Monthly Archives: December 2014

Ten hymns

I’m not a particularly dedicated church-goer but I do appreciate church music, and recognize the affect it has had on me personally and on American culture. So one Sunday, after attending the church in which I grew up, I started playing with the idea of compiling a list of my Top 10 hymns.

Well, forget that.

These may not be my Top 10, but there are 10 of them, and they are personal favorites:

I’ll Fly Away (Albert Brumley, 1929): The most-recorded gospel song of all-time. I actually wasn’t very familiar with “I’ll Fly Away” until hearing the Kossoy Sisters’ 1956 recording of it in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The Kossoy Sisters version was replaced on the film’s soundtrack album by a new recording by Gillian Welch and Alison Krause. Brumley said he worked out the lyrics to the song while picking cotton on his family’s LeFlore County, Oklahoma, farm.

This Is My Father’s World (Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901: This is one of those hymns that has remained in my consciousness since childhood. Why, I can’t say for sure. There is something about the line “In the rustling grass I hear him pass” that just won’t go away. The lyrics stem from Babcock’s hikes near Lake Ontario in upstate New York.

Simple Gifts (Joseph Brackett 1848): I may not have a top 10, but I do have a top two or three, and this Shaker meditation is one of them: “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘Tis the gift to be free/’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.'” Popularized by Aaron Copeland in “Appalachian Spring,” the song — for so it is described by Shaker historians — deftly encapsulates the sect’s philosophy.

A Mighty Fortress (Martin Luther, 1529): Translated into English from the original German more than 70 times, “Ein feste Berg ist unser Gott” may be the most historically significant hymn ever written. Called the “Battle Hymn of the Republic of the Reformation,” it became the anthem of early-day Lutheranism and later for all Protestantism. The hymn also took on nationalist tones for those seeking freedom from the Holy Roman Empire, with Swedish forces singing it before battle during the Thirty Years War.

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms (Elisha Hoffman and Anthony J. Showalter, 1887): I loved this hymn even before Iris DeMent’s driven, haunting recording for the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. This was one the congregation of our little church used to really get into. The hymn was inspired by letters of condolence written by Showalter to two recently widowed young men. Showalter wrote the refrain, Hoffman the verses.

Silent Night (Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, 1818): Composed in rural Austria by a young priest and a schoolmaster, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” has been translated from the original German into some 140 languages. Famously, German, French and English troops joined in singing it during the Christmas truce of 1914. Simple, direct, the perfect Christmas hymn.

His Eye is on the Sparrow (Civilla D. Martin and Charles H. Martin, 1905): A hymn of solace for the oppressed and downtrodden and often associated with the Civil Rights movement, the lyrics were inspired by an infirm white couple named Doolittle who, in the words of Civilla Martin, remained optimistic and happy despite their troubles. Asked how they maintained their spirits, Mrs. Doolittle replied: “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”

In the Sweet By and By (Joseph P. Webster and S. Fillmore Bennett, 1868): Written in 30 minutes in an Elkhorn, Wisconsin, pharmacy by a manic depressive (Webster) and his friend (Bennett). One of those hymns that invites the congregation to really let go.

Amazing Grace (John Newton 1779): Written by a slave trader-turned-clergyman to accompany a sermon, “Amazing Grace” appeared first in England but found popularity in the United States during the Second Great Awakening. Originally, the hymn was probably recited or read without music, and for its first five decades was set to numerous tunes until a Baptist song leader named William “Singing Billy” Walker matched it with a traditional melody called “New Britain” in 1835. Cherokees sang a version of “Amazing Grace” translated into their language by Samuel Worcester on the Trail of Tears.

How Great Thou Art (Carl Gustav Boberg, 1885): We didn’t have many records in my house when I was growing up, but we had one of George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art.” The song is so associated with Shea that he almost ruined it for everybody else — which hasn’t prevent it from being record more than 1,700 times. Based on a Swedish hymn written in 1885 and paraphrased into English from a Russian translation by British missionary Stuart K. Hine, the song was virtually unknown in the United States until sung by Shea at a 1957 Billy Graham Crusade in Madison Square Garden.


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Why Christmas still matters

We all know that Christmas is not really Christmas. It is not Jesus’ birthday. In all likelihood, the date evolved from a combination of pagan festivals and Christian traditions centered on the winter solstice. Epiphany, which predates Christmas and is observed on Jan. 6, commemorates what might be thought of as Christianity’s spiritual birth. The origins of many of our Christmas traditions, including the exchanging of gifts, predate Christ.

One can only wonder what Jesus would think of a holiday in his honor whose most recognizable figure is a fat man in a red suit.

And that’s an improvement. In centuries past, Christmas was known more as a time of drunken revelry than religious contemplation. England’s seventeenth-century Puritan rulers outlawed the holiday, and it wasn’t generally celebrated in Boston until the 1850s. Even now, some Christians consider Christmas a blasphemy.

Today it sometimes seems as if Christmas’ primary purpose is sustaining the American economy. The annual tragic-comedy known as Black Friday — and its sanitized sequel, Cyber Monday — leaves one trying to envision the magi camping out in a Wal-Mart parking lot all night in order to get a good deal on gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christmas has acquired a lot of baggage. It is used to sell luxury automobiles, milk chocolate snowmen and Victoria Secret lingerie. In honor of Christ’s birthday we eat too much, drink too much and fall asleep watching NBA tripleheaders on new 65-inch curved screen TVs.

And yet, with all the commercialization and crass exploitation, Christmas still matters. It matters because it reminds us that life is about more than ourselves. Christmas shopping serves its own strange greater purpose in our materialistic socieity: It makes us think about someone besides ourselves, even if it’s only to choose between the festive Dr. Seuss tie and a box of handkerchiefs for the office gift exchange.

Because that is the fundamental message of Christmas and the man it purports to celebrate. Life is not all about you. It is not about what you get, it is what you give. Stop and listen, in a checkout line or pew or middle of the night, and hear the whispers of a world — a universe and all that is, seen and unseen — that is bigger than any one of us, or even all of us.

And if that takes a sale on “Frozen” karaoke machines, so be it.

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Cruel and unusual punishment

On Sunday, two of my Tulsa World colleagues published a detailed and grisly account of the state of Oklahoma’s crude execution of murderer Clayton Lockett, a stone killer convicted (and by all accounts rightfully so) of shooting a young woman and then burying her alive. There seems to be no doubt of his guilt.

Lockett and another murderer, Charles Warner, were to be executed by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on April 29. Because the state could no longer get the drugs it had formerly used in executions, it was trying a new combination of uncertain effectiveness.

For reasons explained in the stories linked above, Lockett’s execution turned into a blood-soaked “cluster,” as one of those responsible for carrying it out put it. When Lockett finally died, almost an hour after the execution began, it was from a heart attack.

Predictability, the response to this has been, “So what?” His crime having been particularly cold-blooded, Lockett could hardly have been a less sympathetic figure. Many objected to descriptions of the execution as “botched.” Lockett was supposed to die and he did, and if it turned out to take a little longer and be a lot more painful than expected, so much the better.

The obvious answer to that is the U.S. Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” and that what happened in Oklahoma’s execution chamber on April 29 seems to fall into that category.

But there is more to it than that. This is not about Clayton Lockett. It’s about us. It’s about doing things right. It’s about respect for the law and behaving like a civil society and not a lynch mob. The Eighth Amendment is there for a reason.

People who believe the death penalty should remain an option — and I’m one of them — ought to be outraged by what happened to Clayton Lockett, not because of Clayton Lockett, but because it reeks of incompetence and gives impetus to those who believe execution itself is cruel and unusual punishment.

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