Sunday, December 23, 2012

Do You Know My Jesus?

PFTL #125

Words: V. B. Vep Ellis, 1957 (stanzas); William F. Lakey, 1956 (chorus)
Music: William F. Lakey, 1956; arranged by V. B. Vep Ellis, 1957

Vesphew Benton Ellis (1917-1988), who went by the nickname "Vep," was one of the most prolific gospel songwriters of the modern era. The Hymnary.org database lists 107 songs to his credit, and he is estimated by one count to have written over 500.(Slaughter) He was a minister of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) for nearly half a century, and served as music director for the well-known televangelist Oral Roberts.(Southern Gospel History) A search of Worldcat.org reveals that Ellis edited gospel songbooks for the Tennessee Music Company during the 1940s and 1950s, and that several albums of his songs have been recorded by the chorus of Lee University. Both institutions are located in Cleveland, Tennessee and are historically associated with the Church of God.

From the frequency of their occurrence in hymnals (Hymnary.org) and in recordings (Southern Gospel History), Ellis's most popular songs appear to be "The love of God," "I'm free again," and "Over the moon." "Do you know my Jesus?" runs close behind these. It has been recorded by classic gospel quartets such as the Blackwood Brothers, the Stamps Quartet, the Chuck Wagon Gang, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Statesmen, and the Kingsmen.(Southern Gospel History) Allmusic.com also lists recordings of this song by country artists such as Skeeter Davis and Don Gibson, as well as gospel standard-bearers such as George Beverly Shea and the Gaithers.

William F. "Bill" Lakey was a songwriter (primarily a lyricist) associated with Ellis in the Tennessee Music Company. Hymnary.org lists about two dozen songs by Lakey, most of them appearing in these songbooks from that publisher: Songs of the Redeemed (1955), Billows of Love (1957), Echoes of Calvary (1958), and Forward in Faith (1959). Records of the U.S. Copyright Office show that Lakey co-wrote at least nine other songs with Vep Ellis, and continued his work with the Tennessee Music Company through the 1960s. If the Copyright Office catalog's "Lakey, Bill" and "Lakey, W. F." are the same person (which appears to be the case, based on the renewal record for EP0000159811), his last publication was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus: lifting His name in song: new sacred poetry & music by Bill Lakey. This copyright was filed from Fairview, Oklahoma, which leads me to think that he is the same William F. Lakey (1926-1996) buried in the Fairview Cemetery.

"Do you know my Jesus?" is a great example of the benefit of collaboration. According to the authorship data given in Praise for the Lord, Lakey wrote the refrain first; this is the heart of the song, confronting the hearer with the all-important question that gives the song its title, but it is not quite enough to stand on its own. Ellis then wrote the stanzas, posing questions about the hearer's life which lead into the stanza in a natural progression of thoughts. It is a model of evangelism put to music; the listener is approached where he or she is in life, led to question the direction of that life, and then gently brought to the great question we all someday must answer.

Stanza 1:
Have you a heart that's weary,
Tending a load of care;
Are you a soul that's seeking
Rest from the burden you bear?

The first stanza speaks to the person who may not actually know what he or she is lacking in life, but simply knows that something is missing. People might cover up this nagging unease with various things, but there is still a gap there that cannot be filled except by God. It was part of the mission of Christ to bring a personal knowledge of God into the world, as He said in John 14:7, "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him." John wrote more expansively on this in the prologue to his account of the gospel:
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.(John 1:10-14)
It was this blessing John wrote of again in his first letter: "See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are." But John noted again sadly, "The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him."(1 John 3:1)

There is no question that the world is weary-hearted, "tending a load of care." Ecclesiastes presents an honest account of life viewed from this worldly perspective: "All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing."(Ecclesiastes 1:8) But the answer is not found in a philosophy, or in a method, or in a discipline; it is found in a Person.

Refrain:
Do you know my Jesus?
Do you know my Friend?
Have you heard He loves you,
And that He will abide till the end?

One of the pitfalls of the English speaker who studies German is learning the proper usage of the two principal verbs for the concept "to know"--wissen and kennen. Where English uses a single expression, the German wissen expresses the knowledge of a fact, but kennen expresses acquaintance with a person or place. One may legitimately ask, "Wissen Sie, wo Berlin ist?" ("Do you know where Berlin is?"), or "Kennen Sie Berlin?" ("Do you know Berlin?"), but the question, "Wissen Sie Berlin?" would literally mean something like, "Are you aware that Berlin exists?"--if it meant anything at all. The distinctive meaning of kennen carries over into English by way of the Scottish ken, which derives from a similar root word. If something is "beyond my ken" it is outside my experience, or beyond my understanding.

