Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Greatest Missionary Hymn

“The Greatest Hymn”

By Rev. Bassam M. Madany

It was during my three years at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh (1950-1953,) that I discovered Samuel M. Zwemer’s book, “The Cross Above the Crescent.” The subtitle was of special relevance to me as I was preparing for a
lifetime missionary career to Arabic-speaking Muslims: “The Validity, Necessity and Urgency of Missions to Muslims.”

Soon after I had finished reading the book, I wrote a letter to Dr. Zwemer, and sent it
c/o Zondervan Publishing House in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Before too long, I received a very warm letter from him. At the time, he was in his eighties, and was living at the home of his daughter in Alexandria, Virginia. I still remember a paragraph in his letter where he made some pointed references to the great hymns of the Church, especially those composed during the 19th Century, “The Great Century of Missions.” In April 1952, Dr. Zwemer went to his eternal reward, a few days before he was to reach 85!

Lately, I have been looking over several of Zwemer’s works in my library. I began to reread, “Thinking Missions with Christ,” published in 1934. Chapter 7 has this title “The Greatest Hymn.” The reference is to Reginald Heber’s “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” I would like to share with you some gems from this chapter, and add a few comments.

“Reginald Heber (1783-1826) became immortal through his missionary hymns, written before and after he went out as the second Anglican Bishop of Calcutta. Among his fifty-seven hymns, five are well known in the churches today: ‘Hosanna to the Living God’;
‘Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning’; ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’; ‘The Son of God
Goes Forth to War’; and ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.’ Dr. Eugene Stock characterized the last of those mentioned as the greatest of all missionary hymns. It has been very widely used and has been translated into the leading languages of Europe and into many other languages on the mission fields. Is the hymn, as some say, ‘too old-fashioned and conventional for present-day use’? One meets with strong prejudice against certain of its expressions, but closer study will reveal new elements of power and beauty.” P. 73

Dr. Zwemer goes on to mention the many gifts and qualities of Reginald Heber:

“In 1815 he delivered the Bampton lectures, was made canon of St. Asaph in 1817 and soon after that was appointed Bishop of Calcutta, as successor to the first Bishop, Dr. Middleton. Bishop Heber is described as a brilliant scholar, a true poet, a devoted parish clergyman, a fascinating personality. … Four years before his consecration as Bishop, he wrote his great missionary hymn under circumstances that are most interesting.

“Mr. Heber, then rector of Hodnet, was visiting Dean Shirley, dean of St. Asaph and vicar of Wrexham, his father-in-law, just before Whit-Sunday, 1819. A royal letter had been issued, calling for missionary offerings in aid of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, on that particular day. Mr. Heber had gone to hear the dean preach and to take his share of the Sunday evening lectures just established in that church. On the Saturday previous, he was asked to prepare some verses to be sung at the close of the morning service. Sitting at the window of the old vicarage, in a short time he produced this hymn --- except the lines, ‘Waft, waft ye winds, His story,’ which he wrote later. … This was the first of modern missionary hymns that speaks imperatively to the conscience and at the same time with persuasion and tenderness. It came as a trumpet call to duty.”

“A lady residing in Savannah, Georgia, had in some way become possessed of a copy of the words, sent to this country from England. She was arrested by the beauty of the poetry and its possibilities as a hymn. … She had been told of a young clerk in a bank, Lowell Mason by name, just a few doors away, down the street. It was said that he had the gift for making beautiful songs. She sent her son to this genius in music, and in a half-hour’s time he returned with this composition. Like the hymn it voices, it was done at a stroke, but has lasted through the years.” Pp. 74-76

It seems that during the 1930s, some criticisms were leveled at Reginald Heber’s missionary hymn. Perhaps its language was too harsh, or it belittled people of other lands. Dr. Zwemer came to the defence of the hymn and answered its critics by writing:

“No one disputes that its language is chaste, its structure logical (once we grant the premises) and that it conforms in its imagery and rhythm to the laws of good hymnody. The fact is that this hymn offers a concise summary of the modern missionary enterprise as conceived by the men who laid its foundations. The first stanza proclaims the universality of the task; the second its necessity; the third its urgency; the fourth its certainty of accomplishment. One could hardly crowd an argument for the basis, the aim, the motive and the goal of missions into smaller compass than we have in these four verses of eight lines each.”

