Monday, February 17, 2014

One Thing Remains -- Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, Jeremy Riddle

Three composers. They’re each unique. And yet, a common thread runs through all of them. If you read just a little about each of them, you can guess that they met and collaborated on the song “One Thing Remains” in California a few years ago, in 2010. Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, and Jeremy Riddle all have stories of where they’ve been and how they arrived at the moment when their feelings coalesced into the words and music that have become such a hit. He doesn’t quit on any of us, they want us to know, because He didn’t quit on them. Let’s see how their lives meshed to construct this message. Could there be a better one, in the wake of Valentine’s Day!

These three 30-somethings -- Brian, Christa, and Jeremy -- came from various circumstances by 2010, weaving the upbeat and positive, the offbeat, and also the difficult – even revolting -- experiences of life into a single message in “One Thing Remains”. Brian Johnson’s family is deeply invested in the Bethel church where he and his father and mother, Bill and Beni—the senior pastors—co-minister in Redding, California. It’s not an unexpected development that Brian has become a worship leader and founder of Bethel Music as a result of the nurturing he received in a vibrant Christian home. God certainly ‘never gave up’ on him, did He? On the other hand, one of his co-worship leaders at Bethel, Jeremy Riddle, comes from the other side of the continent in New Jersey, and that’s also an appropriate metaphor for his path to ministry. Though he’s been a minister for several years now, including previously at another church in California, his earlier years might have been described as distant, offbeat from his current calling. He was a budding political scientist upon his graduation from college and then part of a band in the mainstream music scene. Even so, God must have been planting something in him, huh? While the Johnson-Riddle combo’s background may resonate with the ordinary believer, would it be too much to say that Los Angeles resident Christa Black Gifford’s story is perhaps the turbo-charge for the engine in “One Thing Remains”? The song’s theme—that God’s love and grace can overpower any challenge—must have spoken to her. She’s the author of God Loves Ugly, her personal reflection on a struggle to overcome addiction and a childhood trauma. Her story must be heard too, for in truth, you and I are addicts too – to our human sin that can attack us physically and emotionally, as it did Christa, or spiritually debilitate us, even though we may not realize it.

“One Thing Remains” is repetitive, someone might say, even ‘unimaginative’. You think the theme is monotonous, too simple? ‘I got it already’, you may say after one line of the song. Maybe the three composers even raised this complaint while they engaged in its creation, who knows. But, don’t miss what it is telling you. My salvation doesn’t happen for me at the same instant it does for you, in our life’s experience. Do we sometimes forget this, including during corporate worship? This repeating exercise underscores the saving act – His divine grace – that He extends to each of us, individually. Johnson, Gifford, and Riddle remind me His great love’s saving power is happening over and over and over. In fact, it’s continuing even as I write this and you read it. It’s incalculable, countless. Thank Him that you’re among the counted!

See following sites for brief biographies of the composers:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

We Have an Anchor -- Priscilla Jane Owens

Was she a sailor, or just a fascinated observer of the sea? Or, perhaps she envisioned the words would be meaningful to the audience for whom she most often wrote – children. At least two organizations from her ancestral homeland have seemed to confirm that resonance. Did some of the members of those groups contact Priscilla Jane Owens in the latter half of the 19th Century when she composed the poetry for “We Have an Anchor” (aka “Will Your Anchor Hold?”)? It would not have been surprising if that was so. It seems that she was also immersed in some Bible study, from where some of the words of her composition have a familiar ring.

Priscilla Owens most often wanted to instruct or inspire children when she wrote her verses, a mode that she recognized not only on Sundays but in her vocational walk too. As a teacher in Baltimore, most prominently in Sunday schools where she introduced songs for her young charges, she must have seen thousands of children come and go. Even by the time she was a mid-40-ish schoolmarm, this must have made an impression on her emotionally, psychologically. What was the best way to steer kids, who from any generation in any era have presented challenges for the adults? She must have been reading what Paul the Apostle wrote to a crowd (Hebrew 6:19) when she penned the words ‘steadfast and sure’ in describing an ‘anchor’. It must have struck her with some force, for she keeps up the mental imagery of the sea and how He protects us from the various hazards there. Had she experienced a seaborne trauma herself at some point, or were there children she knew to whom a seafaring experience was familiar? Priscilla must have been gratified to know that soon after her composition, the Boys Brigade adopted a motto and her hymn’s message as their own when that group was spawned by William Smith in Scotland (in 1883). The Dollar Academy’s adoption of her hymn in Scotland just a few years ago (2007) would have given Owens some joy, too, had she realized her teaching was still continuing 100 years after her death.  The Dollar Academy (founded in 1818), like the Boys Brigade, existed during Owens lifetime. Did she have the Boys and the Dollars in mind, among others, when she wrote?

We have an anchor’, Priscilla wrote, a reassurance that feels more meaningful amongst a group of believers, frankly. No one rides a boat alone. Were the Straits of Fear and Floods of Death (verses 3 and 4) real places in Owens’ experience? Maybe they were only imaginary, metaphorical, yet they need not be tangible to be dangerous, even deadly. She had never seen God, either, in human form, but believed in Him obviously, and in His capacity to gird us, though unseen. We’re all in this boat together.     

A very brief biographic note on the composer, plus all 5 verses that she wrote for the hymn:
More biography on composer:
Some background on the song’s inspiration:
The hymn is also closely associated with the organization described at the following link:
The hymn is also an anthem at the following academy:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Be Not Dismayed Whate'er Betide -- Civilla Durfee Martin

‘Out of the mouths of babes’, someone has said. Might 38-year old Civilla Martin and her husband Walter Stillman Martin have uttered those words at the end of one day in 1904, in reference to their own son? He might have been as responsible for “God Will Take Care of You” (aka “Be Not Dismayed Whate’er Betide”) as Civilla was. What would a child see that would make him utter words with such insight? Had he heard this sentiment and merely repeated it in rote fashion, the way a parrot might articulate words it is trained to verbalize after several iterations? How often might a believer mechanically drone on about a conviction, until that attitude manifests itself in a tangible way? Is that God speaking? Lotsa questions here…see if you have answers after reading the Martins’ story.

Civilla and Walter were in a small town in New York state, just across the border from Pennsylvania, one Sunday in 1904. Lestershire (its name has changed to Johnson City, and it’s in the Binghamton area of New York…see the 1910 picture of Binghampton here)     
was unspectacular, really, but it would become the birthplace of a hymn through some unique circumstances. The Martins were there to help the church put together a songbook for its school. Upon waking that morning, Civilla informed her husband that she’d be unable to accompany him on the day’s preaching visit via a train ride, because she felt ill. Her husband, though a loyal evangelist, was also a devoted mate, and so he was at the point of cancelling the visit. The Martins’ youngster must have heard his God-fearing parents express their faith many times, because the words apparently came from him quite easily – “Father, God will take care of her”. Unable to rebut his son’s declaration, Walter indeed kept his preaching appointment. It’s said that this decision allowed him to see several people express their allegiance to Christ that day, and also find a bonus afterwards. Civilla, spurred by her son’s words and a renewed vigor, composed a poem to underscore the incident. Evidently, she must have sensed that God was not only affirming the boy’s confidence that she’d recover, but that He was really capable of much more. ‘Whate’er’ (whatever) and ‘no matter what’ are in her prose, revealing her impression that he is indeed the Almighty. It’s said that Walter composed the poem’s musical counterpart that same night. “God Will Take Care of You” was not only a selection in the hymnal the Martins arranged in Lestershire, it was their personal reflection and affirmation of His presence.

What answers might you have now? Do kids say things they first hear parents say? Do we sometimes say things in professed faith, when really we need someone to push us to do what should follow naturally from that verbalized trust? Is God speaking more frequently and clearly than we think He is? How does He respond to faith expressions? Hmmm…you think you know how the Martins might have responded? Let’s go talk to them someday, how about it?

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 “The Sings My Soul”, by Robert J. Morgan, 2003, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

See brief biography on composer at these two links:

See also this link for all four verses and the brief hymn story:

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Redeemed -- James Rowe

He must have written many times about his conversion and how he felt, and yet he gushed some more about this when he was 51 years old. James Rowe’s feelings maybe never grew old with him, including in 1916 as he thought about being “Redeemed” (otherwise known as “I’m Redeemed” or “Sweet is the Song”). Never getting tired of one’s rescue – perhaps that was why this Irishman kept writing over his lifetime. It may have been a microcosm of his experience up until that point, and even beyond it, that motivated him to put pen to paper and record the song. What matters most after 51 years? Consider Rowe’s answer.

James Rowe had come from a far distance and been in and out of several vocations when his words about liberation in 1916 came to him. Perhaps it was the experience of one or more of those episodes that helped his mind and spirit form the words to describe how he felt. Was it working for the Irish government, and then later leaving that job and his homeland that helped him appreciate his redemption? What about working on the railroads and then later as an inspector up and down the Hudson River in New York state? He started writing at some point, probably for the same reasons many people do, and kept at it. The work he was in at first, and then on a second try, and even a third time must have been incidents that were less than fulfilling. Writing oftentimes starts as a hobby, a way to find some spark that motivates and renews you. After three different occupations, maybe it was his “hobby” that he decided should in fact be his life’s calling. His beliefs were strong, and what better way to express them than in poetry put to music? He must have felt very certain by the half-century mark that what he’d chosen was the right path. ‘Sweet is the song’ he said, and he couldn’t get over what the gift of redemption meant, what having a certain future – a heavenly one – ensured for this guy who had adjusted his earthly course several times in the previous three decades. No matter what had been, and what was still to come, Rowe exulted. In all of his verses, his spirit surged over what he knew was true, dwelling on some immutable certainties. Being saved, and having Christ in his present and future were not debatable issues for Rowe in 1916.

As he wrote hundreds of songs (up to 2,600) for music publishers in Texas and Tennessee, James Rowe had the advantage of thinking over and over about his spirit’s destiny. His life hadn’t been without mistakes, like any mortal. Was his memory bothered by shortcomings? Sure. There were probably things that distressed him to a degree. By the time his hair was turning gray (if he was like other 51-year olds) he must have concluded that some rotten things would never go away, but that that was OK. Focus on what’s to come, and what transports you there. Tell others how this confidence feels. That’s when you’ll be mouthing Jim Rowe’s words.      

Biographic information on composer: