Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Empty Mansion

Praise for the Lord #26

Words: Beuna Ora Bryant Karnes, 1937
Music: Clarence A. Luttrell, 1939

This is a challenging hymn for me, because on the one hand I have trouble relating to it myself, and on the other hand I have known some fine Christians who love it very much. Having spent most (but not all!) of my life in suburbia, in relative luxury compared to most of the world, I confess that I have a hard time relating to the hardships expressed in this text. Therein, perhaps, is the disconnect that those of my generation have to get past in order to understand the attachment older Christians sometimes have to such hymns.

A genealogy site reveals that Beuna Ora Bryant Karnes (1889-1974) lived and died in Tarrant County, Texas (the Fort Worth area, just west of Dallas County). According to Mike Baker's informative post on this hymn, Mrs. Karnes met with a series of misfortunes throughout her adult life. Her husband's business--a lumberyard--burned to a complete loss; being uninsured, as many small businesses were at that time, they had to start over again. They had managed another modest success in business when the Great Depression hit; they lost all the money they had in a series of bank failures. With twelve children, they turned to sharecropping, cotton-picking, and any other means of support they could find. The year this text was written, Mrs. Karnes's father was killed by a drunk driver; her grief-stricken mother passed only three months later.(Baker)

This puts the hymn in an entirely different light. I have never sharecropped or picked cotton, but I have heard about it from those who have. And though we are concerned about unemployment and the economy today, we are talking about an era that saw unemployment at more than twice the rate of current levels--in a good year! Many lost their homes, or could not afford a first home, and had to live crowded in with relatives. Other families were separated as men traveled the countryside looking for work, hoping to send something back to their wives and children. Sometimes entire families were uprooted from where they had lived for generations, moving off to unfamiliar places where opportunities might be better. It is a perspective that makes me look differently at "heavenly reward" hymns from that era.

Stanza 1:
Here I labor and toil as I look for a home,
Just an humble abode among men,
While in Heaven a mansion is waiting for me
And a gentle voice pleading "come in".

There's a mansion now empty, just waiting for me
At the end of life's troublesome way.
Many friends and dear loved ones will welcome me there
Near the door of that mansion some day.

Jesus himself was without a home during much of His ministry: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."(Matthew 8:20) He spoke this proverb to those who expressed a desire to follow Him, warning that they must be ready to give up seeking a comfortable position in this world. Paul remarked on the truth of this in the case of the apostles:

To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.(1 Corinthians 4:11-13)

This may not be the situation for you individually, but it is not far from the mark for many Christians in the past, and in parts of the world even today. It is also not impossible for such times to return; life is uncertain. Job, for example, went from pillar-of-society to pariah in a matter of days. In view of this fact of life, how reassuring to know that we have a home waiting for us on the other side that is guaranteed:

Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.(John 14:1-3)

"Mansions", of course, is the English word chosen by the King James Version scholars in 1611, when it had a rather broader meaning than it does today. Used in the plural, it typically meant "a separate dwelling-place, lodging, or apartment in a large house or enclosure", as in Eden's A treatise of the Newe India of 1553, "They came to a low cottage... having in it two mansions," or in Potter's Antiquities of Greece of 1697, "Grecian houses were usually divided into two parts, in which the men and women had distinct mansions assigned."(OED) The wonders Jesus has prepared for us, of course, will be far beyond any earthly palace we could imagine anyway:

"He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."(Revelation 21:3-4)

Not least among our joys will be the reunion with the saints already gone to their reward, as Paul reassured the Thessalonians, when "we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will always be with the Lord."(1 Thessalonians 4:17)

Stanza 2:
Ever thankful am I that my Savior and Lord
Promised unto the weary sweet rest;
Nothing more could I ask than a mansion above,
There to live with the saved and the blest.

Hebrews 4:9 contains the sweet promise that "there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God." Just as God found a time to cease from His labors in creation, there will come a time to cease from the hurry and bustle of this world. When we are young and full of plans and dreams, this is less apparent; but I notice with the encroaching of middle age that there is a weariness and dull sameness to the cycle of life, as Solomon said:

All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.(Ecclesiastes 1:8-9)

If you don't believe it, just turn on the evening news. The wicked take advantage of the innocent; fools make the same mistakes and the wise have to rescue them; politicians make promises and then break them; the hero of one day is the goat of the next; and on and on. But there is a place of Sabbath rest with God, where "nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life."(Revelation 21:27)

Stanza 3:
When my labor and toiling have ended below
And my hands shall lie folded in rest,
I'll exchange this old home for a mansion up there
And invite the archangel as guest.

It is probably the last line of this hymn that causes younger people to squirm the most, and you have to admit it is a little corny. After reading the awe-inspiring (and to me, somewhat terrifying) descriptions of the heavenly beings that surround God's throne (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, Revelation 4), I cannot imagine sending one a social invitation. (Though it is worth noting that even the angels exhibit a great humility, as when John tried to worship the angel in Revelation 21:8-9, and was told, "You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book."

The problem still remains, for those of my generation, that we did not share the Depression-era experiences that color this text. But perhaps we can learn to see texts like this in a different light. First of all, respect the fact that many of our seniors did in fact live under such circumstances, or remember parents who did, and have a strong emotional attachment to such hymns.

And secondly, even if we do not experience the upheaval and potential homelessness as did the Depression-era poor, we certainly have experienced a loss of "home" in another sense. Perhaps no generation prior to mine (Generation X) experienced such a concerted onslaught on home and family, and it has not gotten better with those who have followed. Broken homes are so common that we learn early not to ask questions of our school friends that might embarrass them on the subject. As I type this, I cannot think of a family that I know that has not been touched in a direct way by divorce, or troubled marriages, or out-of-wedlock children. Truly, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."(Ezekiel 18:2) "Home" in the spiritual sense is something many younger people have lost, or are fearful of losing. Like Abraham, they are "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God."(Hebrews 11:10)

About the music: There was a Clarence A. Luttrell who lived and died in the town of Mansfield in Tarrant County, Texas, who is probably the same as the composer of this hymn. The Stamps-Baxter copyright on this song is further evidence of a Dallas-Fort Worth connection. The style is that of the commercial Southern gospel ballad, with a simple folk-like tune embellished with barbershop-style chromatic harmonies. Not surprisingly, according to Allmusic.com it has been recorded by well-known traditional country artists such as Grandpa Jones and the Oak Ridge Boys.


Baker, Mike. An empty mansion. Our daily walk. 6 September 2007. http://ourdailywalkdevo.blogspot.com/2007/09/empty-mansion.html

Mansion. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. vol. 9, p. 332.

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