Friday, January 31, 2014

"Established is God's law, and changeless it shall stand deep-writ upon the human heart."

Hymn: “The God of Abraham Praise” – David ben Judah Dayyan (c. 1400)

This very Jewish text set to a traditional Hebrew melody is included in most Christian hymnals because we are, in fact, an extension of Judaism. After all, our founder was himself a Jew!

God’s Word is well-established. It has stood for many generations as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths. Its very long-standing nature is one of its strengths. As commanded, we pass it along to our children’s children in order that it may maintain its place among believers yet to come.

The Word of God will stand unshaken when it is deep-writ upon the hearts of those who love it and follow its precepts. I love the term “deep-writ”… or deep-written -- chiseled out, engraved, scribbled in indelible ink, permanently applied to our most-inner self.

I am reminded of stories from the concentration camps of World War II when the Bibles of prisoners were taken from them. We’re told that they would huddle together at night by candlelight and scribble passages of scripture on scraps of paper and hide them from their captors. Eventually they had recreated a large number of the most meaningful verses, many of which reminded them of how God had saved their people from total destruction… and gave them hope that he might indeed do that again. For many, that hope became a reality. (Think SHINDLER’S LIST!)

As a musician, I am drawn to another aspect of that tragic stain upon human history: they seem to have been able to recall many of these scriptures from songs they had sung.

However you are going about it – repetition, memorization, or with anthem texts - writing the Word of God permanently on your heart and mind is an important process because there are times when nothing will satisfy or comfort like drawing upon those remembered verses.

Hear This Hymn Played

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, evermore his praises sing."


Hymn: “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” – Henry F. Lyte (1793-1847)
Various Tunes: My favorite is ANDREWS

This hymn text is a bit unusual because it is structured in a way that the singer is speaking to himself/herself. As we sing these words, we are reminding ourselves to praise God, the King of heaven… to acknowledge his greatness (bring tribute).

In THIS line, we remind ourselves that we are the ransomed, the healed, the restored, the forgiven ones – and that we should sing his praises as long as we have breath to do so. Because we sometimes consider our redemption, our healing, our restoration and forgiveness to be in the past, we may not praise him for these anymore. In reality, all these activities of God on our behalf are ongoing; therefore, we need to be more appreciative as part of our continuing praise.

The remainder of the text highlights God’s grace and favor, his faithfulness, and his enduring changeless qualities over against our frail, perishable human nature.

Interestingly, the final stanza turns from this introspective urging as it speaks to the angels and the triumphant saints in heaven, calling on them to praise God because they have the privilege of beholding him face to face.

Okay, it’s time we take up the song, merging our praise with the everlasting “Alleluias” of the ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven ones who have gone before us and who will come after us. It is up to us to keep the song alive. No pressure!

ANDREWS tune arrangement sung by Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"Till my ransomed soul shall find rest."

"Till my ransomed soul shall find rest."
Hymn: “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” – Fanny Crosby (1820-1915)

This was my mother’s favorite hymn. It served her well as a daily prayer for her life, and it continues to minister to me every time I hear it or sing it.

Growing up, I thought she loved it because it was all about the cross and the sacrifice of Christ upon that emblem of suffering and shame. As her life wound down, however, it seemed to me that what she found attractive about this Fanny Crosby text was this closing line of the refrain – its emphasis on “rest.”

“In the cross be my glory ever, till my ransomed soul finds rest just beyond the river.”
In the busy-ness of our lives, this may become one of our great spiritual desires: to slow down long enough to reflect adequately on our lives with uninterrupted introspection. In reality, we might better sing, “Till my WEARY soul finds rest,” or better yet “my hurried LIFE.”

Those of you who actually noticed that I haven’t posted for about a week may have wondered why; I actually got a few emails asking if I were sick or not feeling well. No, the truth is I didn’t have another 1/24 of the day to devote to blogging – even about one of my passions: hymns! It takes me a good hour to do these. Once I’ve decided on the one I want to attack for the day, I usually cross-reference some related scriptures, try to come up with an interesting angle on the text I’ve chosen… then write the blog, keeping it down to an easily-read length. Then I look for some art work or illustration to accompany it and a listening example.

