Saturday, January 29, 2011

Blessed Assurance


Praise for the Lord #71

Words: Fanny J. Crosby, 1873
Music: Phoebe Palmer Knapp, 1873

Fanny Crosby told slightly different stories of the origin of this hymn. Perhaps better known is her account from Memories of Eighty Years,
In a successful song words and music must harmonize, not only in number of syllables, but in subject matter and especially accent. In nine cases out of ten the success of a hymn depends directly upon these qualities. Thus, melodies tell their own tale, and it is the purpose of the poet to interpret this musical story into language. Not infrequently a composer asks, "What does that melody say to you?" And if it says nothing to you the probability is that your words will not agree with the music when an attempt is made to join them. "Blessed Assurance" was written to a melody composed by my friend, Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp; she played it over once or twice on the piano and then asked me what it said to me. I replied,

"Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His spirit, washed in His blood:
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Saviour all the day long."

The hymn thus written seemed to express the experience of both Mrs. Knapp and myself.(p.168)
But in another account she tells it somewhat less dramatically, sounding as though the text was the product of a more typical process of composition, not so extemporaneous as the preceding account implies:
Sometimes a tune is furnished me for which to write the words. "Blessed Assurance" was made in this manner. My dear friend, Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp, so well known as a writer and singer of most exquisite music, and as an aid and inspiration to all who know her, had composed the tune, and it seemed to me one of the sweetest I had heard for a long time. She asked me to write a hymn for it, and I felt, while bringing the words and tones together, that the air and the hymn were intended for each other. In the many hundred times that I have heard it sung, this opinion has been more and more confirmed.(Life Story, p.145-6)
I certainly concur with her opinion! It is hard to imagine a better setting for the text, and certainly the tune and harmony do as much to carry the hymn as do the words. The effects of writing the lyrics after hearing the tune seem obvious enough; consisting as it does of short exclamatory outbursts in an unusual meter, it is hard to imagine writing this text as poetry beforehand. This is not meant as a criticism, but the text of "Blessed assurance," dear as it is to millions of Christian hearts, is not the pinnacle of English poetry. I think you could arrange the rhymed couplets of the three stanzas and chorus in any order, and it would do no violence to the overall sense of the text, unlike many hymns in which the omission of a single phrase would break up the development of the thought.

But there is nothing wrong with it in this case, and there is a long precedent behind it. The apostle Paul often burst out in praise in the middle of a thought, even in the middle of a sentence. In 1 Timothy 1:17 he exclaims, "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen," using the same technique of piling up every good and gracious thing he can think of to say to express his thanks for God's "unspeakable gift."(2 Cor. 9:15) To my ear, Crosby's text is much the same, and what it lacks in structure and poetic depth is more than compensated for by a childlike earnestness which we dare not undervalue.

Stanza 1:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God;
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

Crosby may have had Hebrews 10:22 in mind, "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water." The last line of the stanza expands on the source of assurance, likely referencing John 3:5 and Jesus's statement to Nicodemus that we must be born again "of the water and of the Spirit." Having that new birth through baptism into Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, we are thus "sealed with the Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of His glory."(Ephesians 1:13-14) Whether these verses were in Crosby's mind, or simply flowed from her as a benefit of a lifetime of devotion to Bible study, the song is certainly Scriptural!

And because of this reality--being washed in the blood of Christ, reborn through the Spirit, "bought with a price"(1 Corinthians 7:23) out of slavery to sin, to become heirs of God's rich inheritance He has planned for us--we have a "full assurance." It is no wishful thinking; our faith stands upon the promises of God, and "we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at his coming."(1 John 2:28) We have "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."(Hebrews 11:1) This is not a "hope" in the sense that I "hope" my car will start in the morning, or I "hope" my job will continue. This is a hope for the future based on a present assurance, founded on immutable truths.

Looking at the previous examples, I am not sure my car will start, because I know that the law of entropy is against me and eventually it will break down.  I am not sure that I will always have a job, because it depends to an extent upon the actions of others, and an even greater extent upon the economy as a whole and other factors beyond anyone's control. But when it comes to the salvation of my soul, I can be sure of what God said, and of what Jesus did. There is a peace and contentment in this that is truly a "foretaste" of heaven.

Refrain:
This is my story, this is my song:
Praising my Savior all the day long.

If someone wrote a song or story about my life, what would it say? If I really assess my existence, looking at what I am spending my life doing, and asking what is most important to me, what will I learn? It is hard to be honest with myself, but I fear that an honest answer would be that, most days, I am just trying to fulfill those obligations that I feel are my duty, and otherwise to get through life with a minimum of conflict and discomfort. It's not such a terrible goal--it's at least a step up from a life of wild hedonism, or of striving for money and power--but it's so much less than God called us to! Miss Crosby captures that thought in this blissful couplet: the story of my life, the song that I sing as I spend my days on this earth, should be praise for my Savior.

Charles Wesley addressed the thought in the opening line (and title) of this hymn: "I'll praise my Maker while I've breath." As long as we have life and breath on this earth, we should praise our Savior for His redeeming love for us. "Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name.(Hebrews 13:15) And though our praises should be in song and in speech, they should also arise from our actions. Isaac Watts captured this idea in the final stanza of "My Shepherd will supply my need"(PFTL#428), in the line, "...and all my work be praise." Paul told the Christians at Philippi, "It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."(Phil. 1:9-11) Even in trials (or perhaps especially in trials) we give praise to God: "...you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith--more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire--may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."(1 Peter 1:6b-7)

A running joke in my household is that, although it seems everyone has a reality TV show now, and that virtually no talent or distinction is necessary for the job, they will never make a reality show of my life because no one would watch it--not even me. Every day has its dull routine, to be sure; but God help me to remember that every day, and every interaction with another human being, is an opportunity to offer praise to my Savior, by word, deed, or both. Can you smile and hold the door open for someone? Every day can be an adventure!

