Tag Archive for biographical

New Driver

“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love…He does not treat us as our sins deserve…For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love…As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8, 10-11, 13-14, NIV)

I remember when my son was a new driver. He was so confident in his expertise, assured he could handle any situation (though he had no way of knowing what those situations would be). He was impatient with our parental concerns, eager for independence above all else. He said he could drive. The school said he could drive. The state said he could drive.

And he could drive, as long as it was smooth sailing. When situations were normal and all was clear, he was in control. But when the roads were crowded or unexpected demands were made, when quick thinking and experience were required, he bungled the basics. His reactions were not yet practiced or polished. His confidence suffered a sudden attack of realism, and he panicked, took chances, and sometimes used poor judgment.

For example, on his first Sunday in the church parking lot, he turned the wrong way down a one-way aisle, went too fast trying to pull into a parking space slanted the opposite direction, and scraped the side of a car. $285 in cash (we decided not to bother the insurance company).

Reflecting on this, I realize that to God my Father, I must seem much like my 16-year-old son did to me. I have so much experience as a Christian. I’ve studied and listened and lived. I know.

But when a crisis puts pressure on my faith; when my peace of mind is blind-sided by some anxiety; when a difficult situation demands that I set aside my own concerns and be thoroughly loving, I’m like a new driver. I lack the wisdom, the instincts, the reactions. I too often panic and blow it. In the process, I risk my Father’s reputation and the welfare of myself and those around me.

Yet I praise the Lord for His patience and His faithful persistence in teaching me. Though I panic, He does not. And I pray that He might help me listen more eagerly, reacting to His teaching as to loving wisdom, and not as if He were trying to meddle in my affairs or limit my freedom. I long for the day when I handle my daily demands as Christ would handle them, exercising His faith and His love.

What does a father do when his son blows it—when he makes a $285 mistake? I explained what he did wrong, then forgave him on the spot, gladly and completely. After all, he was doing his best. I was sympathetic with his struggles. It’s not easy, and I wanted to encourage him. I wanted him to succeed.

I was really rather proud of him. Still am.

A Personal Story

I had become a Christian at age 10 and had lived an active, committed Christian life. Upon graduation from high school, I elected to commute to the local state university (the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati). Though my older brother had gone to a Christian college, I knew the local university was the right place for me.

But there I began questioning my belief in the Bible and in God Himself. All the miracle stories now seemed far-fetched. So for the first two years of college, I was a sincere atheist, even though I continued to attend church and even directed the youth choir.

Over time, my intellectual struggle came to a stalemate. I realized that scientific reasoning alone couldn’t tell me whether there was a God. My mind and my senses were too limited, too small. There was so much I couldn’t observe and couldn’t know. But at that point I became convinced that God was real because I had seen Him in the lives of my parents and in many other Christians I had known.

So on that basis, without any emotional crisis, I recommitted myself to God. I have trusted and followed Him since, even through many dark and difficult times. I have never again had any doubts about His existence.

Irrefutable rational proof for God – or disproof – simply wasn’t available. In my opinion, it never is. Though faith in Him is totally reasonable, His reality cannot be proved purely by human observation and reasoning. We are tiny, brief, creatures of dust. He is an unbounded, eternal, Spirit being. Faith, not reason, is His chosen pathway to relationship with Him. He is not seeking people smart enough to perceive Him. He is seeking people humble enough to trust Him.

Unchanging Joy

Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10, NASB)

I wrote the hymn below out of deep grief. On February 20, 2015, our 38-year-old son, David, took his own life. It was totally unexpected, and we were overwhelmed with a sorrow we had never experienced.

As the months passed and the grief still shrouded our souls, I tried my normal way of processing thoughts and feelings: I attempted to write about my grief. But when I did, the river of sorrow within me overflowed and engulfed me. Writing about my grief only made it worse.

