Saturday, December 30, 2017

Did You Think to Pray? -- Mary Ann Pepper Kidder



What would a 55-year old New York City woman need to pray about? Mary Ann Pepper Kidder did not leave a record of what circumstances spurred her hymn-poetry question “Did You Think to Pray?” in 1875, so her words allow us to draw our own meaning from what she wrote. Yet, one need not know every detail of someone’s existence (including in New York City – see its seal here) to know she must have dealt with much of what you or I have experienced, particularly if you’ve been at this life as long as she had been the year she crafted her question. In fact, like her, our own queries might take several forms, as various facets of living ebb and flow, but nevertheless lead to one overarching response. Help!

Help! It’s perhaps the one-word exclamation most analogous to how we think of prayer, and maybe that was true for Mary Kidder, too. She probably would have had several episodes to consider in her own life from what little we know of her, though two of them were apparently prior (at least a decade or more) to when the hymn may have been written. Since her life spanned the U.S. Civil War (when she was in her early 40s), we could say confidently that that four-year struggle most likely generated recurring angst that she poured out in prayer to God. It’s also reported that she had suffered temporary blindness as a teenager, a condition that undoubtedly would have spawned calls to the Divine for help. What one of us would ignore God if so physically challenged? Were these the incidents that caused Mary Ann to call out to Him? Her own words give us clues regarding what general issues she thought were paramount in her prayer life, voiced as questions to her fellow believers in four verses. Protection for the day in front of me – that’s what Mary Ann thought about first (verse 1). Did city-life in New York offer dangers that made her feel vulnerable? She would not have been alone with such apprehension. She also thought about temptation that can lure the unaware into hazards, and asked for His countervailing presence (v. 2). She considered how anger toward others might fester inside herself, and petitioned that instead forgiveness might be extended to wrongdoers (v. 3). Finally, she prayed about undefined trials, capable of producing deep depression (v.4). Could these trials have been the war events or the blindness she experienced earlier in life, or some other life-changing incidents? Had she lost someone close to her, or was another health issue afflicting this 55-year old or someone else in her circle?   

Mary Ann’s response to prayer (in the song’s refrain) is what I would want, when or if I choose to pray. I want my prayer’s result to upend my perilous condition. ‘…rest the weary’ is how Mary Ann saw the outcome of praying. A sleepless night fades away, and ‘night (becomes) day’ in her account of prayer’s impact. Are they magic words that give prayer its potency? Nah…just God. And, He’s enough.            

See these two sites for very brief information about the composer: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/k/i/d/kidder_map.htm

Sunday, December 24, 2017

God of Grace and God of Glory -- Harry Emerson Fosdick



Harry Emerson Fosdick was inaugurating a new chapter in his Christian walk in 1930, and so he crafted a poem-song to commemorate the occasion. “God of Grace and God of Glory” was a prayer that Fosdick voiced, or perhaps one might even characterize it as a dream or vision that he hoped would come to fruition at the brand new Riverside Church building in Manhattan (see its flag here), New York where he was beginning anew at the age of 52. Fosdick was no stranger to controversy, and he had undoubtedly prayed countless times for the fortitude to press on in the face of criticism. The song he and the members of Riverside sang that day launched a history of what Fosdick and others would do at this new structure. They saw themselves in a unique position to influence events not just in the local neighborhood, but worldwide. One might say it was a vision worthy of the magnitude of the Creator whom Fosdick and others sought to serve.      

Harry Fosdick was not one to back down from disagreement or shrink from going where he thought God’s will directed him to go. His mid-life ‘crisis’ had just occurred in the previous few years of the 1920s before he composed “God of Grace…Glory”. He was a liberal-progressive minister at a Presbyterian church in the 1920s, although he had initially ministered as a Baptist during the first 10-15 years of the 20th Century, including as a chaplain in France during World War I. Because of his views – that one’s Christian faith could evolve, and ‘modernize’ – he was the target of fundamentalist Presbyterian critics. He authored several defenses of his position, but he also decided to move to another church, returning to his Baptist roots, in the Manhattan borough in New York by 1924. By 1930, one of that church’s members (John D. Rockefeller) funded the construction of the Riverside church, where Fosdick began a new ministry. Harry foresaw Riverside as a resource for the metropolitan community – a place to serve the social, educational, and worship needs of its people. In the following decades since its dedication, the Riverside Church would be the scene where various social, political, and religious issues both nationally and internationally, were addressed publicly. Fosdick must have noted this possibility, not only as part of his personal inclination, but as a happenstance of Riverside’s location – next to Columbia University and in the heart of New York City, and therefore an intersecting point for the social and political figures of the nation and this Christian community. ‘…Wisdom….Courage’, as written in the refrain in Fosdick’s poetry, were indeed two commodities that he could see the Riverside Church would need in abundance. War, racism, and worldwide health issues were just some of the topics of conversation discussed there over the coming years.    

Riverside’s history, perhaps due at least in part to what Harry Fosdick helped inspire, provokes a number of questions. What should a church be saying to its community? Should it ‘fit in’ or challenge the citizens to stretch themselves? Should Christians be comfortable and served by the ministerial staff, or should the community also be admonished to spread His kingdom? Would you or I agree or be comfortable with all that happens at Riverside? Maybe not, but they are intersecting with the world about them, undeniably. God can pour his power on people, as Harry writes in his first verse, and offering them grace and help in the world in which we all live must be His will, agreed? Jesus did no less. That’s how he got to talk to them. Let’s get conversations started.        

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. 

See a biography of composer here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Emerson_Fosdick
See here information re: the church where the composer ministered:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riverside_Church

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Gentle Shepherd -- Gloria Gaither



She was a new mother, parenting without any experience, and evidently fairly aware that she and her husband might get some things wrong. Gloria Gaither says she and her husband Bill needed a “Gentle Shepherd” to help them guide their young, in the same way an owner cares for each sheep. Admitting that one is na├»ve, without all the correct procedures and ultimate answers, was a lesson that Gloria sounds like she probably re-learned as she and Bill dealt with each of their children. No two kids are the same, and so the gentle, light touch of the parent as an authority is so necessary for child-rearing, she indicates. How do you suppose Gloria and Bill discovered this principle?

Gloria did not just have an epiphany about parenting in a temperate, mild manner in 1974 when she and Bill began employing the gentle shepherding of their own children. Gloria shares that there were multiple sources that nudged them into this approach, toward this ‘gentle’ direction. Her mother urged Gloria as a teenager in a poem to follow the ‘Great Shepherd’ (God), some foundational advice that was rooted in various scriptures (Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, John). She notes in the few pages of the “Gentle Shepherd” story that parents play a balancing act with their kids – firm control versus autonomy, admonition versus loving support. It was the constancy of God’s words that helped the Gaithers maintain an equilibrium, though how His precepts are applied to each new generation of children must be carefully measured, Gloria writes. She indicates that she and Bill drew upon the Spirit for discernment plenty of times. How else would one know how to shape the God-given gifts of each child and mold them for a future that neither parent could forsee? It’s a recurring theme in multi-generational families like the Gaithers’ clan, which Gloria shares had evolved by the mid-2000s so that the once-upon-a-time parents had grown into grandparents.  Their own kids have birthed five grandkids, and so what was passed along from Gloria’s mother -- and probably long before her, in fact – to Gloria and Bill, and now to their own children and grandchildren, will keep regenerating and reeducating each of their progeny, because of its timeless source.

Gloria relates how a trip to England with her daughter’s family reminded her once again of how sheep and their caretakers behave. The sheep often stray, sometimes into dangerous territory. And, the shepherds are very cautious with those under their care, aware that the sheep are vulnerable, easily misled creatures. We, like the sheep, may be misguided, but at least in admitting our condition, we can run to and cling to a protector, a wise one we know is compassionately looking out for our welfare. Am I in danger, susceptible to all sorts of peril? Sure. But, my God is sure, too. Breathe easier in His embrace, fellow sheep.               

The primary source for the above song story is the book Something Beautiful: The Stories Behind a Half-Century of the Songs of Bill and Gloria Gaither, Faith Words: Hachette Book Group USA, New York, NY, 2007.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Hide Me O My Savior -- Fanny Crosby



By her own admission, she did not remember penning the words to this, so it would not be surprising that she would also not know why she had crafted the words. But, when you’ve authored thousands of compositions, you couldn’t expect to recall each one – and so it was with Frances Jane (Fanny) Crosby. Was she asking for herself or someone else, when Fanny wrote “Hide Me O My Savior” in 1886? There must have been plenty of episodes when she realized that, even though she’d written the words, she was in fact merely a conduit for what her Creator wanted to accomplish. Even she, a blind senior citizen at age 66, was not all used up, and considering where she probably was (she was active among several missions in Manhattan, including the Cremorne, shown here), she must have been an inspiration to those whom she encountered. Above all, she wanted to identify with the hurting, and urge those same people to identify with Him.     