Stanza 2:
Perfect submission, perfect delight;
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight!
Angels, descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

(Refrain)

"Submissive" is simply not how most people want to be described. "Stand up for yourself!" "Get what is coming to you!" "Don't tread on me!" "You deserve more!" are the watchwords of the world, especially, I am afraid, of American society today. The New Testament paints a different picture. "Submit yourselves therefore to God."(James 4:7) "Be submissive to rulers and authorities."(Titus 3:1) "Obey your [spiritual] leaders and submit to them."(Hebrews 13:17) "The church submits to Christ."(Ephesians 5:24) A father is to "keep his children submissive."(1 Timothy 3:4) "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord."(Ephesians 5:22) And before you throw those rotten tomatoes at me, we are ALL called to account in the preceding verse, "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ."(Ephesians 5:21)

"Submission" literally means "to place under," both in our English word (by way of Latin) and in the original Greek of these passages. It carries with it something of the sense of a military ordering, in which soldiers take their places according to rank.(BlueLetterBible) Now, anyone who has been around military folks knows that a sergeant is subordinate to a lieutenant in rank and authority, but that it hardly means the sergeant is inferior! An inexperienced young lieutenant will do well to watch and listen to the veteran sergeant under his or her command; but the sergeant will nonetheless show submission to the lieutenant's rank. Why? Because they both answer to a higher authority--their commander-in-chief, their oaths of service, and the discipline needed for the smooth functioning of their group as a whole. "Submission" does not mean a loss of individuality, but is a deliberate placing of that individuality under the discipline of a higher authority. As C.S. Lewis tried to get across in The Screwtape Letters, becoming one with God does not mean we lose our personalities; if anything, we become more truly "ourselves," as we were meant to be, under His guidance.

Stanza 3:
Perfect submission, all is at rest;
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

(Refrain)

Today I was privileged to sing for the memorial service of John Darrell Boren, a great Christian man whom I knew only a couple of years out of his very long life. Of course there were tears, because he was a man who left a real impression on so many lives, and we are sorry to see him gone from this life; but more noticeable than anything else was the undercurrent of joy and confidence that permeated the event. Even the most worldly person could be inspired by this man who lived a life to the fullest degree; but his fellow Christians know why he lived such a life. He was standing on that "blessed assurance." He tried his best to be "filled with His goodness," and let that goodness overflow into the lives of many other people.

We "watch and wait" for the fulfillment of that assured hope, but we are not waiting with folded hands. Paul told the younger preacher Titus that we are instead "to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ."(Titus 2:12b-13) It is about living a life--for "it is the Spirit who gives life"(John 6:63)--and living that life to the fullest, with a rock of assurance under our feet, and an eye toward a glorious future.



About the music:


Phoebe Palmer Knapp
Photo from Cyberhymnal
 One of the distinguishing features of the hymn tradition in the 19th century was the increasing impact of women. In the gospel song genre, no lyric writer is more immediately recognized than Fanny J. Crosby, and in the traditional hymn genre there were numerous successful female hymnists, such as Frances Havergal ("Lord, speak to me," "Take my life, and let it be") and the notable translator of Lutheran chorales, Catherine Winkworth ("Now thank we all our God"). Tune writing and arrangement, however, was an area in which the impact of women was still limited. The most obvious reason for this gap is that although a lady's education of that era typically involved composition, which included studying and writing poetry, her study of music was usually limited to performance, and did not include music theory beyond the basics necessary for reading music.

An accompanying factor, of course, was the lack of opportunity to study music theory and composition; whereas today nearly anyone with access to a community college can take a year's coursework in music theory, during the 19th century this was considered more the province of the professional musician and the conservatory. Additionally, despite the rise of several truly first-rate women composers in this era, such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and the American Amy Beach, there was a social expectation--stronger in the more conservative United States--that a married woman should not pursue a public career. This was part and parcel of a mindset that caused Phoebe Palmer Knapp to publish under the name "Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp," as though he had anything to do with the composition!

Joseph nonetheless seems to have supported her efforts, and he certainly knew what he was getting into when he married her--her mother, Phoebe Palmer, was a prominent evangelist and writer in the Holiness wing of Methodism, and was a significant hymnwriter herself. ("Cleansing wave" was her best known work; distinguishing the works of a mother and daughter with the same names is a real headache!)("Palmer," Cyberhymnal) When Knapp (a businessman who was later the president of Metropolitan Life Insurance) married the 16-year-old Phoebe, he involved his new bride in his volunteer work as superintendent of the Sunday School department of the South 2nd St. Methodist Church in New York City.("Knapp," Cyberhymnal; "Knapp," American Women)

A search of Worldcat.org shows that Phoebe Knapp edited at least two books of Sunday School songs: Notes of joy: for the Sabbath school, the social meeting and the hour of prayer (New York: Palmer, 1869), and  Bible School Songs (New York: Nelson & Philips, 1873) with John Heyl Vincent. She also wrote an extended sacred art song, "Open the gates of the temple," with text by Fanny Crosby, that was republished in several arrangements. It is an ambitious work, with a slow opening recitative, two stanzas describing the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, then concluding in a slower, more contemplative section in a contrasting meter. Interestingly, the final section quite deliberately quotes the aria "I know that my Redeemer lives" from Handel's Messiah. The cover of the sheet music lists a dozen or so other songs by Phoebe Knapp, including at least one that must be secular, "Watching for Pa."

Knapp's ability as a composer is hard to judge, because relatively few of her hymns are available, and the one large collection of her work, Notes of joy, was children's music and may not reflect the full range of her ability. Certainly the art song "Open the gates" reveals a broader ability than can be exercised within the confines of practical church music for congregational singing. "Blessed assurance" has a finely crafted form--in fact, when I was teaching music theory at Lipscomb University, I would often use the stanza section of this hymn as an easy-to-grasp illustration of a "double period" (a group of four phrases in which the 2nd phrase concludes in a manner that makes it a clear midpoint, having moved away from the tonic harmony, with the 4th phrase as the answering resolution of the harmonic tension.) The refrain has the same form, with the 2nd phrase building tension into the 3rd phrase, which brings about the resolution. The innate logic of such structures is seen in the fact that many singers, totally unaware of theoretical underpinnings, feel the triumphant climax of this resolution and slow it down as though to savor the moment: "This... is... my... story," etc. Another of Knapp's hymn tunes is "When my love to Christ grows weak"(PFTL#752), a gem of beautiful, functional simplicity.

(WARNING: MUSIC THEORY CONTENT) Interestingly, part of Knapp's most famous hymn tune has been given a de facto rewrite by popular usage. Look carefully at the last four notes of the stanza and the refrain ("all the day long"), and you will see they are written D-E-C#-D, or "DO-RE-TI-DO." But listen carefully to people singing this song, and you may hear instead "TI-DO-RE-DO," or C#-D-E-D. My best guess is that singers feel that the harmony under those three notes before the final chord should be the dominant chord of the key, A-C#-E. This is probably due to the fact that they are coming down from G and E in the measure before ("Sa-vior" in the refrain), and a C# on the next note would make an arpeggio of the A-C#-E-G dominant 7th chord. This chord choice also fits nicely following the G chords (subdominant harmony in the key) under those two preceding notes.

