Thursday, February 19, 2009

All Things Work Together for Good

Praise for the Lord #27

Words: Thomas O. Chisholm, 1935
Music: Lloyd O. Sanderson, 1935

Here we come to the first of several collaborations from one of the most fruitful songwriting teams to be found in our hymnal. Lloyd O. Sanderson was the music editor (among other roles) for the Gospel Advocate company in Nashville, Tennessee, and produced three editions of the influential Christian Hymns songbook, in 1935, 1948, and 1966. Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960) is no doubt best known for his fine hymn "Great is Thy faithfulness"(PFTL#190), and among the Churches of Christ, for the text of "Be with me, Lord"(PFTL#40) which is sung to music by Sanderson.

I have not been able to discover the origin of the Sanderson-Chisholm connection, but it existed well before Sanderson's first hymnal appeared. Because of limited means on the part of each, they developed what became a rather close friendship by means of mail. Sanderson had been raised in the Methodist church, and no doubt might have become a minister in that faith as Chisholm did, had he not determined in his early adult life to be baptized into the simple New Testament faith. His autobiographical statement shows a feeling of kinship to Chisholm; despite their doctrinal differences, they shared a deep love of the Scriptures that made their cooperation in songwriting possible.(Sanderson)

Their collaborations that we have in Praise for the Lord also include "Be with me, Lord"(#40), "Bring Christ your broken life"(#67), and "Buried with Christ"(#85). All of their work in our hymnal was originally written for and published in Gospel Advocate's Christian Hymns of 1935. Chisholm's other texts in Praise for the Lord are "Great is Thy faithfulness"(#190), "Living for Jesus"(#402), "O to be like Thee!"(#499), and "Only in Thee"(#519). Like most hymnwriters, he wrote many more texts that are forgotten; but this is an impressive list. Most of these songs might be heard on any given Sunday at more traditional Churches of Christ around the U.S.

Stanza 1:
Whatever may come to me,
In this changeful life below,
My Father will make it all
Work for good to me, I know.

All things work together for good, for good,
According to His purpose,
According to His word;
All things work together for good, for good,
To all His redeemed ones,
To those who love the Lord.

Change is the constant of our lives. It may be good, bad, or indifferent, and it may be hard to tell at the time which of those it will prove to be. Proverbs 27:1 warns, "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth." But we should be reassured that the changes that come in life are in God's hands. The life of Joseph is a great example. Most, if not all, of the changes he saw looked to be for the worse--until God set him up as the number two man in the world's most powerful empire. Truly, "He changes times and seasons; He removes kings and sets up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding."(Daniel 2:21)

We can also be assured from the story of Joseph that whatever else may change, God does not. Apart from His committment to protect and provide for Joseph as an individual, God had promised to make of Abraham a great nation. When God's plan came to fruition, not only was Joseph vindicated, but a broken family was healed, and a nation was saved from famine. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change."(James 1:17)

But most of all, Joseph's story shows us in vivid detail how God may "work all things together for good". Many of the "things" themselves were not good at all--the favoritism of a father, the murderous jealousy of some brothers, the vindictiveness of an adulterous wife, even the crushing famine that affected many scores of people beyond those directly concerned in Joseph's circle. Our reassurance comes, not from any promise that we will be sheltered from evil events, but from God's ability to work from these things even greater goods than we could have imagined. Chisholm's text is obviously a rendition of Romans 8:28, "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." The emphasis is on God's working of good, and on "those who love God" who learn to see those good ends toward which He bringing us.

Stanza 2:
So little I understand,
Much is veiled in mystery,
"His ways are past finding out,"
'Tis enough He telleth me:

Scripture is plain on this point--there is much we do not know or cannot understand about this life. "For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?"(Ecclesiastes 6:12) Job wanted answers about the tragedies that befell his life, but had to admit, "Who will say to [God], 'What are you doing?'"(Job 9:12) Chisholm is quoting here from Romans 11:33-34, "How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?"

