Behind the Hymns – 4
Break thou the Bread of Life
Mary Ann Lathbury, the recognized author of this hymn was born in Manchester, New York in 1841. Another one of her more famous hymns is “Day is dying in the West.” Mary Ann holds a unique place among American songwriters. Mary Ann’s father was a local preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church and two of her brothers were also ordained to the Methodist ministry. Early in her life she developed a talent for both composing verses and drawing. Her favourite pastime was the writing of short poems adorned with original illustrations. Before long she began writing religious poetry. One day she seemed to hear a voice saying to her: "Remember, my child, that you have a gift of weaving fancies into verse, and a gift with the pencil of producing visions that come to your heart; consecrate these to me as thoroughly and as definitely as you do your inmost spirit." She was not disobedient to the heavenly call. She became widely known as a contributor to periodicals for children and young people. In 1874 she began work as an assistant in the editorial department of the Methodist Sunday School Union. Her poetic gift was appreciated, and it was through the requests of people for her talents that many of her hymns came to be.
Break thou the Bread of Life was considered by Mary Ann to be a little gem, a study in song. It was first written for students of the Word who were studying on the shore of Lake Chautauqua.
When we reflect upon the words of this hymn, we can imagine a scene such as was its inspiration. Remember how it was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus – it was when Jesus broke the bread that they recognized him. The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 was a way for Jesus to begin to show those gathered there that there was more to being fed than a few loaves and fish. Simple sustenance for a few became the food for thousands with Jesus the Bread of Life involved.
Breaking the bread of life was a way to express the sharing of the truth of God found in the pages of the Bible. But for the author she sees it as going beyond the pages of the written Word. For her there is also a longing to find Jesus beyond what words could tell her. In a real way, the Bible points us in the direction where Jesus can be found. We read the stories of Jesus from so long ago, but we are to seek the living Jesus of today. That story helps us to find our story. Our story may not find its way into a sacred book such as the Bible but our story when told to others will help ourselves and others to find what the author describes as the Living Word.
The author then makes a universal story her personal story and our personal story when she repeats the phrase “bread of life” and reminds herself and us of the redeeming power of that word which is spiritual nourishment. Her desire to ever eat of this bread not only now but for eternity is coupled with her desire to be taught to not just know the truth that is in Jesus but to love that truth.
Of course, we know that Jesus granted the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who believe, and the author concludes by asking for this Spirit that she might have her eyes fully open to the truth of God in Christ and she might know her release from everything that has bound her in mind, body or spirit. Only then can she experience the peace she so much desires, her all in all.
I am the church! You are the church!
Not much is known about Richard Avery the author of this hymn. He graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York and served as pastor to the First Presbyterian Church in Port Jervis New York for 19 years. He has written over 100 hymns.
Donald Marsh, who wrote the music, was involved in theater, concert and TV as an actor, choreographer and teacher. He also was a Presbyterian elder at First Presbyterian in Port Jervis. This is where he and Richard met. They collaborated on over 150 hymns.
This hymn was written back in 1972. It expresses a truth that we all know and yet so much deny in so many ways. We identify ourselves with the building that we inhabit but when we look around at our world today we realize that many buildings like ours have ceased to be places where people of God gather for worship, study and service.
It has become our nature as Christians to come into a community and plant a building. We see it as putting down roots and establishing ourselves as a fixture within the community. Yet the early church was nothing like that. The early church gathered where it could and when it could. It depended not on being an established fixed place but rather being a gathering point for the people. Budgets and programs and paid staff were not part of the plan. People took leadership in community, but it had less to do with a structure that could be recognized by its exterior and more to do with a structure that could be recognized by its interior.
I have said before – and I firmly believe it – that everyone who becomes part of a community of faith is there because God has drawn them there. This means that communities of faith need to have a fluidity, an openness, a willing spirit to allow for changes that reflect the faith experience, the gifts and the needs of the community. For some our worship time here may seem too informal as it is often marked by a time of sharing both before and during the service. But it is important for the community members to be able to be share their lives. For some it will be a time of singing, for others praying, for others laughing and for others crying.
Our congregations may not be as full of people from different places, races or colours as others, but we need to keep our focus on nurturing people, on encouraging faith, on responding to one another in love more than giving attention to the physical building. The building must serve its intended purpose which is to give the people a place to gather and to have fellowship with one another.
Jesus in the morning
Once again, we have another African-American spiritual that celebrates the faith of those whose lives were beyond imagining and yet never lost an opportunity to remember their God.
We are one in the Spirit
Peter Scholtes who wrote both the lyrics and music for this hymn was born in Evanston, Illinois. He wrote the hymn while he was a parish priest at St. Brendan’s on the south side of Chicago in the 1960s. At the time he was leading a youth choir out of the church basement and was looking for an appropriate song for a series of ecumenical, interracial events. When he couldn’t find such a song, he wrote the now-famous hymn in a single day. His experiences at St. Brendan’s, and in the Chicago Civil Rights movement, influenced him for the rest of his life.
In the 1980s he left the priesthood and became a consultant with the Joiner Associates traveling the globe to help businesses engage employees’ talents more fully, humanely and effectively. He argued against the practice of performance appraisal stating that it was demoralizing and wrong.
This song speaks for itself. It was born from a place where its author saw great tensions between different races, cultures and economic groups. He sensed how destructive things could be and knew that the only way that these divisions could ever be overcome would be for the people of God to come to a place of unity. The walls that we have created in our attempts to faithfully present God to the world need to come down. We need to engage and embrace all people not with doctrine and rules but with the love and compassion of God. We need to walk and work with one another so that they will know we are Christians by nothing more or less than our love.