What Knapp actually wrote is a tonic six-four chord on "all" (D-F#-A), then followed by the expected dominant harmony. Look at the bass line throughout the song, and you can see that the harmony has been changing rather slowly, perhaps two chords to a measure; the sudden chord change on the last three eighth notes before the final note just doesn't quite "sell," and many singers haven't bought it. As a general rule, of course, I'm in favor of singing what is written; but when generations of singers have tweaked a melody in a certain way, there is often a reason!

References:

Crosby, Fanny Jane. Memories of Eighty Years. Boston: James H. Earle, 1906. http://books.google.com/books?id=YjcDAAAAYAAJ

Crosby, Fanny Jane. Fanny Crosby's Life Story. New York: Every Where, 1905. http://books.google.com/books?id=gKnPAAAAMAAJ

"Strong's G5293, hypotasso." BlueLetterBible. http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5293&t=ESV

"Phoebe Worrell Palmer." Cyberhymnal. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/p/a/l/palmer_pw.htm

"Phoebe Palmer Knapp." Cyberhymnal. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/k/n/a/knapp_pp.htm

"Phoebe Palmer Knapp." American Women: Fifteen Thousand Biographies, 2 v. New York: Crowell & Kirkpatrick, 1897, v.2, p. 439-440. http://books.google.com/books?id=3nAEAAAAYAAJ

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Be Thou My Vision

Praise for the Lord #70

Words: Irish folk hymn, c. 750; trans., Mary E. Byrne, 1905; alt., Eleanor H. Hull, 1912
Music: SLANE, Joyce's Old Irish Folk Music & Songs, 1909; harm., Martin Shaw, 1925

This hymn is a real treasure, a happy convergence of talents across the centuries that have formed one of the most beautiful hymns in any language. Like a historic old estate (the kind they have in the Old Country, not the kind we build from a kit in the U.S.), each addition and modification to the original structure is distinctively of its own era, but the result is no less lovely. The work of translating this to English is particularly impressive; where most poetry loses quite a bit in translation, our English text here is very close, capturing the spirit and even many of the literal phrases of the original.

video
The modern text of "Be Thou my vision" comes from a medieval Irish hymn, "Rop tú mo baile," which is found in two manuscript sources, one from the 14th century and one from the 16th. It is doubtless much older, though, because the original text is in Old Irish. It is probably at least c. 900-1100, if not older.(CELT) There is a persistent tradition that it was written by Dallán Forgaill, the chief poet of Ireland c. 600, but there seems to be no evidence to support this.("Be Thou") The 14th century manuscript, MS G 3 from the National Library of Ireland, can be viewed online; the hymn begins with the large capital "R" in the right-hand column, and ends in the left-hand column before the decorated "T" (which may strike the reader as a "U"). In the video above, Wikimedia contributor Gareth Hughes sings several stanzas of this Old Irish text to the SLANE tune; we have no record of what tune might have originally been used (it is not even certain that the poem was sung, rather than recited).

At the dawn of the 1900s, after a century of the Union Act, Ireland's Home Rule movement was at full pitch. Part of this nationalist movement was a rediscovery of the contributions of Irish culture to world history, and to the preservation and furtherance of Christianity in western Europe during the "dark age" part of the Middle Ages. The Irish School of Learning, founded in Dublin in 1903, was part of the cultural aspect of this movement, and its scholarly journal, Ériu, was a platform for this revival in Celtic studies.(Dublin Institute)

Mary Elizabeth Byrne (1880-1935) was an important voice in this movement, and would later be a major contributor to the massive multi-volume Dictionary of the Irish Language published by the Royal Irish Academy. She also edited the institution's Catalogue of Manuscripts.(Cottrill) Even as a young scholar she published frequently in Ériu, and her articles are still cited in Celtic studies. One of her early articles was "A Prayer," pp. 89-91 of the journal's second volume (1905). This was the first English translation of "Rop tú mo baile." Though originally made simply for scholarly and cultural interest, it is a remarkably powerful rendering and is not all that far from what we sing today:

1 Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

2 Be thou my meditation by day and night;
May it be thou that I behold ever in my sleep. ...

The original is in sixteen stanzas of four lines each. Most stanzas begin with the appeal, "Be Thou my...," appealing to the Lord for protection and guidance. Some believe this hymn is in the medieval tradition of the lorica (in Latin, literally, "breastplate"), a poem recited almost as a magic charm calling for God's protection.("Lorica")

In the attribution notes in Praise for the Lord we read "alt., Eleanor Hull." The "alt." ("altered") in connection with a hymn text might often mean only a change of one or two words, but in this case we have a very artful reworking of Byrne's literal translation into even-metered rhyming couplets. Eleanor Hull (1860-1935) was also a prominent scholar in the Gaelic movement at the beginning of the last century, and is still well-known for her two-volume History of Ireland and a two-volume survey of Irish literature, divided into Pagan Ireland and Early Christian Ireland. Co-founder of the Irish Texts Society in 1899, she was equally qualified to leave her stamp on this great hymn. Hull's versified rendition of the hymn appeared in her Poem-Book of the Gael in 1912.("Hull")

With minor variations and usually the omission of a couple of stanzas, this is the text of the modern English-language hymn. Hull's version is only twelve stanzas compared to sixteen in the original--she left out the confusing 11th and doleful 15th stanzas, and condensed the 7th-10th into just two stanzas. It remained only for a hymnal editor to pair this text with the right tune to create a classic; the editor was Leopold Dix, and the hymnal was the 1919 edition of The Irish Church Hymnal, the official hymnal of the Church of Ireland (Anglican communion).(Hymnal 1982) The long phrases of the SLANE tune use up two stanzas at a time, and with the omission of two of Hull's twelve stanzas we finally come to the usual five stanzas found in current hymnals.

Stanza 1:
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me save that Thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night;
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

"Vision" is a word needing some consideration. We first think of vision in terms of our sight, and in that sense we might sing this with a sense of appealing to God for Him to be our eyes; Jesus said in Matthew 6:22, "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light." We need to be sure that our vision is His vision, that we see as He sees (to the extent we are able). Do we see ourselves as He does--as flawed, immature children who frequently defy Him in our willfulness, then cry out for Him in our helplessness? And do we see ourselves thus, yet realize that He loves us anyway? Do we see others as He sees them? Do we see the dropout from society, perhaps even on the wrong side of the law, as a tragically lost child of God? An individual for whom (and from whom) God wanted and still wants so much more?