But for the past couple of weeks, having an extra sixty minutes has been out of the question. For a semi-retired person, I am way too busy – and much of it still involves ministry, just through different channels than before. And quite frankly, my “hurried life” is seeking some rest. I could use a time-out. How about you? I bet this is a common denominator for most of us.

For a day or so, this hymnline has kept coming to mind, so I thought it must be time to sit down here at the computer and put another one out there. My initial intention was to produce one of these every day for a full year – 365 musings on hymnody. I’m almost halfway there with about 180 posts. I WILL do 365 eventually, just not daily as I had intended.

I just hope I gain some rest from my labors on this side of river!

Babbie Mason Leads the Singing of This Hymn

Friday, January 24, 2014

"O the pure delight of a single hour that before thy throne I spend."

Hymn: “I Am Thine, O Lord” – Fanny Crosby (1820-1915)

O the pure delight of a single hour that before thy throne I spend
When I kneel in prayer, and with thee, my God, I commune as friend with friend.

There is not a whole lot I can add to that. This hymnline speaks for itself.

Our understanding of prayer as a communication between friends makes a lot of difference in how we approach the throne. Prayer is not a duty, it is a privilege – one that should be cherished and anticipated, much like we look forward to catching up with our dearest friends. There are no off-limits subjects, we talk about everything and anything, we are at ease, there is no sense of tension.

My seminary roommate and I have talked by phone every Monday for years. It is a loosely scheduled weekly catching-up time. These sometimes-brief conversations continue to be a blessing. I’m trying to reshape my prayer life to be more like my visits with David: just talking to God and asking him for nothing. Too much of my prayer time is centered around what I want God to do for me. I’m trying to alter that… or altar that!

Spending an hour in prayer is probably a stretch for most of us, but whatever time we carve out to dedicate to dialogue with this great Friend should be delightful. Some days I may visit with God an hour… five minutes at time! But those occasional intense, lengthy audiences are the richest because they yield superior results. O the pure delight…


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"All the reach of heavenly art, all the pow'r of music bring."

"All the reach of heavenly art, all the pow'r of music bring."

Hymn: “Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above” – Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
Common Tune: AMSTERDAM

Leave it to Charles Wesley to write a hymnline like this one… nestled within other great statements about who God is, what God does, and what God deserves. THIS line deals with the latter.

I’m teaching an Introduction to the Fine Arts class at Dallas Baptist University, and I absolutely love where my semi-retirement has taken me: into a college-level classroom on a Christian campus to talk about one of great passions – art! One of the things I emphasize with these students is that all art forms CAN be used to honor God. This hymnline supports that argument – that all the farthest reaches of heaven-given artfulness (or talent) can be called upon to praise the Lord who reigns above and keeps his court below.

My students think I’m just way too passionate about the arts. At every chapter, they hear me say, “Now this may be my favorite art form!” I AM passionate about the arts because they are lasting examples of creativity – God’s creative energy passing through the hearts, minds, feet, hands and mouths of his created ones.

Music is a powerful art. It is common to every race and every culture. Wesley encourages us to apply that innate power of music to the unbridled praise of God.

Today’s hymnline ends with the modifying phrase, “… the music of the heart.” In order for music or any art form to be acceptable worship, it must come from the innermost depth of who we are. It must be a sincere, humble offertory. It must not be a self-aggrandizing display of one’s talent.

Many of us enjoy and appreciate the arts. Humanity's creative expression through the arts is one of the ways we are made in the image of God. It behooves us then to offer them back to God to honor him. I think he enjoys it when we do.

“All the reach of heavenly art, all the pow’r of music bring.” And I say, “Bring it on!”

Jakarta Oratorio Children’s Choir Sings a Setting of This Text

The AMSTERDAM Tune Sung by a Frequently-Breathing Soloist

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Wonderful Way Maker, worthy of my offering."

Song: “Hallowed Be Thy Name” – Words & Music by Babbie Mason and Robert Lawson

Now that this Babbie Mason song has been included in some hymnals, I can use it as a hymnline. I know that’s a stretch, especially for those of us who have standards for what is considered a hymn or gospel song! The part of this CD track that is printed in current songbooks is actually the refrain… or chorus of a piece with several stanzas or verses. What I like about it is that this is a listing of names and attributes of God:

- Love
- Life
- Lord over everything
- Alpha and Omega
- Jehovah
- King of kings
- Wonderful Way Maker
- Worthy

The stanzas go on to expand the list to just about everything you’d come up with if asked to jot down things that come to mind when you think of God. You’ll hear that if you listen to it at the link below.

