, such that he didn’t have the chance to run through any chords or even tell his fellow musicians, Marietta Wolfe (his wife at the time) and Dave Petersen, what had just popped into his head. So, he taught it to them the same moment the assembled church members heard it, with just the notes and flow of the song in his head. Lanny says it worked because there were people there, not just pews and stain-glassed windows. He wanted to be in them, not the building. And, that’s been the song’s recurring theme in at least four other episodes in many different circumstances, which Lanny relates in the book More Than Wonderful that he’s put together to tell his song stories.

The other episodes range from a personal one-on-one Midwestern U.S. incident in which someone’s life was in danger, to a megachurch in China where the song was a celebration sung in many languages. It’s been transmitted to countless people on a television broadcast, but also used in private family gatherings to shepherd a dear family member into eternity.  How varied are our people-centered experiences, but how common is the foundation that we believers have? That’s what Lanny Wolfe is communicating in the words he composed that day in Columbia, Mississippi. He’s present where His people are, be they just one or two, or perhaps many thousands. And, he comes during our many emotions. Just like Job, I can worship even though beaten down (Job 1:20), or I may instead be in a festive spirit like David (2 Sam. 6:16-21), though it offends others. I just know He’s inside. Who could contain what is surely there, Lanny says?   

Biographical information on Lanny Wolfe is from this website:
See this site to obtain the book “More than Wonderful”, where the story to the song is found:

Saturday, May 11, 2013

No, Not One – Johnson Oatman, Jr.

He was a believer in insurance …that’s what many who crossed this fellow’s path might have remembered about him, if they never saw his poetry. But, it’s a good bet that Johnson Oatman Jr.’s insurance advice wasn’t exclusively the conventional kind that would protect yours and your loved ones’ financial state. He’d probably pondered another state for a while by the time he turned 39 and wrote the words “No, Not One” as the turn of the century approached in 1895. His vocation, though secular, did not prevent him from pursuing other, deeper expressions of his beliefs, a ministry that flourished and was prodigious by any standard. What motivated him, at a relatively late point in life, to burst forth with his song-writing?  Was he thinking negatively (No, Not One), as someone might who’s considering negative space (as in this classic Rubin’s vase optical illusion, shown here, wherein nothingness actually does depict something after all)?

Johnson Oatman, Jr. evidently took after his father, Johnson Sr., in many ways, but also sowed new ground following his father’s departure from life. His father’s reputation as a singer—called by some the best in the eastern U.S.--no doubt overshadowed the younger Johnson to some degree. He nevertheless must have admired his dad, so much so that he joined in the family’s business to work alongside Johnson Sr. Moreover, at 19 years old, he became an ordained Methodist minister, yet remained in the family’s commercial enterprise, manifest evidence that he’d matured in the faith instilled by his father while remaining close to his parental and vocational influence. With his father’s death (exact year unknown), two important changes would commence in Johnson Jr.’s life. The younger Oatman is credited with some 3,000 to 5,000 hymn texts, an incredible number, especially considering he did not begin this avocation until in his mid-30’s, apparently after his father was gone. In addition to this new venture, he changed professional careers, entering the insurance field (the reason for the switch in vocation is not known). Thus, a casual, distant observer might presume that the son was finally breaking free of shackles, becoming his own man both vocationally and creatively. Perhaps some of that is true. But, one thing that linked the two Oatmans remained – the father’s love for God expressed through music did not die with him. Indeed, watching and listening to his dad for years, someone might say, welled up into a colossus that would articulate itself throughout the last three decades of the son’s life. “No Not One”, written about three years into this new part of Oatman’s life as a songwriter, offers a window into his emotions and his spirit.  Was he breaking free, or was he magnifying what had been planted inside? You and I can look at his words and decide.

Johnson Oatman evidently had issues like any of us, someone who needed ‘cheer’ while confined in a dark place managing ‘struggles’ and ‘soul’s diseases’. He also evidently had pangs of loneliness. He’d lost his father, so we might surmise he was missing him and clinging to the divine Father. That Father promises not to leave. As he looked around in 1895, perhaps that’s what he’d discovered, that nothing down here compares to what He has for me. People die. Jobs change. Can I find anything here that’s good that doesn’t eventually bust, or any hurt that completely goes away though salved with the best solution? No, not one, Oatman’s words repeat. Was it a mid-life crisis, triggered by personal and vocational challenges that made Johnson Oatman write the words? Maybe. They won’t matter, ultimately. No, not one. These negative words are worth a hoorah in this case!   
See more information on the composer and the song in Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  For more background on the composer, see Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; and 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985