But "vision" here connotes more than physical sight. The original Irish word "baile" mean "vision" or "rapture,"(Brittanica, 631) in the sense used by the Old Testament prophets. It is "vision" in the sense of a guiding inspiration that directs the actions of today toward a desired and anticipated future outcome. Even the secular world recognizes the wisdom of Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." (Or, in the words of that great American philosopher Yogi Berra, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else.") So people and institutions focus on many different kinds of visions; accomplishing a good work, achieving a level of recognition, or becoming leaders in their fields. But the ancient Irish poet sought only this: "May God be my guiding inspiration--that fact that He is, and that He is my Lord." Ask people around you what their visions, dreams, or guiding inspirations are, and you will get many answers, sometimes revealing a sad lack of consideration of what it all means. Jesus called us to a far higher vision in His prayer to His Father: "this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent."(John 17:3)

Just having a vision is not enough; businesses and institutions sometimes spend a great deal of time and effort crafting "vision statements" that are never carried out. The rest of the stanza emphasizes the need to keep this vision, this realization of God's sovereignty over our lives, always before us. Psalm 105:4 encourages us to "seek His presence continually," and in the beautiful 139th Psalm, King David marvels that "You hem me in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence?"(5-7) If we keep the presence and sovereignty of God before us "by day and by night," as the hymn says, it will be a comfort, an encouragement, and an admonition to our daily walks.

Stanza 2:
Be Thou my wisdom, be Thou my true Word,
I ever with Thee, and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

The first line of this stanza takes on even more meaning in historical context; this hymn comes from the Medieval monasteries, where the flame of literacy, scholarship, and classical learning was kept alive in the West during the breakup of the Roman Empire and the transition to the modern nation-states. In an era when your life was defined by your social status at birth, the monasteries were attractive to talented people who wished to succeed on their own merits and pursue the life of the mind. But then as now, knowledge for its own sake can be a deceptive goal. Proverbs 4:7 warns, "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding." There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, as humorist Jerry Clower wryly pointed out when he described a man "educated beyond his intelligence." Education is a blessing if one can get it, but remember the judgment pronounced in Jeremiah 8:9, "The wise men shall be put to shame; they shall be dismayed and taken; behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord, so what wisdom is in them?"

The poet also desires to dwell in God, and for God to dwell in him. Jesus promised that with the coming of the gospel, "In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.(John 14:20) Confusing? Certainly. No less confusing than the Trinity, and no less essential. How do we abide in God, and He in us? Ephesians 3:17 says that Christ "dwell[s] in your hearts through faith." Romans 10:17 reminds us that, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." Jesus said as well, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."(John 15:7) A good place for us to start is to drink deeply from the word of God, to eat it up like our daily bread.(Deut. 8:3, Matt. 4:4) Let it build up in us an obedient faith that leads to actions in harmony with God's Holy Spirit dwelling in us.

Stanza 3:
Be Thou my buckler, my sword for the fight;
Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight,
Thou my soul's shelter, Thou my high tower;
Raise Thou me heav'nward, O power of my power.

Those who are squeamish about military imagery in hymns need not avert their eyes; a bona fide pacifist could sing this in clear conscience. Though the poet knows a conflict is coming, God's presence in his life will be all the protection he needs, "for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds."(2 Cor. 10:4)

Ireland was a dangerous place in the Middle Ages, what with Viking raids and the Norman invasion, not to mention the power struggles amongst the Irish themselves. A "buckler" is a small round shield about the size of a skillet, held in the hand opposite one's sword, used to deflect an enemy's blows (and as a weapon itself at times) in close combat. Sword and buckler were insufficient separately, but together they gave the warrior the ability to attack or defend with either arm or both as needed. In spiritual terms, the poet reminds us that God will be on both offense and defense for us as we "wage the good warfare."(1 Tim. 1:18)


The 100-ft.-tall round tower on Devenish Island, built in the 12th century to defend the monastery from Viking raiders. Photo by Rosemary Nelson, from commons.wikimedia.org.
 The poet also calls on God as his "shelter" and "high tower," familiar language from the Psalms. I cannot be certain that the anonymous Medieval poet was thinking of Psalm 61:3, "For Thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy," but I am nearly sure that Eleanor Hull was. The original Irish word was more like "stronghold," an ever-present feature of the Medieval landscape as battling feudal lords sought to defend their territories.
Just as the ancient round tower defended the physical lives of the monks, the Irish poet called on God to be "every good to me." God did not leave us defenseless in this life; as Paul told the Corinthians, "Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours, ... and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's."(1 Cor. 3:21,23) We are empowered by the One who created this universe. It was Paul's prayer for the Christians at Ephesus, "that according to the riches of [God's] glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being."(Eph. 3:16) I may not understand fully how the Spirit dwells within my inner being, but I can certainly be grateful He does!

Stanza 4:
Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise;
Thou my inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art.

This stanza actually condenses several stanzas of the original poem, which elucidate the ideas very forcefully and are worth reading in full:

7 Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.

8 Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.

9 Till I am able to pass into thy hands,
My treasure, my beloved, through the greatness of thy love.

10 Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men, nor lifeless wealth.

11 Be thou the constant guardian of every possession and every life.
For our corrupt desires are dead at the mere sight of thee.

12 Thy love in my soul and in my heart—
Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.

13 O King of the seven heavens grant me this—
Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.

Two ideas emerge at once--first, the poet's desire to keep God as his "first love,"(Rev. 2:4) and second, the poet's willingness to forsake all earthly fame and wealth in order to do so. Jesus warned that "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."(Matthew 6:24) In many times and places, being a Christian has meant being an outcast from society, barred from the mainstream economy and without civil rights. There are godly men and women around this world professing Christ under those very circumstances today. We Americans have cause to be uneasy--what have we sacrificed for God's sake?
The first point is returned to in the 12th and 13th stanzas of the original, in a palindromic form. God is solemnly invoked as "King of the seven heavens," a reference to beliefs from Jewish tradition and apocryphal writings that pictured heaven as a gradiated series of zones, each more holy and majestic than the one before. It may also refer to the "spheres" of the seven planets then known.(John of Damascus) The request for God's love to be "in my heart and in my soul" reminds us of the great Shema, which in Matthew 22:38 Jesus called the first and greatest commandment: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."(Deuteronomy 6:5)

Stanza 5:
High King of heaven, when vict'ry is won
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heav'n's Sun!
Heart of my heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O Ruler of all!

