Tuesday, August 27, 2013

With a Song in Their Heart: Lowell, Fanny and Horatio

Psalm 100
This sermon was a collaboration between Bryan Campbell, Director of Music at Orange Congregational and myself.

If I were to ask you what is your favorite hymn, you could probably name that tune immediately!  That’s because sacred music, as does most music, strikes a chord, rings a proverbial bell, reminds us of something or brings us to a place of great joy or homecoming.  Music has a way of moving us that spoken words sometimes just don’t.  Music moves you in heart and spirit.

Today we will look at three song and lyric writers and the contributions that they have made to hymnody and have been passed down to us through the generations.  Truly God inspired them to use their gifts; their musical skills and poetic words to express the profound healing and reconciliatory nature of our beloved God.  We are the beneficiaries and the keepers for now of their love and witness to God’s saving grace.

To understand why we love our hymns as we do it might be interesting and fun to understand, briefly, the progression of hymnody by looking at three influential musicians.  Lowell Mason, Fanny Crosby, and Horatio Spafford.  Their names may not be familiar to you but boy oh boy their contributions will.

As with the Bible, hymnody in its earliest form was solely oral tradition, that is music and words were passed on because people learned the hymns by heart.  In the 17th century there came over from the Old World metrical psalmody and what we know as the chorale.  This continued for a hundred years or so and then in the 18th century the Harvard educated ministers sought to improve congregational singing by teaching them to read music, so was born singing schools utilizing what was called shape-note hymnody to teach the notes of the scale.  Reform was in the air.  By the late 18th century singing school textbooks were standardized, this is important because it brought out native composers. [i]

It was during this time that Lowell Mason advocated a seven shape note system based on do-re-me.  Lowell was a dominant figure in this reform movement and was one of the top composers of hymn tunes in his day.  He was also the one who introduced music instruction to the public school system in Boston.  He composed or arranged some 1,600 hymn tunes, tunes such as ANTIOCH, AZMON, BETHANY, HAMBURG, AND OLIVET which later songwriters used for hymns like Joy to the World, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Nearer, My God to Thee, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross , and My Faith Looks Up to Thee.  Let us now sing one of his tunes, from the Pilgrim Hymnal Number 348, My Faith Looks Up to Thee.  To listen click here!

A good fifty years later after Lowell was Fanny Crosby who once said, “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation.  If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it.  I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”

You see, Fanny was blinded at six weeks of age when her eyes were scarred by an incorrect diagnosis and treatment by an incompetent doctor for inflamed and infected eyelids.  She once remarked that, “If I had not lost my sight, I could never have written all of the hymns God gave me.  And write she did, Fanny wrote over 8,000 hymn texts in her life time, it is told often six or seven hymns a day.  Fanny was a leading poet of the Gospel Hymn movement and a Methodist teacher.  She also played the harp, organ, and piano. 

The Gospel Hymn movement embraced certain themes: personal salvation, a close relationship with the Savior, the helplessness of lost individuals, security for those who trust in Jesus, a call for Christ likeness, individualism, and heaven the destination of the believer.[ii]  The ability of the gospel hymn was its ability to relay the writer’s Christian experience so that many could relate and identify so it’s hard to separate the song from its writer. Fanny lived in the mid 1800’s and left a legacy of hymns including Blessed Assurance.  Let’s sing this beloved hymn from the New Century Hymnal Number 473.  To listen click here!

Fanny died in Bridgeport, CT in 1915 and is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport close to PT Barnum and Thom Thumb.

Perhaps one of the most compelling histories of a hymn is that of Horatio Spafford’s, It Is Well With My Soul.  Horatio and Anna Spafford lived a good life in Chicago in the 1860’s.  They had five children.  Horatio was a lawyer and an elder in the Presbyterian Church.  He was an active abolitionist and he and Anna lived their faith.