Babbie was at our church last night to do a concert just for our choir. I’ve been a fan of hers for many years, but as she sang, I realized how many of her songs had ministered to me throughout the years. (e.g. “Trust His Heart,” “With All My Heart,” “All Rise,” etc.)

Her use here of the term “way maker” to describe God is so much right on target, because as Jehovah Jireh, one of God’s greatest provisions for us is his ability to seemingly ALWAYS find a way for us… out of one situation into another, out of some crisis or dilemma, or into some ministry or mission we had never dreamed of for ourselves. I think it’s one that needs to be added to everyone’s list of names of God/Jesus.

According to this description, not only is God wonderful, but the WAY he makes for us is a wonderful way… or to quote another of her songs, “a more excellent way.”

Whatever is going on in your life this week, be constantly aware that God is at work carving out a path to bring you closer to him and more in-line with his plan for your life. That just might make all the difference in how you approach the next seven days!

“Hallowed Be Thy Name”

Friday, January 17, 2014

"In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear."

"In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear."
Hymn: “In Heavenly Love Abiding” – Anna L Waring
Various Tunes – most common in the U.S. is NYLAND

Today is my wife Carlita’s birthday, and this is her favorite.

The hymn opens with these phrases:
    In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear;
    For safe is such confiding, for nothing changes here.

It’s a hymn about spiritual stability. When surrounded by and supported by the deep, deep love of Jesus, no matter how many storms rage about us, we have no reason to fear. There is a certain safety factor which is unsurpassed by another other shelter in the time of storm.

Our lives go through so many changes. Every paradigm seems to be shifting – and some of those paradigms have been our way of life, way of worship, way of doing things for all our years. But even when caught up in the squall of constant adjustments, we can be confident that this love of God has not and will not change… and neither will our relationship with God.

We can abide confidently in him as he abides in us… as branches – offshoots – of who God is, producing fruit in every season, even the tempestuous ones.

Lots of public buildings now have a sign on the outside that reads “Safety Zone.”  Those have been designated for people who are living their lives in fear of someone who may want to do them harm. We all desire a place we can count on – a hiding place. For those of us who seek him, God becomes for us that kind of refuge… our safety zone.

Speaking of birthdays, the final stanza says this:
    My life I cannot measure, the path of life is free.
    My Savior has my treasure, and he will walk with me.

“The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous run to it, and they are safe.” (Proverbs 18:10)

Need a place to hide out for a while? Start running away from your troubles; run instead toward that strong tower.

A Choir Sings the Familiar NYLAND Tune

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Shadows around me, shadows above me never conceal my Savior and Guide."

Hymn: “Heavenly Sunlight” – H. J. Zelley (1859-1942)

You may not be familiar with the Schubert song “The Erl King” based on a poem by Goethe. But for me, it’s an image that comes up when I read this hymnline. The basic story is of a father racing through the woods on horseback with his dying, hallucinating son; it’s more complicated than that, but you can Google it and get the details! It’s not a Christian story; rather it stems from German folklore.

Anyway, as the shadows and darkness surround him, the boy keeps crying out, “My father! My father!” The horse gallops, the darkness becomes greater, and still the child begs his father to help him out of the agony of his sickness.

There are times when we are surrounded by great cloud of witnesses, and we are rejuvenated and empowered to face whatever comes our way. At other times, we may find ourselves encompassed by nothing but shadows and darkness trying their best it seems to rob us of our joy, our calling, our mission… even our life. The horse gallops, the darkness becomes greater.

But THIS song (unlike the Schubert) reminds me that even the darkness cannot hide God from view. See Psalm 139:12. Today’s hymnline tells me this about my dark days: “Shadows around me, shadows above me never conceal my Savior and Guide (because) He is the light. In him is no darkness.” I love it when kernels of truth and beauty are hidden in the middle of these toe-tapping gospel songs that we sometimes set aside as “fluff.”

Having one of those shadows-all-around-me kind of days… or weeks? Don’t let the gloom obscure the face of your Savior who wants to carry you past the dark vale into the light of a new, more productive day.

