Sunday, October 30, 2016

To Christ Be True -- Elisha A. Hoffman

What was on the mind of a 61-year old minister who’d held several positions and had taken on a new position not too many years earlier, as the 20th century dawned? It shouldn’t have been too surprising that Elisha Albright Hoffman considered what human characteristics someone carries with himself from one place to another, and probably more importantly what he leans upon through difficult circumstances. Hoffman had been through many places and various situations, and so no doubt had concluded that he needed the words of “To Christ Be True” as much as others who would sing its words, as the 1900s developed.   

Many years, songs, churches, and experiences were in Elisha Hoffman’s rearview mirror in 1900, coloring what he would write as his newest ministry effort was developing. He was in Benton Harbor, Michigan at the time, a place on the far southeastern shore of Lake Michigan (see map), where he and his family had been for some five years. The strong sense of duty and loyalty of which he wrote in “To Christ Be True”, as well as the musicality he demonstrated in it, was inbred probably during his upbringing by Christian parents, including his father who was also a minister. Perhaps it was Hoffman’s first evident exhibition of duty and loyalty, albeit a short one, that showed itself when he volunteered in the Union Army in 1863 during the Civil War. His postwar education at Union Seminary was a precursor to his work at the Evangelical Association in Pennsylvania, following loyally in his father’s footsteps. During the next decade, his first wife died, leaving him a widower with three sons. Elisha would remarry and begin the first of four church ministry efforts by 1880; Benton Harbor was the third. Along the way, Hoffman would edit scores of hymnals and write some 2,000 hymns of his own, most of them probably while he was in the Michigan ministry. He must have encountered countless numbers of people in ministry by the time he reached three-score years, worshipped in various churches, and thought about what God wanted from him and fellow believers. How does one endure service in a war, suffer the loss of a young wife and have single-parenthood thrust upon you, and move around to take on new ventures in one’s chosen profession? By the time he reached 61, Elisha must have surmised that God provides. Why wouldn’t some choose to enlist in His army? Though his stint as a private in the Union Army had been brief (about a month, reportedly), perhaps its imprint on Hoffman was one of the most enduring of his life, including as he thought about loyalty to his God. Were those battlefield images still in his thoughts as he wrote about unfurling the Lord’s banner in conquest (v.1), volunteering for service (v.2), and especially about confronting conflict (refrain)? Does God provide difficult experiences so they propel us toward Him, and forward for the rest of life?   

Elisha may have asked himself, as any individual might after three decades, has this been worth it? What other way has a better track record? One might imagine Elisha telling others of his own episodes, and how he managed to come out the other side. He’d had good examples, apparently, including his parents, but he was molded by his own unique set of experiences too. In Benton Harbor, Elisha reflected and realized, probably not for the first time, that he was God’s tool, wielded in various places and despite—or perhaps because of—the challenges he’d met. No one is like me, exactly. But, I have the same God available to me as you. He can meld us all together to Himself, with this glue called Christ-loyalty.

See biography of composer here:

Brief biography and list of composer’s works here:
Site describes where composer was during the time:,_Michigan

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Take Time to Be Holy -- William Dunn Longstaff

Had 60-year old Englishman William Dunn Longstaff just realized what purity before God meant in 1882? Surely he’d been around long enough to know what it took to “Take Time to Be Holy” in everyday life, but there must have been something in particular that prompted him to put pen to paper after three score years. It may have been someone else’s words spoken in New Brighton (see this coastal town on Britain’s west coast, along the Irish Sea, in the picture-painting that preceded Longstaff’s prose by some 40 years) that captured his attention, spurring his poetry. What does a wealthy, business-minded man think it takes to stand before the Great Judge? From William’s perspective, perhaps he was just vocalizing what he thought was already at work in his life in the presence of the one who’d been blessing him for so long.  

William Longstaff’s active life in a church and in his community in Sunderland, England had long been in progress by the time he composed his thoughts on holy living in the late 19th Century. Longstaff was a prosperous businessman, son of a ship owner, and philanthropic member of his congregation of believers. His financially blessed life allowed him to routinely contribute to Christian work, including when Ira Sankey and Dwight Moody visited the British Isles on a campaign in the decade before he crafted “Take Time…”. Perhaps it was one of these or another sermon on holiness (1 Peter 1:16) he heard in New Brighton that spurred Longstaff’s creativity. He reportedly also may have been inspired through hearing the words of a missionary to China. His verses may be likened to someone making a diary entry, a reflective assessment of an individual striving to improve his servant nature. How’s that happen, Longstaff must have pondered, to which his four verses respond in a common thread throughout: be in His presence. Perhaps William had arrived at a point that he thought his devotion, though already significant, could go deeper. His spirit was already genuinely engaged, including through his role as the treasurer of his congregation, so what else did he need to do? Remember to pray, study, and fellowship with other believers (v.1). Then, be with Him some more, to mimic Him (v.2), and be directed by Him (v.3). If, despite his walk, William had at times felt the stress of his world, he found His serenity (v.4) in this renewed effort at holy living. ‘I’ll just let Him rub off on me’ might be the best way to encapsulate what Longstaff was saying.