When the refrain of this song asks the question, "Do you know my Jesus?," it is in this deeper sense of acquaintance and personal familiarity. Many people are vaguely aware of the basic claims about who Jesus is; a smaller number could be said to truly know His life and teachings in some depth; but far fewer can claim to know Him as a person knows a close friend. Our friends and family on this earth, who know us and are known by us as nearly as any person knows another, have an impact on us over the years. Our characters are changed and the courses of our lives are altered by these associations. The same effects are seen in those who truly know Jesus, as evidenced by the words of the apostles:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.(2 Peter 1:2-4)
According to Peter, knowing Jesus blesses the believer in a number of ways. He changes our character, and benefits us both now and hereafter with:
  • Grace and peace.
  • All things that pertain to life and godliness.
  • Precious and very great promises.
  • Partaking of the divine nature.
  • Escape from the corruption that is in the world.
Paul wrote to the Philippians, from his imprisonment in Rome, about the central importance of a personal knowledge of Christ. It was worth everything to Paul:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith--that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.(Philippians 3:8-11)
Through knowing Christ, Paul found righteousness from God. By emulating Christ's death (in baptism, as he explained in Romans 6, and also in being a "living sacrifice" day by day) Paul not only died to sin, but received the "power of His resurrection" in a new spiritual life here, and an eternal life following the Resurrection to come. There is no way to exaggerate, no way to overstate the importance of knowing Christ.

How do we come to know Jesus? If I seek to really understand some figure of history, above all I will want to read everything that is known to have been written or said by that person. I will also read everything written or said by those who knew the individual personally; to a lesser extent, I will read from and talk to those who have devoted a great deal of study to that person. In the same way, if I want to really understand Jesus, I will pay careful attention to His words--the sermons, the parables, the questions, and the commands. I will study the writings of the New Testament authors, who knew Him personally and were among His earliest followers. I will also seek out those today who have come to know Him well, and will learn what I can from them as well.

But from the words of Peter and Paul, it is apparent that "knowing Jesus" is incomplete unless it results in a change in our lives. In this sense, it reminds me of the study of music composition. In centuries past, composers studied the works of earlier generations through writing out copies of their works by hand. In the process of copying, they learned the patterns and nuances of each composer's style and absorbed the essentials that made the music work. When I took a course in 18th-century counterpoint, we followed a similar approach: we modeled our work on the inventions and fugues of J. S. Bach, using a compilation of his works as our only textbook. Each week we analyzed the structures of these works in both the large and small scale, and compared our own works to those of the master. It was a humiliating process, and I was never satisfied with my fugue; but I gained a much deeper appreciation for Bach's technique, and what little success I had was certainly derived from emulating his style. In the same fashion, "knowing Jesus" is only fully realized when we put His character into practice in our own lives.

Stanza 2:

Where is your heart, O pilgrim,
What does your light reveal?
Who hears your call for comfort,
When naught but sorrow you feel?

(Refrain)

The second stanza addresses the person who is a "pilgrim"--not at rest, or insensible to life's questions, but instead actively looking for answers. Perhaps, like Diogenes with his lamp, this person is using the "light" of human knowledge and inquiry in a search for something true and substantial. Diogenes, of course, was a founder of the philosophy of Cynicism; not surprisingly, his modern followers are left in much the same dilemma as they search for life's answers "under the sun."(Ecclesiastes 1:14) But as the cynic asks the final question, "Who cares?" the Christian offers a lifeline of hope if it will be received.

