Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Father, Forgive Us

Praise for the Lord #145

Words & music by Gene C. Finley, 1973

Gene Cleveland Finley was born in 1929 near Gilt Edge, Tennessee, a small farming community along the Mississippi River north of Memphis (Finley 196). He comes from a well-known family of singers, songleaders, and songwriters among the churches of Christ in Arkansas, including his brother E. D. Finley (1919-1987) and their father, Hiram Cleveland Finley (1884-1970). Brother Gene C. Finley is probably best known, however, through his book Our Garden of Song (1980), which compiled his invaluable research on songwriters among the churches of Christ in this country. Much of the information he gathered, especially on the lesser-known writers, probably would have been lost but for his efforts. Remembering that this research was conducted in the old-fashioned pre-Internet way--by letter, telephone, and traveling for personal interviews--it becomes all the more obvious what a labor of love this was.

Gene C. Finley's songs have appeared in a number of publications over the years, in hymnals used by the churches of Christ and in the yearly paperback songbooks of the Southern gospel shape-note publishers. "The wondrous city" and "Come to Jesus" (written together with his father) appeared in Stamps-Baxter collections in 1950 (Songs for All; Better Songs). Another pair of his songs was published by the Jeffress Music Co. (today Jeffress-Phillips) of Crossett, Arkansas: "Just a Few More Days to Travel" in Echoes of Heaven (1957) and "A House not Made with Hands" in Bells of Heaven (1959). Two of Finley's songs were in Alton Howard's 1971 Songs of the Church, "Oh what love!" and "Lord, dismiss us in Thy care", the latter of which has been widely used and has appeared in other more recent hymnals. "Father, forgive us" first appeared in Hymns of Praise, (1978), published by Firm Foundation in Austin, Texas (Walker).

Since it is a custom of long standing among churches of Christ to offer an invitation for individual response to the gospel at every public meeting, our hymnals have a good number of songs designed to call the unbeliever to repent. But it is a more difficult task to find songs calling the believer to repentance--and it is this subject that Brother Finley decided to address in "Father, forgive us". It is certainly an appropriate topic, for the words of Jesus to the church in Ephesus ring true all too often, on an individual and a congregational level: "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first" (Revelation 2:5). Even the apostle Paul, the paragon of dedicated Christian service, said,
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:22-25).
Though he went on to express his assurance in salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ, Paul made it plain that he struggled with sin. And if he struggled, should we not be mindful of our own need to repent?

Despite his confidence in his salvation, Paul said, "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27). It is the Christian who thinks he or she is beyond temptation who is most at risk! In comparison to the world around us, we may have overcome many temptations (or perhaps have never been seriously tested by some of them). But we cannot afford to congratulate ourselves on avoiding the kinds of sins that would cause us to be featured on the evening news. It does not take a "big" sin to make a sinner; a "little sin" will do just as well. Perhaps it suits the devil even better to catch us that way, because a "little sin" will go longer unnoticed. It is just such "little sins" (in the world's view) that Brother Finley's hymn calls us to confess as we come before the Father.

Stanza 1:
Father, forgive us when in our weakness
We let the tempter lead us astray.
We bow our hearts in shame and in meekness,
Father, have mercy, save us we pray.

Though we should pray as Jesus taught us, "Lead us not into temptation" (Matthew 6:13), we know from the rest of Scripture (and from personal experience) that the problem is not with God's guidance but with our lack of willpower, if not our outright rebellion. God does not provide us a pathway without temptations--it is hard to conceive what such a world would be like!--but He does promise us that,
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Paul, through whom God revealed that message, knew this firsthand from his own "thorn in the flesh." As much as this unknown problem tormented Paul, he understood God's promise that "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Corinthians 12:9). The same is true for us in facing temptations--James tells us,
Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God," for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (James 1:13-14).
So it is quite correct when Brother Finley says, "We let the tempter lead us astray." Though Christians are promised that "neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39), we are also warned, "your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). The straying sheep that lags behind the Shepherd makes itself easy prey; for this reason Peter prefaces his comment, "Be sober-minded; be watchful." Being oblivious to temptations that enter our lives--not to mention deliberately flirting with them--is a losing proposition. As the old saying goes among the sidewalk hucksters, "Never play the other man's game."

Stanza 2:
Father, forgive us when we grow weary,
And we find time to grieve and complain.
Give us the power to see things more clearly;
Father of lights, make everything plain.