Eventually I began to realize that God was calling me to focus, not on grief, but on joy. He was teaching me to live in joy, even when flooded with deepest sorrow. He prodded me to write about and sing about the joy that is always mine in Christ. Situations change, often beyond our control. But Jesus Christ does not change. Who He is in us and who we are in Him is right now our bright, eternal, all-encompassing reality. Christ is our unchanging joy, springing up forever, refreshing us whenever we obey the Bible’s urgent reminder to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4, NASB)

When Jesus was in the darkest hours of His life, facing trial, torture, and execution, He spoke to His disciples about His fullness of joy. He longed to share with them His deep joy in the midst of sorrow.

“These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (John 15:11, NASB) 

During my time of grief, our loving Father is teaching me to drink deeply of Jesus Christ, my always and forever fountain of joy. This hymn was written primarily for myself, as a way to daily rejoice in Christ. I gladly share it with you.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Christ My Joy
Printed Music & Lyrics

Fulfilling a Dream

At age 59, the Lord began fulfilling a dream He had been pressing on my heart for my entire adult life: reading the Old Testament in the original Hebrew. I had taught myself Greek when I was ages 23-25, and the process went relatively smoothly. (I still use it daily.)

So soon after I tackled Hebrew. I got through the initial grammar, but then life’s other demands moved in, and I couldn’t make the time to continue into reading from the Hebrew Bible. Without that exposure to the Hebrew text itself, the grammar was soon lost.

That pattern repeated itself perhaps a half dozen times over the following decades. I would get through the grammar, only to lose it because I couldn’t carve out enough time to continue into translation.

Finally, at age 59, having been forcibly freed from my “day” job, I had the time to tackle Hebrew and follow through with it. But as I began the grammar again, I found that I no longer had the memory to master the myriad of verb forms involved. They just wouldn’t stick in my aging mind. Sadly, reluctantly, in great disappointment I began to face the fact that my lifelong dream would never be fulfilled.

But the Lord wouldn’t let the dream die. He continued to prod me toward learning Hebrew. Then He made clear to me that while I no longer had the memory to forcibly conquer Hebrew, if I repeatedly exposed myself to it over a period of time, I could gradually absorb it.

I began using that approach, with the help of some excellent tools (first, A Reader’s Hebrew Bible from Zondervan, then Hebrew tools for my Kindle from OliveTree.com). At first I read two-to-three verses per day, then worked up to ten verses per day. As a bonus, since I knew Greek, I decided to daily read the same Old Testament passage from the Greek Septuagint immediately after reading it in Hebrew.

I began reading straight through from Genesis 1, and as of this writing (November, 2015), I am in the last chapter of 1 Kings. Am I a Hebrew expert? Not by anyone’s definition! But what an enjoyable process! I’m finding that having to patiently plow through the text a word or phrase at a time has some of the benefits of meditation. Such a slow, systematic approach to the text, necessitated by my primitive Hebrew skills, is helping me see many truths that I would have missed during a quick reading in English.

This process is helping me realize again several important truths:

  • The Lord delights to give good gifts to His children (Matthew 7:11).
  • If we allow Him, He will bring to completion every good desire that He instills in us (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
  • God’s Word is absolutely marvelous and will richly repay all the time and effort we invest in it.
  • The Old Testament is a treasure house full of riches. God is a God of action, and He reveals Himself by what He does. If you want to understand Him better, watch Him in action. In the Old Testament we watch Him over a period of perhaps 1,500 years or more (compared to about 60 years in the New Testament). All the foundations of the New Testament are in the Old Testament. If you want to more fully understand the New, read the Old.

Interesting postscript: during these recent years while learning Hebrew, I listened to an audiobook of a biography of the hymn writer, John Newton (writer of “Amazing Grace”). I was fascinated to hear that my fellow hymn writer, born two and a half centuries before me, also felt compelled to teach himself Greek and Hebrew. He conquered both, even without the wonderful language tools available today. It seems that God is very serious about giving His hymn writers broad and deep Biblical training.

Face-to-face with the Living God

I remember clearly when I first trusted Jesus Christ. It was the last night of a revival in our local church with evangelist Rev. Jay Budd. All week a fear of hell had been building in my 10-year-old mind, but I was too shy to go forward during the altar call. So when we arrived home after church on that Sunday night, April 10, 1960, I went into my parents’ bedroom and told them I wanted to pray to become a Christian.