Hear the Gaither Gang Sing This Great Gospel Song

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"The favor he shows and the joy he bestows are for them who will trust and obey."

"The favor he shows and the joy he bestows are for them who will trust and obey."

Hymn: “Trust and Obey” – John H. Sammis (1846-1919)

This is sort of staple hymn for evangelical churches… those who sing hymns-as-written and those who sing updated settings. That common usage is probably attributable to the simplicity of the text… and the different ways it approaches the subject of obedience that springs from trust.

I have heard many say that this hymn’s title pretty much sums up what becoming a follower of Jesus means: trust AND obey. That all-important conjunction makes a huge difference. You’ve probably seen those Ford commercials that spoof “bed or breakfast” and “nuts or bolts.” In every case, the people involved say they prefer “and”! It seems that is also what God prefers!

Today’s hymnline indicates some of what is in store for those who obediently trust God: on them God pours out his favor (approval) and a joy available through no other source. That approval or endorsement of God is high on most of our lists; we want to be pleasing in his sight – we want to stand unashamed in his presence. We seek the joy that becomes our strength, our undergirding, our overflowing fountain; we need look no further than God in Christ Jesus.

As this hymnwriter puts it, the favor and joy are not extended to those who are distrustful and disobedient – but only those who trust and obey, who walk with the Lord in the light of his Word. Available to all, but not acknowledged by all.

Join the couples in those Ford commercials: trust AND obey is to be preferred over trust OR obey any day!

Chelsea Moon Sings This Hymn a la Bluegrass!

Gary Chapman Talks about and Sings This Hymn

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Ask ye what great thing I know?"

Hymn: “Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know” – Johann C. Schwedler (1672-1730
Common Tune: HENDON

I rarely use the first line of a hymn as the hymnline for the day, but today I am!

You know the old jokes about how if when questioned in Sunday School, a child doesn’t know the answer, it’s usually a pretty safe bet he/she can reply, “Jesus” – and have a pretty good chance at being correct.

This hymn is basically a series of questions to which the answer IS “Jesus”! In fact, it’s “Jesus Christ, the crucified (One).”

Here are some of the questions:
- Do you ask what is the greatest thing I know?
- Do you wonder what delights and stirs me so deeply?
- What is the high reward I win by following this faithful path?
- Whose name do you think I glory in?
- What the strong foundation of my faith?
- What awakens my lips to sing?
- Who is the center of my life (life in life)?
- Who will ultimately be the death of death?
- On whose right will I be seated along with all the host of saints who have gone ahead of me into the glorious rest?

It’s almost like a catechism. Questions are posed and correct, learned answers are repeated. Quite honestly, for the true follower of Christ, this IS the answer to all these questions. Fortunately, unlike the formal catechism, the answers don’t change… only the questions do!

The final stanza is one long answer:
     This is that great thing I know!
     This delights and stirs me so:
     Faith in him who died to save,
     Him who triumphed o’er the grave:
     Jesus Christ, the Crucified!

Go back and read through the list again, and see if you can honestly answer “Jesus… the One who was crucified for me.” It might reveal an area of your own faith walk that could use some work. I won’t ask which ones YOU struggled over if you won’t ask ME!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"When I took him at his word, forgiv'n he lifted me."

"When I took him at his word, forgiv'n he lifted me."

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

The title of this hymn (the first line) sends out a strong message about the way Jesus came… and continues to enter… our struggling world: in a kindness based out of love – an intense affection only possible through the power of God at work in his life. We’re back to that image of the Son of God gently making his entrance among his people. He did not barge in and take over with fanfare or bombast. So far as we know from his Word, everything about him was kind, intentional, filled with grace and truth.

If we take him at his word (or Word), we find him willing and able to redeem us. Questioning is not a bad thing; it is in fact a healthy faith exercise. Doubt on the other hand… not so much. The opposite of taking him at his word is doubting the core of his message… disbelieving that he can work a miracle in our lives.

My dad, Raymond, was known to be a man of his word. In my earliest years I recall his making land deals and buying cars with a down-payment and a handshake. He got burned a few times, but as far as I know, he never went back on his word.

