Thursday, May 2, 2013

George Beverly Shea, "I'd Rather Have Jesus"


I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands, 
I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hand.

Than to be a king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway,
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause;
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than world-wide fame,
I’d rather be true to His holy name.

He’s fairer than lilies of rarest bloom;
He’s sweeter than honey from out of the comb;
He’s all that my hungering spirit needs,

I’d rather have Jesus and let Him lead.

When the venerable, Canadian-born gospel singer George Beverly Shea died a couple of weeks back at the age of 104, my first response was one of surprise, not that he had died—after all, very few of us will ever make it to the century mark—but that he had still been alive. His circles and mine rarely intersected over the past three or so decades, and I simply assumed that he had passed like all the others I had known from his generation. Indeed, my preferred tastes in Christian music range from Bach and the the Anglican choral tradition to the great hymns of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts. Yet I was nurtured in a fundamentalist Christian tradition in which American gospel music held sway, at least in the more "informal" settings of Sunday evening worship and the Christian summer camp circuit. In those days, the undisputed king of gospel singers was George Beverly Shea, whose powerful, velvety baritone was renowned coast-to-coast due to his work at Chicago's WMBI from 1939-44 and with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association beginning in 1947.

Shea's most famous song is undoubtedly the Boberg-Hine classic, "How Great Thou Art," which he popularized through his work with Graham. Running a close second, however, is one whose music he composed himself, "I'd Rather Have Jesus," the lyrics to which had been written back in 1922 by Rhea Miller. Over the decades I had almost forgotten this song, until I was reminded once again last week while reading a thoughtful blog post by retiring Fuller Seminary President Rich Mouw entitled "My Economics Teacher, Bev Shea." When Mouw speaks, I listen. And what he said in that brief post resonated deeply in my soul and gave me a fresh appreciation for the vocalist who now, as St. Paul tells us, is present with the Lord.

You see, Shea lived the words he sang. Despite multiple offers to sing professionally in "secular" venues, he always declined, citing unease at singing non-Christian material. Whether or not one agrees with Shea's principled reluctance, it is nonetheless a fact that the gifted vocalist gave up the fame and riches that could have come his way in the age of Bing Crosby et al. And he did it because his commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ overrode any worldly ambition he may have had. In doing so, he proved himself a genuine disciple of his Lord. Consider these words:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mark 8:34-37, NIV)
Or these:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:17-27, NIV)
I remember hearing this song and singing along with it as a youngster. But I never really considered the words seriously. Sure, I'd rather have Jesus. At least I could then have fire insurance and have a place reserved for me in heaven. Or so I reasoned. And I wonder how many of the Christians who listened to Shea thought about the lyrics as much as they did his estimable pipes. Thinking back, I now believe most American Christians, if they are honest with themselves, would say, "Sure, if push came to shove, I'd rather have Jesus. But what I really would prefer is both Jesus and silver and gold." And in so thinking, they both trivialize Shea's song and ignore the teaching of they Lord they putatively follow.

At bottom the issue concerns what it means to be a Christian. For too many confessional Protestants (both Lutheran and Reformed) and evangelical/fundamentalist Christians, being a Christian is simply a function of being in the group of "saved" who, by faith alone, have their ticket to heaven already punched in advance. While not denying the fundamental Pauline/Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, exclusive emphasis on that teaching tends to marginalize Jesus' likewise-fundamental teaching on discipleship, the cost of which was so profoundly explored by (the Lutheran) Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a result, far too many Christians in my acquaintanceand, truth be told, I in my younger yearsthen show themselves dualists of a fashion by compartmentalizing the "spiritual" and "secular" aspects of their life, using their Christianity as an overlay to sanctify their worldly, secular pursuits of affluence and power. And that, to be perfectly blunt (in classic Philadelphia style), could not be farther from the truth of what genuine Christianity entails. To order one's life so as to prioritize worldly fame and wealth, simply to "desire to be rich," as St. Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim 6:9-10), is not merely potentially sinful. Yes, such desires often prove to be the occasion of temptation and a fall into "ruin and destruction " as the apostle puts it. More fundamentally, however, such desires are actually sinful in that they manifest a lack of contentment with the essential items, food and clothing, with which God has already provided us (1 Tim 6:6-8). And Christians who mimic the world's pecuniary priorities can do little in the way of providing a prophetic critique on the culture in which we Westerners live.

God is not looking simply for people to populate heaven in the future. After all, as John the Baptizer shockingly told his Jewish audience, God had the ability to raise up people for Abraham from the rocks that lay aside the Jordan River (Matt 3:9//Luke 3:8). No. He is establishing his Kingdom on earth through his people. And so he is calling, not simply people with fire insurance, but a people who take up their cross to follow Jesus and work for that Kingdom until Jesus returns ultimately to consummate it.

George Beverly Shea knew this from an early age. He lived the priorities of the Gospel for more than a century. And in doing so he has he has provided an example the rest of us can only hope to follow. Soli Deo Gloria! I leave you with two performances of Shea singing his famous song, the first from an old 78 record dating to 1947, and the second a live version from 1965.


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