William Longstaff doesn’t sound like what we might imagine as the wealthy businessman today. Some people plateau if they’ve been hitting on all cylinders the way Longstaff might have appeared to others. Instead, he aimed to go deeper by looking higher. No need to stop doing the good things he was doing, but rather to build on them, and see what more God could do if he strove to draw still closer. Perhaps this businessman reasoned that God was waiting to see if he was willing to refine his serve, to make a further investment. Are you approaching 60, like William, and wonder if there’s more space God has set aside for you? Is there a message there for 2016 dwellers?        

The following website has all four verses for the song, and a brief account of the song’s story:

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; 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, October 15, 2016

We Declare that the Kingdom of God Is Here -- Graham Kendrick

Sometime during 36-year-old Graham Kendrick’s life in the mid-1980s he felt a need to celebrate. So, he did this the way only a songwriter can do – by writing enough songs to fill an album. It was no accident that his inspiration came from a bible, where he read about another celebration centuries earlier, when something was first uttered, and then repeated later, as if a whole chorus had joined in to say “We Declare that the Kingdom of God Is Here”. Some might think it odd that he could say that in 1980s England (see picture of the nation’s coat of arms here), where he was born, lived, and still resides, because of the secularist movement in the nation, and indeed among many places in the world. How would one answer skeptics who scoff at God and at faith in a being one cannot physically see?   

Graham Kendrick must have been well-prepared by 1986 to defend his faith, following a childhood upbringing and an already multi-decade career writing Christian songs. He’s the son of a Baptist pastor, from which his faith roots must have been dug deep, spawning his own career as a public man of faith, through songwriting, by the late 1960s. By 1987, Kendrick and some international collaborators had bred something called the March for Jesus, including one through London in 1987. Was it possible that Kendrick and his fellow believers at the time were troubled by the secularism they observed, including in England where nonbelievers were prevalent, including the author Richard Dawkins who penned The Blind Watchmaker in 1986? One can imagine these circumstances in which Kendrick lived, and see him reading prophecy and Jesus’ preaching in his bible (Isaiah 61:1-3, Matthew 4:17) as he considered how to respond to cynics of religious faith. Kendrick’s album Make Way for The King of Kings - A Carnival of Praise, in the same year as Dawkins’ book may indeed have been Kendrick’s way to answer the cynic. His words were not his own in “We Declare…”, one of the album’s songs, but instead were akin to how Jesus responded to Satan in the wilderness – with scripture. It must have made any criticism easier for Graham to endure, knowing that he was following a well-worn path in 1986 made by the one he still follows today.  

What might Graham say today is the best way to say what he did in 1986? Taking a page out of Jesus’ way to declare His kingdom – with healing and care for the needy – Graham has been promoting something called Compassion International. By tackling poverty, especially among children worldwide, Kendrick says that over 127,000 children became believers via Compassion International’s efforts in the last year. How is the kingdom of God near, you say? It’s through us who believe, and put that faith out there for others to grab onto. Graham’s song is one of action, not just words. It’s a celebration of how He’s helped us poor beggars to help others. Amen.   

Composer’s biography here:

Composer’s official website:

Link shows the album theme on which song appears:

See link here to a movement the composer and others organized in the mid-to-late 1980s:

A counter-faith movement was part of the era in which the composer operated in mid-1980s England, represented by a book at this link:

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Come, Ye Thankful People Come -- Henry Alford

The English celebrate God’s bounty during an annual agricultural harvest, a event that Americans who are focused on a Thursday in November may not readily know. This has been going on for centuries, typically near when the full moon (harvest moon) of September rises in the night sky (like the one shown here). So, when 34-year-old Englishman Henry Dean Alford wrote seven verses of poetry (four of which still survive) that gave voice to his countrymen’s gratitude, he was agreeing that this was still a healthy exercise. But, Alford apparently said “Come Ye Thankful People Come” not just before the meal in 1844, but at other times too.  And, it made Henry think that this exercise should be about more than food the Divine Maker has chosen to give us. What he wrote shows that he thought more about another harvest, in addition to the one that makes its calendar circuit each late September in his country. His poetry incisively causes the reader to consider more than the food entering the physical body.