This beautiful poem of single-minded devotion to God is a strong reminder of our need to focus. Life pulls us in so many directions, it is easy to fall into the habit of trying to give the job its piece of our time and committment, the family its piece, and God His piece, etc. God wants it all, and in return will give it back to us imbued with a purpose far greater than any we could have found without Him. Jeremiah 9:23-24 reminds us of the futility of a life lived without God at its center, and points us to the antidote:
Thus says the Lord: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.

About the music:

Too many great hymn texts fall into obscurity for lack of a good tune. In this case, the editors of the Irish Church Hymnal found a folk tune of a simple, earnest character that perfectly matches the humble appeal of the lyrics. SLANE is named for the hill near Tara where St. Patrick lit the Paschal fire on Easter Eve, defying the prohibition of the pagan king Loegaire mac Neil, and is taken from a tune first published in Patrick Joyce's Old Irish Folk Music and Songs in 1909. (The original title is secular, "With my love on the road;" I can't find any lyrics, so it may have been an instrumental.)

David Evans's Church Hymnary of 1927 included the hymn with a slight modification of the melody, which became the version most widely republished. Martin Shaw's harmonization from Songs of Praise (1931) is one of the popular arrangements of this hymn, which gained favor in the United States during the second half of the 20th century.(Hymnal 1982) Over the last few decades this tune has become a popular instrumental again, especially with the spreading popularity of Celtic folk music in the United States.

References:

"Rop tú mo baile." CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts. University College Cork, 2010.  http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G400018/

"Be Thou my vision." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Be_Thou_My_Vision

"Background: the School of Irish Learning." Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, School of Celtic Studies. http://www.celt.dias.ie/publications/cat/k/k3/hist2.html

Cottrill, Robert. "Today in 1880: Mary Byrne born." Wordwise Hymns. (2 July 2010) http://wordwisehymns.com/2010/07/02/today-in-1880-mary-elizabeth-byrne-born/

"Lorica." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorica_(incantation)

"Eleanor Hull." Electronic Irish Records Dataset. Princess Grace Irish Library (Monaco). http://www.pgil-eirdata.org/html/pgil_datasets/authors/h/Hull,Eleanor/life.htm

The Hymnal 1982 Companion, ed. Raymond Glover.  v. 3 pt. 1, p. 909.

"Celt." Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. (1910), v. 5, pp. 611-652.

John of Damascus. "Concerning the heaven." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, bk. 4, ch. 6. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/33042.htm

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tillit Teddlie, Maybelle Carter, and Ralph Stanley walk into a singing...

Tillit Sidney "Ted" Teddlie (1885-1987) was one of the most beloved songwriters among the Churches of Christ in the United States, and one of the most prolific. I am compiling a list of all his hymns that I can find, with a view toward devoting a more lengthy post to his work at some time in the future. But along the way, I found out something that really surprised me--he may be the only one of "our" songwriters to be recorded by both the Carter Sisters and the Stanley Brothers.

The first video contains a recording by "Mother" Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, with Carl Smith (June Carter's first husband). It was recorded for Columbia in 1953. The song is "We shall meet some day," and I can't say that I grew up singing it, though like many songleaders in the Churches of Christ from west of the Mississippi, I can put together a complete song service using only Teddlie songs and probably sing them all from memory.

Teddlie wrote the song in 1910, by his own testimony, but the earliest published instance I have found so far is in From the Cross to the Crown no. 2 (Dallas: Quartet Music Co., 1929). Teddlie published it in his own collection Spiritual Melodies 1938, but it really seems to have taken off when it jumped from his native Texas to Tennessee. R. E. Winsett, Seventh-Day Adventist preacher and influential gospel music publisher in Dayton, Tennessee, picked it up in his Gems of Praise and Devotion in 1940, and the rest is history. Winsett would include it again in collections from 1942, 1947, 1948, and 1951, and by this time it had been picked up by the Grand Ole Opry's John Daniel Quartet in their Quartet Song Book (no. 3, 1945, and no. 4, 1947). In 1955 Nashville gospel magnate John T. Benson included it in New Songs of Insipiration no. 2. Respect also came from fellow minister Will W. Slater, who published it in collections from 1940 and 1944, and from the one of the finest gospel songwriters of all, Albert E. Brumley, who published it in collections from 1962 and 1965.

By this time it was firmly entrenched in the commercial gospel, folk, traditional country, and bluegrass traditions. The Stanley Brothers bluegrass band included it in their album Beautiful life in 1978, and it has been recorded more recently by Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, (Stay a while, 1995, heard in the video to the right), and Ann & Phil Case (Why should we be lonely?, 2003). It has also been included in Mel Bay's Bluegrass Gospel Songbook (2006).

"We shall meet some day" was intended by Teddlie, of course, for a cappella congregational singing, and it has had a long career in the hymnals of the Churches of Christ as well, though more likely to appear in hymnals with a Southern flavor (Ellis Crum's Sacred Selections, and the hymnals of Alton and V.E. Howard). It was published most recently (to my knowledge) in W. D. Jeffcoat's Sacred Selections for the Church (2007).

It is rather touching that this song has lasted so long; it is inscribed, "Written in memory of my beloved friend, F. L. Eiland." Franklin Lycurgus Eiland (1860-1909) was the founder of the Trio Music Company and the Southern Development Normal (SDN) in Waco, Texas. Though Eiland was too ill to teach actively by the time Teddlie studied at the SDN, he mentored the young songwriter by correspondence and had a profound impact.(See Scott Harp's article on Eiland)

The 100-Year Tribute to Tillit S. Teddlie is available for purchase in MP3 format from various sources. This included congregational singing of "We shall meet some day," and a brief interview with Brother Teddlie in which he discusses this song. Short clips can be heard for free on Amazon.com.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Beautiful Isle of Somewhere

Praise for the Lord #69

Words: Jessie Brown Pounds, 1897
Music: J. S. Fearis, 1897

For a brief discussion of this important hymn writer of the 19th-century Restoration Movement, see my post on her text, "Am I nearer to heaven today?" Jessie Hunter Brown (1861-1921) lived two doors down from the Christian Church in Hiram, Ohio, and grew up to marry John Pounds, who became minister at the same congregation. Most of her life was lived on the same street in the same town, and revolved around the same church family, something many of us can hardly imagine today. This is not to say that her world was small; despite her frail health which often kept her homebound, she was a natural scholar who taught herself from the Bible and the classics, attended Hiram College for two years, and became a significant regional writer who is only today beginning to become appreciated again as she was in her own time. Her church family included prominent individuals, most notably President James A. Garfield; and ironically, one of her hymns, "Beautiful isle of somewhere," would become forever associated with yet another President assassinated in office, William McKinley.

Pounds related that this lyric came to her out of an enforced isolation, during a cold winter's Sunday evening in 1896 when her husband insisted that she remain home from worship services because of her health. Frustrated by her inability to gather with the saints, she contemplated that "somewhere the sun is shining" (certainly in heaven, at least), and she would not be so hindered.(Troyer) The phrase had some currency in late 19th-century popular song and poetry, as for example in the following Scottish ballad,

Somewhere the sun is shining,
Somewhere a little rain;
Somewhere a heart is pining
For love, but all in vain.("Broadside ballads")

Or for an original American example, "Somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright..." from the final stanza of "Casey at the bat." This is not to say that Pounds borrowed from any of these sources, any more than any other lyricist borrows from the examples of what has gone before or is in the air at the time. Sometimes the test of one's ability is what can be done with this material, and Jessie Pounds made a remarkably well-crafted lyric around this simple theme.

The earliest instance of this song found in Hymnary.org is in Songs for young people, edited by Edwin O. Excell, published by Curts & Jennings in Cincinnati in 1897. It skyrocketed to fame, however, from its use at the funeral of President William McKinley in 1901, and appeared in dozens of hymnals from the ensuing decade. It was sung by the all-female Euterpean Quartette, whose arrangement was later published in the sheet music seen in the illustration. Perhaps its somewhat wistful tone captured the mood of a nation saying goodbye to the Victorian era, and facing a strange new century that had begun with the murder of a President by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

Stanza 1:
Somewhere the sun is shining,
Somewhere the songbirds dwell;
Hush then thy sad repining,
God lives, and all is well.

The environs of Hiram (northeast Ohio, about halfway between Cleveland and the Pennsylvania state line) are particularly blessed with migrating songbirds during the spring, as they stop for a rest before continuing across the Great Lakes into New England and Canada. Visitors include a large variety of warblers, the ruby-throated hummingbird, and the Baltimore oriole.(Ohio DNR) As happy as I am to hear the simple tune of the robins in the early spring, I can only imagine the joy that this variety of songsters brought to Jessie Pounds!

One of the benefits of winter is that it makes us enjoy spring; and though we would not wish difficult times on anyone, they will come anyway, and one of their indirect benefits is that they make us appreciate quiet, peaceful moments. On a larger scale, the sorrows of life make us realize that this world is certainly not where we would want to stay forever, and we begin to look more longingly toward a better home.

What an encouragement to know that there is a place where these difficulties and sorrows never come! One of the most often-quoted verses from the Revelation tells us that, "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." Just as we can imagine, in the midst of winter, the coming of the songbirds and spring, we can think on these promises of heaven and, "having seen them and greeted them from afar," remembering that we are "strangers and exiles on the earth."(Hebrews 11:13)

But just as a check is only as good as the bank on which it is drawn, these promises are only as good as the one who has promised to keep them. The cause of assurance is given in the last line of the stanza: God lives. Job knew this, and even in the midst of his calamities said, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth."(Job 19:25) If this is the security backing up our hopes, we need never worry!

Refrain:
Somewhere, somewhere,
Beautiful Isle of Somewhere!
Land of the true, where we live anew,
Beautiful Isle of Somewhere!

Warning: I have absolutely no conclusive evidence for the following: I have a hunch that the refrain of this hymn might not have been part of Pounds's original poem. It shares nothing of the meter or rhyme scheme of the stanzas, and is not of the same craftsmanship, at least as poetry. It strikes me as having been written with the music in mind. Try reading the three stanzas aloud, and then the refrain; the stanzas make quite good poetry, where the refrain is rather disorganized and uneven without the music.

There is nothing in Pounds's story of the lyric's origin to suggest that she wrote it with the intent of being set to music, rather than just as a poem. Consequently, I am suggesting that the refrain may have been added by Fearis when he set the poem to music. I may be totally wrong about this, and a search of the Jessie Brown Pounds Collection at the Hiram College library (thanks to archivist Jennifer Morrow) unfortunately did not reveal any evidence one way or the other.

When did we start describing heaven as a beautiful island? The expression was current in gospel song writing at the time this hymn appeared (though the title "O the beautiful Isle of Somewhere" by Emma A. Tiffany, ca. 1898, suggests something more than just a metaphor in common). In a search of Hymnary.org one also finds "There's a beautiful island" by E. Carrie, ca. 1872, and "'Midst the pastures green of the blessed isles" by Sophia Griswold, ca. 1864. Though the latter seems to be an elaboration of the parable of the lost sheep and the ninety-and-nine, the comparison to heaven seems certain enough. Interestingly, the "blessed isles" are a heaven-like locale in Celtic mythology, and are still woven into the culture of English-speaking people through the island of Avalon in the Arthur legends. Or perhaps the picture of heaven as a lush, temperate island (which appears only in the refrain) was inspired by the increased American involvement in the Pacific; the 1890s was the decade in which the indigenous monarchy of Hawaii was overthrown and the islands annexed as a U.S. territory.

The ambiguity of this expression in this hymn was even brought into the political arena; during his governorship of New Jersey, future President Woodrow Wilson singled out "Beautiful Isle" as "silly and meaningless."(NYT 1 Oct 1911) It created a minor furor, since he was addressing a Sunday school convention, and the massed audience had sung the hymn earlier in the program. The following Sunday, John D. Rockefeller Sr. made certain to let reporters know that he quite favored the hymn.(NYT 9 Oct 1911) Surely partisanship played no part!

Stanza 2:
Somewhere the day is longer,
Somewhere the task is done;
Somewhere the heart is stronger,
Somewhere the guerdon won.

