Saturday, June 25, 2016

I believe in Jesus – Marc Nelson

It was 1987, and this composer wanted to say that Jesus was more than an historical figure. Pilate, after all, said ‘here is the man’ (John 19:5), so he too believed, in an earthly sense. (See Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce Homo here.) It would be difficult to rationally claim He never lived, after all, since so many people recognize His life. So much has been written about Him, and even people of no faith on occasion utter His name, albeit in vain. So was Marc Nelson mulling all that over when he wrote words and music for “I Believe in Jesus”, that he wanted to be more precise with what a Jesus-belief entailed? Because it would be PC (politically correct) in a lot of social contexts to admit Jesus was a ‘good person’, Nelson may have thought more was necessary to get in the straight and narrow way. Who was/is Marc Nelson? It may be interesting to know more about this composer’s identity than his name, but how much more significant would it be to say we knew as little about Jesus?

We know nothing about Marc Nelson, other than his name and that he composed “I Believe…” in 1987. But, he certainly wanted me to know what he thought about this seminal figure, who has an otherwise common first century name. Marc said in just the space of three lines that he believed these things about Jesus: Son of God; died and yet came to life again; and, somehow ransomed everyone, despite His short life and gruesome death. Any of those statements is a mouthful. It would be extremely rare for anyone to die and yet live again – a feat accomplished today via some medical technology. What are the chances that could have happened in the first century? Merge that extraordinary event with the other two statements, and Marc has zeroed in on a single individual among the billions that have ever walked the earth. Pretty rarefied atmosphere is this claim that He’s not just any Jesus, but Jesus Christ. Marc says there’s still more, if I could only begin to really appreciate what he’s already heaped up here for me to swallow. Because He’s alive, He’s also here in His Spirit. This otherworldly phenomenon – ghostly, and mysterious, and certainly not something with which I’m entirely comfortable, I admit – elevates what Marc says onto yet another plane. But, lest I run for cover, Nelson says this present-day Jesus can heal and forgive, too. I need both from time to time, as I inhabit a form that has plenty of faults. So, Marc has me thinking about five belief exclamation points, not just one (which would be more than enough!) as I consider His identity. Is one more difficult than another in this list? Or, does belief accumulate more readily as evidence mounts and even one point’s truth seems plausible?           

If I lose my identity in Jesus, that’s OK. That’s what I can say, as I momentarily reflect on Marc’s anonymity. He’s cataloged some things about Jesus here that have me alternately cringing, and yet drawing near to Him. As He’s Godly, I cower, knowing my imperfection is naked before Him. But, He died – something I also cannot avoid— and then rose, too. That’s the God-magnet, isn’t it? I cannot ignore the Holy-Righteous One, because I need the Risen-Healing-Forgiving One. He’s a package-deal, as Marc Nelson reminds me. If I lose myself inside all this, I’m really OK. Puts a new spin on lost, doesn’t it?     

No information was gathered to reference this composer, other than the attribution shown in all versions of the song in hymnals and other media. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Servant Song – Anonymous and Jack Boyd

This professor-emeritus of music in a Texas school was, probably most would say, well past his prime, yet he thought for a while about being a servant when he put his mind to crafting some verses for a familiar song when he was a septuagenarian. (Check out this old map-picture of Abilene, TX, the site of our song for this week.) Jack Boyd may have even remembered when “Servant Song” (also known as “Make Me a Servant”) was still brand-new, and its original composer was unknown, but that didn’t stop him from adding two verses to it in 2009. It’s not clear how long servants have been singing the original verse of this song, and one might still confuse this version and Boyd’s two verses with a 1977 song about servanthood by Richard Gillard. But, this traditional version and Boyd’s two verses maintain a central theme-audience…Him above.

Jack Boyd had been around for some seven decades by the time he decided servanthood was something he wanted to address in 2009. Certainly, it wasn’t the first time this teacher of music at an Abilene university had served people. And, as a guru of Christian music, he probably was also familiar with Gillard’s ‘Servant Song’ that has its singers addressing one another. Boyd had been about the business of serving God through music since before he took a degree from the same university in 1955 where he subsequently taught for so many years. Fourteen books, scores of hymnals and compositions, and thousands of students and concerts later, Jack Boyd could have looked back with a sense of satisfaction and retired as the first decade of the 21st Century rolled along. But, he remained active with the Alumni choral reunions at Abilene, and he must have been well along in that role when he crafted his two verses about serving. Evidently, Jack wanted to keep the audience of the traditional song as the original anonymous composer intended when he added his words to it. They’re directed straight up to God, asking Him for divine molding and directing. He’s the model, Boyd acknowledged, even for someone who’s been following Him for a while and has the gray-turned-to-white and wrinkles of a 77-year old. We Christians do indeed serve our fellow humans, but the mentoring role of my Creator in my life of service hasn’t ended just because He ascended.

Serving isn’t just a temporary thing, is it? It’s not like dieting, which I might abandon eventually, bringing back the pounds. Instead, it’s a lifestyle. If I ever stop helping others voluntarily, maybe I never really sang the ‘Servant Song’ in tune. ‘Make me like You’, Jack said in 2009. He was retired in one sense, but certainly not yet done. ‘Stay young’, someone says, but how? Just ask the professor in Abilene.       