Weariness of the body and mind is a part of life. There is a satisfying weariness, of course, when we have exerted ourselves in some necessary labor and can rest a while--Ecclesiastes 5:12 remarks, "Sweet is the sleep of the laboring man." Often, however, we may be forced to press on through weariness, and it begins to compound our problems. The brain slows down, judgment becomes cloudy, and mistakes become more frequent. Worse yet, the barriers that normally restrict our behavior begin to degrade. We may become more irritable, and more likely to say or do things that we would not have said or done had we thought more clearly.

The flesh is weak, as Jesus said to his sleepy disciples (Matthew 26:41), and we need to realize its effects on us. Regular rest and exercise, a healthy diet, and moderation in all things, are necessary to keep these imperfect "earthen vessels" in working order so that we may serve God and others as effectively as possible. An improved physical state improves the mental outlook! So often a solution that seemed impossible to find in the tired hours of the evening before, falls into place in the morning with a fresh outlook; so often a discouragement that seems overwhelming at the moment, recedes into a proper perspective after a good night's sleep. Even Jesus, in the busy three years of His earthly ministry, told His disciples to "Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while" (Mark 6:31).

But sometimes there is a weariness of soul that is not so easily cured. Repeated disappointments, frustrations with people we care about who will not care for their own souls, and the seemingly overwhelming opposition to good in our world can break us down. In this case, rest may not be the answer at all, but rather the opposite. Paul reminded Christians more than once, "do not grow weary in doing good" (2 Thessalonians 3:13; Galatians 6:9). There is always something good we can do, someone who needs a visit or call, someone who needs an encouraging word. Even if it is "just" offering up a prayer for a person in need, there is something positive we can do every day. And when we find ourselves complaining, "consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted" (Hebrews 12:3).

The ability to see the situation clearly, as Brother Finley says, is a quality much to be desired. We can endure a great deal if we know it is only for a little longer, and that relief is near at hand. In 2 Kings 6:15-17 we read the wonderful incident in which Elisha's servant had his vision miraculously corrected:
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, "Alas, my master! What shall we do?" He said, "Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then Elisha prayed and said, "O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see." So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
God had the situation under control all along, but the young servant did not see it. In the same sense, the disciples of Jesus were unable to see clearly during the storm on Galilee (Matthew 8:23-27), when Jesus rebuked them saying, "Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?" Common sense, and the experience of professional sailors, told them to be very much afraid; but the reality of Jesus Christ and His power should have overcome their fears. We need to use our common sense, of course (see the entire book of Proverbs), but I am afraid that sometimes our "common sense" can get in the way of living by faith. Jesus calls us to do all kinds of things--loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, taking up a cross--that make no common sense. God help us to look with the eyes of faith!

Stanza 3:
Father, forgive us when in our blindness
We hurt our loved ones with things we say.
Give us the patience, give us the kindness,
Give us the love we need for today.

My brother Eddie Parrish once taught his sons a memorable lesson about our words. He gave the youngsters each a tube of toothpaste and told them to squeeze all the toothpaste out, as fast as they could. They were bewildered, but given the paternal blessing to make a mess, they proceeded to do so with vigor until every last bit of toothpaste was squeezed from the tubes. "Now," their father said, "put it all back."

This is what our words are like--they are easily spoken, but impossible to recall. And how many of them we speak! A study conducted in 2007 by Matthias Mehl et al. at the University of Arizona found that a test group of university students averaged around 16,000 words spoken per day (Science 6 July 2007 p. 82). (And contrary to popular belief, no statistically significant difference was found between men and women!) 16,000 words is a sobering thought. For a point of rough comparison, the words of Jesus recorded by Matthew, in a red-letter edition of the King James Version, run to only about 13,500. When I think how those (relatively) few words have changed the world, I shudder to imagine what nonsense I spend my words on in a day's time. The book of Proverbs has many memorable sayings on this theme: "When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent" (Proverbs 10:19). And who can forget the sharp wit of Proverbs 17:28? "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent." But most importantly of all, we hear from Jesus himself, "I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak" (Matthew 12:36).