Fanny (also often characterized as Aunt Fanny) had a lengthy career writing about her Savior, even though she did not begin until she was in her mid-40s and undoubtedly mingled this aptitude with other pursuits. For the next 50 years she composed nearly 9,000 poems that were put to music, including this hymn about hiding in her Savior. Its exact date of composition is unclear, even though it was first published and included in a hymnal in 1886. Crosby’s own memory of “Hide Me…” was that she did not remember it; indeed, she says that upon hearing it in a Massachusetts gathering of believers, she insisted that a companion (Ira Sankey) reveal its author’s identity.  If she was writing autobiographically, the first verse’s concluding words – ‘…let me see thy face’ – suggest she was eagerly anticipating the next life and renewed eyesight. Were verses two and three, in which she alludes to trials, also about herself, or others instead? The ‘raging storms’, ‘troubled sea’, ‘breaking heart’, ‘weight of woe’, and ‘(someone) in tears’ could have indicated she observed others in trouble, a very likely possibility among the multitude of people she would have encountered in the various missions where she was involved between 1880 and the end of the 19th century. Many of her hymns were sung, perhaps for the first time, among the inhabitants of Manhattan’s slums. Who would have appreciated more the sentiment Fanny shared regarding a life needing God’s protection?       

How much has changed in the 130 years since “Hide Me O My Savior” was crafted by Aunt Fanny? Many major urban areas are home to the homeless and accompanying shelters, things that many of us avoid personally, and observe most often only in dusty, faded pictures of the Great Depression. This was before Fanny was around, but her era had its own destitute folks, those among the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:40-45). Thousands still walk the hard road today, even in our nation’s capital, so “Hide Me…” still resonates for them. I have a roof, nice clothes, a car, a job, friends…wealth, actually. But, don’t be tricked by all that. You and I still need to hide, more often than ever. Fanny’s words are still relevant.

See the following sites for information re: the composer and the song:
http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/c/r/o/crosby_fj.htm

Sunday, December 3, 2017

I Will Pray -- Annie Cummings



Her name was Annie Cummings. She prayed…a lot. That’s about it, as far as the details about her and why she chose to stress this spiritual habit when she said “I Will Pray” in the latter decades of the 19th Century (about 1875, according to at least one hymnal).  Annie is one of the many who are virtually anonymous among hymn-writers, though their compositions have somehow survived. What she said was so complete, yet uncomplicated. There’s a pattern to what she says of this spiritual practice, and something she indicates will translate from mortal existence to the perpetual hereafter, which makes her subject one that the believer cannot ignore. Do you pray as much as Annie apparently did?

Annie Cummings is unknown, but she must have been praying for many of the same reasons that you or I might today, close to 150 years removed from her era in the last quarter-century of the 1800s. She evidently felt she wanted or needed to talk to our Creator multiple times daily – morning, mid-day, and evening. What would spur a God-believer to do so? Any number of issues might make a person feel that prayer has to be as constant as possible. Health is probably number one, right? How’s it feel when mortal existence is no longer taken for granted? The body breaks down, we all know, but that reality doesn’t make my body’s troubles any more endurable. To put it bluntly, it’s not fun feeling like a lab rat in a hospital, even if I know the medical folks are trying their best to evaluate my health precisely and diagnose a solution. It’s just that oftentimes that medicine tastes awful! Was this Annie’s situation – a personal health challenge, for herself or someone close? There are many other causes that could drive me to my knees, too. Finances, relationships, work…how many more can set to flowing the mental imagery, either ongoing, in one’s past, or anticipated in the future? That’s what Annie might have been driving at with her first three verses, as a believer manages life daily as the sun rises in the sky, beats over us at noon while we make a living and go about the routines of life, and then sets to mark our day’s end.  But, Annie didn’t stop there. She causes us to consider, if He has us praying here and now, is that a habit that He wants to stop? Will I pray in eternity, too (verse 4)?

If it’s a spiritual habit today, this talking and sharing with God, drawing near to Him, why would I want it to stop when I die? Was ‘life’s glad morning’ (v.4) far off for Annie? Or, rather for someone she knew? ‘Pray unceasingly’, He says. And, when I know others are interceding for me, I also find that this praying draws me closer to others here, who share what I’m experiencing, who will be where I’m heading. He’s there, and so will these fellow prayer-travelers, us who urge each other forward and upward with our mutual entreaties each day. Annie was probably on to something, don’t you think?
 See the following two websites for mention of the composer, but which lack any biographical information on her: