As the world watches its greatest athletes swim laps and nail landings, we’ll look at some gold medal winners in their own right. Each day of the Olympics we’ll feature a spiritual great and some advice for staying fit on your own spiritual journey.
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Fanny Crosby: Sing to God a New Song
Born: March 24, 1820
Died: February 12, 1915
I started my journey into Christianity through the door of Pentecostalism. It was the first door opened to me in the great hall of Christian community. I entered gratefully and with an open mind and heart. My Pentecostal friends taught me about what it means to praise God. They taught me to sing, clap and sway. They taught me to reach out — physically reach out with both arms raised in the way a small child reaches for her mother — when you need God to draw near. They taught me that praying doesn’t have to mean sitting quietly with your hands folded neatly in your lap. Praying is about a full-bodied expression of hope, vulnerability, trust and longing. In my very first community of faith, praying often took the form of song.
Fanny Crosby was a woman who expressed her faith, her politics and her social concerns in the hymns and popular songs she wrote. Blind from infancy, she depended upon language and music to experience her world and to express her love for the God who made it. She wrote music and lyrics meant to inspire, comfort, rouse and rally. If you have ever worshipped in a Protestant community, you have (without a doubt) sung one of Fanny’s songs. Her contribution to American hymnody was so vast that she was often required by her publishers to use a pseudonym. She had more than 200.
Even though I am by all accounts a “high church/smells and bells” Catholic at this point in my journey of faith, there is nothing that moves me quite like gospel music (though it should be noted that I don’t think that these things are necessarily mutually exclusive. The fact that gospel music is solemn in a different way than, for instance, an ancient “Kyrie” doesn’t make it any less suited to a Mass). It is simple and soulful and intensely personal. Fanny Crosby wrote songs meant to transcend worship in the context of the four walls of the church building. Her hymns were meant to stow themselves inside your heart on Sunday morning. You were (and, indeed, are) meant to carry them out into the world with you. She wrote songs that could become friends and companions on your journey. Their simplicity and clarity, their melody and intensity, continue to endear them to folks. “Aunty Fanny,” as she was known to the many lives she touched in her selfless financial and spiritual support of many missions to the urban poor amongst whom she lived, wrote songs meant to let you know that Jesus loves you. She knew the unique power of music to communicate that message in a way that could bind you up when you were brokenhearted. Fanny Crosby never ceased singing a new song to God. She never tired of praising God. She never faltered in her call to share her Blessed Assurance of God’s infinite goodness with others. In her hymns and in her shining example of faith, she sings on.