Imagine with me for a moment. You wake up in the morning, as you do any other. You toss and turn, fighting the inevitable. That wretched getting out of bed part. Throwing the warm blankets off, rubbing your eyes, opening them for the first time that day, just like any other day. Only this time is different. It’s still dark. The golden rays of sunshine that normally light up your entire bedroom isn’t there. You can feel the warmth of the sun but you just can’t see it. You sit up and put your toes off the edge of the bed until you can feel the hardwood floor beneath your feet. It’s still there, but you can’t see that either. Everything is dark. No shadows. No hazy shapes that you can kind of make out if you squint a little. It’s not blurry. It’s dark. Your eyes are open and it’s pitch black.
Now imagine that every single day, for the rest of your life. Would you still “…count it all Joy?” Would you wake up each morning, just as you are, thanking God for another day? Would you make the choice to give that day your very best? To excel? To inspire? It sounds nice, doesn’t it? We’d like to think we would have that kind of positive attitude on our best days, when things are going the way we think they should. But how about when things don’t go your way? When things are inconvenient and messy and difficult. What choice do we make when circumstances seem unfair or even cruel? Would you still think of yourself as “happy and blessed” as you live your story to the best of your ability?
A woman by the name of Fanny Crosby had to make that choice, every single day for her entire life.
She was born in 1820 in New York to two loving parents. However, at the age of only six months old, she caught a cold and developed inflammation in her eyes. A man claiming to be a doctor came to the house to treat her. He used an old home remedy; mustard seed powder, which he made into a plaster and spread on cloth to cover her eyes as a treatment. Later on in her life, Fanny herself stated that she believed this treatment was the reason her eyes were severely damaged even more. Only two short months later in November of that same year, her father passed away. She and her mother first went to stay with her grandmother for a couple of years. When she was five years old, Fanny was examined by a doctor to which he concluded that her condition was permanent. Shortly after, they moved to Connecticut where by the age of ten Fanny was memorizing entire chapters of the Bible. By the time she was fifteen, she was memorizing entire books.
When Fanny was just about to turn fifteen years old, she enrolled in the NYIB (New York Institute for the Blind). In the eight years as a student there she learned the piano, organ, harp, guitar and vocal (soprano). Her mother remarried but would later be abandoned by her second husband. It was here that she published her first book of Poems entitled A Blind Girl and Other Poems. She was reluctant to release her work as she thought of them as “unfinished productions” but she did it regardless of her fear and insecurity because it would bring the school recognition and raise funds for it.
After graduating, she became active in politics, fighting for the support of education for the blind. She was the first woman to speak to the United States Senate. (She read a poem she had written.) She also appeared at the White House, Congress, the New York Legislature, among many others, often reciting a poem or singing a song she had written herself. She held the audience of two Presidents, John Quincy Adams and James K. Polk.
She became a teacher at the NYIB where she taught grammar, rhetoric and history. During the cholera outbreak of 1849 she stayed behind to care for the sick rather than leaving and putting her own health at risk. She remained a teacher there for nearly twelve years and would release two more books of poetry during this time. She would also go through what she called “a feeling of sadness and depression” within this season.
Her time of teaching came to an end when she married Alexander Van Alstyne Jr who was also blind and a student at NYIB. They married in 1858 and a short year later gave birth to their only child, a daughter. This happiness was short lived however and their baby passed away in her sleep shortly after birth. After this, the couple began to drift apart, eventually living separately while still legally married, at times still working together and having the utmost love and respect for one another.
By the end of the 19th Century, Fanny Crosby was a household name. By today’s standards she would have been a “celebrity.” She wrote at least sixty popular “secular” songs, numerous cantatas and entire books of poetry and over 8,000 hymns. All of which had to be dictated to someone to write down, not merely because of her lack of sight but also because she could barely write herself.
But with all of this popularity, she remained humble and only wanted to be remembered for her charitable work. She dedicated her time whenever she could to local mission work. Giving whatever she had to those in need, often leaving herself nearly destitute. Although she could have lived very comfortably with her earnings, she often was found living in numerous slum neighbourhoods throughout New York.
Admitting herself, “From the time I received my first check for my poems, I made up my mind to open my hand wide to those who needed assistance.”
Fanny knew suffering firsthand. Growing up without a father. Losing her eyesight and having to make her way through this world in the dark. Even being criticized by religious people for her style in which she wrote her hymns. That they were too “gushy or sentimental.” That her “…informal ballad style broke away from the staid (dull), formal approach of earlier periods…” Her songs “…touched deep emotions, placed a heightened emphasis on religious experiences, emotions and testimonies…reflecting a sentimental relationship between the believer and Christ.”
In other words, she wrote what she knew. She wrote from her heart. She wrote what mattered to her. She wrote from her deeply personal experiences. Her pain. Her bouts with depression. Her grief. Her thankfulness. Her joy. Her hope in the fact that she knew that regardless of what this life held for her, both grief and joy, that this world was only temporary. Her hope that she clung to, that she wrote and sang about was in Jesus and that one day she would see him face to face. That all of her pain and discomfort would be worth it one day. That the story God had given her was a story of purpose. To inspire, to help those who needed it most, to encourage, to be a servant, to fight for justice for those who are vulnerable in society.
But yet, even through all of her suffering she still believed that this was God’s perfect plan for her. Later on in her life she would reflect on this very idea,
“It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank Him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me…When I get to Heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour.”
How many of us could say that? When we look at our circumstances. When we look at situations that haven’t worked out the way we thought they should. All of the pain and the grief and unanswered questions. Do we get angry? Bitter? Jealous of others? Do we harden our hearts? Or do we make the choice to trust that our story is still being written? Do we take a step back and view our situation from the perspective of eternity and ask ourselves what the bigger picture could possibly be? What is this teaching me? How is God trying to get my attention? What good could eventually come from this?
When Fanny Crosby passed away in 1915, she requested that a simple phrase be engraved to mark her spot,
“She Hath Done What She Could”
And indeed she did. She didn’t allow her “limitations” to keep her from her calling. Instead of focusing on what she didn’t have (her sight), she made the choice to focus on what she did have. She became highly educated, a multi instrumentalist, held an audience to some of the most powerful people in the country, an author of books and poetry and a writer of some of the most loved hymns to this day. And from her gifts that God had given to her, she gave back even more. A servant to the people around her until her last breath. And in that moment, she opened her eyes for the first time and saw the One who sustained her through it all. No more tears. No more pain. No more unanswered questions. I can only imagine the joy that she felt in that moment.
It’s interesting to me that in her most famous hymn “Blessed Assurance”, she uses words such as “Visions”, “Sight”, “Watching” and “Looking.” Even though she couldn’t physically see during her lifetime, she was speaking of a “sight” that is on a whole other level. She was speaking in faith. That one day everything would be made right again. And in the meantime, in the waiting, she chose joy. She chose thankfulness. She chose anticipation of things to come.
Not matter what our situations look like, let’s encourage each other to choose the same.
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine
Oh what a foretaste of glory divine
Heir of salvation, purchase of God
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood
This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Saviour all the day long
This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Saviour, all the day long
Perfect submission, perfect delight
Visions of rapture now burst at my sight
Angels descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love
Perfect submission, all is at rest
I in my Saviour am happy and blessed
Watching and waiting, looking above
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love