Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Gregorian Storm

I had been looking forward to teaching the story of Henry IV and Gregory VII all year.  It’s one of my favourite stories in Church History and I love teaching it.  Telling the story of Henry IV and Gregory VII is like sipping a great glass of wine.  You don’t want to tip the glass back and down it in two great swallows.  It should be savoured and sipped.  So too with a good story – it should never be rushed.

It was the perfect day for a good story too.  The end of the day was nearing, a storm had moved in and the rain was pouring down.  It was wet and cold outside, but the classroom was warm and cozy.  Everyone was settled in as I began retelling the story of Henry IV and Gregory VII.

Henry IV was the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and Gregory VII was the Pope.  The Empire spanned across Europe but apparently was not big enough for both Henry IV and Gregory VII.  A power struggle followed as to what was supreme – the church or the state.  Bitter letters were fired back and forth, excommunication was threatened and levied against Henry, and an army was raised against Gregory.  

The whole matter came to an exciting climax when Henry IV realized he was defeated and goes to Canossa where Gregory VII is lodged in a castle.  The only way Henry can get his throne back is by repenting before Pope Gregory.  Henry waited three long days barefoot in the snow as he waited for Gregory to lift the excommunication ban.  Gregory did not want to absolve Henry but after three days, he realized that he had no choice.  Gregory lifted the ban and Henry went back to Germany triumphant.  In the end, Gregory had to flee Rome from a rival pope and soon after died.  Henry IV was forced to step down as king after his son raised an army against him.

The story was going along quite well and the drama was building as Henry and Gregory plotted and schemed against each other.  The question of ‘who would come out on top’ hung thick in the air.  The climax of the story takes place at the castle of Canossa and I took my time setting the scene and describing what it must have been like for Henry to stand barefoot in the snow for three days while Gregory paced the inner keep of the castle in a state of indecision.  

Just as I got to the part about how Gregory would respond to the penitent Henry, the rain outside suddenly turned into a deluge.  A few heads started swivelling to see what was happening outside.  I ratcheted up my excitement and summoned all of my storytelling abilities to keep the students’ attention.  After all, you only get to talk about Canossa once a year!

Thunder started to rumble.  While the odd clap of thunder can do wonders for a good story, multiple claps that jar your bones can effectively kill a good story.  The lightening was the death knell.  To cap it all off, the rain started coming down in sheets.  Looking out the window was like standing behind Niagara Falls.  The lesson and story were over as I raised a white flag to the storm.

As there were only a few minutes of class left, I knew the climax of the story would have to wait till the next day.  We gathered by the windows and watched the rain lash down and the lightening streak across the black sky.  Though it wasn’t the ending I was planning on, this impressive spring storm did provide quite a finish to the day.

At the end of the day the students didn’t find out who had the upper hand in the struggle between church and state.  I think the students were left with a real sense of who really was and is in control as we witnessed God’s grandeur unfold right before us.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
-          W. Cowper

Monday, April 1, 2013

I Will Sing of My Redeemer

Philip Bliss took the stage and sat down at the piano.  It was the last song of the program.  There was pin drop silence as Philip set his music in place.  He looked over the crowd.  He thought back to how nervous he was to be singing here at the Michigan State Prison in front of 800 prisoners.  Many of the inmates now had bowed heads and clasped hands.  With his powerful voice, he sang the hymn he had composed called ‘Eternity’.  It would be the last song he would ever sing in a public revival meeting.

 After the service at the prison, he headed back by train to his family in Rome, Pennsylvania where he spent Christmas.  On December 29, 1876 Philip and his wife Lucy said goodbye to their two young children and left for Chicago where they would be helping D.L. Moody with his ministry.  Philip provided the music for Moody’s meetings and wrote and composed many of the hymns for those meetings.

At the train station, he wired a message ahead.  It said “Tickets for Chicago, via Buffalo and Lake Shore Railroad.  Baggage checked through.  Shall be in Chicago Friday night.  God bless you all forever.

By the time the train rolled into Buffalo, a fierce blizzard was raging.  The Pacific Express was refueled and more passengers came aboard.  The train pulled out of the station on its way to Chicago.  Philip checked his watch – it was going to take a while to get to Chicago in this weather.  The steam engines struggled through the high drifts and gale-force winds.  

By the time the train had reached the village of Ashtabula, the train was only moving at ten miles per hour.  The two engines struggled to pull the eleven cars as the 160 foot single span Ashtabula bridge approached.  As the Pacific Express made its way over the bridge, loud cracking sounds could be heard.  The first engine made it across the bridge but was pulled to a sudden stop as the entire bridge collapsed.  

The train plunged down 70 feet onto the frozen river below.  The engines burst into flames which quickly spread to the cars.  Survivors battled getting out of the twisted wreckage and the tall flames.  To make matters worse, the ice started to crack and swallow the wreckage.

Philip Bliss and Lucy were dozing off when they were suddenly jarred awake by the loud cracking sound of the collapsing bridge.  Philip slipped his hand into Lucy’s and looked out the window.  Suddenly the entire carriage seemed to lurch backwards and seemed to be falling.  Everything went black for Philip.

Philip came to and struggled to get out of his berth.  He could hear moans of pain.  What had just happened?  The carriage was quickly filling with smoke and flames – he knew he had to get out.  He looked around desperately for Lucy but she was nowhere to be seen.  The smoke was starting to get thicker and Philip knew he was running out of time.  He scrambled through an opening and was hit by pelting snow and biting wind.  He looked around desperately for Lucy, but couldn’t find her or hardly anyone for that matter.  There seemed to be only a few people who made it out of the train.

Without thinking, Philip took a deep breath and headed back into the mangled railway carriage.  He called out for Lucy but there was no answer.  As Philip crawled through the wreckage looking for his wife, he could feel his air running out.  He headed back to the approximate spot where he was sitting and found Lucy unconscious and pinned under a seat.  Philip couldn’t get her loose.  As the flames and smoke advanced towards them, Philip stayed by her side until the end.

 Out of the 160 Pacific Express passengers, only 14 survived the Ashtabula bridge disaster.  

Philip’s trunk was recovered and inside was found a couple of unfinished hymns.  The last one that Philip had been working on left off with “I know not what awaits me.  God kindly veils my eyes...”  There was also a hymn that was finished but not published – titled My Redeemer.  We sometimes title this hymn “I Will Sing of My Redeemer”. 

I will sing of my Redeemer,
And His heav’nly love to me;
He from death to life hath brought me,
Son of God with Him to be.

Sing, oh, sing, of my Redeemer,
With His blood, He purchased me;
On the cross, He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt, and made me free.