Six years after the Civil War ended, lingering war melodies inspired a 15-year-old Iowa boy to tell his parents that he planned to become a songwriter. While his father was a traveling music teacher and certainly supported these aspirations, it was the boy’s mother who challenged him to make a habit of scribbling down his own words and music after finishing his farm work each day. In response to the boy’s wish to become famous, she said, “I would rather have you write a song that will help somebody than see you President of the United States.”
Her hopes for her son came true, and the song we sing this weekend, “I Stand Amazed,” is one of more than 7,000 songs written and composed by Charles Hutchinson Gabriel. Known as the “Master of Missionary Music,” Gabriel led worship next to evangelist Billy Sunday and encouraged many listeners through the years to hear the “Macedonian call” (Acts 16:6-10) and “send the light” around the world.
Using a host of pseudonyms such as Charlotte Homer, Jennie Rea and S.B. Jackson, the prolific songwriter’s full body of work is hard to corral or define. (Seven thousand songs is a modest estimate.) One common thread throughout many of Gabriel’s lyrics is the high honor and sense of indebtedness to spread the gospel.
Here are three ways the song “I Stand Amazed” and the life of its author can help us reflect on Colossians this week.
1. Agonizing for the sake of others
Rev. Carlton R. Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, noted that Gabriel wrote “I Stand Amazed” as an interpretation of Luke’s unique description of Jesus sweating blood during his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion.* This detail of sweating blood in Luke 22:41-44 doesn’t appear in the other Gospels, and Gabriel was awed by the account.
In Colossians 1:20-22, Paul tells us that Christ’s goal was to make us holy and bring us (once “alienated”) into his presence – reconciliation by the blood of his cross and the death of his body of flesh. Paul, too, considers his own sufferings to be part of his ministry to the Church. He writes in verses 24-29 about his toil, adding, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church ... to present everyone mature in Christ.” Even Epaphras, Paul’s co-laborer he mentions in Colossians 4:12, is described as wrestling in prayer for the Colossians. The Greek verb used for wrestling (agōnizomenos) in 4:12 is where we get our English word for “agonizing,” an athletic word meaning “contending for a prize,” a task requiring spiritual grit and muscle.
*Remember the sermon on Colossians 1:9-14 last weekend, where we learned about Paul’s call to fortitude –to endure hardship and “to be like our Lord, who did not turn back from the cross.”
2. Wondering over God’s Presence
Gabriel wrote in his song, “How marvelous! How wonderful!” What was it that filled him with wonder? The thought of standing in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, the God-man who loved him and cared enough to take on his sin and sorrow.* He marveled that his life was inseparable from Christ’s. Paul also writes in Colossians 3:3-4 that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” and “when Christ who is [our] life appears, then [we] also will appear with him in glory.” What will this feel like? Does the thought of our lives being wrapped up in Christ’s life fill us with surprise and wonder?
*Incidentally, of all the music Gabriel composed, the tune to “His Eye is on the Sparrow” (1905) is said to be his favorite, with words written by Canadian-American songwriter Civilla Martin about God’s wonderful care and presence.
3. Using a hymn to preach
In a book called The Singers and Their Songs: Sketches of Living Gospel Hymn Writers (1916), Gabriel wrote:
“Almost every great reform that has gripped the world has used the persuative [sic] power of song to win its converts. Luther’s doctrines would have fallen by the wayside, if the wandering students and peddlers of Germany had not sung his teachings in every town. The Wesleyan movement had for its leaders two brothers, John, the preacher, and Charles, the hymn writer.”
Gabriel’s words again remind us of Paul’s charge in Colossians 3:16 to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…” It’s possible that Paul himself models this charge in 1:15-20 (“He is the image of the invisible God…”) because some scholars believe the “elevated” writing style of those verses is an early Christian hymn or confession intended for the worshiping community. If so, Paul borrows these poetic words to preach in this letter.
Echoing Paul’s charge today, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias reminds his listeners of the power of music, quoting 17th-century Scottish political activist Andrew Fletcher, “Let me write the songs of a nation – I don’t care who writes its laws.”
Consider what a great privilege it is to “preach” to one another through song–to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly! This weekend, may we creatively proclaim the gospel through melody. How amazing it is that our songs of praise “will ever be,” throughout eternity.
How marvelous, How wonderful
and my song will ever be
How marvelous, How wonderful
is my Savior's love for me.
Written by a member of our church staff
Song selection from our worship services on June 23