Tag Archives: hymn

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow…

My personal hymnbook was given to my by my classmate Cody upon our graduation.  It’s the hymnal of the denomination of the church we both attended at the time, of the boarding school we both attended our senior year.  Everyone in the class received one.  To me, it’s a beautiful object: img_4406

Shane Bertou recently commented that he uses a hymnal as a devotional, and I deeply resonate with that use.  This morning I cracked the book looking for something to speak to me.  I hadn’t carefully planned the dip into hymnody this week.  (Isn’t hymnody a ridiculous word?  Someone used it in conversation with me and it never occurred to me that someone would use that word for serious. I love it).

Paging through, noting songs like familiar friends and becoming surprised at many that I have no recollection of… I stopped at page 111: I Know Who Holds Tomorrow.

I probably stopped because I love the cadence of the word “Tomorrow”.  It immediately brings me show tunes and Macbeth and a feeling that I’ve called since highschool “the possibility of maybe”.

My favorite verse is the third:

I don’t know about tomorrow, it may bring me poverty, 

But the one who feeds the sparrow,  Is the one who stands by me, 

And the path that be my portion, May be through the flame or flood, 

But His presence goes before me. And I’m covered with His blood. 

My classmate (or likely his remarkable mother) gave me possibly my favorite graduation gift, a collection of songs that I sing, that I learn from, that feed me and challenge me.  Even the ones that are edited by the church that printed the hymnal, even the ones that I think seriously miss the mark theologically or otherwise.

Art is important. Music gets to places inside of us that nothing else can, poetry can do it too.  If I haven’t been clear this series; if nothing else I hope you open a hymnal.

Edit: previously I had written my classmate was named “Casey”, this is incorrect, it was Cody.  Casey is his brother with whom I worked at said boarding school.

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Now My Raptured Soul Has A Song Stuck In My Head

The opening lines of “At Calvary” will always remind me of morning chapel at the private religious boarding school I attended my senior year of high school.  All those teenagers in their uniforms, not quite awake yet singing in harmony.  It’s a wonderful song to be nostalgic about, because it’s an ideal hymn in many ways.

I think that the wonderful old timey piano arrangement has such a beguiling tune.  It’s a tune suited for a music box, catchy and pleasing to sing and to listen to.  The four verses are short, to the point, and the rhymes are not forced as one finds in some classic hymns. Written by a Moody Bible Institute staff member on the back of an envelope (the guy’s name was William Reed Newell), it’s a song that touches deep and yet does not weary.

It’s a testimony to the tune that attempts to freshen it up with an updated tune (which has been used to great effect with other hymns), results in a really depressing overworked slog (sorry, Casting Crowns).  Daniel Brink Towner, the composer of this and many other hymn melody, had such a gift (and training, the guy had a doctorate in music) for getting a song caught in your head.  Once you sing “At Calvary” in the morning at school, every time you are bored in class you will hear “Years I spent in vanity and pride, caring not my Lord was crucified”.

Here’s a great jam out of this classic hymn, as a break to my rambling:

I haven’t dug to see if Newell was doing his city wide verse by verse bible classes at this time, or if he was Superintendent of MBI yet. Some sources say that he had just begun to teach there, but I’m not sure how much it matters to me.  The verses of At Calvary express in wonderful brevity a testimony of redemption.  I look at the photo of Newell that is on every site that bios him and I see those sparkly eyes and think, that man had wit about him.

In fact, the power of such well turned lines means that I’m going to be seeking out Newell’s study materials. I’ve found some online, and I have been truly enjoying them.  I have such appreciation for a male writer who does not seem in love with his own words, and he may just fit the bill!

“Mercy there was great, and grace was free, pardon there was multiplied to me, there my burdened soul found liberty, at Calvary”

 

Wesley and White-ness

Oh Charles Wesley, I sort of love you and dislike you deeply all at once.  Though I tend toward Wesleyan and Methodist congregations out of preference, I always come to little bits of un-comfort in the writings of the Wesley brothers.

I wanted to write about “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” because I love the build up in the song,  it is just a really triumphant sounding piece especially if you are at a church with an organ and an organist who really knows how to jam.  Wikipedia tells me that this tune is by Carl G. Glaser, and the one they sing in the UK is a different tune… which if Wikipedia is to be trusted makes me wonder how much I’d like the song with a different tune.

Doing my research on this piece, it seems it was written by Wesley to commemorate the year anniversary of his renewal of faith.  I had no idea it was a 10 verse poem originally, or that it had the  verse with the very problematic imagery of:

Awake from guilty nature’s sleep,
And Christ shall give you light,
Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the AEthiop white.