Here’s a blog entry at the university where the composer was on staff for many years:

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Make Me New – Dan Burr

Dan Burr could probably tell us what message will resonate with almost any audience, since he’s been so many places and been exposed to a wide variety of groups in his career. He’s been in thousands of concerts, so it must not be an accident that what he has to say through the music he’s brought to people is popular. What would a message sound like that would have such broad appeal? Could that have been Dan’s objective when he composed “Make Me New” in 1985? It’s not a very complex work, with just a few lines, but he must have thought nothing more was necessary to convey the essence of his thoughts. What does renewal look like, anyway? Would it mean being re-born, in the literal sense (take, for example, this picture depicting Louis VIII’s birth in France, 12th Century)?

Dan Burr’s international career must have been well-along in 1985 when he composed “Make Me New”. He and his wife Karen had been in ministry for some 40 years in 2012, indicating Dan was perhaps a 30-something when he thought about being made new 27 years earlier. Burr, unlike a biblical predecessor who shared an interest in rebirth but was confused about it (Nicodemus; John 3:4), surmised that renewal is of the spiritual nature. It hasn’t been a message he’s shy about sharing, apparently, if one even just glances at his travel log. He’s written just over 100 songs, a relatively small number, but the breadth of his effort to communicate their theme is extraordinary. The Christian message has accompanied him across the globe -- 7,000 concerts in 23 countries, from Canada (the Burrs native country) to Asia, including Russia and Israel. What must it have been like for this gospel singer and evangelist to perform for the Jewish prime minister of Israel, as a video indicates was one of his life’s highlights? He’s not afraid to knock on the doors of the powerful, including those who work in the White House, as the video also makes clear. His bold, upfront approach must have also carried a sincerity and sensitivity that has kept his hearers listening. Could it be the ‘me’, ‘my’, and ‘I’ that he uses repetitively in the few words of “Make Me New” are what resound in the ears of his audience? If you want to suggest someone make a change in his life, first begin with your own testimony-confession. My own rebirth is the best recommendation I can make to others.  

The Burrs are still at this renewal business. They have been ministering in the Los Angeles area and still reportedly travel to carry this renaissance message to anyone in the world that will hear it. Why do you suppose they’re not just relaxing in their retirement years? Perhaps the best way to answer that is with another question. How often do you think they sing “Make Me New”? Once a year, a few times annually, or more than that?  

See link here for biography of the Burrs (Dan and Karen):
This YouTube video gives a short look at the composer:!
This site may be the contact for the composer:

Friday, June 3, 2016

Be Still My Soul -- Katharina von Schlegel

She was sensing a revival of sorts was in progress in her homeland, or she in fact wanted to help spur one onward. Katharina von Schlegel lived during an era when believers in God felt a renewal of the Christian faith was at hand, a response to their parents’ and grandparents’ time when commitment to His principles had waned, and religion was mechanical. She wanted more from her faith in Him, and sought what she felt was missing in what she could read in His ancient word. It wasn’t exactly new, but perhaps because the words hadn’t been internalized quite the way they should have been, and perhaps also because difficult times were at hand, what Katharina observed felt fresh when she sat and composed, and proposed, a simple method to herself and others who listened. “Be Still, My Soul” she said, and lean on Him. Stop striving, and let Him take over.

Katharina Von Schlegel’s life coincided with the Pietist Movement of 18th Century central Europe (present-day Germany) and the Lutherans who lived there, but her hymn’s history has echoes on either side of this period. Pietism’s proponents believed in a deeper personal loyalty and practice of one’s faith toward the Creator (and exemplified in one of the period’s popular pieces of art shown here – The Broad and the Narrow Way).  It was no accident that von Schlegel would therefore be reading her bible, giving her the idea for “Be Still My Soul”. Evidently, she was focused on what one Psalmist from 1,000 B.C. was saying (46:10), perhaps because the trouble he describes throughout the 11 verses of that ancient song reminded her that, though circumstances in the mid-18th Century A.D. were not identical, she and her fellow citizens still encountered their own issues. What particularly troubled this 18th Century Lutheran woman? Grief, pain, and thorny ways (v.1), waves and winds (v.2), vale of tears and fears (v.3), and disappointment (v.4) are on her list. And, it’s interesting to note that she came upon these even as she headed a women’s seminary –institutions engaged in the study of faith are not immune, apparently. One hundred years after this German woman’s thoughts emerged, they were translated into English by Jane Borthwick in Scotland, showing her formula for managing difficulty was spreading wider. Her message, first propagated in another land nearly three millennia earlier, still mattered.

And, it’s still here two centuries later. Does anyone think this technique of managing life will ever wear out? It was actually Him who said ‘Be still’, and if I, in my faith, have not given up on Him, I don’t think I want to discard this advice, either. The problems that Katharina identified (and Jane translated for me) are too common for you and me to ignore, though band-aids sometimes help us blot them out temporarily. One problem may subside, but there always seems to be another waiting its turn to bug me. I just have to get used to using the von Schlegel instruction book more often.       
See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985.

Also see the composer’svery brief biography here:
Also see this link, showing all five original verses:
The era in which the hymn was composed is described here: