Thursday, January 15, 2009

Above the Bright Blue

Praise for the Lord #11

Words & music: Charles E. Pollock, 1903

Charles Edward Pollock, 1853-1954, was a gospel songwriter active in the first two decades of the 20th century, mostly writing tunes for other people's lyrics.(Cyberhymnal) Except for "Above the bright blue", none of his works have retained much currency, though his "Beautiful Bethlehem bells" appears on some web sites dealing with Christmas music.(

Stanza 1:
There's a beautiful place called heaven,
It is hidden above the bright blue,
Where the good, who from earth-ties are riven,
Live and love an eternity through

The apostle Paul, writing from a Roman prison, knew that his ties to this earth could be cut at any moment. And though he did not want to leave his work unfinished, he could honestly tell the Philippians, "I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better."(1:23) I will have to admit that I am not there with Paul yet; I am still too tied to the affairs of this life, the strength of my faith is still too intermittent, to honestly say that. But I am closer than I was, as the years go by and I see the meanness that goes on in this world and the general futility of even the more positive things that this world tries to do.

There is another kind of "earth-tie" that is more personal: "But I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?"(Romans 7:23-24) We try, and try again, and try again, but the life of righteousness and holiness that we seek remains just one foolish stumble out of our reach. Hopefully we are at least aware of our faults, and consistently trying to overcome them through the Lord's help. But won't it be wonderful when there is no more temptation? No more moments of weakness, pride, or carelessness that lead us astray? "And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."(Romans 8:23)

Above the bright blue, the beautiful blue,
Jesus is waiting for me and for you;
Heaven is there, not far from our sight,
Beautiful city of light.

One of the things I appreciate about this text is its approach to describing heaven. Instead of the somewhat materialistic tone struck by other "heaven" songs from Pollock's era, the focus is on the spiritual. Stanza 1 talks of a place where we will "live and love"; stanza 2 calls it a "land of sweet rest", as opposed to the "earth-ties" of stanza 1; but the central idea, reinforced by the refrain, is that "Jesus is waiting". It is a "beautiful city of light" because "the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb."(Revelation 21:23)

Stanza 2:
This land of sweet rest awaits us,
Some day it will break on our view,
'Tis promised by Christ the Redeemer,
To His followers faithful and true.

You may be familiar with the famous tagline from the commercials of a certain clothing store: "I guarantee it." You may have been irritated by the speaker's voice, perhaps even mimicked it (proof that those advertising dollars were well spent!), but everyone in the TV viewing area of a Men's Wearhouse knows that gravelly-voiced George Zimmer guarantees his store's services. In a recent interview he discussed how important that slogan really is to him; he wants to run a business that has integrity, and he knows it has to start from the top. We judge a promise based on the one who stands behind it.

Jesus promised that there would be a place for us after this life: "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also."(John 14:1-3) We do not know what it will be like to pass from this life, and it frightens us; there is much we do not know about that next life, and it makes us wonder; but we know Jesus promised, personally, that He would take care of it. He guarantees it.

Stanza 3:
We know not when He shall call us,
Whether soon, the glad summons shall be,
But we know, when we pass o'er the river,
The glory of Jesus we'll see.

One of the most powerful lessons on the need to be ready to meet the Lord at any time is from a parable of Jesus, recorded in Luke:

Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!(12:35-38)

Firefighters on duty at a station keep their clothing, gear, and vehicles in a state of readiness so that they can deploy for action within a few minutes. They might be asleep, or eating, or watching television, or playing cards, but when the alarm sounds they are ready to go. They can do this because: 1) they have acquired the proper training and equipment, 2) they refresh their training and maintain their equipment on a regular basis, and 3) they keep a state of mental readiness, regardless of the activities of the moment, remembering the purpose for which they are on duty. "You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."(Luke 12:40)

About the music: This is a well-written example of the traditional congregational gospel song; the harmonies move very logically and predictably, and the part-writing of the voices is particularly well done, being both technically correct and easily sung (a good combination). I suspect that Pollock wrote the alto part against the melody, then the bass, and filled in the tenor last. The alto tends to run in parallel harmony with the melody, and the song functions fairly well even as a soprano-alto duet. For smaller congregations that may not have strong basses and tenors (or any basses and tenors!) this kind of writing is a blessing.

A little bit of criticism: If you follow the link above to "Beautiful Bethlehem bells", you can read (and hear, in all its MIDI glory) why Pollock was not exactly the leading light of the gospel song era. The imagery of the text is bizarre (what exactly are "Bethlehem bells" anyway?) and the language is that American brand of saccharine pseudo-Victorian poetry that we tend to associate today with greeting cards. Not that an archaic poetic style should keep us from singing a really great hymn--I will go down fighting to my last breath for the rich, deep language of, say, Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, to name two; they are well worth putting up with a few "thees" and "thous". But I would have a hard time convincing a young person of today that they should overlook the flowery, artificial style of many late 19th- and early 20th-century gospel lyrics, unless there is a strong message beneath the surface. The same criticism that we old codgers make of some contemporary Christian songs--"It doesn't really say anything"--can be just as true of old songs.

Turning to "Above the bright blue", it is easy to see why this is Pollock's most successful work. The language is refreshingly simple, and relatively free of poetic flourishes; as I try to read this through younger eyes, only the expressions "bright blue", "riven", "'tis", "summons", and "o'er" stand out as unfamiliar from everyday language (at least, everyday language for one familiar with basic Biblical concepts such as "Redeemer", "eternity", etc.). "Bright blue" is a fairly obvious reference to the bright blue sky; "'tis" and "o'er" are unfortunate poetic contractions that we can't seem to get along without, so they should be familiar from plenty of other songs; and "summons" is still current in our legal language in very much the same sense used here. That leaves only "riven" as a word that may leave the young reader scratching his or her head; not bad for a text of this age!

The expression "pass o'er the river" in the third stanza is a different sort of issue. You know what it means, but ask yourself how you know that. We use "crossing over Jordan" as a metaphor for death, because it was on this crossing that the Israelites entered the Promised Land of Canaan. We are also perhaps following the application of 1 Corinthians 10, which compares the crossing of the Red Sea under the cloud to baptism. As I have heard this taught my whole life, the Israelites' escaping slavery in Egypt is a type of the Christian's escape from sins, with the miraculous entry into a new life being marked by water baptism; the wilderness wandering is a type of the "church militant", the struggles of the Christian life as we fight against our rebellious tendencies and learn to be holy to God; and the crossing of Jordan into Canaan is a type of the "church triumphant", when we are released from the wanderings of this life and enter into eternity.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of songs follow this metaphor--"Deep river", "On Jordan's stormy banks", "Down by the riverside", "Shall we gather at the river?", etc. Perhaps this image is so common that we can expect anyone, even the unchurched, to be aware of it; but it is good to realize the common cultural references we assume. So far as I am aware, the Bible never actually applies "crossing the Jordan" to the Christian's death and entry into paradise; it seems a valid comparison, but it is one we have constructed ourselves. (If I am wrong, please let me know!)


Cyberhymnal. Charles Edward Pollock.

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