A verse well worth the memorizing, in full, is Deuteronomy 29:29--"The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." As Jesus said to His apostles just before His ascension, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority." But it is most definitely for us to study His word, and to trust in great promises such as Romans 8:28.

Stanza 3:
There's nothing I need to fear,
Be it loss or tears of pain,
A blessing will follow sure,
As the sunshine follows rain.

Numerous times in Scripture we are counseled with the words "Be not afraid." Most famously, perhaps, was when Jesus said it to His disciples during a storm on the Sea of Galilee.(Matthew 14:27) He also said it after His transfiguration,(Matthew 17:7) before His crucifixion,(John 14:27) and after His resurrection.(Matthew 28:10) Angels even said it in announcing His birth. Often, it seems, the times when people were most afraid were the times when the Lord was about to do something wonderful. Sometimes in life we feel like the Israelites in the Exodus, with the Red Sea before them and the Egyptian army behind them, and no way out. Like them, we need to "fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today."(Exodus 14:13)

James 1:2-4 counsels us as well,

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

We understand this to be true in many areas of life. There is an old saying, "People are like watermelons; you don't know if their any good or not until you thump them." Or, as I have told my son about losing chess matches, "You will learn more from your defeats than you will ever learn from easy victories." The natural world gives us great examples as well. I remember being trained, when I was a groundskeeper at Oklahoma Christian, how to prune roses. I was sure that we were killing those poor flowers! But I came to understand that we were "opening up" the plant to more productive growth, and that what we were removing would only hold it back. Additionally, the stress of pruning would force the rose to react by growing more energetically, and would ultimately make it stronger and more beautiful.

Stanza 4:
'Tis mine but to do His will,
His to weave the pattern fair,
'Tis mine to accept by faith
What mine eyes shall see up there.

Weaving is a fascinating craft to watch being done, and has long been used as a metaphor for lives and destinies. In both weaving and in life, you cannot determine what the finished product will look like by examining individual threads. There are endless potential combinations, and only as the pattern is set down do we gradually see what the resulting image might be. Chisholm relates this familiar metaphor to Romans 8:28, picturing God as the Weaver of life, who works all the threads together into a finished product that we cannot yet see. But "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,"(Hebrews 11:1) and even though we have not seen the end result, we know that like the rest of God's creations, it will be "very good".(Genesis 1:31)

A little bit of criticism: This is not Chisholm's best text. The rhythm is a little awkward at the beginning of the second line of the stanza, where the natural anapaest "In this CHANGE-" becomes forced in stanzas 2 and 4: "much is VEILED" and "His to WEAVE". The tone of the language is inconsistent, using the rather elevated "changeful" (a legitimate English word!) and "mine eyes" along with somewhat vague, casual expressions such as "up there". Still, it is a thoughtful approach to a great subject, and shows evidence of Chisholm's desire to write scriptural songs. One wonders whether Sanderson suggested the Romans 8:28 text, given the fact that he addressed the subject of providence himself in "The Lord has been mindful of me!"(PFTL#638) and also set to music "The providence of God"(PFTL#640) by Walter Brightwell.

About the music: Sanderson's choice of 6/8 meter for the stanzas was a good way to handle Chisholm's text, and smoothes over some of the awkwardness previously mentioned. The melody of the stanza, however, is a little too repetitive, and is hampered especially by returning to G at the end of the first three phrases. The decision to change meter for the refrain is another example of Sanderson's admirable penchant for experimentation. James McGranahan had done something like this in "I will sing of my Redeemer"(PFTL#300), moving from 9/8 to 12/8, and "Sinners Jesus will receive"(PFTL#588), going from 3/4 to 12/8. Sanderson's refrain is better than the music of the stanza, but has one clinker at the line "To all His redeemed ones": in my opinion the word "all" should have come on the downbeat of this measure, and "To" on the fourth beat of the measure before. As it is written, the rhythmic emphasis of the line is "TO ALL His re-DEEMED ones", when it would be much more natural as "to ALL His re-DEEMED ones".


Sanderson, Lloyd Otis. "The Lord has been mindful of me": an autobiography of L.O. Sanderson."

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