But in 1870 tragedy began to strike the family.  Their youngest, Horatio Jr. died of Scarlet Fever, then just a year later the Great Chicago Fire occurred destroying most of their holdings.  Their home was left in tact and they used it as a resource to help the poor and homeless.  But Anna’s health began to fail and they planned a trip to Europe in 1873.  At the last minute Horatio was detained by business so Anna and their four daughters set sail.

On November 22, 1873 the steamer Ville du Havre was struck by a British iron sailing ship, the Lockhearn.  Within twelve minutes the ship sank and only 81 of the 307 passengers survived.  Anna was one of them.  When she was retrieved she sent a cable to her husband, “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”  He left Chicago immediately and went to get her.  It is said that while sailing past the area where the ship had gone down he was informed of the spot.  Alone in his cabin Horatio penned the words to his famous hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. He wrote to  Anna’s sister, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in  mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep.  But I do not think of our dear ones there.  They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”[iii] His faith never faltered.[iv]

Let us now sing from the New Century Hymnal Number 438, When Peace, Like a River.  To listen click here.

Horatio and Anna Spafford were a witness to the healing power of God and Christ’s gospel.  They had three more children, moved to Jerusalem, started the ‘American Colony’ and continued to serve the needy, care for the sick and took in homeless children.

Each one of these people, Mason, Crosby and Spafford gave us so much because they had a song in their heart.  Whether that song was born out of a musical gift, a physically altered condition, or a tragic accident their faith was strong and they trusted in God’s great power, and they gave.  We now are the recipients of their beautiful legacy.

We should not let this day go by however as just another ‘hymn sing’ Sunday, as fun as it is.  Each one of us has a song in our heart.  It may not be a musical one like theirs, but there is a melody to your life that is waiting to be sung.  If you have not tapped into it yet, find it quick.  As the Psalmist says, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord…it is God that has made us….and we are God’s beloved.  And that is something to sing about!


[i] Sing With Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology.  Eskew, Harry and McElrath T., Hugh.  Broadman Press, Nashville, TN.  1980.
[ii] O For A Thousand Tongues: The History, Nature, and Influcence of Music in the Methodist Tradition.  Warren, Jr., James I.  Francis Asbury Press, Grand Rapids, MI. 1988.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Horatio G. Spafford: The Story Behind the Hymn.  http://voices.yahoo.com/horatio-g-spafford-story-behind-hymn-is-1620793.html?cat=38.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Hand and a Healing

Luke 13: 10-17
I was practically galloping up Agrippas Street in Jerusalem to get to a lunch date for which I was already late.  I was heading into Makane Yehuda, one of the, if not THE most, chaotic outdoor markets in Jerusalem.  It was Friday afternoon, only hours away from the beginning of Shabbat.  You can feel the frenetic energy, or the spirit, of the people gearing up towards Sabbath when everything would come to a dead stop and rest.
But in my hurry I was stopped at the crosswalk waiting for the ‘walkers’ light to turn green.  In Israel this is a very long wait.  If there is one thing that Israeli’s do, it is to stop for pedestrian lights. A busy intersection, they stop.  An empty intersection, they stop and wait.  Even on Shabbat where there are hardly any cars in all of West Jerusalem on the road, they pleasantly wait.  Their patience is overwhelming and practically unbelievable considering the assertive behavior that they sometimes display otherwise. 

I was waiting with everyone else for the light to change at a very confusing intersection when I turned around and saw an elderly woman standing behind me.  She was humped over, slightly overweight and when she sensed that the light had changed she asked me something in Hebrew.  I told her that I spoke mostly, almost exclusively English.  Didn’t matter, she continued to talk in Hebrew to me and then she put out her hand.
For the briefest moment I thought, O GEEZ, I need to bolt across Agrippas in a sort of frantic Pee Wee Herman style and get to the restaurant, my friends are waiting.  But, I took her hand instead.  Slowly and gently we began to walk across to the first island in the street.  We walked to the second median, it’s an odd intersection, and then we continued to the other side.  We were at the market.  She released my hand but I grabbed it again because the sidewalk was very crowded and we needed to walk in the street for a short distance.  When we parted she said over and over, “Todah Rabah,” which means thank you very much. 

