Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Philip Bliss, who wrote both the text and tune for this hymn, and his 19th century contemporary, Ira Sankey, are credited with founding the gospel song movement.  Both were part of the Dwight L. Moody evangelistic team, and both sang, led crusade singing, and authored many gospel songs.  Bliss was inspired to write this hymn after hearing the following illustration in one of Moody’s sermons: The pilot of a ship aught in a violent storm searched frantically for the lights that would guide him to safety.  He could see the powerful beam of the lighthouse, but the lower lights along the rocky shore were out, and both the ship and crew were last. “Brethren,” Moody concluded, “the Master will take care of the lighthouse, but we must keep the lower lights burning.”

The link below will open a new window and features the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with an especially  lovely setting of this song.

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

The Light of the World Is Jesus

Philip P. Bliss (1838-1876) was one of the five children born to John and Lydia Bliss.  Their log home, typical of the early settlers of northern Pennsylvania, was filled with love and Christian teaching, but formal education was scarce.  Early in life, Philip developed a passion for learning and for music, and took advantage of whatever opportunities came his way.  He became a teacher at age 18 and about that same time began his first formal music studies.  His musical gifts, including a strong baritone voice, developed quickly and by 1860 he was teaching music.

In 1864,  Root & Cady, of Chicago, Illinois, published a song by Bliss. The payment he requested and received for the song was a flute.  Bliss soon became friends with George F. Root, composer of many Civil War songs, including “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and several hymns.   During the next years, Bliss worked for the publisher and with Root, leading singing conventions, teaching and giving concerts.

In 1869, a meeting took place which would change gospel music forever.  Bliss described it as follows: “One Sunday evening, my wife and I went out for a walk, before going to church… we came upon the open air meeting. I was at once attracted by the earnestness of the speaker, who, I was told, was [Dwight L.] Moody, and, waiting until he closed with an earnest appeal for all to follow him to the theater, we decided we would go, and fell in with the crowd, and spent the evening in his meeting there. That night Mr. Moody was without his usual leader for the singing, and the music was rather weak. From the audience, I helped what I could on the hymns, and attracted Moody’s attention. At the close of the meeting, he was at the door shaking hands with all who passed out, and as I came to him he had my name and history in about two minutes, and a promise that when I was in Chicago, Sunday evenings, I would come and help in the singing at the theater meetings. This was the commencement of our acquaintance.”

In July, 1870, Mr. Bliss became leader of the choir of the First Congregational Church of Chicago, and shortly afterwards, the Superintendent of the Sabbath school. He continued to hold both of these positions for about three years, resigning only when his work as a singing evangelist took more of his attention.  In November of 1876, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss went to Peoria, Illinois, for a series of meetings and services with long-time friends and colleagues.  By mid-December, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss returned home to New England to spend Christmas with their sons, Philip playing the part of Santa Claus.  Plans were to return to Chicago for services with Moody, then on to England.  Bliss never made it back to Chicago.  On December 29, 1876, with the children safely at home, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss were in a train accident that took their earthly lives.

Bliss wrote many of the songs that Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey used during the great 1870s revival in England.  “The Light of the World is Jesus” w as written for such a revival meeting and was first sung by Sankey.  Bliss biographer Major D. W. Whittle said, “It came to him together, words and music, one morning while passing through the hall to his room, and was at once written out.”  The text is based on John 8:12.

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.  John 8:12 KJV

The Light of the World Is Jesus

The whole world was lost
In the darkness of sin,
The Light of the world is Jesus!
Like sunshine at noonday,
His glory shone in.
The Light of the world is Jesus!

Refrain
Come to the light, ’tis shining for thee;
Sweetly the light has dawned upon me.
Once I was blind, but now I can see:
The Light of the world is Jesus!

No darkness have we
Who in Jesus abide;
The Light of the world is Jesus!
We walk in the light
When we follow our Guide!
The Light of the world is Jesus!

Refrain

Ye dwellers in darkness
With sin blinded eyes,
The Light of the world is Jesus!
Go, wash, at His bidding,
And light will arise.
The Light of the world is Jesus!

Refrain

No need of the sunlight
In Heaven we’re told;
The Light of the world is Jesus!
The Lamb is the Light
In the city of gold,
The Light of the world is Jesus!

Refrain

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

In 1923, Thomas O. Chisholm wrote a poem about God’s faithfulness to us,  based on the scripture found in Lamentations 3:22-23.

It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

Unlike many hymns that are inspired by a specific event,  Chisholm didn’t need a crisis to fully realize God’s faithfulness because he recognized it throughout his life.