The Lord Christ was and is known to be a man of his word. In our case, he has accepted our admission of estrangement, and in place of a handshake has handed us forgiveness for those actions and attitudes which have separated us from his holiness. And the best news is that he does this for us every day: he has promised to keep on forgiving us – we have his word on that.

Need a lift? Yeah, me too. Let’s take him at his word, accept his loving, kind forgiveness, and be elevated by tender hand from sinking sand. When it’s all said and done, we can sing, “O praise his name! He lifted me.”

This Hymn Played at the Piano

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"To all life thou givest, to both great and small."

"To all life thou givest, to both great and small."
Hymn: “Immortal, Invisible” – Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908)

Let me just say that I love this hymn. I think I would never tire of singing it in worship. The sturdy 3/4 pulse and the powerful text always resonates with me as the words trip over my lips! Within this hymn are some great lines, but I’ve chosen this one to deal with today.

This hymnline always reminds me that God is no respecter of persons. He makes the sun and rain to fall on the just and the unjust… the important and the seemingly insignificant. He gives life to all despite their ‘place’ in the world order… the great and the small. Having always considered myself on the of-lesser-importance end of the spectrum, this hymnline inspires me!

During his earthly adventure, Jesus found himself visited by lowly shepherds and by wealthy men from the Far East; sitting with the highest officials in his religion, lawyers, government officials; working in the lives of city leaders, lepers and other outcasts; walking tall among the greatest people of his day, and stooping to be on the level with the sinningest sinners; standing in the Temple preaching and praying, and later letting children sit in his lap. He was an enigma for sure – a conundrum for those who tried to figure him out.

He still is a paradox. His ways are still a mysterious “puzzlement” (to quote Yul Bryner). He is still giving life to both ends of the social spectrum – giving breath to all who require it to stay alive… and giving his redeeming Spirit to those who wish to stay alive forever.

You know those sticker things people put on the back window of their van to represent the family inside? That pretty much says it all so far as who is acceptable in God’s family! The next time you pull up behind one of those sticker-clad SUV’s in traffic, be reminded that God gives life to both great and small… even you!

Hear the Congregational Singing of This Hymn

Friday, January 10, 2014

"Thus shall I walk with thee, the loved Unseen."

"Thus shall I walk with thee, the loved Unseen."
Hymn: “No, Not Despairingly” – Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)

This is one of THE most powerful devotional hymns out there anywhere. The text is so thoughtfully deep that most congregational worship leaders avoid it… partly because it can hardly be taken in. Churches who lean more toward the contemplative will find it more useful in public worship. However, it is a text we should all read regularly to keep us in check with our relationship with Christ – who here is called the “loved Unseen.”

The invisibleness of our Savior makes him more difficult for some to believe in. I think I get that; but at the same time, it is his concealed nature that intrigues me and causes my faith to work overtime. Though unperceived by others, his presence is fully realized.

According to this hymnline from the final stanza, when we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word, all is at peace… and “thus” (in that way) we journey alongside Christ.

The next line in this hymn: “Leaning on thee, my God, guided along the road, nothing between.” How beautifully put. Another hymn-writer said, “Nothing between my soul and my Savior.” I think we get the picture: a relationship so tight that nothing comes between us – attached at the heart, so to speak.

Unlike Jimmy Stewart’s made-up friend “Harvey,” my unseen companion is real, and I don’t mind walking along life’s road, knowing full well that he is ever with me and that I find myself near to the heart of God.

P.S. – We’ll visit this hymn several times, so get to know it well!

I couldn’t find an online recording of this hymn. That’s sad in itself.
Surely Cynthia Clawson has recorded it!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Only thou art holy. There is none beside thee perfect..."

Hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy” – Reginald Heber (1783-1826)

Our God truly is “one of a kind.” No one else is perfectly holy. I think that goes without saying… but it cannot go without singing!

Every congregation of all denominations knows – and probably loves – this great hymn that reminds us of the “otherness” of God. It points us to that mysterium tremendum: that overwhelming mystery of who God is.

Besides God, there is none perfect. Only God is holy.

In the words of St. Nicolas Cabasilas, our God is
- more affectionate than any friend,
- more just than any ruler,
- more loving than any father,
- more a part of us than our own limbs,
- more necessary to us than our own heart.

