Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Great is Thy Faithfulness

On November 28, here in the United States, we'll be celebrating Thanksgiving Day. This event was instituted nationwide in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, who proclaimed it a day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."  Traditionally, the holiday is typified by the gathering of families and and friends around a dinner table heaped with fruits of the harvest, and the recitation of good things which the participants are thankful to have. But do we think beyond the good things or "blessings" we have, and reflect sufficiently on where they came from and why we have them?

In this context, a "blessing" is not just a desirable state of affairs or a beneficial thing or event that fell to us by chance. Rather, it has been defined in various dictionaries as "the bestowal of a divine gift or favour" and as "a favor or gift bestowed by God, thereby bringing happiness."  Thus, the ultimate source of the benefit--our Father in Heaven--is just as important as the thing itself. Otherwise, getting it is just "good luck."  Moreover, blessings are a gift, and not just a reward for good behavior. Scripture tells us that "a faithful man shall abound with blessings" (Proverbs 28:20), and surely a steady faith in God and obedience to His Commandments will bring those spiritual and familial benefits that the Commandments were intended to secure to us, if not all the worldly benefits men desire. But if you think about it even for a moment, you should realize that you're blessed far beyond anything you could possibly earn or deserve, no matter how "good"--or bad--you are. If you don't feel very blessed, perhaps it's because you haven't thought about this very much, or at all.

So, WHY does our Heavenly Father bless us so abundantly, and freely?  I submit that it's simply because, as John says, God is Love (John 4:8). Like any good parent, His love is unconditional and beyond measure, and He wants nothing so much as our happiness. This is the core of His nature, and the way He always is. This commitment, this determination, is so great that He sent His only begotten Son into this world to ransom us from sin and death with His own blood, His own death--while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8)--so that we could know eternal happiness with Him. This is the greatest gift of all!

Moreover, God's love and provision for us never fail; we can count on them absolutely. As the Bible puts it, He is ever "faithful" in blessing us:
Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations . . . (Deuteronomy 7:9)

It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)

But the Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil. (2 Thessalonians 3:3)
Thomas O. Chisholm
One of the most moving celebrations of God's absolutely faithful love for us is the beautiful hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness.The text was written in 1923 by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960). He was born in Franklin, Kentucky on July 29, 1866, little more than a year after the end of the American CIvil War, in a log cabin. He attended a small country school and became its teacher at the age of only 16. At age 21, he became associate editor of Franklin's weekly newspaper. In 1893, at the age of 27, he accepted Christ as his Savior during a revival in Franklin led by Methodist evangelist Dr. Henry Clay Morrison. Chisholm later moved to Louisville, Kentucky at Morrison's request and became editor of the widely read Pentecostal Herald, and was himself ordained a Methodist minister in 1903 at the age of 36. He served a pastorate in Scottsville, Kentucky, but had to resign after one dear due to poor health. After moving his family to a farm near Winona Lake, Indiana (also home of the famous preacher Billy Sunday and, until 1990, headquarters of the Free Methodist Church), he became an insurance salesman. In 1916, at the age of 50, he moved his family again, this time to Vineland, New Jersey. He finally retired in 1953, when 87 years old, and passed away in February 1960 at the age of 93.

Chisholm had a hard adult life. His health was fragile and he was sometimes confined to bed, unable to work. Between illnesses he put in extra hours at various jobs in order to make ends meet. Nevertheless, he found great comfort in the Scriptures, and in the fact that God was faithful to be his strength in time of sickness and to provide for his needs. One of his favorite Bible passages was Lamentations 3:22-23: "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness.”

William M. Runyan
In addition to selling insurance, and despite poor health, Chisholm wrote during his lifetime more than 1,200 poems and hymns (including among the latter O To Be Like Thee and Living for Jesus).  He also often wrote to friends, among them fellow Methodist minister and composer William Marion Runyan (1870-1957) in Kansas, who was affiliated with both the Moody Bible Institute and Hope Publishing Company. Chisholm sent Runyan several of his poems with these letters, including the text of Great is Thy Faithfulness. Runyan found it so moving that he decided to set it to music, and the hymn was published in 1923.

For some years thereafter the hymn received little recognition, until it was discovered by Moody professor William Henry Houghton, who loved it so much and requested it sung so often at chapel services, that the hymn became the unofficial theme song of the Institute. It was not until 1945, however, when George Beverly Shea began singing Great is Thy Faithfulness at the Billy Graham evangelistic crusades, that the hymn was heard around the world. Despite its eventual popularity, Thomas Chis­holm wrote that were no spe­cial cir­cum­stanc­es which caused the hymn's writ­ing—just his ex­per­i­ence and Bi­ble truth.
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been,Thou forever wilt be.
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above;
Join with all nature in manifold witness,
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own great presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

The best reflection on this great hymn that I've read observes as follows:
Verse 1 speaks of God’s faithfulness revealed  in his Word, and is adapted from James 1:17:  "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."

Verse 2 tells us of God’s faithfulness revealed in creation. The seasons, the sun, moon, and stars all continue on their courses perfectly, orderly, quietly – guided by God’s faithful hand, without any help from us.

Verse 3 reminds us of God’s faithfulness revealed in our lives. He pardons all our sins, fills us with his peace, assures of his presence, gives us strength, hope, and blessings to numerous to count!

Great is Thy Faithfulness is marvelous to hear sung by a large congregation, making the rafters ring with their happy, exultant praise of our Lord for His ever-faithful goodness to us. Here's just such a presentation, by the congregation of Southwark Cathedral in London, England:

Click here for a lovely small group performance by the Blue Rock Mennonite Youth.

Great is Thy Faithfulness also lends itself well to solo performance, in a spirit of quiet, humble gratitude. Here is such a rendition, highlighted with stunning scenes of nature, by contemporary Christian artist Chris Rice:

Another Christian artist, Fernando Ortega, is known for new arrangements of traditional hymns and gospel songs that are very appealing, as well as faithful to the spirit of the original works. Here is his version of Great is Thy Faithfulness:


As you give thanks for abundant blessings this holiday--or at any time--reflect not just on the things and advantages you enjoy, but especially on the One who lovingly bestowed them on you, and who blesses you beyond all deserving. Remember that His goodness goes hand-in-hand with His faithfulness, so that you may know that blessed assurance of a place with Him in eternal peace and happiness!