(Refrain)

At first impression many of us would not wish for a place where "the day is longer," but remembering what time of year this was written, we can see that Pounds is referring to the short days and wan light of the depths of winter. Though we many embrace this philosophically as a necessary part of the natural rhythm of God's creation, it is well known to have stressful effects on some individuals. But heaven is a place that "has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb."(Revelation 21:23) Here is a source of pure and perfect light and warmth, "with Whom there is no variation or shadow due to change."(James 1:17)

"Guerdon" is defined as "a reward, requital, or recompense,"(OUD) and though it may have been common to Shakespeare and Milton, has been a word strictly of the poetic vocabulary ever since. It originates from the Medieval Latin "widerdonum," apparently a conglomeration of the German wieder ("again") and the Latin donum "payment"), thus mirroring the modern colloquial term "pay-back," though in the good sense of the term.

We might hesitate to think of anything we receive from God in such terms; "payment for services rendered" simply does not enter into our relationship with our heavenly Father! But the Scriptures speak in terms of a "reward," though given through the grace of God, and we should embrace it. Jesus promised that "the Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and then He shall reward every man according to his works."(Matthew 16:27) It is something to which we look forward earnestly, and must to which we must be attentive, as warned in Colossians 2:18, "Let no man rob you of your prize."(American Standard Version) 2 John, v. 8, likewise admonishes, "Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward." Like the "prize" or "crown" of the athletic games so often referenced by Paul, it will be brought to us by Jesus at the end of our race. "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done."(Revelation 22:12) Let us strive so that, by His grace, it will  be a recompense for good!

Stanza 3:
Somewhere the load is lifted,
Close by an open gate;
Somewhere the clouds are rifted,
Somewhere the angels wait.

(Refrain)

Burdens are with us in life, no matter what our beliefs. The Christian life is no less so, and in fact might be seen as more burdensome, for the fact that we have not the option of shirking our duty and seeking an easier path. But the Christian has help. "Every man shall bear his own burden," assures Galatians 6:5, but in the same passage we read, "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ."(v. 2) We have help all along the road--brothers and sisters around the world, and even speaking to us from times past.

More than this, we have the promise of Jesus, as so beautifully and memorably rendered in the King James English: "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."(Matthew 11:28-30) "He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability."1 Corinthians 10:13)

It is a thought worth remembering, that the sun is shining somewhere; no matter how bad things seem (or actually are), they will not always be so. Even the clouds, which darken the sky so often in winter and make the days gray and dreary, have this consolation: someday, we are promised, the clouds will reveal the return of Him for whom we wait.(Mark 14:62)

About the music:

John Sylvester Fearis (1867-1932) wrote music for just a handful of hymns, none of which are well known except for this one. He set one other lyric by Jessie Brown Pounds, "There's light for a step." His biography given in the Cyberhymnal, however, leaves out his extensive career in secular music. A search of Worldcat.org reveals that he composed music for at least three operettas--Aunt Drusilla's Garden, The Family Doctor, and The Trial of Santa Claus (one can only imagine!). He published several piano waltzes, and got into the 1907 "teddy bear" craze with Teddy Bear Waltz and March of the Teddy Bears for piano. He had a popular novelty song, "Little Sir Echo," but also addressed more serious material in a choral cantata setting of The Chambered Nautilus by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Fearis's setting of "Beautiful Isle" is a fine example of the American popular ballad in the tradition of Stephen Foster; in fact it could almost be mistaken for a Foster tune, eminently singable and easy to harmonize. These two factors have made it a favorite of barbershop quartets, and it has been recorded frequently by traditional gospel and country artists.

References:

Troyer, Loris C. "Fame was fleeting for Hiram lyricist Jessie Brown Pounds." Portage pathways. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1998, 130-132.

"Broadside ballads." Word on the Street. National Library of Scotland, 2004. http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides/broadside.cfm/id/16420

Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "Spring songbirds winging their way north to Ohio."
http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/Home/SpringSongbirds/tabid/10702/Default.aspx

Oxford Universal Dictionary. 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955.

"Wilson a hymn critic." New York Times (2 October 1911).
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=FB0714F93A5517738DDDAB0894D8415B818DF1D3

"Rockefeller likes hymn." New York Times (9 October 1911).
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F40B12FB355A15738DDDA00894D8415B818DF1D3

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Because He Lives

Praise for the Lord #68

Words: Gloria & William J. Gaither, 1969
Music: William J. Gaither, 1969

It is probably significant that Gloria Gaither's name appears first in the credits for the lyrics of this song. In 1969, the Gaithers were expecting their third child, and their singing and songwriting careers were becoming ever more complex. They had become prominent enough to begin drawing attention, not always positive; and at the same time, America was tearing itself apart as it dealt with a rising counterculture, racial tensions, an unpopular war that seemed to have no end, and a cold war that seemed to promise an all-too-certain end. These shadows all seemed to hang over Gloria on New Year's Eve of 1968. But then, she recounts, a clarity emerged: Jesus lives, so all will be well.(Terry)

Paul saw the logical necessity of a risen Lord, as he told the Corinthians: "And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. ... and you are still in your sins.(1 Corinthians 15:14,17) Jesus came to die, but He also came to live forevermore; it was a fulfillment of His promises, and the indicator of yet more promises to be kept, as He became "the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."(1 Corinthians 15:20) It was not just that a human being came back to life--a miracle, of course, but one that had happened before--but it was proof that humanity's mortal wound of sin could be atoned, and death conquered. "For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead."(1 Corinthians 15:21) Jesus of Nazareth was forever "declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead."(Romans 1:4) Faith in this historical event is critical to the Christian because, "according to [God's] great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."(1 Peter 1:3)

Stanza 1:
God sent His Son, they called Him Jesus,
He came to love, heal, and forgive;
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.

The skeptic will argue, of course, that the empty grave proves nothing; and if one is disinclined to believe in the possibility of a resurrection, one will invent another answer. This is nothing new; the ancient Jewish sect of the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection,(Matthew 22:23) nor did the naturalistic philosophers of the Greeks and Romans. The Athenian philosophers who heard Paul's great sermon of Acts chapter 17 might have been nodding in agreement with the logical necessity of one Creator, the Father of all humanity, but balked at the claim of a resurrected Lord.(Acts 17:32)

But interestingly, few even today will deny that the tomb was empty. The location and the owner were known, not only to the disciples, but to the Jewish and Roman authorities.(Matthew 27:57-58) From what we can determine about the location of the crucifixion and burial, it could hardly have been otherwise. Additionally, the Jewish authorities had an interest in securing the tomb, and did so through the agency of the Roman authorities.(Matthew 27:62-66) Yet the tomb was empty; even those with the most to lose by this fact did not deny it, but explained it away as a subterfuge by the disciples.(Matthew 28:11-15) If the tomb were not empty, why did not the enemies of Jesus produce His body and fulfill in His case too the words spoken by Gamaliel of the insurrectionist Theudas, "He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to naught?"(Acts 5:36)

Why was the tomb empty? The "swoon theory" beggars belief; the Roman army knew how to kill a man, and knew when he was dead, and Jesus' enemies had even more reason to make certain. (All this even supposes, as well, that He could have survived the torture and the crucifixion, then unwrapped himself from inside the graveclothes, rolled the stone away, and escaped unseen without leaving a shred of evidence to be used in debunking the disciples' claims.) So, did the disciples, who had fled from Gethsemane when Jesus was alive, stage a commando-style raid against the Roman guard and steal His body after He was dead? At the risk of sounding irreverent, the disciples (with the notable exception of the women!) show an ineptitude and disorganization throughout all these events, that makes this just as hard to believe as the first theory.

