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February 14 – Valentine

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Acts 7

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

More thoughts for meditation about Valentine

The exact history of Valentine is murky. What we do seem to know is that in the 3rd century the emperor Claudius II of Rome outlawed marriage for certain young men because married men were reluctant to leave their wives and go to war. Valentine continued to marry couples in secret. When the emperor found out, he attempted to convert Valentine to believe in the Roman gods. Valentine refused and attempted to convert the emperor to Christianity. Claudius II responded by sentencing Valentine to death. While in prison, the story goes, the jailer’s blind daughter visited Valentine. By a miracle, Valentine cured the jailer’s daughter and she was able to see.

Therefore, Valentine’s day is more about resistance,  martyrdom, and sacrifice than romantic love. However, his saints day falls around the time that love birds traditionally mate in England, so he became associated with romance.

Want more?

Check out the History Channel: [link]

Rod White’s tributes to St. Valentine:

  • A poem about his obscure but courageous-sounding history [link]
  • Making a connection with poor Whitney Houston [link]

From the Catholics:

Suggestions for action

Talk to your mate about martyrdom. Can your relationship bear the trials of faith? Do you hang on more tightly to one another than to Jesus?

Consider how you face the challenges the godless government tries to impose on you. Do you go along with its philosophy of economics and power?

February 12 — Fanny J. Crosby

Today’s Bible reading

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.  When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”

And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”  So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”  

Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. – Mark 10:46-52

More thoughts for meditation about Fanny J. Crosby

Francis Jane Crosby wrote more than 9,000 hymns, some of which are among the most popular in every Christian denomination. She wrote so many that she was forced to use pen names lest the hymnals be filled with her name above all others. And, for most people, the most remarkable thing about her was that she had done so in spite of her blindness. What many don’t consider is that she also did it in spite of her lifelong struggle with depression and isolation.

“I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you,” remarked one well-meaning preacher. Fanny Crosby famously responded, “Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior.” Born in Putnam County, New York, Crosby became ill within two months. Unfortunately, the family doctor was away, and another man—pretending to be a certified doctor—prescribed a treatment that left her blind. A few months later, Crosby’s father died. Her mother was forced to find work as a maid to support the family.

Her love of poetry began early—her first verse, written at age 8, echoed her lifelong refusal to feel sorry for herself:

Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.

How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t,
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t!

She zealously memorized the Bible. Memorizing five chapters a week, even as a child she could recite the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many psalms chapter and verse.

Her mother’s hard work allowed her to attend the recently founded New York Institute for the Blind, which was her home for 23 years: 12 as a student, 11 as a teacher. She gave herself to poetry and was called upon to offer poems for various occasions. One principal considered her art vanity. But the prophecy of a traveling phrenologist, of all people, changed the school’s mind and re-ignited her passion: “Here is a poetess. Give her every possible encouragement. Read the best books to her and teach her the finest that is in poetry. You will hear from this young lady some day.”

That day came sooner than later. By age 23 Crosby was addressing Congress and making friendships with presidents. In fact, she knew all the chief executives of her lifetime, especially Grover Cleveland, who served as secretary for the Institute for the Blind before his election. After graduation from the NYIB in 1843, Crosby joined a group of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. arguing for support of education for the blind. She was the first woman to speak in the United States Senate when she read a poem there. She appeared before the joint houses of Congress and recited these lines:

O ye, who here from every state convene,
Illustrious band! may we not hope the scene
You now behold will prove to every mind
Instruction hath a ray to cheer the blind.

In 1844, when she was 24, she published a collection of poetry titled The Blind Girl and Other Poems (a bestseller which is still in print).  She was inspired to write it when she was speaking about the value of placing blind children in an institution like the one in which she grew up.

The tears, warm gushing on her cheek,
Told what no language e’er could speak;
While their young hearts were light and gay,
Her hours passed heavily away –
A mental night was o’er her thrown;
She sat dejected, and alone….
Alas! How bitter is my lot
Without a friend – without a home—
Alone – unpitied and forgot –
A sightless orphan, now I roam….

But He who marks the sparrow’s fall
Will hear the helpless orphan’s call.
My mother bid me trust his care,
He will not leave me to despair.”…
How changed that sightless orphan now:
No longer clouded is her brow..
If o’er the past her memory stray,
Then music’s sweet and charming lay,
Drives each dark vision from her breast
And lulls each heaving sigh to rest.

In the poem, we can hear the battle she will wage the rest of her life with depression. She seems to be dealing with her automatic thoughts with poetry, music and positivity.

Another member of the institute, former pupil Alexander van Alstine, married Crosby in 1858. Considered one of New York’s best organists, he wrote the music for many of Crosby’s hymns. Crosby herself put music to only a few of poems, though she played harp, piano, guitar, and other instruments. More often, musicians came to her for lyrics. For example, one day musician William Doane dropped by her home for a surprise visit, begging her to put some words to a tune he had recently written and which he was to perform at an upcoming Sunday School convention. The only problem was that his train to the convention was leaving in 35 minutes. He sat at the piano and played the tune. “Your music says, ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus,'” Crosby said, scribbling out the hymn’s words immediately. “Read it on the train and hurry. You don’t want to be late!” The hymn became one of Crosby’s most famous.

