Seeing deeply

February 11, 2015

Candler School of Theology – Episcopal Studies Eucharist Service

Holy Women, Holy Men: Fanny Crosby, Hymnwriter, February 11

Isaiah 42:10-12; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 9:35-39 

Last week when I was on campus, Bishop Whitmore asked if I could come and lead worship here today. He said that y’all are using Holy Women, Holy Men and then simply said “Fanny Crosby, “Blessed Assurance.” I admitted to him that I don’t know much about hymnody, but he smiled and said, “Just look at the gospel, that’s all you need to focus on.” So, it was a go!

As I looked at the texts for the service, I noticed that the reading from John was the end of the healing of the man born blind. Then, the Old Testament also mentioned leading the blind out of darkness. And it hit me, oh yeah, Fanny Crosby was blind!

Yet, unlike the man in the gospel story, Fanny wasn’t born blind. But when she was only six weeks old, she had an infection. It was 1820, so medicine was quite different then. The local doctor couldn’t be found, but a stranger said he could help, it’s unclear whether he was a real doctor or not. He put hot poultices on Fanny’s eyes to kill the infection. It must have been excruciating. The good news is that the infection cleared up, but the scars on her eyes rendered her sightless for the rest of her life.

Fanny’s father died within a year, and her mother became a maid. Fanny’s Grandmother was her primary caretaker. A woman of strong faith, she was determined to raise Fanny just as any child. She believed that all children come into the world ready to learn, and Fanny’s grandmother taught her plenty![i]

Fanny CrosbyFanny was a lifelong Methodist. She wrote over 8,000 hymns and was one of the most well known women in America. Hymnal publishers thought it would be a problem to have so many hymns by one author, so Fanny got around it by writing under 100+ pseudonyms. She would not be deterred.

In addition to hymns, she also wrote poetry, and she preached and taught. When asked about her blindness, Fanny said:

It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.[ii]

This quote struck me. It’s so easy to get distracted by the things around us, and lose sight (so to speak) of what we are intended to do.

In Luke’s gospel, we see Martha getting worried and distracted by all the work she had to do, as she watched Mary sitting at Jesus feet, listening to him teach. In Martha’s exasperation she asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her, but Jesus responds, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:40-42)

Mary has chosen the better part. Mary was focused on Jesus and what Jesus had to teach her.

But it’s so easy for us to get distracted by the many tasks in our life. Not just in school or work, but even the things of our tradition; the particularities of our liturgy. Things that are intended to bring us into the mystery, but can become so distracting at times that we lose sight of their ultimate intention – to bring us into relationship with God and others.

Today’s gospel lesson shows an example of tradition getting in the way of relationship – this man who was born blind was excluded from the synagogue because he was considered unclean. The rules were the rules and he had to be kept out.

Even after Jesus healed the man, the man faced inquisition after inquisition. His own family didn’t even stand up to the religious authorities, for fear of being cast out. The religious authorities kept asking how he was healed, and he kept telling them the story, yet they couldn’t SEE. They were more worried about rules being broken – a healing on the Sabbath – then recognizing that this man was now able to see, and can be part of the community! But, because things weren’t done on “their terms” the Pharisees still did not accept the man, and cast him out of the synagogue.

I have to guess that it wasn’t much of a loss for the man. He had been denied access for his whole life. And now, having received his sight, his first view is that of a flawed religious system. An institution that is more concerned about keeping things the way they’ve always been; following the long-standing rules; and excluding those who see God in a different way.

Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’    (Jn 9:39)

Those in authority couldn’t see the thing that was more important. The Pharisees were distracted and worried about many other things, but not the ONE THING that is most important – that God calls us to be in relationship with God and others.

lightBulbs-reducedJohn’s gospel is about turning on the lights and forcing us to see. And, I know from personal experience that it’s not always big things that we need to see – it’s usually a lot of very small things. We are called to look for the lights that others turn-on for us, illuminating our blind spots as we walk through ministry.

For example, when I was in my third year at Candler, Christ Church (the parish where I was serving as seminarian) decided to hire a second priest to handle Children and Youth Ministries. Both the rector and I wanted to discern fully, so I interviewed at other places and Christ Church formed a search committee and interviewed me along with several other candidates.

One step in the process was spending time with the Youth. I hadn’t worked with the Christ Church Youth much, except coordinating and training the acolytes. So, although I knew some of the teens, I didn’t know them very well. During the Youth evening, the teens were given the chance to ask me questions.

One of the teens in the group was a 7th grader, who was also an acolyte, so I knew him a little. Shortly after I was ordained a Deacon, I was reading the Gospel lesson one Sunday morning. He was standing to my right, holding one of the torches and he kept running his hands over and over the torch the whole time I was trying to read. It was the parable of the Prodigal Son – not a short lesson – and his movement was quite distracting. I wasn’t experienced enough to simply reach over and touch his hand to get him to stop. And, what’s worse, just beyond him, in my line of sight when I glanced over at him, was his mother with eyes bugging-out, trying to will him to stop!

This formed my limited impression of the teen. In the Youth interview, he popped off a question, kind of out of turn. He asked, “What’s your favorite musical instrument?” I didn’t give it much thought and sort of blew-it-off and moved on to the next person’s question. I didn’t even realize I had done it until the “light-switch” moment came.

A few days later the rector and I met. While giving me feedback, she mentioned that one of the parents noticed that I had blown-off this teen’s question. As soon as she said it, I remembered the whole thing. I was embarrassed and IT STUNG. I realized how easy it was for me to form an impression of this teen and not to allow myself to learn more. In the dismissal of his question, I missed a chance to find out more about HIM – it turns out he plays the saxophone in the school band.

imagesWhat’s more, by blowing off the question, I didn’t let the group get to know more about me. If I had answered the question, they’d know that my favorite musical instrument is an acoustic guitar – not because I can play it, because I can’t – but because I like the stories told in folk music – sort of like preaching sermons in the midst of the lyrics.

 

Certainly that’s what Fanny Crosby did in the lyrics of her hymns. Praise and Preaching! And I am intrigued that many of her lyrics imply SIGHTEDNESS. Titles like “Keep On Watching” and “When Each Others Face We See.”

A hymn title that especially caught my attention was “Only a Beam of Sunshine.” I love the look of a sunbeam breaking through dark clouds, and it’s fascinating to me that she had a sense of what that looked like.

About the hymn, Fanny Crosby said, “It was a cold, rainy day, and everything had gone wrong with me during the morning. I realized that the fault was mine; but that did not help the matter. About noon the sky began to clear; and a friend, standing near me said, ‘There is only a beam of sunshine, but oh, it is warm and bright;’ and on the impulse of the moment I wrote the hymn.”[iii]

The hymn speaks of the heart of the weary traveler, cheered by the welcome sight of the beam of sunshine, sending a message of peace and love. It reflects on a mother keeping vigil over a “fading rosebud” and how that sunbeam reminded her of the rainbow promise of God’s presence, “forgotten perhaps for years.” It carries in it the message of love that we proclaim to others; our mission of joy, and of God’s unending presence with us in this work. These are all things we encounter in ministry.

And along this journey, just as with Fanny on the day she wrote this hymn, there will be times when things aren’t going as we had hoped.

  • When we act like the Pharisees, blinded by our own tradition;
  • When we feel the sting of light-switch moments, revealing blind-spots – not intended as moments of shame, but moments for learning;
  • and times when we are worried and distracted by the many tasks, forgetting that the ONE THING we need to do is to sit at the feet of Jesus and allow ourselves to be renewed by his sunbeam streaking through the dark clouds.

When we find ourselves in these places, hold in your heart the hymns refrain

Only a word for Jesus,

Only a whispered prayer,

Over some grief worn spirit

May rest like a sunbeam fair!

and then, let the light of Christ shine brightly through the clouds.

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[i] Lucille Travis, Fanny Crosby: The Blind Girl’s Song, Christian Focus Publications, Scotland, U.K. 2013, eBook by Oxford eBooks Ltd..

[ii] The Cyberhymnal Website, Richard W. Adams, 1996-2015,  http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/c/r/o/crosby_fj.htm, accessed February 10, 2015.

[iii] Ira David Sankey, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns, Harper & Brothers, 1906. From The Cyberhymnal Website: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/o/n/l/onlybeam.htm. accessed February 10, 2015.

 

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