I still remember my burning desire not to lose the amazing new feeling that filled my heart.

But my deepest and most formative memory of that evening is my new awareness of the Living God. I had the sensation of Him standing right in front of me, looking straight into my eyes. The reality was stark and gripping. He filled my heart’s vision. I could not ignore Him or look past Him. But His look was not threatening. He was not angry with me. His look was love…nothing but love.

I think of that when I read the account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. Paul was making a career of trying to stamp out Christianity, and suddenly, in a moment in time, he turned around 180 degrees and became one of its most fervent advocates. Within a few days he was publicly contending for the truth he had violently opposed. The change did not happen through years of studying and thinking. Like me, he simply came face-to-face with the Living Christ. Few words were exchanged. The gripping reality of Jesus Christ transformed him completely in a moment in time, and he was never the same.

Like Paul, my life and ministry continues to be energized by the stark reality of Father God, revealed so vividly and personally in Jesus Christ. To my ears, so much of our Christian talk is about religion, and religion can be such a human thing. It pales before the Living God. He still fills my heart’s vision, as He did on that evening over 55 years ago. He draws me. He drives me. My relationship with Him shapes every aspect of my life. When He speaks, all other voices are just background noise. When He commands, my path is clear, regardless of opposition. My heart has room for nothing and no one else.

As with Noah, Abraham, Isaiah, and Paul, God Himself, in His person, makes all other considerations irrelevant. He is the Source and Center of all reality. He is all wisdom, all power, and all love. He calls, I answer. What else matters but Him?

Listen and sing:
Hymn: Present Lord
Printed Music & Lyrics

Only by the Lord

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV)

My fruitfulness flows from the presence of Christ within me. I am completely dependent on His working in and through me.

That’s why my devotional life is so critical – not just in those special private times but also as I look to Him throughout the day. Such prayer keeps me in touch with Him and open to His influence. Without it, I tend to sink into preoccupation with myself and lesser concerns.

Writing teaches me this dependence more than anything else ever has. Every morning when I get up and begin, I have to face my own inability and release the work to Him: “Lord, this time is Yours. I can only work as You enable me. I look to You now and will just follow as You lead.”

This is especially necessary when the task gets difficult. When I get stuck at a spot, my first instinct is to press harder. I want to get past the frustration and finish the job. But I’m learning I have to stop and pray: “Lord, I did not choose this task, nor can I make it happen. It is Yours. I am simply available to You.”

I have to open myself to Him and wait, letting Him work in His way and time. And He does – beautifully, bringing me solutions and directions I never could have found on my own.

Frequently the wait is relatively short. Something unexplainable just happens when I release the task to Him. He works so naturally and perfectly.

Yet sometimes the wait is longer. I’m forced to live with unfinished business, and I can become anxious and discouraged. During such times, I repeatedly go to Him, intent on talking about the doing. But He wants to talk about us. He reminds me to look at Him, enjoy Him, and be at peace in Him. He invites me to just rest in His doing.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV)

Remain in him by praying to Him throughout the day. It will help keep your heart set on Him. And you will know that He, himself, is life’s sweetest gift and the source of all your fruitfulness.

Listen and sing:
Hymn: As I Pray
Printed Music & Lyrics

Your Unique Place of Service

For years I felt that God had called me to one specific task. I would get impatient with Him when He seemed intent, as He often did, on diluting my focus. Why did He continually drain away my precious-little time on other obligations, other responsibilities outside my one, all-important “calling”?

At age 65, I finally have a little perspective on that issue. I look honestly at myself, and I freely admit that I am not the world’s best at anything I have done. I am not the world’s best composer. I am not the world’s best author or lyricist. I am not the world’s best Bible scholar or publisher or teacher. I never will be.

But I am one of the few people whom God has specially prepared to combine and integrate all those abilities. My uniqueness is not in one special ability, but in one special combination of abilities. In my college years, when He drew me to study classical music composition, far outside my musical comfort zone, He had a purpose. When He led me to leave the conservatory halfway through a masters and teach at a small Bible college, He had a purpose. When He sent me to Kansas City, far away from family support, to work in the demanding field of church music publishing, He had a purpose. All those years when I longed to spend every spare moment writing, and He had me invest those hours studying the Bible to teach an adult Sunday School class, He had a purpose. Through every twist and turn and mystery of my life, He had a purpose.