Brother Finley drives this home in the second line, reminding us that these careless words (or sometimes, sadly, deliberate words) can hurt others. We will answer for them, surely, but that does not take away the harm that words can do to another person. I can remember clearly--surely the reader can as well--the exact words and tone of voice when someone's speech cut me to the heart as a child. I still remember how that hurt. And yet, I confess--and I am sure the reader does as well--that I can also remember things that I have said to others, that I would do anything to take back. Even when I have asked their forgiveness, and it has been granted, I am still ashamed that it ever came between us through my carelessness or pettiness. The old song says, "You always hurt the one you love," and perhaps it is because we lower our guard at home and around our loved ones that we are sometimes prone to speak to them without thinking. Again, the Proverbs have strong advice for us: "There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Proverbs 12:18). Words spoken in heat or in haste are not for the child of God. We need to inscribe the words of James on our hearts: "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God" (James 1:19-20). It is better to speak wisely and well than to speak first; a shallow well brings the bucket to the top faster, but a deep well gives better water.

Stanza 4:
Father, forgive us when thoughts indecent
Enter our minds and we let them stay.
Cleanse us and make us fit for Thy Spirit,
In Jesus' name we earnestly pray.

Indecent thoughts are not a new problem; in every case of indecent behavior, from the book of Genesis forward, the thought preceded the action. As Jesus teaches us,
From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:21-23).
This principle lies behind Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount about indecent thoughts: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28). It was a problem, then, in ancient times as well as today. The loose morals of Greco-Roman culture in the 1st century, from the Caesars down to the servant classes, meant that many early Christians lived in a world permeated with indecency. Sadly, much of the Western world has slipped back into this lascivious lifestyle as the moral standards of past generations have lost their influence. Even if we choose to avoid the trash on television, in the movies, and on the Internet, through selective viewing, it is impossible to avoid all such temptations. How then do we deal with this problem?

Gene Finley answers this question in a thoughtful turn of words--"Father, forgive us, when thoughts indecent / Enter our minds, and we let them stay." The example of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 brings this into sharp focus. David was on his roof, looking down over the city, and saw a beautiful woman bathing. We cannot suppose that he went on the roof intending to peep into people's houses. We cannot even blame him much for noticing Bathsheba--if I may put this delicately, it would be nearly impossible for him to not at least notice. But at some point between seeing her (verse 2) and sending for her (verses 3-4), he did more than notice. The "thought indecent," as Finley says, had entered David's mind, and he "let it stay." He looked at her and desired her, and "desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death" (James 1:15).

But what if David had resolutely turned his gaze away as soon as he saw her, and had gone back in the palace? David, Bathsheba, Uriah, and many others could have avoided a great deal of misery. His decision to continue looking, however, fed his desire, and his desire led him to think about things that were indecent; then, having once given in to temptation in his thoughts, it was just the matter of asking a question and giving an order to have Bathsheba brought to the palace. Did David hesitate when he actually saw her there? Did he consider just once again that perhaps he shouldn't do what was in his heart? We are not told. But if he did have pangs of conscience, they were not sufficient to stop him at that point. Yes, God assures that "He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). But He does not promise to continue providing new ways of escape if we keep ignoring them. Ephesians 4:27 warns us, "Give no opportunity to the devil," and when David first let those thoughts linger in his mind, he gave Satan all the opportunity he needed.

Brother Finley's hymn accomplished what I believe must have been his purpose--to make us uncomfortable. There are many, many songs in the traditional gospel style that tell us to rejoice in our hope, and to be encouraged in our struggles, and these are worthy topics. This hymn, on the other hand, throws a bucket of ice-water on our heads and dares us to deny its truth. All too often we do in fact go astray, we complain, we say hurtful things, and we engage in the world's lusts. (If this is not true of you personally, please accept my apologies; but I imagine it hits close enough to home for most of us.) Songs of confession are not as common as is the need for them, and we could use more!

About the music:

The musical setting for "Father, forgive us" is reminiscent another of Finley's better-known hymns, "Lord, dismiss us in Thy care". Both keep the melody within a narrow range, no more than a sixth except for the former's downward leap in "We let the tempter lead US astray," which rather surprisingly dips below the tonic note. Both tunes are in F major, and have a certain similarity in the SOL-LA-SOL peaks at the beginnings of the 2nd and 4th phrases of each. In both settings the composer uses a descending chromatic line in an inner voice--in the alto in "Father, forgive us", and in the tenor in "Lord, dismiss us in Thy care"--which gives the harmony a similar feel. Not having access to more of Finley's songs, I cannot suggest this is a characteristic style; I suspect, rather, that it is his style when writing music for slow, contemplative songs of this sort.


Finley, Gene C., ed. Our Garden of Song. West Monroe, La.: Howard Publishing, 1980.

Walker, Wayne S. "Father, Forgive Us." hymnstudiesblog. -https://hymnstudiesblog.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/quotfather-forgive-usquot/0