This one-of-a-kind holy otherness is what attracts many of us to God. We stand awestruck in God’s presence, finding it unfathomable that there should be One like this. Sturdy hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy” usher us into that presence; few jazzed-up arrangements maintain that sense of awe – same words, same basic melody, but not the same astonishment!

Beyond that, however, we are equally amazed that such a holy Other could be interested in us… that God would condescend to humankind to draw us to himself. It is awe upon awe – wonder of wonders – truly amazing!

Such awareness puts us in our place and raises him to his rightful place: high and holy. Besides him, there is none other qualified. Perfect in power, in love and purity.

Acappella Singing of This Hymn (Church of Christ)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"When Jesus shows his smiling face, there is sunshine in my soul."

Ken Corbett - "Christ Smiling"
Hymn: “Sunshine in My Soul” – Eliza E. Hewitt (1851-1920)

At this time of year when the weather outside is frightful, skies are overcast, and record lows are being chronicled, it just seems appropriate to use this hymnline that closes the refrain of one of those good old toe-tapping gospel songs.

Many of us suffer from depression at differing levels. Fortunately, for most of us this downheartedness is shallow and short-lived; for others – even strong Christians – melancholy may be a daily state of being. Some live in darker shades of gray. This is not something to take lightly. Our response should never be flippant or unconcerned; “just get over it” should not be our attitude. Honest, non-condescending encouragement is probably our best approach.

For those of us who are not at those deepest depths of despair, turning our eyes upon Jesus may be just the thing to return brightness to our gloom – to trade sunshine for our darkness. So often in our grasping for a glimmer of hope, the smiling face of Christ passes before our spiritual eyes, our attitudes improve, and we are lifted from nighttime to noonday bright.

I’m reminded of the hopeful Psalm passage: “We may weep throughout the night, but with the morning comes joy.” (30:5b)

The day may be dreary and the long night may be weary, but be reassured that our Savior cares. May his smiling face come to all of us to redeem us from the pit… to pull us out and bring sunshine to our souls. Then may there be music in our souls today, a carol to our King!

This hymn sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

"Only a glimpse of his goodness, that was sufficient for me."

Guercino - "Christ and the Woman of Samaria"

Hymn: “Why Do I Sing about Jesus?” – Words & Music by Albert A Ketchum (1894- ?)

With so little known about its writer, this has become a favorite gospel song for many… including me. I guess I’m partial to all hymns about singing, but I remember being drawn to this one early on in my church life. Perhaps the skating-rink-waltz attracted me!?

The refrain that asks why I sing about Jesus and why he is so precious to me provides a straight-ahead answer: “He is my Lord and my Savior. Dying, he set me free.” There are times we need to sing the truths of our salvation experience, sharing with any who might need to hear.

Today’s hymnline opens the second stanza. “What would it take for you to believe in Jesus?” is a question we may have uttered while sharing our faith with a seeker. For Ketchum – and for many of US – all it took was observing how wonderfully good Jesus is. We saw that in scripture, we heard about it from Sunday School teachers and pastors; some of us observed it in great works of art… even music!

However, the place most people will get a glimpse of the goodness of Christ is through his followers: us. We are constantly under observation by those who have yet to come to a personal faith experience. For some of those who scrutinize our actions and attitudes, our consistency may be all they need; our non-verbal witness may be sufficient to usher them into the Kingdom.

Then, those new believers can stand and sing this hymnline… and mean it!

Not a lot to choose from for online videos,
but here’s one!

Monday, January 6, 2014

"And run not before him."

Hymn: “Take Time to Be Holy” – William D. Longstaff (1822-1894)

For some of us, this hymnline could be an addendum to whatever else we may have resolved to do in the new year.

The truth is that some of our spiritual resolutions are more filled with hope than determination. If we look closely, we may find that embedded within them is our intention to move ahead no matter what – in other words, we may have already set out to run ahead of God!

God wants to lead us, and leadership always happens from the front or from the side. Urging and prodding happen from the back. Strength and empowerment come from beneath.

There have been times I have run ahead of God, realized what I’ve done, and waited for him to come and push me on ahead. Fortunately, he has come to my rescue many times when I’ve plodded on at my own pace and with my own dreams. It is certainly providential that he should be there for us, coming alongside, and ultimately moving to his proper place in the relationship: as Leader.

