Sunday, September 29, 2013

"I cannot bear my burdens alone."

Hymn: “I Must Tell Jesus” – Words & Music by Elisha A. Hoffman (1839-1929)

Prelude: Some of you may wonder how various hymn tunes get their names. They are often named for a city or place of significance to the writer. That is the case here: Hoffman’s hometown is Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania.

We’re back to a good old gospel song today. Those of us who cut our musical/spiritual teeth on songs like this find ourselves singing them as prayers (aloud or silently), especially just when we need him most. That need may be to share some great, good news – and we run through the hallway joyfully saying, “Who can I tell? Who can I tell?” At other times the need may be just the opposite: we are so weighed down that we don’t know with whom we can share such a burden, and we whisper into our chest, “Who can I possibly tell?” That’s the kind of situation out of which this text emerges, emphasizing the trials, burdens, distress, troubles, temptation, and evil allurement. And each downcast stanza is followed by the closing words of the refrain: Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.

We’ve all been there, done that… and have found it to be one of the great truths of our hymnody.

Today is a Sunday, and we need to be reminded that those people we are about to meet down at the church house are also people who are (hopefully) willing to help us bear our burdens. They are there to be Christ for us… and we for them.

“And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but let us encourage each other." (Hebrews 10:25)

We meet together for many reasons today – primarily worship of the Everliving One. But let’s not overlook this burden-bearing ministry. After all, anything considered a ministry in the church should be a place where we step in and do what Christ would do if he were still among us in the flesh. Since he is not, he has called us and empowered us by his Spirit to fill the gap.

Every time you start to do any renovation on a building, you have to be careful not to remove a load-bearing wall. Your church may be going through some non-physical renovations – changing up the way things have always been done. If so, be sure you don’t let them remove the load-bearing wall of believers who are in place to fill in for Christ in his physical absence.

It comes down to this: none of us can bear our burdens alone.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"He is so precious to me."

"He is so precious to me."
Hymn: “He Is So Precious to Me” – Words & Music by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932)

If you didn’t grow up ‘rural,’ you may not be familiar with this one!

The word precious conjures up different responses from each of us. Our mind goes to words like costly, expensive… even priceless. You might even think of cher – the French word, not the singer – which translates to our word dear. It is most often applied to jewels and metals: precious rubies, precious gold, etc. In a contemporary chorus, we sing, Lord, you are more precious than silver… gold… diamonds.

In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum refers to the ring as “my precious,” In his case, he had a love/hate relationship with the thing he called precious; having lost it to Bilbo Baggins, he spent the rest of his days trying to retrieve it. Those of us who saw the film versions can still hear that guttural whispered speaking of “my precious.”

I hate to admit this, but this was what my mama called me: Precious! It was like her pet-name for me. When I was in trouble, peering over her glasses with furrows on her brow, she called me by my full name: Ronald George Huff. But most of the time, she called me Precious. When I was a kid, I hated it… especially in front of friends and family members – those loved ones from a few days ago!

Over time, her calling me that became precious to me because I grew to understand the deeper meaning of the word; I was of great value to her, and she expressed it with a word which communicated her affection in a much sweeter way than calling me “O Valuable One”!

So this old gospel song by Charles H. Gabriel (who is said to have written over 7,000 hymns/songs for the church), speaks to me on several levels. It brings back memories of singing it in my childhood, it reminds me of my mama, and it prompts me to express to Christ how dear he is to me – how valuable.
In case you haven’t sung it in a while, here is more of the text that leads to the refrain:
            So precious is Jesus, my Savior and King,
            His praise all the day long with rapture I sing.
            To him in my weakness for strength I can cling,
            For he is so precious to me.

            He stood at my heart’s door in sunshine and rain,
            And patiently waited an entrance to gain.
            What shame that so long he entreated in vain,
            For he is so precious to me.

More so than silver or gold, diamond or ruby, or sought-after ring, ‘Tis heaven below my Redeemer to know, for he is so precious to me.