I sped up once again to get to the restaurant.  It wasn’t until late in the evening that I thought about the bent over woman who grabbed my hand in the middle of my big rush.  It was a split second of grace in a world of uncertainty and hurried living.  This woman’s eagerness to depend on me, a stranger, caught me and touched me in a very Godly way.  I’m not sure who was guiding whom; I sensed that I needed guiding and perhaps even more so some healing. You see, I was the one who, that day, was bent over and unable to see around me, not her.                 

Can you imagine being disabled, crippled for 18 years? That’s how long the woman in Luke’s Gospel today was infirmed.  It probably was very painful for her to twist her head as her body slowly deteriorated into this humped over, bent out of shape, hardly recognizable as a human figure.  She was not able to see in front of her or above her, or even to the sides of her.  She could only see what was below her, the dirt roads and sandal clad feet.  She had limited peripheral vision and yet, that Sabbath day at the synagogue she garnered the sight of only one.  The only one she needed really, Jesus.
People at the synagogue were used to her comings and goings after all she was a daughter of Abraham and Sarah and probably frequented the synagogue.  But you know, sometimes we don’t really see people after a while and they become permanent fixtures.  And, sadly, sometimes we even look past them.  But Jesus did not.  He saw her.  He called to her.  He laid his hand on her and IMMEDIATELY she stood up straight and began to praise God.

Of course the leader of the synagogue was bent out of shape!  He kept saying to the crowd and most likely shaking his head, ‘There are six days a week you can come and be cured, come on those days and not the Sabbath’.  Now before we come down hard on this man and all of Judaism, let’s remember that Jewish law does provide for healing on the Sabbath.  Life comes before anything else.  And, in part the leader was right!  This woman was bent over for 18 very long years, what’s one more day going to hurt.  It was apparently not a matter of life or death.  Then again, why should someone wait even one more day if they can be healed in the very next moment? 

But Jesus, being a rabble rouser and an observant Jew, happened to be in that synagogue on that Sabbath and he also got a little bent out of shape I’d say.  He turns around and says back to them ‘You hypocrites!’  Jesus was not there to break the law but he was there to interpret the law.  We’ve seen him many a time do this.  He heals a man with dropsy, he cures another man with a withered hand right before the Pharisees eyes, and he even plucks grain for his hungry disciples to eat all on the Sabbath.  He joined right in with other rabbinical debates of the day as to what is lawful on the Sabbath.  However we know that for Jesus his interpretation of law, his decisions, and his compassionate acts would not take him to a good place.  But that’s another sermon for another fine Sunday.

So what is really happening in this passage?  There’s the bent over woman and the bent out of shape leader.  And we have Jesus who can see right through what is happening there in the old synagogue.  The people didn’t see this woman, she entered silently.  But Jesus did see her and, regardless of the law, Jesus heals her and then she is noticed.  His hand, her healing, and she praised God like there was no tomorrow. 

There are plenty of ‘bent-overs’ in the world.  People like the woman in Jerusalem whom I hardly saw much less acknowledged at first who needed a hand to help her.  They are people who are just passed by, not seen, the expendables thrown away by the status seeking society we live in, not acknowledged by others.  Maybe it is even you or me at times.  We are certainly as vulnerable as anyone else.   

Do you know this bent over woman?  She is the woman who walks down Route 1 past the Olive Garden. She has baby formula that she has just received from WIC and she waits for her bus in the sizzling hot days of August and the frigid days of January so that she can get home and lovingly feed and nurture her child.  Life is tough but she just keeps moving ahead, unnoticed.

Do you know this bent over woman?  She is the Iranian refugee trying to make a go of it here in this foreign place where she doesn’t know the language, the metric system, the currency or the customs.  Her dress, the Muslim hijab, gives her religious identity away.  We know that Islam bashing is virulent today.  She may not go unnoticed but people will keep their distance from her.  Life is tough but she just keeps moving ahead.

