Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cleanse Me (Search Me, O God) -- James Edwin Orr

They were saying ‘good-bye’, and he must have felt like he didn’t want it to end. Or did he? James Edwin Orr had been visiting New Zealand, and he experienced something over those few days that he wanted to never forget. It was an episode he wanted to remember so much, that he studied about it for the next several decades, starting with some words he called “Search Me, O God” (some call it “Cleanse Me”). But, there was a part of that departure that he must have felt was positive, something that was indeed necessary to usher out and bid ‘good riddance’. Perhaps that’s what made it so easy for Orr to compose words to match the tune he’d just heard, in the context of what he’d witnessed among many new believers in that island nation in 1936.

Twenty-four year old James Orr was on an Easter mission campaign to the South Pacific during the mid-1930’s, an event that had a profound impact on his life, reflected in the words he recorded in just a few moments. The site was Ngaruawahia, a town on the northern island of New Zealand (see map).
Orr’s messages to eager students during his stay there were convicting, motivating many to make decisions for Christ – a true revival. Perhaps his own words to listeners had contained the themes he would later record in the poem, that a convert must be willing to depart from old ways to invite God into one’s life. His listeners weren’t the only ones affected. As he was serenaded by native Maori women who wanted to say farewell with a song, Orr was touched. Something about music tends to stick in a person’s mind, as Orr would no doubt confirm if he were still here to ask. Some call it a medical, neurological phenomenon. Or, is it just because God has wired us that way, to let the Spirit reach us in this mode? Whatever the case, Orr’s mind kept replaying the Maori women’s heartfelt wishes, and words flowed from his mind onto the back of an envelope as he was in a local post office. It kicked off the next several decades of his life apparently, as he studied revivals and travelled the world, taking this poem-Maori farewell fusion product with him.

 The tune was about farewell, and perhaps its original purpose was why it fit so well with what Orr wanted to motivate.  He wanted a revival, and what would that require? His own thoughts drifted to those of another songwriter from centuries before. The David who recorded the words of Psalm 139’s last two stanzas was a guy who needed someone – God – to clean him up before he could go forward. This ancient king was as fallible as you or me, though he’s remembered as ‘the man after God’s own heart’(Acts 13:22). His thoughts directly before the ones in Psalm 139 that stirred James Orr three millennia later were unvarnished evil – hatred and slaying of enemies. It must have occurred to the king that he, God’s chosen, was nevertheless occasionally a bloodthirsty reprobate.  Can that person and God inhabit the same space? You know the answer, don’t you? James Edwin Orr did too, and convinced many others to ask themselves the same question. Say good-bye to the hating, slaying you.

The following website has a soundtrack for the song:

See the site here for rendition of the native farewell song that is the tune the composer adopted for this hymn:

See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Breathe On Me, Breath of God -- Edwin Hatch

Edwin Hatch probably felt as though something was missing, though he understood much of the God he studied and taught to others. This 43-year old professor and scholar addressed a personal message to the Holy Ghost when he penned “Breathe on Me, Breath of God” in 1878. What he wrote gives the observer a peek at what all his intellect and training had taught him about his faith, and about what he had chosen to make his life’s vocation. He sought oneness with the One to whom he spoke in his poetry. It would be interesting to ask him if he felt that his prayer was answered. Did he feel the Spirit, or perhaps see it like its portrayed in movies or in masterpieces (like this one by Peter Paul Rubens)?

Hatch had developed a reputation that he must have appreciated gave him a certain standing amongst his contemporaries, yet that didn’t seem to stop him from an apparent condescension, what we might call ‘dumbing down’his faith.  Edwin had a keen mind, so it was no surprise that he attained not just any higher education degree, but from such distinguished institutions as Oxford and Cambridge, and had won an award (the Ellerton prize) by the time he was 25. He was on his way, and indeed became a noted lecturer of considerable standing in England and Canada, while also becoming an Anglican priest. Yet, it’s said that how he demonstrated his faith was in fact very simple, more like a child’s than what would be expected from such a learned person.  One wonders if he had, as someone has said, discovered that the more he studied, the more he knew that there was much more he didn’t know. You can see that in his words in ‘Breathe on Me…’, wherein he expresses that he needed an infusion of Him. And, the text he wrote first appeared in something called “Between Doubt and Prayer”. So, one must ask ‘Did Edwin Hatch have reservations about Christianity?’ Did he question the truth of his faith? Despite his study, there must have been some parts of God’s kingdom that still eluded him, as it does for any believer. Perhaps he had surmised that the only way to know more of Him, was to get more of Him.

What was Edwin Hatch doing in 1878 when he composed the words of his prayer to the Breath of God? We know that he was vice-principal of Saint Mary Hall, evidently at Oxford, until 1885 following his return from Canada in 1867. It’s safe to assume that he was guiding students and associating with other academic intellectuals by the mid-to-late 1870s, and that something or someone in that atmosphere helped spawn this prayer. Others must have heard his words, and perhaps shared in his aspirations.  Hatch would live just another 11 years, until he was 54, but all evidence of his life after 1878 suggest that he continued as he had before – being a sought-after lecturer and scholar. He also produced a concordance on the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Bible, during this post-‘Breathe on Me…’ period. Thus, Edwin Hatch apparently maintained his faith, using the keen mind that the Creator gave him until he went to unite more fully with Him. His life’s message speaks…use what He’s obviously given you, and if you ask for more, perhaps He answers with more of what’s already been working. Is that too complicated to fathom? Is God easy or hard for you?  
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.