Though she was under contract to submit three hymns a week to her publisher and often wrote six or seven a day (for a dollar or two each), many became incredibly popular. Crosby became known as the “Queen of Gospel Song Writers” and as the “Mother of modern congregational singing in America.” Ira Sankey attributed the success of the Moody and Sankey evangelical campaigns largely to Crosby’s hymns. They are still sung by all sorts of Christians all over the world as this sampling demonstrates: Blessed Assurance, All the Way My Savior Leads Me, To God Be the Glory, Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior, Rescue the Perishing,  Praise Him! Praise Him!, Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross, He Hideth My Soul

At the end of her life, Fanny’s concept of her vocation was not that of a celebrated gospel songwriter, but that of a city mission worker. In 1880, aged 60, Crosby made a new commitment to Christ to devote the rest of her life to serve the poor. She lived in a dismal flat near one of the worst slums in Manhattan until about 1884. In an interview published in  1908 Crosby said her chief occupation was working in missions. She was aware of the great needs of immigrants and the urban poor, and was passionate to help those around her through urban rescue missions and other compassionate ministry organizations.  This was a flowering of her conviction, not something new. She said, “From the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.” Throughout her life, she was described as having “a horror of wealth,” never set prices for her speaking engagements, often refused honoraria, and “what little she did accept she gave away almost as soon as she got it”.

She could write very complex hymns and compose music with a more classical structure (she could even improvise it), but she preferred to write simple, sentimental verses that could be used for evangelism. She continued to write her poetry up to her death, a month shy of her ninety-fifth birthday. “You will reach the river brink, some sweet day, bye and bye,” was her last stanza.

Want more?

45-minute bio

A three-minute version from the Methodists:

Suggestions for action

Some people today look back on Fanny J. Crosby from a perspective of “psychotherapeutic holiness.” Their questions have merit, since many Christians deal with their depression with can-do religion, through spiritual bypass and by following examples like Fanny J. Crosby. But casting blanket aspersions might not be fair. Fanny had a genius about her, or a revelation that allowed her to pull health-giving decisions out of the air. Maybe, in her case, depression was just what she needed to perfect trust in God. At least that’s what she thought.

Your genius might present some problems for you, too.  What is your best route to giving your gifts without denying the suffering that might diminish them or just might refine them? Maybe you should write a poem about that and find a musician to make it a hymn.

 

February 9 – Richard Twiss

Today’s Bible reading

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish. — John 1:14 (The Message)

More thoughts for meditation about Richard Twiss

Richard, Tayoate Ob Najin “He Stands with his People,” was born on the Rosebud Reservation (Sicangu Lakota Oyate) in South Dakota in 1954. His father was a member of the Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge Reservation also in South Dakota. After his parents split up when he was seven years old, Richard moved to Denver, CO with his mother during a period of Indian urbanization (see the Federal Indian Relocation Act). They eventually moved to Oregon where Richard finished high school. They made visits back to the Rez, staying in touch with relatives.

Twiss moved back to Rosebud to attend his first year of college at Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail) University where he became involved with the radical politics of the American Indian Movement (AIM). He participated in the famous takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in 1971. He wandered and experimented with many substances. One night in 1974 on the island of Maui, Jesus responded to Richard’s desperate prayer. There began a transformation that was coming into its fullness at the end of his life as a Lakota follower of the Jesus Way.

Two years later he married Katherine (Scottish and Norwegian decent) while living in an intentional community in Alaska. They had four sons. Richard served as pastor of a mostly white church (their family being the notable exception) in Washington State for over a decade. While there, Richard felt a nudging of the Holy Spirit. Across the US and Canada and around the world, Indigenous People were sloughing off the colonial residue that lifted up dominant cultural norms above other God-endowed cultures such as their own. This residue is typified by the U.S. policy of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” that resulted in the abuses of the  residential schools.

In 1997, he and Katherine began Wiconi International, a non-profit ministry “to work for the well-being of our Native people by advancing cultural formation, indigenous education, spiritual awareness and social justice connected to the teachings and life of Jesus, through an indigenous worldview framework.” Richard taught and spoke in many contexts, local to the Portland area, around the U.S. and the world. Richard not only taught about the wonders of creation but also the negative affects of Christian mission in the U.S. — all with his disarming sense of humor. He received a doctorate from Asbury Theological Seminary in 2011 (Intercultural Studies) and authored two books One Church, Many Tribes: following Jesus the Way God Made You and Rescuing Theology from the Cowboys: An Emerging Indigenous Expression of the Jesus Way in North America as well as many articles. His contributions to contextualizing the gospel have been a source of healing and inspiration for Indians and non-natives.

Richard was one of the founders of the North American Institute for Indigenous Studies, an Indigenous learning community that now includes several seminary programs. He served on the board of directors of the Christian Community Development Association and the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland and others as well as being the U.S. representative for the World Christian Gathering of Indigenous Peoples.

Dr. Twiss did not live without critics of his work from within native communities and from Christians. Toward the end of his life, he often talked about the next generation carrying on the work. He had a knack for expressing love and including people. His capacity to forgive astonished and did not dissuade him from working for justice or inspiring people to fall deeper in love with Jesus and walk in His Way.

In 2013, while in Washington, DC to participate in the National Prayer Breakfast, Richard suffered a massive heart attack. He died three days later on February 9th, surrounded by his wife and their four sons at 58 years of age.

Richard Twiss often received credit for the work and wisdom of his community because of his notoriety, charisma, and because he thought it was funny. He did not promote himself nearly as much as he did the movement. His goal was to build the community. He gathered people, encouraged them to love and give of themselves to fulfill a vision of reconciliation, to move toward what his close friend Randy Woodley describes as “the community of creation.” He always tried to speak from a place of community, and did not strive to be a celebrity as much as a demonstrate the Lakota value of being Ikce Wicasa, a common human person.

Want more?

Obituary on Wiconi International’s site [link]

A short article for Mission Frontiers “Making Jesus Known in Knowable Ways” [link]

Video of Richard’s keynote speech at CCDA 2011 [link]

Wiconi International’s Youtube page, several short pieces [link]

To browse Richard’s books [link]

Red Letter Christians’ tribute page to Richard [link]

Suggestions for action

Richard Twiss did not have an intact family or an easy youth, yet Jesus called him, healed him, and made him an influential proponent of radical Christianity. Consider how Jesus is calling you.

This ancestor in faith may have introduced you to many aspects of American culture that were unfamiliar to you. Spend some time learning and allow your heart to become large enough to include brother and sisters unlike you.

February 1 — Brigid of Kildare

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read John 1:10-14

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

More thoughts for meditation about Brigid

Today is the traditional feast day to celebrate Brigid of Kildare (c. 451 to 525). She was a crucial figure in the 5th Century church, particularly in Ireland.  Brigid was a convert to the faith, a nun, an abbess, and the founder of several monasteries, most famously at Kildare. Her powerful office as the abbess of Kildare (an office which held the powers of bishop until the 12th Century), made her an unusual and somewhat controversial figure.

Her father was a pagan chieftain and her mother was a Christian. It was thought that Brigid’s mother was born in Portugal but was kidnapped by Irish pirates and brought to Ireland to work as a slave, just like St. Patrick was. Brigid’s father named her after one of the most powerful goddesses of the pagan religion: the goddess of fire, whose manifestations were song, craftsmanship, and poetry, which the Irish considered elements of the flame of knowledge. But Brigid spent her early life cooking, cleaning, washing and feeding the animals on her father’s farm, the daughter of a slave.

She lived during the time of St. Patrick and was inspired by his preaching. She became a Christian. When Brigid turned eighteen, she stopped working for her father. Brigid’s father wanted her to find a husband but Brigid had decided that she would spend her life working for God by looking after poor, sick and elderly people. Brigid’s charity angered her father because he thought she was being too generous. When she finally gave his jewel-encrusted sword to a leper, her father realized that she would be best suited to the religious life. Brigid finally got her wish and entered an intentional Christian community (call it a convent or monastery).

News of Brigid’s good works spread and soon many young women from all over the country joined her community. Brigid founded many convents all over Ireland; the most famous one was built beside an oak tree where the town of Kildare now stands. Around 470 she also founded a double monastery, for nuns and monks, in Kildare. As Abbess of this foundation she wielded considerable power, and was a very wise and prudent superior. The Abbey of Kildare became one of the most prestigious monastic communities in Ireland, and was famous throughout Christian Europe.

Her cross (she’s holding it in the icon above) is a famous symbol of using ordinary things to show God’s love by sharing one’s time and labor — like the famous story of her weaving a cross out of flooring to demonstrate the gospel to a dying man. Here is one version of the story: A pagan chieftain who lived near Kildare was dying. Christians in his household sent for Brigid to talk to him about Christ. When she arrived the chieftain was raving. As it was impossible to instruct this delirious man; hopes for his conversion dimmed. Brigid sat down at his bedside to console him. As was customary, the dirt floor was strewn with rushes both for warmth and cleanliness. Brigid stooped down and started to weave them into a cross, fastening the points together. The sick man asked what she was doing. She began to explain the cross, and as she talked his delirium quieted and he questioned her with growing interest. Through her weaving, he converted and was baptized at the point of death. Ever since then the cross of rushes has been an important symbol in Ireland.

Want more?

A bio from Solas Bhride in Kildare [link]

A bio from the Brigidine Sisters in Australia: [link]

Thoughts from Rod, who “visited” Brigid on pilgrimage [link]

Inspired to a pilgrimage? [link]

Suggestions for action

Brigid reminds us that women have always been esteemed by God as worthy leaders. Men have often denied them their calling, but Spirit filled sisters often break through the injustice. Celebrate daring women of faith you know!

Brigid also reminds us of earth, wind, fire and water. Her home-grown, Celtic Christianity is full of natural elements, including a fire symbolizing God’s presence which she and her band tended in Kildare — one which burned continuously for centuries.

There is a Druid goddess named Brigid, as well. Sometimes the Irish have gotten the saint and goddess mixed up. But we can celebrate how the yearning represented in gods and goddesses are met in Jesus, as Brigid boldly proclaimed. Think about honoring the yearning of people around you. Imagine how you can connect them to Jesus.

January 31 – Menno Simons

Today’s Bible reading

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. — James 1:27

More thoughts for meditation about Menno Simons

At the height of their persecution, one convert survived to give form and future to the Anabaptist movement. Menno Simons (1496-1561) was a Catholic priest born in modern day Netherlands. While studying the Scriptures for the first time (even though he had been a priest for over a decade), Simons realized he was in conflict with church leaders about transubstantiation. A few years later, around 1531, Simons heard about “rebaptizing” when Sicke Snijder was beheaded, the first Anabaptist martyr in the Netherlands. He was moved to study the scriptures and found that infant baptism was not in the Bible. He began having more contact with Anabaptists, and while the date of his own adult baptism is not known, those who harbored Simons were arrested for the offense.

The Mennonites, a religious group descended from the 16th century Anabaptists, take their name from Menno Simons. His moderation, after the militant excesses of the fanatical Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster (1534 – 35), restored balance to the movement.

As Simons’ influence increased over the years, the Dutch Anabaptists became known as Mennonites. They developed a distinctive focus on evangelism. The most celebrated of Simons’ work: Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing (1539) reads,

True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love; it dies to flesh and blood; it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires; it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul; it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it does good to those who do it harm; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those who persecute it; it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord; it seeks those who are lost; it binds up what is wounded; it heals the sick; it saves what is strong (sound); it becomes all things to all people.

The Mennonites rejected infant baptism, the swearing of oaths, military service, and worldliness. They practiced strong church discipline in their congregations and lived simple, honest, loving lives in emulation of the earliest Christians. Because Mennonites refused to assume state offices, to serve as police or soldiers, or to take oaths of loyalty, they were considered subversive and as such severely persecuted. These persecutions led at various times to the emigration of Mennonite groups, as in a group’s journey to the American colonies (1683), where they settled in Pennsylvania. At the end of the 18th Century, merging this Anabaptist stream with influence from the Pietist movement, the River Brethren (later to become the Brethren In Christ) were formed.

Simons died a free man of natural causes on this day in 1561, 25 years after he had renounced his priestly vows. He was buried in his personal garden.

Want more?

Suggestions for action

Read through the excerpt from Simons’ writings again. Maybe we should all take a “dormancy” test. Are there an elements of the true evangelical faith that are less active in you or us than they ought to be? Does our relative lack of persecution quench the Spirit among us?

January 27 — Mahalia Jackson

Today’s Bible reading

Yes, all who are incensed against you
    shall be ashamed and disgraced;
those who strive against you
    shall be as nothing and shall perish.
You shall seek those who contend with you,
    but you shall not find them;
those who war against you
    shall be as nothing at all.
For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear,
    I will help you.’  Isaiah 41:11-13

Meditating with Mahalia Jackson

[Mahalia Jackson singing live in Chicago. She was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mahalia sang this at the march on Washington just before King gave the “I have a dream” speech].

Mahalia Jackson (October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972) was an American gospel singer. She had a powerful contralto voice. Even more, she had a powerful spirit that led people to name her “The Queen of Gospel.” She became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was known internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She recorded about 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records) during her career, and her 45 rpm records included a dozen “golds”—million-sellers.

At the March on Washington in 1963, Jackson sang in front of 250,000 people “How I Got Over” and “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned.” That was the same event in which Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous I Have a Dream speech. She sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at Dr. King’s funeral after he was assassinated in 1968. She sang to crowds at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and was accompanied by “wonderboy preacher” Al Sharpton.

Earlier, in 1956, she met Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the National Baptist Convention. A few months later, both King and Abernathy contacted her about coming to Montgomery, Alabama, to sing at a rally to raise money for the bus boycott. They also hoped she would inspire the people who were getting discouraged with the boycott. Despite death threats, Jackson agreed to sing in Montgomery. Her concert was on December 6, 1956. By then, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Browder v. Gayle that bus segregation was unconstitutional. In Montgomery, the ruling was not yet put into effect, so the bus boycott continued. There was a good turnout at the concert and they were happy with the amount of money raised. However, when she returned to the Abernathy’s home, it had been bombed. 

Jackson once said: “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free.” Asked about her choice of gospel music, she said, “It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues.”

More:

Nice online bio

Suggestions for action

Right now, let yourself be happy. Let the blues be lifted because God is with you.

If you really want to follow Mahalia’s example. Sing. Try it right now. If you are in public, or with someone else in your home, do it anyway. That would be even more like her.

January 23 — Thomas Dorsey

The Father of Gospel Music Wanted to Be a Secular Star

Today’s  Bible reading

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. — Ephesians 5:18-20

More thoughts for meditation about Thomas Dorsey

Thomas Dorsey was 33 years old and had a flourishing career in secular music. In the previous 15 years, the Georgia native had moved to Chicago, completed his musical studies while picking up an endless number of side jobs, and eventually found a way to support himself and his expectant wife as a full-time musician. But it wasn’t to last. In the next months, Dorsey would lose his spouse and newborn son, a tragedy which spurred him to heed the advice of those closest to him. He would leave the secular music scene behind and fully dedicate his musical gifts to the church.

Over the next 60 years, Dorsey became known as the “Father of Gospel Music,” penning hundreds of songs and redefining the genre in beat, rhythm, and tempo. As The Voice reported, the Chicago musician dubbed his work “songs with a message.”

Here’s the full story:

Thomas A. Dorsey was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, a small town outside of Atlanta, in 1899, the son of an itinerant Baptist preacher. When his father and mother married, his mother brought a significant amount of land. But within a few years, the family lost their property, allegedly due to back taxes. Thomas’s father, a respected teacher and preacher, was forced to work as a sharecropper on the very land formerly owned by his wife’s family. In 1908 the Dorseys moved to Atlanta where both parents worked to help the family survive.

The adjustment wasn’t easy for Thomas. He was placed a year behind his classmates in the Atlanta public school system and his peers often made fun of his speech and clothes. Thomas dropped out of school at the age of 10 and began working at a prominent black vaudeville theater, carrying water and doing other odd jobs. He said, “As a boy, I sold pop, ginger ale, and red rock at the 81 Theater, and I got a chance to meet all the stars … and they would want a pop or something, a cold drink on credit until payday, and I got a chance to know them all! I stayed ’round that theater, I’d hang ‘round that theater, and I learned a lot. I learned blues; I could play the piano, and I think it paid off very well for me.”

As a young boy, Thomas learned to play the piano from his mother, for whom music had been a significant part of her own family life. After the family moved to Atlanta, he walked 30 miles a week to take formal music lessons. As his musical ability improved, he began playing for churches, house rent parties, bordellos, and women’s teas to help supplement his family’s income.

In 1916, at 17, Dorsey moved north to Chicago to pursue a musical career. Success was initially hard to come by. Dorsey soon learned he couldn’t earn union scale wages as a musician without a card, and he couldn’t obtain the card without a formal music education. To pay for his education, Dorsey worked days at a steel mill in Gary, Indiana, attended school at night, and established his own nightly rent-party circuit (parties organized by tenants to pay for their rent). In 1919, Dorsey completed his musical studies at the Chicago College of Composition and Arrangement and obtained his union card. Now he was free to play anywhere in Chicago and performed with various groups, including the Whispering Syncopators and a jazz orchestra.

Dorsey also joined Pilgrim Baptist Church. A preacher’s kid who had confessed faith in Christ as a child, he had also been influenced by his father’s flamboyant style, which he often imitated on the family porch. But faith wasn’t a serious priority in Dorsey’s life until his early 20s, when he experienced a second conversion at a National Baptist Convention (NBC). He said, “There was a Baptist convention up the street from where I was staying. I was playing rags and blues at parties, and things on Saturday night. There was a fellow who came to the convention by the name of Nix who stayed with my uncle, and he got up one night and sang I Know a Great Savior, I Do Don’t You? After he finished, the minister said anyone could join the church. If you were interested, they would send you to a church of your choice. I thought, “Here’s my chance.” I was playing jazz music. In fact, I was working in clubs. So I quit. I walked off my job.”

Initially, Dorsey’s conversion spurred him to end his secular music career, and he began playing for a storefront church. But the salary wasn’t enough to pay his bills. So, once again, Dorsey began to work in jazz and blues clubs. In 1924, Dorsey, with the Wild Cats Jazz Band, debuted with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, at the Grand Theater in Chicago. Performing with Rainey was a significant career break for Dorsey: She was known as the “Mother of the Blues” and composed over 100 songs during the mid-1920s. Dorsey also scored and transcribed music for artists and singers, working closely with Mayo “Ink” Williams, who promoted music produced for a black audience by Paramount Studios.

Despite personal success, depression plagued Dorsey throughout his career. He appeared on stage one night with Ma Rainey and was unable to play. He said, “I could move my fingers. I just couldn’t play. Think of that. I have the muscular ability to move, but I can’t play. In other words, I can’t make music. I can’t create.” Some of those close to Dorsey, however, believed something else was at work. His wife and sister-in-law were unhappy that he had continued to pursue a secular musical career. Dorsey’s wife, Nettie, whom he married in 1925, believed that God had called him to write and sing gospel music and that the source of his inner turmoil stemmed from ignoring God’s calling.

Yet his secular career was rising. In 1928, Dorsey and guitarist Tampa Red released, It’s Tight Like That—a national sensation and a religious scandal. The song’s bawdy lyrics described lovemaking between a man and a woman. It was an instant success, selling over 500,000 copies. But pastors scoffed at a honky-tonk blues player trying to compose church music. They felt his music wasn’t suitable for dignified church worship.

Things began to change for Dorsey in the 1930s when influential NBC musicians began championing his music. A performance of Dorsey’s composition of If You See My Savior during a morning devotion left people “slain in the spirit.” Two NBC musicians gave Dorsey permission to set up a booth at the 1930 convention where he sold more than 4,000 copies of that song. For his part, Dorsey continued to play secular music while he visited churches and asked pastors to listen to his religious compositions.

In 1932, Dorsey’s battle between secular and sacred reached a tragic resolution. The musician had gone to St. Louis to sing at a revival. During his trip, he received a telegram telling him to return home—his wife had just died in childbirth. His infant son died the next day.

Initially, Dorsey became angry and bitter with God after their deaths, believing that God had wronged him. In his grief, he refused to do anything for God; he only wanted to pursue his secular career. But God had something to say to him, as Dorsey later recounted in The Precious Lord Story and Gospel Songs: “You are not alone. I tried to speak to you before. It was you that should have gotten out of the car and not gone to St. Louis. … I said, Thank you, Lord, I understand. I’ll never make that same mistake again.”

The following Saturday after Nettie’s death, Dorsey met up with his friend Theodore Frye. There, he later said, God gave him the words and melody for Take My Hand, Precious Lord: “Something happened to me there. I had a strange feeling inside … a calm—a quiet stillness. As my fingers began to manipulate over the keys, words began to fall in place on the melody like drops of water falling from the crevice of a rock.”

The popularity of Precious Lord throughout the country helped revolutionize the worship atmosphere and later, inspired many in the civil rights movement. Frye introduced the song to Martin Luther King Sr.’s Ebenezer Church. On the day he died, Martin Luther King Jr. requested that Precious Lord play at a future event. Aretha Franklin sang it at his funeral.

Dorsey brought his own ideas to church music. He insisted that the purpose of his music wasn’t to tear down the traditional old-line churches but to dedicate his musical gifts to God, as The Rise of Gospel Blues quoted him: “I wasn’t trying to change it [church music], but I was just struck with something that would change it over, something that God gave me. He accepted it; I got my authority from God.”

Ebenezer Gospel Chorus

Dorsey dubbed his music “gospel blues” due to the similarity of his gospel rhythms and vocals to those heard in blues and jazz clubs. He employed the “call and response” pattern in his songs that also reminded pastors of songs composed and sung by their enslaved ancestors.

Eventually, Dorsey’s style of worship took hold. In 1931, the established “silk-stocking” Ebenezer Baptist Church organized a gospel choir, marking the beginning of gospel music’s acceptance by mainline churches. The energy from the Great Migration also impacted this social musical revolution. Blacks relocating to the North from the South wanted a type of singing that reminded them of home—songs with rhythm, hands clapping, and feet tapping.

Frustrated with the Northern worship style, newly arrived Southern blacks who had joined large churches left and began to join storefront churches where worship services resembled the ones they left in the South. Pastors at traditional churches began to take notice.

At Pilgrim Baptist, Dorsey’s own pastor was encouraged by the success of Ebenezer’s gospel choir, and he soon hired Dorsey to serve as the church’s gospel choir director and musician in 1932. Dorsey held that position for more than 50 years. Ebenezer and Pilgrim’s acceptance of gospel music as a religious genre helped to fuel gospel music’s prominence in church worship not only in Chicago but also across the country.

In 1940, Dorsey married his second wife, Kathryn. Together, the couple had a son and a daughter. Kathryn proved to be a source of inspiration for her husband—her name is included on some of his song publications.

Thomas Dorsey published and performed his own music for decades. He earned his nickname as “The Father of Gospel Music” because of his impact on traditional gospel from the 1930s to 1950s. For most of his life, when he wasn’t playing or leading music in Chicago, Dorsey traveled around the United States demonstrating his music, conducting workshops, presiding over music conventions, and occasionally writing.

More?

Suggestions for action

For what will we use our talents? For what will we strive? It is a question in every era of our lives, from childhood to old age? So there is probably a choice for you today. Sit back and ask what needs to be done. Are read the circumstances, as Dorsey read the tragedy of his life, as see how they inform your choice, knowing Jesus as you do.

January 21 — MLK Holiday

A national holiday rarely intersects with the Christian calendar. But Martin Luther King is so precious to us that we are including his national “birthday” as part of our observances.

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Deuteronomy 15:1-15

However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.

More thoughts for meditation about the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday

In 1983, Ronald Reagan signed into law the legislation that made a day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. Reagan did not support the legislation. He opposed the King holiday because he thought King did not deserve to be so honored. Plenty of people at the time shared that opinion, and plenty of people still do.

There is, after all, exactly one other American so honored, and that person is George Washington—not Lincoln, not Jefferson. (The third Monday in February, the day we call “Presidents Day,” is officially, as it has always been, in honor of Washington). Giving Martin Luther King Jr., a man who never held public office, an honor that had been reserved exclusively for the father of the country was a  very loud statement, one that a very conservative president preferred not to make.

Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing protesters at Girard College on August 3, 1965.
Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing protesters at Girard College on August 3, 1965.

Reagan objected because he believed that another federal holiday would just create more government bloat. The King holiday would become the tenth national holiday that came with a paid day off for all federal workers, the cost of which the Congressional Budget Office estimated at $18 million per holiday in 1983 dollars. To those who objected to the cost of the new holiday, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, whose conservative bona fides were no less than Reagan’s, said: “I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination.”

Luckily for the president, the legislation was passed with veto-proof majorities, making his threatened veto a non-issue. So on Nov. 2, 1983, in a Rose Garden ceremony, Ronald Reagan signed the legislation into law with Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, by his side. This is often listed among his accomplishments.

Reagan’s point was not without logic. The original impetus for the holiday came from labor unions with large African-American memberships that sought a paid day off on MLK’s birthday in contract negotiations. And though legislation creating the holiday was a landmark in American racial relations, all the creation of a federal holiday practically does is give a paid day off to federal government workers. It does not give the day a spirit or a meaning.

Many of the people who had worked diligently for years collecting signatures and petitioning legislators to create the King holiday must have experienced a “What now?” moment when they achieved their goal. They had insisted on having an “official” holiday. They were not interested in Reagan’s counter-suggestion that the King birthday be observed like Lincoln’s, which is to say, without closing government offices. But if the King holiday were to keep true to the spirit of the man whose life inspired it, then it had to become more than just another three-day weekend.

In 1994, Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Congressman John Lewis of Georgia authored the King Holiday and Service Act, with the intention of transforming the King holiday from a vacation day into a day of civic participation and volunteerism; from what had been a “day off” to a “day on.” President Bill Clinton signed the legislation into law on Aug. 23, 1994.

The Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service has often been cited as the nation’s largest King Day event: (website). There is no doubt Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King left his mark on Philadelphia. His journeys to this city are noted and marked and his wife Coretta authorized the only Chapter of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association for Nonviolence in Philadelphia.

Suggestions for action

Pray through the Deuteronomy passage, whether you are “rich” or “poor.” What is God saying to you?

Get involved in one of the many service projects being planned! Circle of Hope has one planned with MCC.

January 18 – Amy Carmichael

Today’s Bible reading

The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all.
He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken.
Evil shall slay the wicked: and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate.
The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate. — Psalm 34:18-22 (KJV)

More thoughts for meditation about Amy Carmichael

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was a well-known missionary during the first half of the 20th century. Her 35 books are loved by thousands.

She was born into a well-to-do, Northern Ireland, Christian family. In her teen years, she was educated at a Wesleyan Methodist boarding school; and at age 13, while still in boarding school, she accepted Christ as Savior. When she was age 18, her father died, leaving the family in difficult financial circumstances, as he had given a large personal loan that was not repaid. The family moved to Belfast. There she became involved in visiting the slums, and seeing the terrible conditions under which many women and girls worked in the factories. She began a ministry with these women. It was a work based on faith in God alone, and the Lord met her needs in remarkable ways.

She became acquainted with the Keswick Movement, and it was there that she learned of a close, deeper walk with the Jesus. The founder of the movement, Robert Wilson, a widower, asked her to come and live in his home and be his secretary. She learned much from that employment. She remembered on one occasion at a Keswick meeting when D.L. Moody preached on the prodigal son. Afterwards, he was talking with Robert Wilson and stopped in mid sentence. He was struck with the moment when the father says to the older son “Son, thou art ever with me and all that I have is thine.” Moody said, “I never saw it before. Oh, the love of God’s love. Oh, the love. God’s love.” Tears rained down his cheeks. Amy never forgot that spiritual truth—”All that I have is thine.” It reinforced her faith that God knew her needs before she asked and wanted to supply them by faith.

She received a “Macedonian call” in 1892 at the age of 24. The following year, she became the first missionary appointee of the Keswick’s missions committee. She went to Japan. But there and elsewhere her missionary efforts met with disappointment. She left Japan for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), went back to England, and then India, where she caught dengue fever.

In India, she saw that the missionary community was very active but there were no changed lives. She detested the meetings with the other missionary ladies—drinking tea and gossiping, showing very little concern for the salvation of those about them. She felt very alone. One day as she fell to her knees in despair, a verse she had learned long before floated into her memory: “He that trusteth in me shall never be desolate.” From there on she found that to be true throughout her long life of ministry in India. In reflection, she wrote:

Onward Christian soldiers,
Sitting on the mats;
Nice and warm and cozy
Like little pussycats.
Onward Christian soldiers,
Oh, how brave are we,
Don’t we do our fighting
Very comfortably?

She left Bangalore for South India and with the daughter of her host family and several Christian Indian women, began an itinerant ministry through the villages of Tamil Nadu. They were dubbed the “starry cluster,” because the Indians recognized their sincerity and the light shining from them. The members of the band had no salary but looked to God to supply their needs. Their attitude was, “How much can I do without that I may have more to give?” It was during this period of time that Amy took on the habit of wearing Indian dress, which she continued throughout her lifetime.

A life-changing experience took place in 1901. A little five-year-old girl, named Pearl Eyes by Amy, was brought to her by an Indian woman. Her mother had sold her to the temple, and there she was being prepared for temple prostitution. Twice she had run away only to be caught, carried back, beaten, and subjected to sexual service in that Hindu temple. Finally, as she was running away again at night, she met a woman who brought her to Amy. Little Pearl Eyes told her story as she sat on amy’s lap playing with the rag doll she had given her. She described what was done to her in the temple, demonstrating with the doll.

The date was March 7, 1901. Amy never forgot that day nor the child’s story. It was the beginning of her work to rescue of these children who had been dedicated to the temple gods. She founded the Dohnavur Fellowship. In 1918, they began to also rescue baby boys who were also dedicated to the temple gods and goddesses. Other areas of the work over the years were added such as a hospital, schools and publishing house. Amy was not understood by many of the missionaries in India. She was also greatly resented by the Hindu priests and was frequently taken to court on charges of being a kidnapper.

In 1931 Amy had a fall that left her an invalid for the remainder of her life, and she seldom left her bed. It was during this period of her life that she was most prolific in writing. Occasionally someone would wheel her in a wheelchair out onto a veranda where her children could gather to greet her and sing to her.

Amy was very self-effacing. She rarely allowed her photograph to be taken and never referred to herself by name or personal pronoun in her writings.

Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
Another’s life, another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.

More

BBC2 video

Fan video bio focusing on prostitution

Hour-long English bio

Goodreads quotes pages

Suggestions for action

Amy Carmichael’s life reflects a conviction that we should give our “utmost” for God’s “highest.” Her convictions led her to do very unusual things, especially unusual for a woman in her time. She would want you to ponder whether you are receiving the sanctification from God that sets you apart for your best work on the Lord’s behalf. She would want her example to move you to consider how you should shine God’s light and be a conduit for God’s compassion. The whole world is your mission field, even if you end up in a wheelchair!

January 17 — Anthony of Egypt

Today’s Bible reading an an excerpt

Read James 4:1-12

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

Hieronymous Bosch, Triptych of Temptation of St Anthony (right wing), 1505-06, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon
Hieronymous Bosch, Triptych of Temptation of St Anthony (right wing), 1505-06, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Meditating with Anthony of Egypt

Today is St. Anthony of Egypt’s feast day.

The Catholic Church developed an elaborate system of celebrating the lives of “saints.” Early on, these great people were often the martyrs who gave all believers courage to keep their faith in difficult times. Later, these people were thought to play an intermediary role between Jesus and humanity. Their shrines were thought to be healing, powerful places, and they were thought to be praying for us and taking advantage of their special relationship with God on our behalf. We are not into the excesses of these practices. But we still recognize how they got to be “saints” even though the Bible calls everyone who has been set apart for God in Jesus a saint.

The word “saint” means “holy one.” When Paul writes to the church in Rome, he starts his letter: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” If you follow Jesus, you are a saint, right along with Anthony.

Anthony was one of the first Christian monks.  A “monk” (from Greek: μοναχός, monachos, “single, solitary” and Latin monachus) is a person who practices strict spiritual discipline to be close to God and serve the Lord’s purpose, living either alone or with any number of other monks. They voluntarily choose to leave mainstream society and live an alternative life, usually according to a rule.

Anthony lived from 251-356 AD (105 years!)  At the age of 20, he was inspired by a passage in Mark: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor” (10:21). So he made sure his sister was well provided for and then he gave away a large inheritance and all his possessions. He then pursued a life of solitude in the desert, away from a Church that was quickly becoming dominated by the world. In many ways, he was the “anti-Constantine.”

Anthony was illiterate but he became very wise.  He went further into the desert than his ascetic contemporaries in search of an undistracted life with God.  He spent time in an old tomb and eventually he shut himself up in an old Roman fort for twenty years.  In his solitude, he had frequent run-ins with the devil, but triumphed.  His life was written down by the famous bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius [bio], so we know a lot about his struggle and his influential successes. [link to Life of Anthony…]

The Emperor Constantine and his two sons, Constantius and Constans, once sent Anthony a joint letter, recommending themselves to his prayers. Noting the astonishment of some of the monks present, Anthony said, “Do not wonder that the Emperor writes to us, even to a man such as I am; rather be astounded that God has communicated with us, and has spoken to us by His Son.” Replying to the letter, he exhorted the Emperor and his sons to show contempt for the world and to constantly remember the final judgment.

The holiness Anthony achieved in his solitude ended up being very influential. People came to see him and formed a community around his example. Plus, the leaders of the church called him out of his separation to add his wisdom to the development of the church.

Perhaps the best movements are those begun by people not trying to start them. The monastic movement that Anthony inspired is still inspiring further descendants in the faith today. Circle of Hope honors the spirit of separation from the world and practices that separation invasively.

More?

You might appreciate a bio of Anthony from the Coptic Church [link].

Suggestions for action

Spend half a day in silence some time in the near future (or more if you can). Make a deal with your spouse or roommates that you are going to be silent (maybe get them to do it with you). Unplug completely. See if this small separation from mainstream noise allows you to connect with God in any way.