“Chains of error still bind men and women and little children in Africa and India. …
It was not the intention of Bishop Heber to assert that the inhabitants of Ceylon were sinners, vile above other men, but to point out, by one example of conditions in his day, the need for a Saviour from sin in all its terrible forms in all the world and the tragedy of spiritual blindness in the worship of the creature rather than the Creator --- whether on the Gold-coast of Chicago or of West Africa, man bows down to wood and stone.”
Pp.77, 78

Zwemer adds to his own defense of “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” the words of a British Missionary that had spent twenty one years in India. In a letter dated February 22, 1934, sent to The British Weekly, the retired missionary referred to the new Methodist Hymn Book that had omitted Heber’s missionary hymn. He wrote:

‘Perhaps objection was taken to the final lines: “The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.” No one suggests that he bows down to wood and stone because he is enlightened; for in another hymn we sing, “And soon may the heathen … cast their idols all away.” If it be said that he does not bow down to wood and stone, but to the gods for whom they stand, that will not help; that only makes things worse.”’ P. 80

Dr. Zwemer ended his chapter on “The Greatest Hymn” with these stirring words:

“Can we whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high” continue to discuss the spiritual values of higher Hinduism and deny to the masses of India the lamp of life? If we no longer feel the urgency of our message it is because we have lost the overwhelming sense of its necessity. He who knows what salvation is for himself must share the good news.
Salvation! O Salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim
Till earth’s remotest nation
Has learned Messiah’s name.

“There is no substitute for the missionary passion. To revive the spirit of evangelism, to restore the note of immediacy, to convince the world that we have a message sufficient for all men, everywhere and always, we must go back to the Gospel as proclaimed by the apostles: ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and rose again.’

Waft, waft, ye winds, His story,
And you, ye waters roll,
Till like a sea of glory
It spreads from pole to pole.

“This missionary hymn does not need revision. It needs reiteration and revival. Africa and India, and we ourselves still need the old Gospel.” P. 81

Seventy one years have passed since Samuel Zwemer, called by his biographer, J. Christy Wilson, “Apostle to Islam,” wrote this stirring commentary on Reginald Heber’s hymn. As I look over the contents of new and revised editions of several traditional Protestant hymn books, I discover the hymn is no longer there! I find this a sad and painful phenomenon. Should our children and grandchildren be deprived of the theology, appeal, and challenge of this great missionary hymn by its disappearance, at the very time when all other major world religions are reviving and spreading?

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Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

Here is a book guaranteed to make you appreciate everything about you one hundred fold. You will be acutely aware of your own freedoms, of your utilities (imagine living in a large apartment building with no running water), and the many forms of beauty with which we are surrounded.

And your heart will ache for the various members of the bookseller's family as you learn of all their longings and disappointments in life as it is in Kabul.

Ms. Seierstad's book has already been translated into 31 languages and is destined to be a best seller. Having the opportunity to actually live with this Afghani family she has managed to translate that experience into a series of true to life stories. The Taliban mentality is still there and flourishing. The way of tradition is pursued relentlessly with no sentimentality allowed to enter into considerations. Dreams are dashed before they can hardly be uttered and this holds for both the men and the women in that household. Yes, it sounds grim and is grim but still one recommends this book highly. To know is to be a little more understanding. SWM

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Message at the Gas Pumps

The following is an article by a Levantine friend of ours which appears on

We Are All Paying the Jizya Tax
By Jacob Thomas

Part of my daily routine is to walk to the business area of town. On my way I pass a gas station that is always busy, even though the price of gasoline goes up daily. This morning, the regular unleaded gas was selling for $2.79 a gallon. Last week, it was 30 cents cheaper!

Naturally, I can’t help thinking of the implications of this escalating price of oil products. I have come to the conclusion that we are all paying an enormous jizya tax to the Muslim world. Someone has figured out that over ten trillion dollars have been transferred from the West to the oil producing countries during the last few years. I am not sure whether this figure is correct, but it is an undeniable fact that an enormous amount is being transferred daily to the household of Islam. This has some serious implications, for the present and the future. I’ll return to this point later.