Or is this pilgrim perhaps a wayward Christian, who has "left the first love?"(Revelation 2:4) Scripture is clear that some will "profess to know God, but deny Him by their works."(Titus 1:16) This is not necessarily done consciously; few people come to Jesus with the intention to backslide. So how can we know that we are maintaining a good relationship with Jesus? The apostle John said, "And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. Whoever says, 'I know Him,' but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him."(1 John 2:3-4) If we know Him as we should, we will keep His words closely in mind and do our best to obey them. We can also look at our relationships to others; if they are not characterized by love, we have fallen out of touch with Jesus. John again says, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love."(1 John 4:7-8)

Just as in the case of earthly friends with whom we have fallen out of touch, sometimes we have to become reacquainted with Jesus. We should study all of Scripture, of course, but it seems logical that a Christian should never be away for long from the four biographical accounts given of the Christ. We can spend time in the company of those who love Him and love to speak of Him--our fellow Christians today, as well as those apostles who carried out His will, and those prophets who foretold His coming. We can spend time in prayer, and we can focus on His perfect love for us when we meet on every Lord's Day to take His Supper. We can seek every day to live out the example He gave us, as much as our imperfect efforts allow.
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.(2 Peter 1:5-8)
Stanza 3:
Who knows your disappointments,
Who hears each time you cry?
Who understands your heartaches,
Who dries the tears from your eyes?

(Refrain)

In the final stanza, Ellis turns the premise around--Does Jesus know you? In Matthew 7:23 Jesus warned that some who claim to follow Him, but who do so in disobedience or insincerity, will hear the tragic words, "I never knew you." But faithful Christians who truly know Jesus can rest assured that Jesus knows them as well. In the 2nd and 3rd chapters of the Revelation, Jesus told each of the seven churches of Asia, "I know your works." He knew both the good and the bad, their failures and their triumphs.

When we are disappointed, Jesus knows this disappointment. He too met with disappointment in His earthly life. In John 6:67, after many of His disciples rejected Him and "followed Him no more," Jesus said to the Twelve, "Will you go away also?" When we have heartaches, Jesus knows this feeling as well. Remember His grief over Jerusalem when He said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"(Luke 13:34) And when we shed tears, Jesus has done so as well. In that shortest verse of the Scriptures (at least as we have marked off verses), John 11:35, we read a simple but profound statement: "Jesus wept." The Lord of Creation, who has "all authority in heaven and on earth,"(Matthew 28:18) has felt human tears run down His cheeks just as surely as have we.

The question, "Do you know my Jesus?" is the most important question that we will ever answer. May we always follow Peter's advice in 2 Peter 3:18, "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen."

About the music:

The melody of this song is a little unusual, though not unpleasantly so. The melody in the stanza consists far more of leaps than of steps, reversing the usual tendency. The opening phrase even includes the leap of an octave in the middle of a series of four consecutive leaps, creating a very distinctive profile. The refrain leaps into the upper register and stays there, contrasting with the low range of the stanza. An effective tension is set up in the refrain by the emphasis on the leading tone at the ends of the first two phrases (on the word "know" each time), resolved by the triumphant climb up to the highest note of the tune on the words "Have you heard?"

Ellis was an important player in the creation of the modern commercial Southern gospel style. I admit this is not a kind of music that I care for personally, but Ellis certainly writes it very effectively. One aspect of this song that is very telling of its innate quality is that it translates well to a cappella congregational singing, something that is not always true of this style. In this case, however, the song works well both as a quartet and as a congregational song. One factor in its favor here is that it is adaptable to a wide range of tempo. Mainstream interpretations such as those of the Gaithers and Skeeter Davis clock in at about 82 beats per minute; I even found one Youtube video of Jimmy Swaggart singing it at 70 beats per minute. By contrast, the video below represents a pretty typical tempo (maybe a little on the fast side) used for a cappella congregational singing among the Churches of Christ. The tempo is about 128 beats per minute, nearly twice as fast as Swaggart's!


I think the reason for this huge difference is that instrumentally accompanied gospel uses fills from the accompaniment to keep things moving during long notes of the melody, especially at the ends of phrases. In a cappella singing, however, these long notes can seem to be a sudden collapse of the tempo; it is just more comfortable to keep things moving at a faster pace. Not every song works well without accompaniment and at a radically different speed, but "Do you know my Jesus?" works well at both fast and slow tempos.


References:

"Vep Ellis." Southern Gospel History. http://www.sghistory.com/index.php?n=V.Vep_Ellis

Slaughter, Henry. "Vep Ellis: an example to follow." I Rememberhttp://www.mybestyears.com/ARCHIVES/Slaughter/6-030309VepEllis.html

United States Copyright Office. Copyright Catalog (1978-present). http://cocatalog.loc.gov

"William F. Lakey." Find-A-Grave. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=88410791

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