Henry Alford’s impression about the annual autumn harvest was just one of the ingrained lessons he gathered from his ancestors in England. His father and indeed several generations before him were reportedly clergymen in the Anglican Church, a path which Henry also followed by the early 1830s.  He was most likely in the London area in ministry when he authored the hymn that he initially entitled “After Harvest”, and which was later known as “Come…”. By this time, Henry had a reputation for thankfulness, which he often reportedly expressed after eating his meals, as well as during various other times of the day. It’s also said that Alford associated one of the Psalms (126:6) with his “Come…” stanzas. So, Henry was indeed telling his listeners to acknowledge God’s goodness for the food they’d gathered. That’s verse one, but his message didn’t stop there. He evidently thought he and everyone else were harvest too. God’s field was the people He’d watered and for whom He cared, and who Henry thought He intended to be like fruitful, abundant grain (vv.2-3). But, interestingly, just because the Lord is the farmer doesn’t mean the field is weed-free. Tares are present, so it’s apparent that Henry was reading about what Jesus said about them and the grain growing together (Matthew 13). It must have been part of Henry’s experience that good and some bad inhabited the same space, the way weeds occupy a field of corn or wheat. But there’s a time when the grain nevertheless ripens, and can be sorted away from the field’s litter. Henry no doubt saw or heard farmers regularly describe this phenomenon. He must have yearned to see what this would look like on another plane, Providentially (v.4).  

Thanksgiving in America has its roots in Old World England. No surprise there, but on that fourth Thursday in November each year, how much does one hear about the English Harvest that has taken place for far more years consecutively? I didn’t hear of the 2016 version of English Harvest a few weeks ago, yet it did take place, according to my Google search and internet news (see link below). Henry Alford’s descendents probably likewise celebrated this event. And, somewhere, Henry’s words were probably sung once again. And, can we be equally as certain that another harvest awaits, gathered from many fields? Are you certain you’re among that cornucopia?    

The following website has all four still-existing verses:
See thoughts about the song in these sources also: 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; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.  
See here for information on Britain’s Harvest Festival:
Read here about one English Harvest celebration in 2016:

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Lord Listen to Your Children Praying -- Ken Medema

It was a seminal moment. This blind therapist was reaching out, with the assistance of some of his young friends, to someone who needed to know he wasn’t alone. And that’s when something kicked in for Ken Medema, as he began to sing “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” in a hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana. No wonder Ken remembers that moment, because it was the beginning of something that has endured for over 40 years. The method he used was so effective, he’s kept it up as he’s traveled to concert after concert. He just cannot seem to get enough of relating to his hearers and reaching out with a message, and continuing to play the role of therapist.

Ken Medema didn’t start out to be a music performer, but perhaps he himself would say his life just sort of evolved that way as a result of his own development and remedy for a handicap. Perhaps one would technically call his blindness a handicap, but noting how Ken’s life has progressed makes one wonder if that has actually allowed God to work through him in a greater way. He’s been playing the piano since he was five years old, thereby learning the language of the keyboard and developing an improvisational ability that is rare. So, after a childhood and early adult years filled with musical training, it was no surprise that his professional life was proceeding as a musical therapist when he was 30 and living in Indiana in 1973. He’d probably admit that the therapy he sought to impart to hospital patients was in fact what ministered to him too from his early childhood. As he and some youths prayed for a patient one day, it was Ken’s spontaneous musical spirit that coaxed a request from his being. ‘Lord, listen to your children praying’, he asked his divine Father. He and the others sang the chorus gently as they thought about the patient’s need and the compassion of Him above. Whether Ken’s impulses at that moment also spawned the rest of the song’s three verses that eventually were recorded is not clear, but at some point he must have thought about prayer throughout history and what the future would hold. ‘Walls atumblin down’ (v. 1) and ‘..waters roll[ing]’ (v.2) speak of a composer who was aware and excited about what the Almighty had already proved He could do centuries earlier. ‘A brand new song’ (v.3) sounds like Ken was dreaming of something like what an apostle saw and heard in all our futures (Revelation 5, 14). Ken’s apparently kept going with this musical technique he initiated in the hospital, if you’ve ever been to one of his concert appearances. He’s continued singing to send messages of social import to those who will listen, and he reportedly improvises many of his works from audience and-or speakers’ requests. That habit says something about Ken’s connections and trust – both vertically and horizontally.  

Ken Medema’s last 40 years may seem like an extended episode of his hospital experience in 1973 Indiana -- maybe what you’d say is a defining moment, but not really an unforeseen moment. He’d been prepared for over 20 years to do something as a 30-year-old, after all. People around him no doubt saw the unique talent he possessed, even though blind, from his boyhood. He was a guy who could see what others could not, who evidently felt the Spirit move within himself, was waiting and serving up until he was 30, and then in a self-actualized way, went where his Father directed him. Do you think he was mimicking another fellow who started something special around his 30-year mark?      

See the song story in this source: 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 biography of composer here: