Saturday, February 28, 2015

Restore My Soul – Sylvia Rose

Sylvia Rose had been doing what all good teachers and counselors do, and yet it had worn her down in 1985. People who care about others for a living may often experience this phenomenon, but do they find their way out of the debilitation the way Sylvia did, with something like “Restore My Soul”? She began this rather unique experience during a visit to Fort Worth and Terrell, Texas (see map here; Fort Worth and Terrell are west and east of Dallas, respectively) 
with a method that probably other musicians have employed – music. Yet, the way this incident played out in prayer and resolved her dilemma was something she could never have predicted. After all, could she have imagined that what had driven her into such a depression would actually turn her spirit around? This episode’s result may have caused her to reevaluate her impact on the people she assumed were impervious to her influence.

Sylvia Rose was a teacher and music-maker who was in the midst of her life’s work in Michigan in the middle-1980s when she needed a break.  (Her song’s story in her own words is complete in the link below at the end of this blog entry.) She loved teaching and music, but her career had a drawback that was beginning to gnaw at her conscience. How could she persuade students to avoid choices that would cause them so much pain? She saw substance abuse and sexual promiscuity among many she was mentoring, yet seemed powerless to sway them toward healthier lifestyles, though she tried. Her anxiety-relief solution, at least temporarily, was a trip to a conference in the Lone Star state. Even so, her spirit was so low that she attended only evening sessions of the event, and instead spent the daytime with a piano at a friend’s home. Her musical-prayer times in solitude were the genesis of the song she would write – ‘Give me restoration, revival, renewal’, she cried out to Him. One evening’s conference time following her prayer seclusion gave her the results she sought, although she did not recognize its translation initially. It was young people and their many problems that had compelled her brief sabbatical, so when one of those former mentees greeted her that night with an envelope, she presumed it was another cry for help. She ignored the envelope’s contents until later that night, feeling she was too spiritually deficient to step up so soon to the counseling role again. But, alone later in bed, she discovered it was a note of gratitude and a small check from this former student. It was a light-bulb moment – here was God’s answer to her prayer! The rest, as someone has said, is history.

What does the rearview mirror look like, particularly if it follows a tough scene? Sylvia might have answered differently after “Restore My Soul” came to life. She hadn’t wasted time advising students after all, had she? At least one looked in his rearview mirror, and saw her.  Perhaps it dawned on Rose with new meaning, that she’d been a seed-planter, privy to the seed’s growth only after she’d already departed from the vicinity of its soil. ‘Occupy the path of someone He wants me to contact, although it’s not forever’, Sylvia might have said to herself. It might be just a few years in somebody’s school experience. Just be a pointer. The forever angle comes from another person who’s watching my life unfold.      

The story at the following link, the composer’s website, is the only source for this song scoop:

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Shall I Crucify My Savior? -- Carrie Elizabeth Ellis Breck

How could a 41-year old housewife and mother be of a mind to kill another person? Someone might have had that question mark about Carrie Elizabeth Ellis Breck, upon reading the text of a poem she crafted and labeled “Shall I Crucify My Savior?” She was a devout Christian, a model of the Christian wife, in fact. Really, the only mildly offensive characteristic of Carrie Breck might have been the sound of her singing voice -- hardly a criminal offense.  Was there a hidden life, some furtive element that she wanted to confess as she penned the words of this hymn in 1896? And how might she commit such a felony, this woman whose frequent posture in a rocking chair with a child (like one seen here) was hardly menacing?

That Carrie Breck became the author of so many songs for Christian believers to learn is at once a startling, yet conceivable fact when her biography is opened. Her faith was nurtured initially by parents, and indeed the artistic derivative of these beliefs undoubtedly developed when she was young. She wrote poetry even as a youngster, much of which was published. Yet, her ‘voice’ would be limited to that heard through her pen, since the audible tones she could make were most often off-key. This irony—that a hymn-writer lacked the melodic gift, pleasing to the ear—evidently did not discourage Carrie, however. Her 2,000 poems indicate she was blessed with rhythm, if not the vocal musical expression of them to match. Her role as a wife and mother also reportedly restricted her artistry for a period after her 1884 marriage. But, she must have adjusted, for it’s said she generated some of her thoughts during this period while engaged in household tasks, or perhaps as she took a breather and sat with a child on her knee. “Shall I Crucify…?” was evidently so-conceived by this middle-aged New Jersey mom and homemaker. But, her mood at the time of the hymn remains invisible, except for what she reveals in her words. What was happening that made her so sensitive to her Savior’s welfare? Was it something she confronted often in her lyrical conscience?

Carrie Breck’s faith, if it was like others’, must have compelled some self-examination at times. She does not explicitly answer her own musical question, but we can presume she’d already inwardly responded by posing this troubling proposition. How did Carrie crucify Jesus, someone she professed to love and follow?  She implies she had dishonored his name (v.1), paid more attention to the world’s lures (v.2) , and with her human nature driven him to Golgotha (v.3). What’s a housewife’s life got to do with killing the Lord? It seems she felt that she hadn’t kept Him in His rightful place. When I flunk at this, as Carrie must have felt, I find the fallout is that I also fail--miserably—at human-to-human relations. Get it right with Him first, she might say. Think that might make my human links better, too? It’s worth the attempt.     

