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Pastor Glenn McDonald: God’s Strange Gift

Frances Jane Crosby, who was born in New York in 1820, developed a minor eye inflammation when she was six weeks old. 


Although there have been differing accounts of a local doctor’s efforts to address her condition, they all agree on one thing: He did not make things better. 


The little girl lost her sight in both eyes. The doctor never forgave himself. He moved away in a state of despair.


Looking back later in life, Frances, who became known as Fanny, held no ill will toward him. “If I could meet him now I would say ‘Thank you, thank you,’ over and over again, for making me blind.”


That extraordinary perspective was born not of self-loathing, but of a keen sense that God had used her sightlessness to accomplish extraordinary things. Undistracted by a world full of potential diversions, she gave herself fully to the task of writing lyrics to songs and hymns.


Her very first poem, written at age eight, reveals that she embraced that idea early on:


Oh, what a happy child I am, although I cannot see;

I am resolved that in this world, contented I will be

How many blessings I enjoy that other people don’t,

So weep or sigh because I’m blind, I cannot or I won’t


It was clear that Fanny Crosby was a gifted child. After the death of her father, she was left in the care of her mother, grandmother, and a special neighbor named Mrs. Hawley – all of whom liked to read. Fanny liked to listen.


She had a prodigious memory. At the age of 10, she set out to memorize five Bible chapters a week. By the time she was 15, she had committed to memory the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), all four Gospels, the book of Proverbs, and many of the Psalms.


Her real love, however, was writing. She could compose as many as 40 poems or song lyrics at a time, seeming to keep them in separate “filing cabinets” in her mind until she could dictate them to a friend or associate. 


In 1835 she became a student at the Institution for the Blind in New York City. She excelled at everything except math. “I loathe, abhor, it makes me sick, to hear the word ‘arithmetic.’” She became the school’s unofficial resident poet, and later married a blind fellow student. 


Crosby wrote and published more than 1,000 secular poems, a few of which became popular songs. But her true calling emerged when she experienced a spiritual awakening at the age of 30. 


Over the rest of her long life – she died in 1915 just short of her 95th birthday – she crafted more than 8,000 gospel songs and hymns. Historians describe her as the “mother of modern congregational singing in America.” 


Most people who have attended a traditional church service at some point during the past century are familiar with Blessed Assurance, Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior, and Jesus is Tenderly Calling You Home.


Nineteenth-century hymnbook publishers sometimes expressed concern about including so many songs by a single author in a single volume – and a female author at that. Fanny addressed their uneasiness by using more than 200 pseudonyms – a common practice at the time. But it wasn’t hard to discern her touch.


“It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life,” she once wrote. Her blindness, she believed, was a gift – God’s strange gift.


It’s hard to miss the fact that her lyrics often include references to seeing. Once day her eyes would be fully open, in every sense of the word.


Crosby’s hymn To God Be the Glory became a sensation some 40 years after her death when it became associated with Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades. Here are some of the words:


To God be the glory, great things He hath done;

So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,

Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,

And opened the life gate that all may go in.



Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the earth hear His voice!

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the people rejoice!

O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,

And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.

Great things He hath taught us, great things He hath done,

And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;

But purer, and higher, and greater will be

Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.


Notice again that last line: “our wonder, our transport [that is, our deep sense of joy] when Jesus we see.”


Seeing Jesus in the next world is one of the New Testament’s most compelling promises. John writes, “We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (I John 3:2).


One day our trust in an invisible Savior will be transformed into an encounter with the visible Lord – an experience that will be unlike anything we have known in this world.


In the meantime, all of us are walking the same path as Fanny Crosby. That’s not to say that any of us could possibly pursue her same calling.


But we do have God’s strange and unexpected gifts – frailties, failures, weaknesses, and disappointments that, from one perspective, seem to have ruined our lives.


We can shake our fists at God or those who have “done us wrong.” We can sink into bitterness. We can cynically conclude that the whole God-loves-me story is a fairy tale for gullible children.


Or we can decide that, like Fanny Crosby, God’s deepest call to us will actually emerge in the circumstances that seem most calculated to steal our joy.


As she wrote, “And I shall see Him face to face, and tell the story of His grace.”


We will all have stories to tell as well – and just like hers, they will also set heaven singing.

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