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Life itself is ours on lease."

Hymn: “Of All the Spirit’s Gifts to Me” – Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000)

One of the newest texts I’m going to cover on this blog is from one of my heroes of modern hymn-writing: Fred Pratt Green, a British Methodist minister who penned some wonderfully meaningful texts which are easy to comprehend the first time you sing them – a goal of anyone who writes songs for congregational use. If you have a hymnal published in the past thirty years, it would be worth your time to read through the full text; for copyright reasons, I shouldn’t print it here.*

Life itself is ours on lease. These six words communicate so much about how our life is not our own; it is loaned to us for a brief period then returned to its owner – our owner – God himself. Green’s British turn of phrase here “ours on lease” brings even more emphasis to ownership.

While much of hymnody (especially the gospel songs from the first half of the 20th Century) point us toward our eternal life - our heavenly home - this one centers our attention back on our current situation. This life I call MINE is truly not mine at all! I need to be reminded of that now and then to keep me from getting what my mama called ‘the big head.’ Arrogance or self-confidence can blur our vision of who we really are; humble gratefulness can re-center our understanding of ourselves and of Jehovah… whose very name means ‘giver of life.’

            In this world I’m driving a “loaner.”
            One day it reverts to its owner.
            No debt to repay,
            So each day I say:
            My God, he’s a wonderful donor!

Not nearly as poetic as Green, but you get the point! [I think that may be my first-ever limerick!]

By its very definition, a lease is temporary… and the owner is compensated as part of the agreement. In the case of our contract with God, HE has paid the price, and WE enjoy the benefit. That is the opposite of our usual understanding of how a lease works.

Okay, fellow lessors: contact your Lessee today. Thank him for affording you the privilege of life. While you’re at it, you may need to renew your lease! 

 * - At you can read the text and hear the hymn-tune played (click midi file). Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page to see words and music scanned from contemporary hymnals.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"The love of Jesus - what it is, none but his loved ones know."

"The love of Jesus - what it is, none but his loved ones know."
Hymn: “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” – 12th Century Latin Hymn
            Attributed to Bernard of Clairevaux
            Translated by Edward Caswall (1814-1878)
Typical Tune: ST. AGNES

In our hierarchy of relationships, we have three categories that we seem to group together: friends, family, and loved ones. These often show up in obituaries or other lifetime articles; here, one of them shows up in the last line of an ancient hymn text… from nine centuries ago!

Our ‘loved ones’ seem to be those with whom a deep level of love is shared – reciprocated. This is probably the highest form of friendship and familial connection.

As of today I have 1,078 Facebook friends; some of those are family, some are friends, many are simply acquaintances… and a few are loved ones. I am Facebook friends with John Grisham, Johnny Depp and Dolly Parton, but we do not have a mutual appreciation for one another; I’m pretty sure they don’t read my blog!

I am a loved one of Jesus Christ… and he is a loved One of mine! We share a reciprocated relationship: I am his, and he is mine. I fall into that classification of people mentioned in today’s hymn-line, as do many (if not all) of you who read it regularly! WE understand the love of Christ: the width, the length, the height, the depth – the total volume! Paul put it this way:

“I pray … that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.” (from Ephesians 3:16-19)

Fellow loved ones: while you and I may be total strangers, we share the love of Christ; we are fellow-enjoyers of his voluminous affection. Only WE understand that. Let us not simply sit around in a circle and speak to one another about this warm relationship – although we probably don’t do that often enough; rather, let’s tell someone outside the circle in order that they may count themselves among Christ’s loved ones.

The love of Christ? Who can understand it? Only his loved ones!


"If our love were but more simple, we could take him at his word."

"If our love were but more simple, we could take him at his word."
Hymn: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” – Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863)
Various Tunes

This hymn text doesn’t get enough ‘air time’ in worship because it has yet to land on just the perfect tune. The ones assigned to it over the years have never matched the words in such a way to truly display the depth of the text. That’s too bad, because it is a rich discourse on the mercy of the heavenly Father penned by the English hymn-writer who gave us “Faith of Our Fathers.”