Some surge of excitement or creativity may overwhelm us, especially in these first weeks of a new year. We may consider ourselves ‘led’ into some realm into which there has been no leadership – no calling – no “Come, follow me.”

Let’s take that selfless approach and not try so hard to be in charge. Let’s play Follow-the-Leader and see where that takes us. When this time of year rolls around in twelve months, I think we might find ourselves further ahead than feel right now.

Hear an Instrumental of This Hymn

Sunday, January 5, 2014

"Guide us to thy perfect Light."

Carol: “We Three Kings” – Words & Music by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891)

My mother (Hedy) was the resident director of the annual Christmas Play at First Baptist Church in Pigeon Forge. If any of you wonder where I got my proclivity toward dramatizing biblical events, you need go no further. Each year’s production was pretty much like the previous. I remember how while the choir sang “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” the angels always interpreted the text with hand movements -- one of which was forming a circle with their arms at “comes round the age of gold,” and leaning forward during “when peace shall over all the earth…” Why do things like that stick in your mind?

Each year she had to employ three men from within the choir to sing “We Three Kings.” They all sang the first and last stanzas, and each did a solo verse based on the gift they carried: gold, frankincense or myrrh. Ours weren’t quite as much fun as the one below featuring Hugh Jackman, but the point was pretty well dramatized, especially for a 1950’s low-budget production.

Even as a child, watching and listening to my mother direct this cast of her peers, I was drawn to THIS hymnline spoken by the bath-robed wise men to the star of wonder, star of night with royal beauty bright: “Guide us to thy perfect Light.” Early on I was learning by osmosis that the Christ Child was the perfect Light of the World.

It is strange how we bring those carol texts with us from our earliest years to our latter days as saints. I’m glad we do, because those tidbits we have learned from our singing/listening-to-singing have enriched our lives, deepened our faith, brought us to belief and service. In other words, they have guided us to the perfect Light.

Let’s keep teaching them to our children’s children.

See Hugh Jackman, David Hobson and Peter Cousen sing fun setting of this carol

Hear Robert Shaw Chorale sing this carol

Saturday, January 4, 2014

"So may we with holy joy... all our costliest treasures bring, Christ, to thee."

Matthias Stom - "Adoration of the Magi"
"So may we with holy joy... all our costliest treasures bring, Christ, to thee."
Carol: “As with Gladness Men of Old” – William C. Dix (1837-1898)
Common Tune: DIX

It’s the Sunday most congregations will talk about Magi, wise men, travelers from afar, etc. We are still fascinated with this scripturally un-numbered group’s seeking of the Christ Child. Part of that fascination comes from the fact that they must have been people of great means to make this long trek from east Asia; after all, we’ve learned from pictures that they traveled with quite the entourage… like the Crawley family at Downton Abbey! We’re also caught up in their star-gazing hobby or profession that actually panned out for them; they studied the star alignments and deciphered their meaning… ultimately leading them to the prophesied One whose star had gone before them. People like me are enamored of their desire to worship the King born at Bethlehem in the land of Judah.

We like their haggling with Herod, their continuing their search, their being warned in a dream, etc. But most of all, we marvel at the moment when their worship culminates in their bowing down on their faces before the Christ Child, offering their costliest treasures. It’s one of the most awe-invoking moments in the telling of the birth event – maybe in all of scripture!

When we make our offerings with holy joy – not begrudgingly or by force – then it truly is an act of pure worship: nothing held back. As we sing this carol, we are saying that we want to be true worshipers like the Magi – people who go to great lengths to find God, and who act appropriately and generously when he is found.

Many times after we have that kind of close encounter of the highest kind, we are led by “another way” for our own protection and our own good.

Hear this carol from an English cathedral (The picture choices are weak!)

Friday, January 3, 2014

"Come, peasant, king to own him. The King of kings salvation brings. Let loving hearts enthrone him."

Rubens - "Adoration of the Magi"
"Come, peasant, king to own him. The King of kings salvation brings. Let loving hearts enthrone him."
Carol: “What Child Is This?” – William C. Dix (1827-1898)

This hymnline from a familiar carol does three things:
    1. It calls everyone from every social strata to believe that “this, this is Christ the King.”
    2. It tells us that THIS King comes bearing salvation from the throne of his Father.
    3. It inspires all people whose hearts are capable of loving to make a place in their hearts for the King to sit enthroned – in control.