Stay flexible as the all-wise, almighty God stretches you in various directions. Be patient through all the waiting and all the side-trips, through the alluring successes and discouraging failures. You never know what skills, experiences, and perspectives He is combining in you for some very special role, some very special ministry He has reserved just for you.

Treasure the Past

This is the 14th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

Here in my office are two old harmonicas. My great grandfather, William Asbury Graves, used to play them in his little church in Chariton, Iowa. As a hymn writer, I treasure these reminders of my musical heritage.

The harmonicas were passed on to me through my Uncle Melvin. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II. On January 5, 1945, his ship was struck by a kamikaze plane and sank within an hour. He was picked up by another ship, which was then also sunk by a kamikaze plane. Within 24 hours, Uncle Melvin had had two ships blown from beneath him.

In the predawn darkness he floated and swam, sustained by a life jacket. I can only imagine the fears that swirled around him in those hours. But old hymns came to mind, and he began to sing. Imagine the deep meaning of these prayers as they welled up in his heart:

My Faith looks up to Thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary,
Savior divine!
Now hear me while I pray;
Take all my guilt away.
O let me from this day
Be wholly Thine! 

May thy rich grace impart
Strength to my fainting heart,
My zeal inspire.
As Thou hast died for me,
O may my love to Thee
Pure, warm, and changeless be,
A living fire! 

While life’s dark maze I tread,
And griefs around me spread,
Be Thou my Guide.
Bid darkness turn to day;
Wipe sorrow’s tears away;
Nor let me ever stray
From Thee aside!
(Ray Palmer)


Fairest Lord Jesus!
Ruler of all nature!
O Thou of God and man the Son!
Thee will I cherish;
Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul’s glory, joy, and crown! 

Fair are the meadows;
Fairer still the woodlands,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring.
Jesus is fairer;
Jesus is purer,
Who makes the woeful heart to sing!
(Anon. German hymn; tr. by Joseph A. Seiss and anon.)

After several hours he was rescued by a destroyer escort. The skipper said that in the darkness, he had found Melvin because he heard him singing.

Such stories remind me that we didn’t get here alone. We didn’t earn the right to live in this country, worship in our beautiful, well-equipped churches, and enjoy such rich hymns. All these were gifts, a priceless inheritance received from so many who have gone before us. We cannot…we must not…ignore such a heritage. We cannot squander our inheritance and fail to pass it on to the next generation.

When you hold a hymnal, do you know what you have in your hands? It is the world’s greatest treasury of worship and devotion, outside the sacred scriptures themselves. In it you’ll hear the heart of the Psalmist, the faith of the early church fathers, the powerful witness of Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, the blind Fanny Crosby, and hundreds of others. Countless believers have sung these hymns and lovingly memorized them, finding them true to scripture and experience. They lived with these hymns and died with them, carefully passing them on to their children.

As each generation discarded some hymns and embraced others, the hymns in your hands were chosen and treasured, century after century. What an incredible gift! What a precious legacy has been lovingly placed in our hands by the generations of believers gone before us!

The witness of our generation is important. But it is so much more meaningful if it is added to the witness of all the generations before us. Don’t limit yourself to current songs. If you only use expressions of faith from our narrow slice of time and culture, you miss most of the rich truth available to you. You miss the discipline of other ages confronting us with differing viewpoints. You miss a broader perspective that stretches our narrowness and challenges our assumptions. Older hymns remind us of realities that we dare not forget.

In our diverse culture, with so many varied people hungry to find their place in this world, the experience of our forebears is relevant. Reach back. Enrich yourself and those to whom you minister. Don’t serve the same food meal after meal. A banquet of tasty, nourishing foods is available to you. Just open the pantry!

Turning Points

Sometimes God’s hand is only visible in the rearview mirror. Life’s major turning points may masquerade as the small and ordinary. They only loom large when seen in retrospect.