Do you know this bent over woman?  She is the differently-abled teenager just trying to be like everyone else her age.  The cyber-bullying begins and she keeps it to herself.  Each day she feels more and more isolated because she feels as if she has no one who would understand or believe her.  Life is tough, and she doesn’t think about moving ahead, she wants to quit life.

There are plenty of bent over women and men in our society and in the world.  There are hundreds of people who feel as if no one cares and who yearn for a hand to touch him or her.  They may or may not be in need of a physical healing but their expendable condition puts them at great risk of loneliness and isolation and therein lays the need for the hand of friendship.  We all want to be noticed.    When we notice someone, when we reach out our hands to someone in need we are saying to that person, someone sees you, someone cares about you, you are not alone to figure this out, there is help and there is hope. 

We can be those hands of healing to other people.  We have been gifted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ who over and over again tells us to love God and love our neighbor.  We can do so because we know that God loves us dearly and deeply.  That no matter where we are on our journey of life, in the valley of deep despair or on the mountaintops of joy God loves you.  God sees you and knows you.  God has a hand always extended out towards you.  As the prophet Jeremiah relays to the people of Israel when they were in exile in Babylon, “For I know the plan that I have for you…plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope and future” (selections Jeremiah 29 & 30).  Isn’t that the healing we all want?  Let us extend our hands in healing to others as God has so lovingly done so for us.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Through the Air

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

This week's sermon was a reprise that I had preached once before.

To view Sunday's sermon, Through the Air, go to the right and towards the bottom on this page until you see Blog Archive.  Go to the year 2012, the folder October, and the entry on October 9, 2012, Through the Air.

The entry has some great illustrations so be sure to stop by!  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Not Your Everyday Riches

Luke 12:13-21
Rev. Blake Wamester, an ordained Lutheran pastor for almost 40 years, and friend, remarked once to me that in all of the funeral services that he has officiated at and attended in all those years there was not one where a hearse, on it’s way to the cemetery, had a U-Haul attached to it.   Similarly I’ve heard it said, “There are no pockets in a shroud.”  In other words, you can’t take it with you. 

I guess the rich man in our gospel parable today didn’t know about Blake’s ‘unofficial’ survey of the funerary rituals and expectations for the afterlife here in the States.   So when God arrives on the scene with the rich man and begins their encounter with “Fool!”, all color variations of red flags should have gone up for the man.   It’s never good to ruffle God’s plummage.   And that’s exactly what the rich man does in Jesus’ parable.

The Parable of the Rich Fool
Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

It starts out that Jesus had been talking with his disciples and once again a crowd of people gather round.  The request by the resentful brother would not have been a usual one for an ordinary rabbi of the day.  Ask my brother to divvy up the inheritance so that I can get my share.  But he asked the wrong rabbi that day!  Or, maybe the right one depending on whose side of the dirt path your on.

Any other rabbi would have been the arbitrator over the dispute but Jesus issues a very stern warning instead.  Watch out!  Guard yourself, buddy.  You’re getting real close to Avarice Avenue where greed has a welcoming home with lots of curb appeal and a welcome mat, you don’t want to go down that avenue.  Life, Jesus says, doesn’t come from possessions.  You are not what you own.

Well, that seems pretty clear to me.  But then Jesus launches off into what he does best – parable telling – this one about the perils of wealth.  Having wealth is not the issue for Jesus.  What you do, or don’t do with it IS a problem for Jesus.  And so he launches off.   