First let me unburden myself. I am extremely disappointed in the West’s inability to plan for the future. We have been warned several times during the last fifty years about the danger of relying too much on Middle Eastern sources for our energy needs. We didn’t take them seriously, and continued to live in the present, giving a scant attention to the history of that turbulent area. For example, very few people would recall that during the Suez Crisis in 1956, the oil pipelines from the Iraqi oil fields to the Mediterranean ports were blown up, and a mini oil crisis ensued. The real one came during the Yom Kippur War (October 1973) when Saudi Arabia began an oil embargo on the United States. That was to punish us for the massive military help given to Israel as it faced the Egyptian Army that had crossed the Suez Canal, and was advancing in the Sinai.

Not only were we faced with rising prices of gasoline and diesel, but as a result of the embargo, a serious shortage developed of these products. However, the 1973-1974 oil crisis became a blessing in disguise. First, the Federal Government issued directives that would help save the consumption of gasoline and diesel by lowering the speed limit on the highways. Some of us may remember how uniform those signs became: 55 MPH! Then, car companies went into high gear to improve the mileage in their products. Whereas a V-8 engine in a sedan averaged between 16-18 miles per gallon, new V-6 engines replaced them in the late eighties and the early nineties and delivered between 25-30 MPG!

I don’t want to point my finger simply at the American car companies, but equally at their Japanese and German competitors, all of whom seemed to suffer from amnesia. Bigger engines crept back, bigger models, and before too long several gas guzzlers appeared on our highways. On several occasions in my conversations with young people, I would mention the gas shortages of the 1970s, and ask, “Did your parents ever mention the oil crisis of 1973-1974?” Most of the time, I was met with blank expressions. North Americans seem to have such short memories!
Nowadays, we hear discussions about alternative fuels, hybrid engines, and the possible use of hydrogen engines in the future. However such new techniques and the search for new sources of energy do not help in the present crisis. We face a very serious situation that demands urgent solutions. Beyond the steady transfer of wealth to the Islamic world, I fear that the spiraling rise in the price of oil has a direct relation to the growth of Jihadism. Behind every terror act, there is a long period of planning, as well as the necessary finances that are required to carry on the attack. To deprive the Jihadist of financial resources is like cutting off the oxygen supply in an aircraft.

I am not implying that all the monies that have gone into the coffers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are ending up in the hands of the Jihadists. But the fact remains that some of that money does go into their hands. Let’s not forget that they are bent on destroying us. Our way of life, everything we have inherited from our forefathers and which we cherish, everything is at stake. Ultimately, the Islamists attack us because of who we are. While these attacks are horrific, they are merely an extreme aspect of Islam’s perennial dream of world domination.
The struggle between Islam and the Rest of the world has been going on for the last 1400 years. It did not start in 1947, when India was partitioned, or in 1948, when Israel was born. It goes back to the dawn of Islam’s history. Muhammad died in 632, ten years after he made Medina the center of his new Islamic realm. Within one hundred years, the Arab-Muslim armies had conquered the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. The Ottoman Turks continued the expansion of Islam in Eastern and Central Europe. In 1453, they had captured Constantinople, and brought an end to the Byzantine Empire. In 1529, they besieged Vienna, but failed to conquer it. They returned to that city in 1683, but this time their defeat was decisive, and marked the beginning of the decline and fall of their Islamic Caliphate. By1918, it was all over. In 1924, a secularist Turkish leader, Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate, thus plunging Islam into a deep spiritual and ideological crisis.

Now unlike the crash of the USSR which unmasked the bankruptcy of the materialistic Marxist worldview, Islam’s powerful dream is nourished by a triumphalist theology that seeks to revive a global Islamic hegemony. This triumphalism is so utterly dangerous! And while the USA and the UK are doing their utmost to ward off further terrorist attacks, neither country seems to educate its citizenry about the true nature of Islam.

So, every time I pass by a gas station and notice the non-stop rise in gasoline prices, a Qur’anic verse comes to my mind. “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [Poll tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (Qur’an (9:29) Surat Al-Tawba [Repentance] ‘Descended’ in Medina and has 191 Ayas)

My Levantine forefathers experienced the full brunt of this verse for thirteen hundred long years. After the Islamic conquest of their lands, they became “Dhimmis” and had no choice but pay the Jizya, and do that humbly! Now a new type of “Dhimmitude” is emerging in the West, thanks to political correctness, and the spread of the ideology of multiculturalism. Could it be that once again the Jizya is being imposed on us, and we can’t help but paying it at the gas pump?