Chisholm sent the hymn to a musician friend, William Runyan, to have it to music.  Runyan said, “This particular poem held such an appeal that I prayed most earnestly that my tune might carry its message in a worthy way, and the subsequent history of its use indicates that God answered prayer.”

Let us begin every morning in the joy and assurance of God’s faithfulness and love.

Called As Partners in Christ’s Service

There are things in my life that remind me of the people in my life.  It could be a recipe, a style of shoes, a particular color, most anything really.  Often, it is a song. In some of the churches I have served, the pastor selects the hymns to be sung by the congregation.  Pastors, just like everyone else, have favorite songs.  A few years ago, I had the honor of serving with a pastor named Joe.  He selected this song a lot, and now every time I play it, I am reminded of our service together. Joe and the the text of the song have the same message:  we, as children of God, are to work together to be the love that God is.  Joe chose well.

Jane Parker Huber (1926-2008), daughter of Presbyterian missionaries living in China, wrote the text for this hymn.  It, along with other hymns she wrote,  can be found in the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal, the Chalice Hymnal, the Covenant Hymnal and more.

Huber wrote texts to be used with familiar tunes.  For this hymn, the tune BEECHER was used. John Zundel (1815-1882), composed the tune in 1870 to be used with the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”. Although the hymntune is sometimes called ZUNDEL after the composer, Zundel named it BEECHER after his pastor, Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher was the pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, and Zundel was the organist.

Henry Ward Beecher was part of an outspoken family well-known for their abolitionist views and advocacy of social reform. A sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  A brother, Edward Beecher, was also a preacher. Dr. Edward Beecher was the first pastor of First Congregational Church in Galesburg, Illinois, a town active in the Underground Railroad.

The First Congregational Church was the first brick church built in Galesburg, and quickly became known simply as “the Brick Church” and much later as “Beecher Chapel.”  When the tall spire that soared over the town was destroyed by a tornado in 1858, Henry Ward Beecher went on a speaking tour throughout Illinois to help raise funds to repair the church pastored by his brother Edward.  Among the members of the church was Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke.  It was the preaching she heard in the Brick Church the led her to leave the comfort of her home in Galesburg and begin serving the wounded soldiers of the Civil War, saving literally thousands of lives.

In 1895, First Congregational and its mother church, known locally as “Old First Church,” recombined to form Central Congregational Church.  As a result of this union, an exceptionally fine Richardsonian Romanesque church was built in 1898.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is, without a doubt, one of the most significant landmarks in Galesburg.  One of the beautiful stained glass windows at Central is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Edward Beecher.

Detail of stained glass window in the South Room, Central Congregational Church, Galesburg, Illinois, memorial to Dr. Edward Beecher

We, indeed, have all been “called as partners in Christ’s service.” Jane Huber, John Zundel, Henry Ward Beecher, Edward Beecher, my friend Pastor Joe and countless others have certainly effectively served as partners in Christ by informing my faith journey.   Now when we sing “Called As Partners in Christ’s Service”  I am reminded that this partnership spans years as well as miles.  I think of Pastor Joe and his love of God, and of the Beecher family and their influence on America and in my hometown, Galesburg.  I pray for the church where I now serve as Director of Music/Organist, Central Congregational Church.

When Morning Gilds the Skies

In Psalm 34:1, David proclaims, ” I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.” (NIV)  To praise God morning, noon and night, and by everyone, everywhere, is exactly what the author of When Morning Gilds the Skies had in mind.  The original German text of fourteen stanzas first appeared in print in 1828.  Although we do not know the author of the German text, we have Edward Caswall (1814-1878) to thank for the translation and skillful poetic setting of the words in a way that makes them ideal for a hymn.  In 1854, Caswall published six stanzas, and in 1858 he added eight more.  The text of five (sometimes four) verses that appears in most modern hymnals comes from various sections of Caswall’s translation.

Joseph Barnby (1838-1896) composed the tune LAUDES DOMINI specifically for Caswall’s text.  Tune and text were first published together in 1868.  The tune name, translated as “the praises of the Lord,” reinforces the theme of the text.  An interesting feature of the hymn-tune is the longer note values added to emphasize the concluding phrase, “May Jesus Christ be praised!