See, this is what I’m talking about.  I’m all into the triumphant nature of the song and the freedom of belief… and Wesley uses the imagery of washing an Ethiopian white.

Now, I get that he lived in a time that was super racist.  I get that the missional statement of the time was that brown people needed God because they were savages.  I get the socio-political and cultural context of the poem.  It still makes me upset.  It still makes me feel like it alienates a bunch of people from the song.  Most hymnals agree, and don’t include that verse… in fact, you usually get only 4 to 6 of these verses (and if you are Wesleyan you probably only sing the first and the third anyway, haha).  But now I know it’s there.  You might say to me that the imagery is saving an African, not whitewashing them, but I think you will find that contextually that’s Saving An African, not sharing the gospel with a human who happens to be from Africa, and has way more whitewashing than a poem with imagery of whitewashing, and oh man I’m not sure how equipped I am to really address that level of Patriarchy all throughout recent Christian history in a quick blog about a hymn.

And here is where we approach the hymn as a piece of art,  a religious poem as a poem.  Is it good to just throw out the part that is racist to save the rest of the piece?  Have we missed an opportunity to talk about religious leaders as fallible people? Should we address the idea of being Clergy as a career path and the pitfalls that come along with that?  Why should it get a free pass because of time and place? Am I holding it to a higher standard than I would another piece because of it’s use in worship and is that a good thing?

As a poem, I find it fascinating to delve into.  As a hymn, I find the truncated version beautiful. As a human, I find the inherent racism troubling.  As a Christian, I find the historical context embarrassing.  As a white person, I have the privilege if I want to skip the verse, pretend it never happened as my place in the song’s internal world is secure… but I don’t think that is a good use of my privilege. What do we do with the huge swaths of our culture that were inherently passively racist?  I mean, I’m asking.

Activist, Social Worker… Hymn Writer

Fanny_Crosby
Fanny Crosby, (Photo Public Domain)

 

“Blessed Assurance” is not a hymn that I think of often.   I mean, can you think of another hymn off hand with as archaic language, or which can be half as deadly in a church service when sung horribly slow for some unknown reason?  I guess it depends on what kind of church you went to.  And yet, it endures…

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!

Oh What A fore-taste of glory divine!

It’s unfortunate how interpretation can take a vital work and make it dull.  Look at those exclamation marks!  When put with the tune, those words bloom.

Fanny J. Crosby knew a little something about writing a lyric and pairing it with a tune.  Blind from the age of 6 weeks, she was a prolific songwriter, penning over 2000 songs of spiritual and secular lyric.  She also wrote cantatas, books and poetry.  She was so prolific that she had to write under literally hundreds of pen names for her songs to make it into hymnals.

It can be easy to sing this song and find it mawkish or boring. I mean, even for Crosby every song can’t be a winner, right?   A first, superficial glance at the lyrics and they seem trite and self serving… “Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my Savior am happy and blest”… well good for you honey.  However, I think that there is something very important in the concept of this song that I personally forget to honor and it is right there in the title.

A pet peeve of mine in religious song is an over abundance of focus on meeting the Lord in the afterlife.  I mean, it’s a great thing.  It’s an amazing beautiful wonderful thing.  But I live in there here and now.  There is something to acknowledging that Jesus is mine as I serve and love right now.  I’m an heir right now, and how easy it can be to forget.  Yes, I am his but he is mine…! 

In her time, Fanny Crosby lived in the here and now as well.  I look at her photo and think of her story and song of praising her Savior (all the day long).  That woman was the first to be heard on the senate floor (reading poetry, but still).  She lived in poverty to work in the inner city of her day.  Some accounts have her struggling with the balance between socio-political reform and love/service.

For Fanny Crosby to write of delight and “visions of rapture now burst on my sight”… the idea of that kind of joy is transformative.  The photos of her make her look like an unfeeling old woman, not an innovator of the turn of the century with a strong artistic voice and passion… which is what she was.  “Blessed Assurance”, when sung with understanding, becomes a song of heirship, of power, and of daily promise of the here and now reality of an Eternal service.

Look at Fanny Crosby again… there’s something a little punk rock about her now, admit it. I’ve read so much about her legacy, and yet I don’t know that any of it conveys what it must have been like for her at all as an artist, as a Jesus lover, as a social activist, as a “rescue missionary”, as a blind woman… she left her life’s legacy to words and her soul to the assurance that Jesus was hers.