I was 22 and in my first and only year of graduate school, pursuing a master’s degree in music composition at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. My life plan was to compose classical music and teach at the university level.

The course was “Introduction to Graduate Studies”, designed to teach us some of the basics of graduate-level study. The instructor had assigned us to prepare an annotated bibliography—a bibliography with brief descriptions for each book entry. Any subject would do.

I was also minister of music and youth director at a small church in Cincinnati. Killing time before an appointment, I was sitting alone in my pastor’s study, idly looking over the books on his shelf. One caught my eye. It was a thin, black, clothbound book with “Wesley Hymnbook” on the spine. I began reading the introductory material, and it caught my interest. Methodist hymnody seemed as good a subject as any for my assignment.

Of course, to prepare the bibliography, I had to find and familiarize myself with other books on Methodist hymnody. Up to this point my interest had been classical music, not church music. But the more I read about Methodist hymns, the more I got hooked. Soon I was haunting local used bookstores, hunting for old hymnals. (Side note: nearly 15 years later, having built up a collection of about 1,000 hymnals, I sold them to friend and composer Tom Fettke and purchased my first computer.) In addition to old hymnals, I bought newer collections of hymns and Christian songs and hungrily perused them. I even went to the rare book room at the University library and photocopied entire old hymnals for study.

When that school year ended, so did my classical music studies. Instead, I accepted a job as college music instructor at God’s Bible School there in Cincinnati. Among the courses I taught were hymnology and the history of church music, with my personal study as my only preparation.

After two years teaching, I decided to apply to Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. I was driven by a strong interest, not in pastoring, but in biblical languages and theology. Some at the seminary saw my application and connected me with Nazarene Publishing House, which was looking for a music editor at the time. I started work there in June, 1975, and stayed until the end of 2009. I never went to seminary, except to audit a course now and again.

Soon after starting at NPH, I learned that Wesley Hymnbook had been one of their biggest flops ever. My pastor had a copy in his study only because NPH had given them as gifts to graduating seniors at Nazarene Theological Seminary.

But that terrible publishing investment got them a music editor, director, and product developer for 34 years. And it ignited in me a lifelong enthusiasm for hymns.

Our magnificent, incomprehensible God changes and redirects lives every day. Sometimes He reveals Himself through a dramatic divine encounter. We are struck down by a brilliant light like Saul on the road to Damascus, or we suddenly find ourselves on holy ground, standing before a burning bush. But sometimes God’s hand is artfully subtle. He lights a tiny fire deep in the heart of a young person—a fire that in time becomes an all-consuming passion.

Divine Coincidence

Have you discovered that Almighty God wants to take part in your daily work? Here’s one example from my own experience.

Matching a hymn text with the right tune can be tricky, painstaking business. But years ago I began receiving tune ideas from the Lord. Sometimes I would hear an original tune in my head. Other times I would feel prompted toward a folk or classical tune in one of my sources. I would set the tune aside in my “pending” pile, put it out of my mind, and go on with my work.

Then within days the Lord would give me a lyric idea separately, from my Bible study or from an audio book I was listening to. Sometimes it happened the other way around. The text idea would come first, then the tune.

What was amazing was how often I’d find the perfect match for the text or tune there near the top of my “pending” file. I had forgotten about the first one until the second showed up and I went looking for a mate. The two had come to me entirely separately, though in the same time frame.

At first, I considered it mere coincidence. But it began to happen so regularly that I coined a term for it: divine coincidence.

But it wasn’t just texts and tunes that came together so marvelously. Often a thought or scripture would come to me from my daily reading or listening that was exactly what I needed for some current writing endeavor. I hadn’t gone looking for it. It just jumped out at me.

Some would explain such phenomenon as the subconscious working of the mind. And I can’t claim to explain all the workings of this amazing brain the Lord has given us.

But God regularly uses divine coincidence to remind me that He deeply, personally, constantly cares about my daily activities. My work is His work, and He doesn’t abandon me to it. He works beside me all day, every day. The Spirit of the sovereign, almighty, universal God works through me. He will work through you as well. How wonderful is that!

Father, all our work is Your work. Keep us open. Keep us listening. Keep us dependent on You.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21, NASB)