Because it is chock full of my personal theology, this hymn-line is one of three from “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” that I have covered in this blog.

I’m forever telling my students that art doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective… or perhaps even beautiful. Some visual artists have so much happening on the canvas that we just move on to the next one because we are confused. Music may be the worst offender here, especially in the past hundred years, producing harmonies and melodies that are so intricate and convoluted that normal listeners cannot comprehend them – and in congregational music, people can’t sing them with any ease, negating the sometimes engaging message.

For our spiritual development, simplicity is preferred according to Christ’s admonition in Mark 10:15: “You must accept the kingdom of God as if you were a little child." (New Century Version) We know how the Jewish leaders of Old Testament times had added rule upon rule until it was almost impossible to be a worthy God-follower; historically, that trend has continued into the Christian church… and still does.

If our love and our faith-processing were simplified, we would readily accept what God tells us in his Word as truth. In my experience, this is not a limiting exercise; rather, it is freeing!

Why have we developed into questioning, suspicious people when it comes to God and matters of faith? Why can we not simplify our belief system and take him at his word? After all, another hymn tells us ‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take him at his word; just to rest upon his promise, just to know thus saith the Lord.

It’s a gift to be simple.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Give for wild confusion, peace."

Hymn: “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – William Whiting (1825-1878)

Rembrandt - "Storm on the Sea of Galilee"
Known as the Navy Hymn, this hymn of mariners, seafarers… especially those involved in the conflict of battle is the kind of song we use in a service when we highlight the armed forces or perhaps to celebrate one of our annual national holidays. The fact that most of the stanzas end with “O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea,” limits our using it unless the sermon is centered on one of the sea-storm New Testament stories.

But this short hymn-line is a valid prayer – on sea or land – because many of us spend at least part of every day confused about something. We may not be overwhelmed by confusion on a regular basis, but most of us have spent enough time there to know that sinking feeling.

Wild confusion brings to my mind larger, public events that are thrown into turmoil by some senseless act of an individual or group: school shootings, the bombing of the Murrah Building, the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon, etc. Those times of wild confusion cause people to go running for safety, seeking loved ones who have been involved, cowering in corners – chaos. In recent days, hurricane-prompted flooding and the fear of yet another land-fall have created wild confusion.

We watch those events unfold on the screens of our televisions and computers, and we ask “why?” Then most of us immediately in our own words pray today’s hymn-line.

I remember in the Aladdin story, the merchant chanting through the street, “New lamps for old. New lamps for old.” – at least that was in the cartoon version! This is basically what this hymn-line is doing: asking God to trade peace for confusion… or to replace a dreadful situation with a tranquil one. “Settle us down, Lord. Things are out of our control.”

There is a peace that only Christ can provide – a peace that over-rides understanding. When it is achieved in a world situation, a local uproar, a church conference, or our own personal lack of clarity, one of the great spiritual miracles comes into play. It is as if the Great Ancient Mariner stands again at the rear of boat and commands the winds and waves to return to their calm.

The next time we’re in wild confusion, may we with him speak peace.


Monday, September 23, 2013

"With upright heart I give tender care and sympathy."

"With upright heart I give tender care and sympathy."
Hymn: “Dear Lord, Lead Me Day by Day” – Francisca Asuncion (1927-    )

You may not be familiar with this prayer hymn based on a Philippine folk song. It has appeared in more recent hymnals, but as fewer congregations refer to those pew books, it may well be overlooked. This hymn-line is, however, worth visiting.

Originally written as a children’s hymn, the refrain is simple, child-like… almost ‘cute’:
            Praise to God, Fount of love, praise from morn till set of sun,
            Praise at home, praise at church, praise to God ev’rywhere on earth.

Today’s hymn-line is the final one of the last stanza: With upright heart I give tender care and sympathy. I am attracted to this poetic sentence because we sometimes confuse the terms “caring for” and “taking care of.”

It is possible to take care of someone without truly caring about them. In other words, we may be in a position to help someone – to take care of their needs – and do it passively, perhaps out of duty… or even because we are paid to do so. Our attitude may be “Well, somebody has to do it!”

However, those who take care of someone while truly caring about them are wonderful examples of the way Christ taught us to serve others. These are those who connect with the person in need, have compassion on them, and take care of the situation to the best of their ability.

For me, the best example of this may be at your local hospital: nurses. Having spent many hours in hospital rooms with both my parents, my wife, and friends and family members, I have observed some on the nursing staff who breeze in, tend to the needs of the patient, and quickly move on to the next. They do the job for which they are paid… and they do it with great proficiency.

On the other hand, we have all witnessed the nurse who treats the patient with great interest, who speaks to them with kindness, who truly cares for the person… not just their immediate health needs. These are the ones who (whether they realize it or not) are following that example of the Great Physician… the sympathizing Jesus.

To be this kind of caretaker, humility is required. Time is required. The ability to identify-with is required. Unhurried, sincere attention is given, and the result is more healing than the aforementioned laissez faire approach.

I saw this so much during my mother’s final visits to Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital in Knoxville. Those round-the-clock nurses truly cared about Hedy Huff; they liked her and enjoyed her; they went out of their way to be sure she was well cared for. I flew in from Denver and arrived at the hospital just a few minutes after my mother had died and was met as I stepped off the elevator by my daddy, other family members, Preacher Cope… and several weeping nurses. It was at that moment I realized the difference between “caring for” and “taking care of.”

If you ever have opportunity to sing this hymn, I hope you’ll remember this little blog post. And the next time you see someone giving care-full attention the needs of another, thank them for it. Then go thou and do likewise!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Still all my song shall be: Nearer, my God, to thee."

"Still all my song shall be: Nearer, my God, to thee."
Hymn: “Nearer, My God, to Thee” – Sarah F. Adams (1805-1848)

It is a real shame that this hymn is mostly remembered as what the band was playing when the Titanic went down and is typically relegated to memorial services and funerals. The haunting, usually-slowly-sung hymn has some wonderful brief phrases worth recounting. It speaks of steps leading into heaven, angels beckoning us homeward, thoughts brightened with praise… and references to the Jacob’s ladder-dream (Genesis 28:12).

My outstanding word in this hymn-line for today is “still.” It’s a great word we use when we mean “after all this time.” I suppose that’s one of the reasons it is associated with funerals or end-of-life events.

Job uses this word many times in his defense against those who encourage him to turn from his God, such as in chapter 13, verse 15: “Though he take away my life, still will I hope in him.” (Some translations use the word ‘yet,’ meaning the same as ‘still.’)

It is that kind of continuing steadfastness to which we all aspire – those of us who seek to be faithful followers of the Lamb. It is our intention to come to the end of our days, still using the word “still”! Of course, you know that I’m going to love this line because it says that my song shall still be, “Let me be nearer, my God, to thee.”

One of my top-ten favorite hymns is “Draw Me Nearer.” Many of you know that one, and it will come up more than once on these blogs! I find myself singing it many mornings while I’m getting ready – out loud if no one else is in the house! It truly is my sincere prayer for every day – to edge a bit closer to my blessed Lord and to the cross where he died.

This Sunday when you stand to sing in worship - whatever your musical style - realize that your praises of the crucified, risen Christ are still genuine – after all these years. May ALL our songs still continue to draw us nearer to the One who is now on heaven’s throne at the top of those steps where angels beckon us to come. May our thoughts and attitudes truly still be brightened with his praise.

Try your best to stop thinking of this as a hymn about a mighty ship going down; rather consider a mighty church rising up in praise, still moving nearer to one another and their Leader.

Friday, September 20, 2013

"Thou, my everlasting portion."

"Thou, my everlasting portion."
Hymn: “Close to Thee” – Fanny Crosby (1820-1915)

When my grandfather Smelcer decided to stop farming his acreage in Pigeon Forge, he apportioned it out equally among his children, keeping only the large corner lot on which the homeplace stood. My mother received her portion and lived on that plot of land the rest of her life. This kind of event helps me understand some hymn texts – and in turn, the hymn texts improve my limited understanding of who God is and how he works among his people.

In the Old Testament, God does a lot of apportionment of his land… and of his Spirit. We also read about his distribution of himself:
“God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:26)
"The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him." (Lamentations 3:24)

In the New Testament, we are referred to as “partakers” or those who share in the inheritance:
“You will joyfully give thanks to the Father who has made you able to have a share in all  that he has prepared for his people in the kingdom of light.” (Colossians 1:12)

Even after my grandfather divvied up his farmland, it was still the Smelcer Farm… but now it belonged to his children. The acreage in east Tennessee was my mother’s inheritance… which eventually became my inheritance… which is now just a block off the road into Dollywood and has been re-zoned as commercial property and sold to provide for us in our retirement!

But in the case of God, he has subdivided this inheritance among all his believing, accepting children. It is mine for all time… I have an eternal share of stock. He IS my everlasting portion - more than friend or life to me. I am delighted to have been allotted a piece of the Kingdom.

We live in a subdivision here in Waxahachie, Texas. When I lived here 35 years ago, this was the Cook Farm; it has since been re-apportioned into lots for home-building. The plot on which our house is built, however, was not given to us: we bought it. In the case of our share in Christ, it was bought for us and given to us freely… as was my mother’s slice of the farm.

Seems like I took way too much verbiage to say that singing this opening line of a Fanny Crosby hymn text makes more sense to me when I break it down into a situation I can get my mind around. Sometimes, that’s the only way I can get at the truth: talk it out until it makes sense!

Now, go and enjoy your allotment… your everlasting portion of God!

"From sinking sand... with tender hand he lifted me."

"From sinking sand... with tender hand he lifted me."

Hymn: “In Loving-Kindness Jesus Came” – Words & Music by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932)

Whatever happened to kindness? Whatever happened to loving-kindness? When did rude and condescending become the norm? Or has it?

The opening line of this hymn describes the way Jesus approaches us: in loving- kindness, with mercy, through grace. That pretty well describes the Christ to whom I am attracted… still.

Van Eyk - "Jesus"
I admire and study the great portraits of Jesus by the master-painters throughout art history. When visiting museums, those are the works to which I am most often drawn. I may stand and contemplate them for long periods of time. But it is not what Jesus looked like that fascinates me as much as what he acted like! That stooping to scoop me up in his arms from sinking sand – even sinking sand from which I have been rescued previously and to which I too often return – THAT is the Savior I know and love… and worship.

He doesn’t grab me up by the scruff, yanking me against my will. It is rather with tender hands, soothing me and comforting even as I struggle to be freed from the quagmire which so strenuously seeks to suck me further downward.

I have many people to thank for showing kindness to me over the years, but I have Hedy and Raymond to thank for teaching me the importance of being kind… to extend that Christ-like loving-kindness. It was part of their nature… and it is becoming mine… and in turn, my nature is turning more toward Christ-like-ness.

Complaining, demanding one’s own way, whining – these are not the qualities that others are drawn to. And if we intend to be attracting people to our Lord, we must… absolutely MUST take on more of his kind nature. Some of us would rather robe ourselves in holiness than immerse ourselves in kindness. Wouldn’t some holy kindness be a possibility?

The next time I really want to be ‘mean,’ I need to remember the first line of this hymn… and come at life with loving-kindness – not forced nice-ness, but kind-hearted-ness which comes naturally because I am taking on HIS nature.

Remember, it wasn’t that long ago you were up to your neck in some kind of quicksand… and in loving-kindness Jesus came along. Constant awareness of whence we came and who brought us to where we are can make a real difference in our attitude, turning us from cranky fault-finders to pleasant representatives of the One who lifts us still.


Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)