1 When morning gilds the sky,
our hearts awaking cry:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
in all our work and prayer
we ask his loving care:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

2 To God, the Word on high,
the hosts of angels cry:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let mortals too up raise
their voices in hymns of praise:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

3 Let earth’s wide circle round
in joyful notes resound:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let air and sea and sky
from depth to height reply:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

4 Be this, when day is past,
of all our thoughts the last:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
The night becomes as day
when from the heart we say:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

5 Then let us join to sing
to Christ, our loving King:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Be this the eternal song
through all the ages long:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

Agnus Dei (Georges Bizet)

Talk of recycling or repurposing often includes tires, newspapers, pallets, books (shudder!), cooking oil and plastic bottles.  What does that have to do with music?  Of all man-made things, music is surely towards the top of the list of things that have been recycled.  A few notes, a phrase, a theme or entire song may show up again and again, sometimes with but more often without acknowledgment of the source.  This recycling did not begin with the internet.  It has likely been around as long as there has been music.

In 1872, French composer Georges Bizet wrote music for a play called “L’Arlesienne.”  The songs served the general purpose as a film score does today, and were written for chorus and small orchestra. Some of the tunes were original, but some were recycled from folk music.   Neither the music score nor the play were well-received.  Bizet recycled some of the music into an orchestral suite of four movements, which came to be known as “L’Arlesienne Suite No.1.”  From this suite came the song “March of the Kings,” a theme Bizet himself recycled from history.

After Bizet’s death, Ernest Guiraud arranged and published “L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2,” recycling more of Bizet’s themes, some but not all from “L’Arlesienne.”  The recycling continued when sometime later, Guiraud took the second movement (Intermezzo), added the sacred Latin text of Agnus Dei to it, and published the song independent of the suite.

The following video features a 1913 audio recording of Enrico Caruso.  While I prefer the full orchestral version to the piano and sparse instrumentation used in this recording, having the piano score as part of the video as well as Caruso’s historic interpretation is wonderful.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Have you ever had one of those seasons when it seems everything you touch crumbles and everything you try to do fails?  Me, too.  Have you had the kind of tragedy in your life that took your breath away, shook you to your core and you couldn’t imagine how to go on? I have, and if you haven’t yet, the reality is that you likely will someday. Things happen to us and around us as the part of life that is real and difficult and painful.

Rev. Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993) knew that kind of pain.  In 1932, while in Chicago leading a church service,  he received a message saying his wife died in childbirth. Their infant son died shortly afterwards, and Nettie and the baby were buried in a single coffin.  Although Dorsey had written many hymns, he now questioned God and felt he could never write another gospel song.  In time, with peace came a new song.  At a piano, playing a hymn tune familiar to him (MAITLAND, by George N. Allen) Dorsey began to sing new words, words of confession, a cry for help, and comfort from God’s presence:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears
And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Psalm 139:7-12 (NIV) also speaks of God’s persistent presence:

Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

The Psalmist knew it,  Dorsey knew it, and I hope you do, too:  God simply will not let you go.

In the video clip that follows, we have a rare opportunity to see and hear Thomas Dorsey.  The clip begins with him working with a choir, and ends with the first-hand account of the writing of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

This clip is of Mahalia Jackson singing the hymn.

Trumpet Voluntary, by Henry Heron

Imagine what the keyboard of a piano looks like.  Whether an upright or grand, a piano has one set of keys.  Now imagine what an organ looks like.  Most people visualize multiple rows of keys (called manuals) which are played by the hands, and one big set of keys on the floor (called pedals)  which are played by the feet.  While pianos vary in quality, size of the soundboard and some other details, they are essentially the same instrument.  When someone plays on a unfamiliar piano, it may take a few minutes to get used to the ‘feel’ of the instrument, but that is the primary distinction.

Enter the world of the pipe organ, where no two are exactly alike.  True, they have things in common, but oh my, be ready for surprises.  Pipe organs are made one at a time and for specific installations.  The purchaser often gives the organ builder very exacting instructions on what sounds they want, how many manuals, even the degree of ’tilt’ on a keyboard, and countless other details, limited only by imagination, space, and finances.  Additionally, the organ, being much older than the piano, has gone through many changes of what was considered necessary or even fashionable. Most organs have two manuals.  While a few have only one manual, three manuals is not uncommon.  Four or five manuals?  Or more?  Yep, they are all out there.  Most modern organs have 61 notes per manual, and 32 pedals.  But I have played on contemporary organs with fewer notes or pedals, playing right off the end of a keyboard during one audition.  Surprise!

All of that is to say organ music must be adapted to the organ on which it is being performed.  The composer may suggest a stop (a sound) that is not available on the organ being played so the performer must select a substitute.  Sometimes a note originally intended to be played by the hands must now be played by the feet.  This is just accepted as the way it is with organ music.