I’d like to do that as we celebrate Epiphany (the arrival of the Magi). I would call everybody everywhere to forget about their ‘place’ in this world’s societal hierarchy to come to Jesus… to take ownership of their place in the Kingdom. I’d like to remind them that this salvation is brought to them as a free gift from the hand of Almighty God through the pierced hands of his Redeeming Son. Then I would encourage them to invite Christ into their heart as controller of their thoughts and actions; I might even go off-season here with another hymn text: “If you are tired of the load of your sin, let Jesus come into your heart.”

I’ve never cared for canned evangelistic presentations: those ‘plan of salvation’ gimmicks. But in this case, these three sentences from a Christmas carol give us an outline for leading people into the Kingdom… moving them from darkness to light, from death to life.

Hear violin solo on this tune by Lindsey Stirling

Thursday, January 2, 2014

"He is still the undefiled, but no more a stranger."

"He is still the undefiled, but no more a stranger."
Carol: “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child” – Joseph Simpson Cook (1859-1933)

This is one of those story-telling carols of which there are many! In stanza one the Baby is born; in stanza two the angels appear and the shepherds arrive, etc. The teaching point at the center of this carol, however, is the sinlessness of Christ – at his birth, during his earthly life, and (seemingly) beyond!

Hymns and carols have always helped us understand theology and/or tenets of the faith, and here Cook tucked away two references to the fact that Jesus was un-touched by sin entering this world or living in it – a feat of which none of the rest of us can boast.

In the first line of the carol, we sing, “There he lay the undefiled, to the world a stranger.” In THIS hymnline in the last stanza, not only is he still undefiled, he is no longer a stranger! Not only is he a celebrity of sorts – most everybody in the world has heard of him – but we can get to know him personally as the reigning Son of God… and we can join with all the earth in the praise of this Baby laid so gently by his mother on a bed of hay.

Speaking of theology, we are able to get to know Christ partly because of his sinlessness. You just cannot say a bad thing about the way he lived; he cannot be penalized for any infraction. (I’ve obviously watched too much football this week!) His spotless record made it possible for him to stand in for us as the sacrificial Lamb.

We will never become sinless during the new year, but we can become less sinful. Now THAT is an achievable resolution.

Hear a simple solo singing of this carol

P.S. - I’ve mentioned Christmastide a couple of times and want to clarify that a bit for those of you who aren’t “up” on the Church Year. Christmastide is commonly called the Twelve Days of Christmas. This includes eleven days after Christmas and culminates on the twelfth day which is Epiphany… the day we celebrate the coming of the Magi. We observe that in worship on the Sunday nearest that twelfth day – or the first Sunday in the new year. The season of Sundays after the Epiphany don’t end this year until February 23; these include the celebration of the presentation of Christ at the Temple and his baptism. I won’t, by the way try to fill up another month and a half with Epiphany hymns!!!

"Deep within our hearts now shine; there light a flame undying."

Carol: “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” – Words & Music by Philip Nicolai (1556-1608)
Tune: WIE SCHON LEUCHET (Harmonized by J. S. Bach)

Now that Christmas Day has moved past us, as we close out Christmastide and move into Epiphany, this old German carol seems an appropriate text to land on. Cherished by Lutherans, this may be one with which you are not all that familiar… as has been true with many things during the Advent/Christmas seasons – because there’s such a vast amount of hymnody attached to these times of the Christian calendar.

The first lines of this carol read as follows:
    O Morning Star, how fair and bright!
    You shine with God’s own truth and light,
    Aglow with grace and mercy.

Sometimes used as one of the anticipation songs of Advent, this one often looks back at the fair and bright Christ child, calling on us to look ‘visually’ at the visage of the newborn King. If we approach today’s hymnline (from the second stanza) in that way – as looking into the Baby’s face – we may “see” him from a different angle.

After all the hoopla of Christmas, this hymnline is also a great prayer to face the new year. If indeed Christ shone brightly at the center of who we are – that part that controls us – becoming in us an undying flame, we SHOULD be better people for it, shouldn’t we?

The flame is already aglow. Perhaps it needs some fanning!

A men’s group sings only the first stanza

A Paul Manz organ setting

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)