There once was a man.  He was wealthy.  He had land.   And that land produced abundantly, beyond his wildest and most creative imagination.  So he thought to himself – you’ll notice that for this man there is no thought for anyone beyond himself. There are no thoughts of others, the poor people in town or his hired hands.  He thinks, what will I do with all of these crops?  He was a virtual cornucopia of the day.  He could have probably fed all of Palestine with his agricultural bounty.  Wouldn’t you like to know the thinking process of this self-absorbed man?  How boring and unfulfilled his life must have been.  But I digress.
Wisconsin - photo by S. Wagner
So the light bulb flickers on and he surmises that he must take down his old barns, which I’m sure were sturdy and adequate and build new barns enlisting the adage as we know it, the bigger the better.  It’s sort of like “McMansioning”, if you know what I mean, and then renting a storage unit to pile up the things that just don’t fit or work anymore in the new McMansion.     

For Jesus wealth isn’t the issue neither is prudent investing.  To put a little away for a rainy day, which we know can become torrential at times, is very wise.  For Jesus it’s the shear greed in which this man conducted his life.  And also, more importantly, that this man’s relationship with God was completely blocked by the big barns that he had built.

Because after the man builds those barns, he thinks to himself, I will say to my soul  relax, eat, drink, be merry as can be ‘cause it doesn’t get any better than this!  La Dolce Vita (the sweet life).  Just then God arrives on this bucolic scene saying, “You fool!”  As I said earlier, this cannot be good and indeed it wasn’t because the man died that night leaving his estate to no one and the grains to rot.  What a waste of resources in a hungry world and what a waste of a precious life itself.  Life, Jesus said, is more than possessions. 

The Gospel message this morning reminds us that hoarding and the accumulation of material goods often submits unknowingly to greed.   There is a seductive power in possessions that, if left unchecked can pull us in directions that are very far off of the track.  We will not be skipping down the path of righteousness that God wants to lead us down.  We will be trotting on an insatiable course to self destruction.

Greed can incarcerate us in material silos that we have built for ourselves.  But we all know that I bet.  And even if we don’t have quite the amount of riches that this man had, materialism still beckons.  The trick is how do we become rich towards God and in the gospel message of Jesus Christ in light of the abundance of worldly riches society heaves on us because there is so much more to be had when you are rich towards God.

Being rich towards God is not your every day riches you know, the ones that most people would think…fancy cars, silk curtains, stellar 401k plans, Ipads, pods and phones.  Being rich towards God acknowledges that there is something and ‘someone’ much larger out there who cares deeply for us and wants us to enjoy fruitful living in a different way. 

Being rich towards God means accumulating and developing extraordinary God-type virtues like love, compassion, and a generous spirit, then living as if our life could be demanded of us at any time, using these virtues for good at all times, not storing them up! Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful legacy that this man could have passed on?  Won’t this be a grand legacy for you to pass on?

It also means living fully into what God has given you and I’m simply not talking about material goods.  I am talking about you; who you are, what are your passions and the gifts that God has gifted to you by nature, nurture, and by grace?  Do not store up your gifts in a warehouse; use them each day.  What a waste it would be if Bach wrote music when he got around to it and then just filed in a circular file.  What a tragedy it would have been if Monet painted only on the weekends and then stored them in his attic in Giverney. That would be storing your treasures and not using them for the enhancement of the world.  
Water lilies by Claude Monet
I truly believe that all God wants from us is to develop that which we have been given and then to let it out there in the world.  If you build, build.  If you cook then cook.  If you have executive talents then use them for a fledgling non-profit.  Do not store up but distribute what you can, when you can, so that you, in the words and song of Diana Ross, can “make this world a better place if you can”.[i] 

When that inevitable day comes and it will, that day we really don’t want to think about, that day when we will no longer be here on earth but there with a grand bird’s eye view of this life, what riches will you leave behind?  The material riches that you’ve accumulated all of your life or the God-like riches?  What will be the riches that you have nurtured all these years so that life is better and more beautiful for the next generation?

Remember, there are no pockets in a shroud.  May your trust in God grow deeper each hour and your life will be blessed with all heavenly things good.  These are not your everyday riches but a richness grounded in the love of Jesus Christ for God.


[i] Ashford, Nickolas, Riser, Paul, Ross, Diana, Simpson, Valerie.