In 18th century England, most organs did not even have pedals, so music was written for manuals only. Among the composers of English organ music was Henry Heron (1730? -1795).  He was the organist at the St. Magnus Church in London for 50 years.  Heron’s published compositions include “voluntaries,” a term generally used to describe a piece performed on the organ.  Like many 18th century voluntaries, the Trumpet Voluntary we will hear today has two sections.  The first section is solemn.  The lively second section also uses a contrasting stop.

People, Look East

As a church musician, I’ve heard the complaint that the songs of Advent don’t seem as joyful as Christmas songs.  I’ll agree that some of them can feel a little heavy.  After all, Advent is a time of reflection and preparation, and reflections and preparations don’t always come easily or lightly.  Then along comes People, Look East, with its lively rhythm and words that bounce with joy and eager anticipation.

The author of the text, Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) is best known for her children’s stories.  In addition to this hymn, she also penned Morning Has Broken, often associated with the recording by Cat Stevens.  The music came later, written by Christopher Steel.

The instruction to “look east” is reminiscent of the Magi’s visit to see the Christ Child.  They made their journey when they looked east and saw the star.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,   saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” -Matthew 2:1-2 (NKJV)

When we talk about facing east, we are usually talking about east on the compass, the direction of the rising sun, symbolic of the coming of Christ.  For centuries, church have been constructed with the altar in the eastern part of the building.  When churches were built in locations that did not permit that orientation, the end of the building containing the altar is referred to as liturgical east, or the “east end” regardless of the actual direction.  Whether literally or symbolically, when the Church faces east to pray, it does so in anticipation of the coming of the Lord.

The first verse of the hymn puts it this way:

“People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.”

In Revelation 3:20 we read, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Jesus does not force His way in.  He waits for your invitation.  In this Advent season I pray you open the door of your heart to His divine love.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People

The hymn, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People, has been around for hundreds of years, but it may not be as familiar as some hymns of the same age.  Why?  Maybe because we only sing it once a year, during Advent.  Maybe because some congregations do not observe Advent.  Maybe, sadly, because some congregations no longer sing hymns.

French Renaissance composer Louis Bourgeois (1510-1561) wrote the tune GENEVAN 42, also known as FREU DICH SEHR, to accompany the text of Psalm 42.  In 1547, Bourgeois moved to Geneva and became the choirmaster for John Calvin.  His responsibilities included compiling, composing, and arranging music for the Genevan Psalter.  There was much controversy surrounding Bourgeois and his work.  He learned what we are still learning today  – change does not come easily.  He was jailed in 1561 for making alterations to popular hymn tunes “without a license.” After his release, he left Geneva, eventually moving to Paris where he died in 1561.

Bourgeois is credited with many of the tunes in the Genevan Psalter, a source for music in both the Reformed Church and the church in America.  Of all his compositions, perhaps the most famous is OLD 100th, which many protestant churches sing weekly as the tune for the Doxology.

The text of this hymn is a paraphrase of Isaiah 40:1-5, in which the prophet looks forward to the coming of Christ. More specifically, the coming of the forerunner of Christ,  John the Baptist, is foretold.  German hymn writer Johann Gottfried, better known by the Latin version of his name, Johannes Olearius, versified the biblical text into a hymn in 1641 in honor of Saint John the Baptist day.  In addition to being a hymn writer of over 300 hymns, Olearius was at one time a court chaplain, a professor of philosophy, and the author of a commentary on the entire Bible.

Olearius’s text was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) and published in her Chorale Book for England (1863).  For a time, Winkworth lived in Dresden, Germany, and there developed an interest in German hymnody.  She is known for her well-crafted English translations of German hymns including Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and Now Thank We All Our God.  In addition to her translation work, as a pioneer in promoting women’s rights,  Winkworth did much to encourage higher education for women.

The text of this hymn was meant to show the promise of better days ahead with the coming of the Messiah.  After the opening words of “Comfort, comfort ye my  people,” the remaining text describes how to impart that comfort.  This is not “comfort” in the sense of being “comfortable.” It is more like the comfort that a parent gives a misbehaving child after the consequences of his actions have been administered.   God’s comfort is more than empathy.  It removes the cause of the discomfort through healing.

“Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace!” So says our God.
“Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.”

For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
calling us to true repentance,
since the reign of God is here.
O, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way.
Let the valleys rise in meeting
and the hills bow down in greeting.

Straight shall be what long was crooked,
and the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits God’s holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now on earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that God’s word is never broken