See these websites for brief biography:
Some biographic information on the composer was also 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.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

I Must Tell Jesus -- Elisha Albright Hoffman

Elisha Albright Hoffman was doing what might seem to be a natural, expected thing for a minister to do one day, when a reverse-ministry circumstance – a kind of boomerang – happened to him in Lebanon, Pennsylvania (see location on map here). Was it the first time that he talked with some spiritually needy individual, and the person almost immediately absorbed his help, and gave back some words that stuck in his brain? “I Must Tell Jesus”, he had first uttered, but perhaps little knowing at that moment that this assertion would endure beyond a few hours. Or, on the other hand, maybe Hoffman had grown accustomed to unexpected musical encounters. See what you think.

Elisha had been a minister for some time by his mid-50s, as the end of the 19th Century approached in 1894, but the episode that led him to “I Must Tell Jesus” may have had some elements that were different from the rest of his ministry life. Although he was a native Pennsylvanian, he ministered for the vast majority of his career in several churches in Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan between 1880 and 1922. So when he visited a discouraged believer in 1894 in a southeast Pennsylvania community, this was evidently a pretty small dot on the map of his life’s work. Whatever had brought him there was brief, yet meaningful. Hoffman’s own memory indicates he had visited a woman on multiple occasions, including one day when she was so depressed about her many struggles and listened intently as he read various bible passages to lift her. What would these have been – words of Peter (1 Peter 5:6-7), Paul (Philippians 4:6-7; Ephesians 3:14-20), James (5: 13-16), and even Jesus (John 14:27)? Elisha must have been very familiar with sharing God’s word with people, but had others responded as this woman apparently did, with the title of a song he’d compose later that day? Her apparently brimming confidence had struck him. The Lord is alert to reply, if I am bold enough to admit my weaknesses, Hoffman says in his prose. Newfound poise is a moment to remember, the composer must have thought to himself. God hasn’t forgotten. He’s just waiting for me to  depend on Him. Even a minister in his mid-50s can use a reminder, right?

Hoffman must have been thinking many thoughts as he left the woman whose words and demeanor still echoed in his mind. Is life here too distant from what I can read in my bible? Is it relevant? One wonders if Elisha may have pondered initially just how much he could really say to assuage this woman’s spirit. His account of the incident indicates she expressed desperation at one point in their discussion. Is that when she and the composer really rediscovered God’s ear still listens – when I have run out of options? How quickly desperation evaporates, when I am convinced He’s there – that’s another lesson to underscore here. Try it out, OK?         

See more information on the song discussed above in 101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; 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. 

Also see following sites:

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Forever Grateful – Mark Altrogge

What would push a 35-year old guy living in Indiana, Pennsylvania (see location on map-picture here) to write something that became a hit? Did Mark Altrogge think he was in the midst of ‘Plan-B’ (or even later in the alphabet) in the mid-1980s when he wrote some words about how he felt “Forever Grateful”? After all, he had already pursued art and rock-n-roll music in a band while still in his 20s. But after he became a Christ-believer during that decade, he found that God’s plan would take him in different directions than where he’d been going. His life in the various facets of his mid-30s as a father and pastor in Indiana, Pennsylvania must have seemed God-ordained and pretty time-consuming, but he found his artistic-music muscle was still something his Creator wanted him to exercise. It’s a safe bet that Mark was also reading his bible’s Luke passages to hone his spirit and form the song’s key idea. Read in Mark’s own words how this fusion played out to inspire “Forever Grateful”.    

Two  things inspired it. I went to a concert when I was a brand new Christian and the duo performed a song in which they sang words they imagined Jesus said to his Father, ‘I will seek that which was lost’ - which obviously refers to Jesus' own words about himself, that he came to seek and save the lost.  The second thing that inspired it was being taught the incredible truth that we didn't seek God, but he sought us…to learn the incredible truth that all have sinned and fall short of God's glory and that there is no one who does good, not one…that there is no one who seeks God on their learn that all of the initiative was God's - that he so loved us he sent his Son that whoever believes in him would have eternal life. Contemplating these truths, my only response could be gratefulness for all eternity.  I wanted to have a strong line to begin the chorus, and as I worked on the song, I eventually wrote the phrase "I'm Forever Grateful" which became the lyrical and musical hook and encapsulated all I wanted to say.

If you’ve ever been inspired by the music at a concert, or by the punctuating truth of bible passages, then you can identify with Mark Altrogge. Imagine how it must have been for Altrogge to have both of those resources focusing his attention. We can guess he was reading what Jesus told believers in three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son in Luke 15, and then a few chapters later (Luke 19:10) how Jesus lauded, of all people a tax man, with words that this composer echoed some 20 centuries later – about seeking and saving lost people.  On its own, seeking and saving is a daunting task. But, Jesus’ ‘lost’ statements were among crowds of sneering Pharisees, aghast at His association with ‘sinners’. Who would proceed with such a mission, in the face of rabid—in fact murderous--opposition?  We, Jesus’ spiritual siblings, should be rejuvenated, considering the stunning truth of Altrogge’s first line … ‘You did not wait for me to draw near to You…’. Has someone put himself out on a limb for you lately? Someone already did, some 21 centuries ago. Try getting in touch with that one.

The song’s story was shared with this blogger in February 2015, and is the primary source for this scoop, and is used by permission of the composer.

Also see more background information on the composer in the book Celebrate Jesus: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2003.