Song Writing

Our God Reigns: A Worship Song Story

by Carl Wiser

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After his parents split in the mid-'50s, 12-year-old Lenny Smith found solace in the Catholic church. This led him into the seminary, where he started writing scripture songs. Seven years later, he left the seminary and began teaching high school. This didn't work out, as he got fired from four schools for "being too outspoken about Jesus."

Lenny became a carpenter but kept writing songs. In 1973, he wrote "Our God Reigns," which became a worship favorite and a turning point in his life. Here, Lenny tells the story.
It's All Right Now - I Am Here!

In 1960, Rev. Clarence Rivers gave a presentation of his contemporary liturgical songs at Mt. St. Mary's Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

About 50 of us seminarians attended and I was one of those who were "overwhelmed."

"Folk Masses" were new and controversial; we were already introducing some of Ray Repp's songs into our chapel services. Hearing Rev. Rivers' songs just thrilled my heart that much more-so. Many scriptures in melodies that were exciting to sing! "God is love and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in him" got into my bones through one of his beautiful melodies.

Not long after this I was at my desk late one evening reading the Book of Revelation. I wasn't so much studying it as I was "wading through it," mostly wondering what it was all about. I came to Chapter 2i, and it was a bit like coming out of a forest into a clearing: "Then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth... the new Jerusalem." My room literally lit up as if I had switched on four or five lamps. The next verses were about the most beautiful words I hed ever seen. (Believe me, I had seen a lot of words at this point in my life, since I was pursuing a Master's degree in Theology and one in English.)

"Behold, the home of God is with men..." My heart was pounding now.

"And He shall wipe every tear from their eyes." I stood up and took my guitar from the corner, and with tears running down my cheeks I wrote my first song: "The New Jerusalem."

From that time on, writing songs became a primary outlet for expressing emotionally God's love for me and my love for Him. Three years later I left the seminary, began teaching high school - Religion, English and Latin. I tried to adjust to the "secular life."

Still, I read the Scriptures and their beauty moved me so deeply I tried to put them to music. Some of those early songs even now are filled with meaning and emotion for me. Many of those songs contain a certain sadness because during this period of my life I was very lonely. "Relieve The Troubles of My Heart" (Ps.25:l7) was a song I found myself singing often.

In 1970 I was dramatically baptized in the Holy Spirit (a story in itself). I began attending a fellowship pastored by an exceptionally gifted teacher, Rev. John Poole. Meanwhile, I was dating a lovely Christian young lady, Marian by name, who was, I must confess, quite bewildered by all this "Holy Ghost excitement." We were married that year at a ceremony at which two of my friends sang two wedding songs God had given me: "Arise, My Love" (Song of Sol.2:i0) and "Ask Me Not To Leave You (Ruth i:i6-i7). Literally every deeply moving experience I had was accompanied later by some effort to express it in song.

The next three years were exciting, happy and yet difficult as we sought to establish ourselves as a loving, Christian family. Believe me, we had our highs and lows. After three years of marriage and being "baptized with the Holy Spirit," things looked to me worse than ever. My wife Marian and I were not exactly flowing together in this charismatic dimension. Hy career was detoured from teaching high school to painting houses... and not really even knowing how to paint houses.

Even this work I couldn't get on a steady basis. Can you imagine how down I was that year? Just ask my wife - she can elaborate. On the one hand I was so excited about the Scriptures and worship, and yet in my personal life I had so many problems.

One night late - much like that time in the seminary when I wrote my first song - I was trying to comfort myself by reading Isaiah, and of course, it was helping some. Then I came to Isaiah 52:1:

Awake, awake, clothe yourself in your strength, 0 Zion; clothe yourself in your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city... Shake yourself from the dust... lose yourself from the chains around your neck.

My eyes started to open and my mind began to clear. By the time I read Verse 6 I felt so close to God - I felt like He was just talking to me alone: "Therefore my people shall know My name. Therefore in that day I AM the one who is speaking, Here I AM."

I had been previously awestruck by God's name, "I AM," as revealed to Moses and later used by Jesus ("Before Abraham was, I AM"), so for me this verse was very profound (though I didn't yet have any idea what "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" really meant).

I read Verse 6 over and over looking for some light to dawn in my mind concerning lt. Finally, I just decided to read on further:

How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.

I immediately noticed how abrupt the change was in feel and texture between Verse 6 and Verse 7, but then I saw what for me was a flash word, "good news." Over the years I had read every conceivable definition of "gospel" imaginable. Even now, people don't know what "evangelical" means. Like the word "baptism," "gospel" conceals more than in reveals. Of course, it's translation, "good news," reveals a lot. However, with a degree in Classical Philosophy, I had been trained to search for the root, the essence, the "heart of the matter." I have heard the "gospel" defined in such a way as to make it sound very much like "bad news." The better ones concerned Jesus' miraculous birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, his present place at the right hand of the Father, the defeat of Satan at Calvary, the establishment of the Church, and so many more things that it has lost its precision and much of its usefulness as a word.

I know all these truths are contained in the "good news," but what is the kernel, the "heart of the matter?"

I went on reading Is.52:7. Here was somebody with "lovely feet" walking along on the tops of the mountains about to tell us "the good news." Maybe when I see his definition, I thought, it will clear up all up for me at last. Then I read that this person was the one "who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation and says to Zion (finally all the introduction and buildup is over and we are going to hear what this fellow has to say):

"Your God Reigns!"

Somehow all this wasn't working out the way I thought it would. My theological search for the essential, kernel meaning of "gospel" instantly shifted to a different level - that of my personal life with my difficulties concerning my family and my inability to earn a "decent" living. It was as though I was watching a bud and it burst into a flower before my eyes! It didn't say just "Your God reigns!" It said, "I know about your embarrassment at having seven years of college and having to paint houses and run into some of your former students and explain. I know about the differences you and my daughter are having about this and that matter... it's all right now, I AM here! I AM reigning and actively working your problems out, and working effectively too - with power, determination, and dispatch. I AM here now, so relax!' (You see how I just can't convey with words the effect these first seven verses had on me. That is why I had to put it in a song!) I know it's been a really bad scene for you, but now I AM here!"

Well, the song was well-received locally, but was rejected by every publisher to whom I sent it. Bob Mumford took the song with him as he ministered across the country. By 1977 several people in Australia, California and England had taken the liberty to add their own verses to my original one verse. Now the song had four versions circulating and I was quite angry about it. I was provoked enough to decide, If the people want more verses, fine... I'll give them verses consistent with the vision and flow of the original.

The original verse had come in 10 minutes. The next five verses came over eight months. During that time I came to see that it was the Suffering Servant Jesus of Is. 52:13 and Is. 53 whose lovely feet were on the mountaintops proclaiming: "See, I've been raised from the dead - I told you that our God reigns!"

Pastor John Poole had mentioned to me once that he wondered whether Mary, Lazarus' sister, was familiar with Is. 52:7 - "Mary therefore took a pound of very costly perfume of pure lard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." (Jn.12:3)

I believe the "heart of the matter" is that our Father brings life out of death, victory out of defeat, character out of trials, patience out of difficulty, mighty trees from dying seeds. He says to us: "Look, has anyone ever come to a more unjust, brutal end than this Jesus? And look at how gloriously I have dealt with Him! Come close now and remember: It's all right - I AM here."

January 26, 2015. Get more at greatcomfortrecords.com.
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