Something happened, though, that turned this scattered, dispirited, even denying group of followers into a force that burst onto the stage of ancient history and "turned the world upside down."(Acts 17:6) By Pentecost--just fifty days later--they were ready to die for Jesus Christ. Were they ready to die knowingly for a lie? The words of Gamaliel about Theudas (Acts 5:36) were left only half fulfilled; they "were scattered," but they certainly did not "come to naught." Something happened that changed them forever.

Refrain:
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives.

"Facing tomorrow" doesn't just mean a single, momentous anticipated crisis. There are those extraordinary times that are hard to bear, yet easier borne because they are over soon. But what of those days when, as Macbeth said, "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day?" When life becomes "a walking shadow," and tomorrow holds neither dread nor anticipation? Remember that Jesus lives. There is absolutely nothing in this world that can overwhelm our spirits, if we understand this fact. We may fail at every turn in the affairs of this life, but in the spiritual life that comes to us from the resurrected Christ we are "more than conquerors through Him who loved us."(Romans 8:37)

Paul had acquaintance with both points of view; he was frequently in fear of his life from sudden violence, yet also knew the slow dragging out of days as he waited in prison for some advancement of his case. When he ticks off the list of mortal dangers he had faced, in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, we see the stuff of an action-adventure film; but Paul recounts it almost with a weariness, a nonchalance borne not of boasting but of the matter-of-factness that comes from long experience in the past, and expectation of the same in the future. He concludes this excursus, however, with these words in chapter 12, verse 10: "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." He knew the power of the risen Lord, and that fact made all the difference.

Stanza 2:
How sweet to hold a newborn baby,
And feel the pride and joy he gives;
But greater still the calm assurance,
This child can face uncertain days because He lives.

(Refrain)

I knew having children would change all the external circumstances of our lives, but I never anticipated the degree to which it would change me on the inside. I had never been driven by a sense of purpose before, but from the first look into my baby daughter's puzzled blue-gray eyes, I knew that whatever my doubts or second thoughts about any other aspect of my life up to that point, in this one respect I had a solemn duty for which I would give my life if necessary. I must give up my life day by day, to be the father she deserved; I would give it up all at once if that were required. When my son was born, I was less shocked but no less determined where my duty lay. When I was first alone with him, I promised, "You have been born into a hard time in our family, when we don't know where we are going next; but I will do my best by you."

There are many concerns we have for our children as they grow: Are they healthy? Are they happy? Are they getting the education they need? Fortunately we were blessed abundantly in these things. But above all a Christian parent wonders, will they accept Jesus Christ? We taught them at home and took them to church; I made sure they knew what the Bible says about being saved, but tried to be clear that only they themselves could make that decision. I tried to probe gently over the years, asking if they had been thinking about it and encouraging them to talk to us or to an elder or teacher in the church if they had any questions.

Then the day came in the summer of 2009 when I received a call on my cell phone while at the house of some Christian friends. My brother-in-law was calling from Camp Bandina, an excellent Christian summer camp in south Texas, to tell me that both my children had decided that night to be baptized into Christ, to take up the new life. I had gone into the kitchen to answer my phone, and I am sure my friends' children came in just to find out why Mr. Hamrick was crying. I knew then how true the statement is, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth."(3 John 4)

You can give your children a lot of things, but none of them matter much compared to pointing them the way to a saving faith. Pray for them, and "pray without ceasing."(1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Stanza 3:
And then one day I'll cross the river,
I'll fight life's final war with pain;
And then as death gives way to vict'ry,
I'll see the lights of glory and I'll know He reigns.

(Refrain)

The question of what lies beyond the gates of death has perplexed mankind for as long as history records. From the fabulous monuments of ancient Egypt to the often laughable "reality" television shows about the paranormal, we see the anxiety that binds all humanity together, as we consider this journey to "that undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler returns." Skeptics will say here, that it is this anxiety that gives rise to religious faith. I would answer, give me my faith with all its difficulties, rather than that dread certainty that materialism teaches: that there is, ultimately, no meaning or even possibility of meaning. "That way madness lies."

Paul knew what was at stake, and Paul had an answer:

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.(1 Corinthians 15:19-22)
When we come to the end of this life, if we are in Christ, there is in fact a point--we are not at the end, but at the beginning. "Because He lives," we shall live. "Because He lives," that "undiscovered country" is rich with promise rather than shadowed with fear. Paul brings his discussion to a conclusion by showing what Christ's resurrection will ultimately mean to all of us:

Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, "Death is swallowed up in victory."(1 Corinthians 15:51-54)
About the music:

This song was obviously written for a gospel "performance" context, but like most of the Gaithers' work its simplicity and directness causes it to translate well to congregational singing. The harmony shows the occasional "barbershop" turn of chromaticism, but seldom does it take the forefront in the music. One exception is the end of the second line in the stanza, where the words "heal and forgive" occur: the chromatic scale descent on the last three notes is a little unusual and perhaps difficult to hear. I have heard many singers modify this to "G F D C" instead of "G F E-natural E-flat."

The melody runs fairly high, but it does so with such a nice dramatic flourish that it can hardly be imagined otherwise. The first two subphrases (covering the first line of text) set forth the boundaries of the melody, as it were, digging down to the low "MI" of the scale and climbing back up, then leaping up to the high "MI" and falling back down. This is (for the most part) the span of the melody until the refrain, when the words "because I know" lead us up to the high F ("SOL") for a dramatic climax on this important affirmation in the text.

References:

Terry, Lindsay. "Courage and strength for His child: 'Because He Lives'." CBN.com. http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/devotions/terry_because_he_lives.aspx