See these sites for brief biography on composer:

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Where He Leads I'll Follow -- William Augustine Ogden

From Ohio to Indiana, as a soldier through a bitter war, as a music student, and then back in his birth-state where he had a number of successful publishing efforts, this composer had reached a point in his life at which he wanted to make a pledge. William Augustine Ogden was a 44-year old success story when he wrote “Where He Leads I’ll Follow” in 1885, but of what was he thinking, the past or what was still to come? He’d seen enough by then, really, to probably be in a reflective mood, perhaps drawing upon one or more episodes that caused him to express his loyalty to the One who’d brought him to that point.  

William Ogden must have discovered something musically as a youngster that stuck with him through thick and thin for the next several decades. After his family left Ohio for Indiana when he was six, Willy Ogden found his musical ear and voice, and was growing this part of his being by the time he was eight. Reading music in the church by age 10 and writing lines of music from memory a little thereafter, the young Ogden was, not surprisingly, an active choral member at the church by the time he was 18. What happened over the next several years might have discouraged other budding musical minds, but not William Ogden’s. Although he volunteered for the Indiana infantry at the outset of the American Civil War, this life-challenging event did not divert William’s musical growth. Instead, he organized a choir of his fellow soldiers, which became renowned throughout the Army of the Cumberland. Music during the Civil War was in fact quite important, as a tool for morale, both in camps and on the battlefields.  Thus, it’s quite likely that it served as a further catalyst for Ogden’s music development, imbuing him with an appreciation for the power of this medium, of what it could impart to the human spirit in this decisive period.  It probably was therefore no surprise that at the war’s conclusion, Ogden pursued his musical career more ardently, studying with several mentors. Although he’d already put together one song collection in 1861, his 1870 songbook The Silver Song was very successful (half a million sold), and the rest, as someone has said, is history. He went on to publish many more collections, compose, and teach over the next two to three decades, including as the superintendant of music at schools in Toledo, Ohio (see its flag here).

Was William Ogden thinking about what had been, or what was still to come as he composed a song about following Jesus in 1885? He might as easily have vocalized ‘Where He’s (Already) Lead Me’, especially as he thought about surviving the war experience two decades earlier. Or, he might have been thinking of something in his present tense in 1885, perhaps his latest success in publishing, Notes of Victory, another accomplishment on his already healthy resume. He was still relatively young, and no doubt looked forward to doing more. But, he may also have realized that life could be unexpectedly cut short. His third verse of ‘Where He Leads…’ shows he appreciated that a burdened life could find ultimate relief only in God. He also wrote that Jesus’ message and love-example far outshone anything in his experience (verses 1 and 2). He sounds like a teacher, yearning to coax others to learn what he’d grown to trust. No, not what, but Who. As Ogden might have said, the ‘where’ is important, but the ‘who’ is really the key on this trip.    
See following link for biographic information on the composer:

See this site for description of Civil War music:

Friday, August 2, 2013

Footprints (Footsteps) of Jesus -- Mary B.C. Slade

She was a 45-year old minister’s wife, a lifelong resident of Fall River, Massachusetts (see picture here), a teacher, and the editor of two journals during her lifetime. So, Mary Bridges Canady Slade knew something about writing, and given her background as a teacher, may have been trying to educate someone with the words she composed for “Footprints of Jesus” in 1871. Do her words tell us that she was merely an able poet, or was she also sharing something of herself, something that she believed in deeply enough to record so that it would stick with its hearers, reminding them of her? What do you think, as you get a glimpse of her?

Mary Slade evidently wrote something that reflected her beliefs and the actions she’d been living in 1871. Not much is written of her, except that she was a compassionate Christian, a characteristic that adorned her along with the few facts of her life. You can see she must have struggled with her life of kindness, a condition that she shared in the words she wrote. She wasn’t wearing rose-colored glasses, admitting that ‘helping the weak’, and ‘serving the poor and lowly’, came hand-in-hand with ‘weeping’ and ‘cross-bearing’. But, we can guess that she persevered, keeping her goal -- the goal of any Christian – in her mind’s eye. Following Him meant going through valleys, sure, but it also rewarded the disciple with paradise, a fact that was especially compelling to Mary as she reflected on this in the final two stanzas. Whatever specific circumstances were at work in her life in 1871, Slade’s message was two-fold. Serving Him by taking care of her fellow man might be heart-rending, but that’s the path to Him, and to lifelong – in fact, eternal – happiness. Being a minister’s wife must have facilitated her hearing this message consistently, perhaps even daily. Fusing this role as a minister’s wife, and undoubtedly as his ear, with her training as a teacher and skill as an editor gave her the capacity to tell us how she was spurred to follow her Lord. Perhaps this was a message with which she herself was becoming increasingly conscious – a life that longed for the next plane of existence.

It’s a message that may be impossible to coax or instruct. It has to be shown through one’s example. It’s a passion that must be lived. Why did Mary Slade live just 11 years longer after composing a song about devotion to God? We don’t know, but she was 56, and was editor by this time of the journal Wide Awake. It was pitched at children, a theme that likewise influenced her previous venture as an editor of the New England Journal of Education. The very title Wide Awake carries a message for children, doesn’t it? Don’t hide yourself from a life that will make you wise, it suggests. Be aware how to best live, and so live on after you’re done here. Mary Slade must have internalized that message, probably in part to demonstrate it for the children who might be watching. To teach the kids. Or is it just for kids? Follow His footprints.   

The following links provided background for this story, including scant biographic information on the composer:

See original 7 verses of the song here:

A biography of the man who published Wide Awake, Slade’s occupational-editorial effort until she died: