Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"That each departing day henceforth may see some work of love begun, some deed of kindness done."

"That each departing day henceforth may see some work of love begun, some deed of kindness done."

Hymn: “Something for Thee” – Sylvanus D. Phelps (1816-1895)

Like many of us American hymn-writers, “one-hit-wonder” might apply to Rhode Island lyricist Sylvanus Phelps. However, if you’re going to have one hymn text that sticks, it might as well be one like “Something for Thee” which has been included in hymnals by just about every Christian denomination… and many books published by non-denominational groups.

Many hymns designed for corporate worship use the first person plural (we, us, our, etc.), but this one uses the first person singular (I, me, my, etc.) throughout… making a great devotional hymn to sing or read personally as a daily commitment. It’s not a very peppy hymn, but it sure calls forth my introspective side.

The title recurs at the end of each stanza as a reminder that my words, actions, ministries – everything about me should be offered to the Savior whose dying love has been given to me.

Today’s hymnline is wonderful because it gives me the opportunity to henceforth (from this day forward) close out every day by looking back and recounting “some work of love begun” or “some deed of kindness done” – because I have made those my goal for the day. I can intentionally set some love-work into motion or go out of my way to do a kind deed. It’s that ‘random acts of kindness’ thing… or ‘paying it forward.’

Those things that Oprah encourages her audience to do, Jesus modeled for us long ago. Isn’t it about time we listened to HIM? I think so.

So before I go to bed tonight, I’m going to replay my day and be sure I have done what I have re-committed to do – not so I can check it off my am-I-not-a-good-person list, but because I am a follower of the Great Encourager. As a result, someone’s life will get a much-needed lift, and Jesus will be pleased.

Hear an a cappella setting of this hymn

Friday, February 21, 2014

"No righteousness nor merit, no beauty can I plead."

“No righteousness nor merit, no beauty can I plead.”

Hymn: “I Saw the Cross of Jesus” – Frederick Whitfield (1829-1904)
Common Tune: WHITFIELD

 “How do you plea?” the judge asked as he peered over the top of his reading glasses from what seemed at that moment twenty feet above the accused. That imposing presence from the bench is one of the strongest tools at any judge’s disposal. Taking a deep breath and swallowing almost audibly, the accused answered: “According to what the cross of Jesus tells me, I’m a vile and guilty creature saved only through the Lamb. So I can plead no righteousness; there’s nothing beautiful. upon which to base my case. I have no merit – no excellent argument. I guess I’ll just say that I glory in the cross. I am now entitled to be called one of  his own. Is that a good enough answer? Can that be my plea?”

The response of the here accused is basically what we plead as we sing the second stanza of this great old hymn:
    I love the cross of Jesus, it tells me what I am:
    A vile and guilty sinner saved only through the Lamb.
    No righteousness nor merit, no beauty can I plead.
    Yet in the cross I glory, my title there I read.

We have no excuse for our sinful behavior; we simply claim the cross… or the blood of him who died there in our place.

Our blood-bought salvation is not easily understood… theologically speaking. It’s what the French would call tres complique! But for me to understand it, I have to rely on pictures or circumstances – and the courtroom is one of those for me. I stand guilty, but my sentence has been dismissed. Therefore, in the sight of God, my bold, grateful plea can be “not guilty.”

Think you’re righteous? Think you deserve your salvation? Think you’re too creative to be omitted? Think again.

Hear Lloyd Larson’s setting of this text

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"What seems each time I tell it more wonderfully sweet."

"What seems each time I tell it more wonderfully sweet."
Hymn: “I Love to Tell the Story” – Katherine Hankey (1834-1911)

I feel like I should start by having everyone get your hankey out, but this is not an overly-emotional hymn!

This hymnline follows the line “I love to tell the story, ‘tis pleasant to repeat.” For those of us who have heard the old, old story of Jesus and his love since the Cradle Roll department, the repetition might seem to wear us down and become boring and less interesting… even less meaningful. For me at least, that is not the case. I just can’t get enough of those stories of Jesus’ teaching, healing, raising the dead, calming the sea, holding children in his lap, caring for the disadvantaged, praying – and eventually dying and rising.

Over the years as a minister in the local church, I’ve had opportunities to re-tell those stories in so many ways: through music, pageants, worship vignettes, etc. I’ve also been privileged to recount those events to adult classes and youth groups. But my favorite story-times have been with children to whom some of the accounts are fresh, never before heard. Their bright-eyed wonder at Christ’s ability to walk on water or call Lazarus from the grave – those are the times that are truly “more wonderfully sweet.”

Today’s hymnline may bring back memories of your growing-up years; you may call to mind a favorite Sunday School teacher or missions-group leader. As warm and fuzzy as that may be, let this hymn also remind you to continue to be totally fascinated by the life and ministry of the Son of God. Be sure it has not waned in importance or interest… or in its effect on how you live your life as a reflection of his. May that wide-eyed wonder return to us who are long separated from our childhood in terms of years… but closer than ever in our captivation by things holy.

Emily Lou Harris and Robert Duvall Sing This Hymn

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"We, as on one stem growing, living branches are in thee."

"We, as on one stem growing, living branches are in thee."
Hymn: “Christian Hearts, in Love United” – Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf (1700-1760)
Typical Tune: CASSELL

There was a time when only scripture was sung in church, particularly the Psalms. Over the years, we have branched out way beyond versified Bible passages – WAY beyond. Denominational and personal theologies are wound into our public singing, sometimes giving us better insights into scriptural truth - at other times further obscuring our understanding!

As a hymn-writer, I am glad the church employs “hymns of human composure,” allowing for the creative expression of our beliefs in singable word structures. However, it is always refreshing as I am singing or reading a hymn-text when I come across an obvious statement of or allusion to scripture – which is the case with today’s hymnline.

In this very old text, John 15:5 is restated for us in a fresh way, clarifying the agricultural teaching of Jesus who said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Zinzendorf’s text has been translated from the German to say it like this: “We, as on one stem growing, living branches are in thee.” Whatever differences we may have in our theology and our practice, we are attached to one Stem – that being Christ himself – and out of that symbiotic relationship, we draw life… and we branch out, bringing others to be grafted with us into the Stem.

You and I share branch-hood with one another; this is more commonly called fellowship… or to be sexist: “brotherhood.” We are reliant, however, on being spliced into our common Stem, without which there would be no life in the branches… and alas, no tree! After all, fellow limbs: our children’s children will need shade and nourishment, too.

This hymn played as a postlude… complete with people milling-around! As usual, no one notices how much time she put into preparing this piece.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Be to the helpless a helper indeed."

"Be to the helpless a helper indeed."
Hymn: “Make Me a Blessing” – Ira B. Wilson (1880-1950)

Gospel songs like this one which sound a little more like a skating rink or an amusement park carousel than Sunday morning worship must have been quite popular in the 1950’s because we sang this one a lot. It was sort of a ‘go-to’ song… maybe like “Shine, Jesus, Shine” has been for the past few years.

For me, this song takes me back to Pigeon Forge First Baptist Church and the carefree singing of a text about people who are “weary and sad.” Fortunately, there wasn’t a disconnect there when I was a child; but the words stuck in my mind… and hopefully in my actions!

A lot is said about churches that spend more time on the social gospel than they spend on the evangelistic gospel. Anyone who knows me will have heard me say that the church should reach up (in worship), reach in (through fellowship/discipleship) and reach out (with missions and ministry). I compare it to a three-legged stool like Ma Huff used to sit on to milk the cows; the three legs kept her stable and flexible. The healthiest churches are those who cover all three of those areas fairly equally… neglecting none of them.

A part of the third ‘leg’ is helping those in need. This hymnline is succinct in its call to us: “Be to the helpless a helper indeed.” It may remind you of an oath made by a Boy Scout, but it is definitely a call to those of us who have decided to follow Jesus.

Quite honestly, it is easier to help those who have not yet totally reached rock bottom. Helping the truly helpless – that requires our humbling ourselves and arriving at the servant-place to which Christ was willing to stoop in order to conquer.

Want to really minister? We probably need to be on the lookout for the truly helpless… and they are legion! When we discover these types, let’s not just refer some local ministry to follow up on them with food, shelter or counseling. Let’s take time out to share our life with them – not in order to report our adventure to our Christian compadres, but to BE Christ to those who have no one else to go to bat for them.

We won’t have to look far.

This hymn beautifully sung by a young girl… without this stanza, however!

Friday, February 14, 2014

"Love is the theme, eternal theme."

"Love is the theme, eternal theme."
Hymn: “Love Is the Theme” – Words & Music Albert C. Fisher (1886-1946)

This is a rollicking gospel song. I admit it sounds more like a skating rink song than a church-hymn. It doesn’t appear in many hymnals anymore, but it has a need-to-hear message for all of us - both as individuals and as congregants.

For today’s hymnline, I’m using the full text of the refrain:
    Love is the theme.
    Love is supreme.
    Sweeter it grows,
    Glory bestows.
    Bright as the sun,
    Ever it glows!
    Love is the theme,
    Eternal theme!

If you took out the phrase “glory bestows,” this could be a fine description of just about any kind of love, couldn’t it?

What a difference it would make in our personal lives if indeed, love were our theme – love which exhibits acceptance, grace, forgiveness… all those Jesus-qualities. What a difference it would make in our churches if love were INDEED our theme, not just some decorative addition to our mission statement or a word printed on our church letterhead.

Too many studies show that seekers are not as attracted to the preaching/teaching or the music style of a church as they are drawn to places where they feel love and un-qualified acceptance. So why don’t we listen better to those kinds of studies? I guess it’s easier to hire the best platform staff than it is to put ourselves out there in loving ways.

We’ve all had experiences like this, but while in North Carolina, Carlita and I drove to a nearby town to hear Cynthia Clawson in concert (which we are often prone to do) on a Sunday evening. We got there early and found our place in one of the pews in the beautifully-appointed sanctuary. As the church members began to arrive, it became obvious that we were in someone else’s pew. A group of about twelve people surrounded us and basically wedged us into the middle of their pew… and not one of them welcomed us or made us feel remotely loved. Would we have ventured back to that building if we had been looking for a church home? I doubt it seriously, in spite of their reputation for great preaching and music.

Another little hymn says: “Jesus was a loving teacher, helping people… know the love of God our Father, teaching them to love…” We need to stop whatever we are doing and let Jesus teach us once again to be loving by nature – to make love the REAL theme of our weekday lives and to let that theme wash over into Sunday!

Couldn’t find anyone singing this one online, but here it is being played!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Take the task God gives you gladly. Let his work your pleasure be."

"Take the task God gives you gladly. Let his work your pleasure be."
Hymn: “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling” – Daniel March (1816-1909)
Set to Many Tunes. Commonly set to Mozart's ELLESDIE tune.

Don’t you love it when you thank someone, and their sincere response is, “It was my pleasure”?

In the work-world, those who truly enjoy their jobs usually are the best at them; those who are prepared and enthusiastic seem to be the most successful. They certainly look forward to getting up and going to work - and are productive once they get there. In the church-world, it’s pretty much like that, too.

Those of us who were professional ministers (I hate that term, but I think you know what I mean) are likely to talk about being “called of God” to a life-long task. That’s well and good, but God is in the business of calling people out for service – paid and volunteer… and many more of the latter!

This hymnline underscores the need for folks who hear the call of God to get up and do something, even if it is outside their comfort zone. Upon understanding that urging as being actually from God’s heart to theirs, they without a beat agree to follow that lead. They accept the task un-begrudgingly… yeah, even gladly.

Service can be one of the most pleasurable experiences available to Christian people if, as the text says, we LET that happen.

In most of my churches in my 40-plus career with various congregations, I taught an adult Sunday School class during the hour before I served as worship-leader. One of the main reasons I did so was that I wanted to do something for which I was not paid; it was my volunteer job, done alongside other volunteers. (I am after all from Tennessee!) I took that task seriously and gladly, and many Sundays those discussions brought me more spiritual pleasure than all the hymns, anthems and handbell pieces which followed.

Although usually considered a missions hymn, this hymn is about listening for the voice of God singling us out for specific duties to enrich the kingdom… wherever we are, whatever we’re doing. Today’s hymnline compels us to accept the task gladly and to let it be a real pleasure. Let it be, let it be!

This Hymn Played - ELLESDIE Tune

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies."

"I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies.
"Hymn: “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart” – George Croly (1841-1860)
Typical Tune: MORECAMBE

While the hymn centers around the request of God’s presence to hover over us and fall upon us, this hymnline says what we’re not wanting:
    I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
    No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
    No angel visitant, no opening skies.
    But take the dimness of my soul away.

Don’t you love that?! I do! With this hymn-writer, I don’t ask for some grand vision or to be caught up in some enraptured ecstasy. I don’t desire stigmata or other openings in my epidermis in order to prove that the Spirit of God is active within me. I don’t anticipate one of God’s messengers to suddenly appear at the foot of my bed at midnight. A rolling back of the clouds to reveal the heavens behind them is un-necessary.

I’d be fine with the removal of the dull, blurry, indistinct places in my soul – those vague, even ambiguous places that tend to un-brighten the corners of who I am. Yes, I too want to have light restored to my darkness – the darkness brought on my lack of trust, my fear… even my disbelief.

So come down, Holy Spirit. Work on my in-most being. No miracles required.

Congregational Singing of This Hymn
(Again, I had trouble finding an online example that included this pivotal stanza!)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Things I would ask him to tell me if he were here."

"Things I would ask him to tell me if he were here."
Hymn: “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” – William H. Parker (1845-1929)

Often considered a children’s song, this simple hymn can message us no matter how old we are, especially those of us whose entire life has been inquisitive at best… nosy at worst!

It seems as if this is worded like early elementary students might speak when sitting on the floor in their Sunday School class or gathered in a family setting. It may be simple-speak that makes this such an appealing hymn, familiar to most Christian denominations. I’m pretty sure it’s the simple-speak that appeals to me!

There are so many questions I have to ask Jesus when face to face I shall behold him far beyond the starry sky. I would write them all in composition books if I thought we could take them with us on that journey. I want to know why boys and girls couldn’t swim together at youth camp when I was a teenager – why sometimes they even had separate pools! Or why my home pastor mowed the parsonage yard in his white shirt and tie. Or why did God allow someone to invent shrink-wrap that makes everything (especially CD’s) so hard to get into. Obviously, it’s the spiritual answers I’m after!

However, THIS hymn is our asking another human with more knowledge of the Bible to fill us in on the details of the earthly life of God’s Son. But we all have questions about our faith that seem to have been redacted from the Canon. Those are the things I’d like to ask Jesus if he were here. I won’t list my own queries; I’ll let you fill in those blanks for yourself. We all want to know more than we’ve been told… but THAT is part of the holy mystery of the faith. If we had all the answers, we would become arrogant and even snobbier than we are! We’d be singing that playground ditty, “I know something you don’t know” as we bully our way through life.

I agree with Paul here: “I want to know Christ.” (Philippians 3:10) The more I know about his life, the more likely I am to get to know him personally – just like it is with all my closest relationships.

So tell me everything you can about Jesus. Inquiring minds want to know!

This hymn sung beautifully by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Friday, February 7, 2014

"Just the time I need him, he's always near."

"Just the time I need him, he's always near."
Hymn: “He Lives” – Words & Music by Alfred H. Ackley (1887-1960)

Although we attach this hymn to Easter, it truly is a “sing anytime you want to” kind of text because it highlights the truth that Christ is a living, active force in the world… even today. When I was growing up, this was one of our standard congregational songs throughout the year – whenever Carl Whaley got the urge to include it!

We have to admit that for the most part, we are ‘needy’ people. Hopefully, we are not the archetypical sad-eyed caricature of the one who always needs attention or one who considers himself/herself entitled. On the other hand, we do find ourselves lacking – some days more than others. We are, after all, “sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore.”

A common theme in this kind of gospel song is the nearness of Christ anytime we call on him… whenever we find ourselves in need. Usually when we sing past a hymnline like this, we grin a little, and a light flickers in our eye because we believe this to be true.

Looking back over my prayer life, I have to admit that I turned to Christ for assistance in situations that seemed to be a need at the moment, but which later seemed pretty insignificant. However, I have the feeling he responded as if my need were as major as I thought it was at the time – and his response was lovingly kind. It is possible that his intervention may have been why that perceived-need didn’t turn into the kind of dilemma into which it might have evolved!

I hope this hymnline will remind us all of the Savior’s nearness: never far away, right at my elbow - ready to listen, show concern, and act according to my best interest. It’s one of the truths of my faith-walk I hold dear.

Hear Alan Jackson Sing This Hymn

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"I'd rather have Jesus."

"I'd rather have Jesus."
Hymn: “I’d Rather Have Jesus” – Rhea F. Miller (1894-1966)

I’m using a hymnline that is also the hymn-title and the hymn-tune name!

Many of us grew up hearing George Beverly Shea (the tune’s composer) croon this song on the televised Billy Graham Crusades. No one has – or ever will – sing it quite like he did!

The upshot of this hymn is simple: I’d rather have Jesus than you name it.

There is not much else to be said about the hymnline – there is much to be said about our application of its truth to our actual hierarchy of priorities and how we in reality live those out in our daily lives. In other words, as I sing this hymn, am I being truthful? Or am I simply verbalizing someone else’s testimony? Worst of all, am I singing a lie?

This is often true of hymns we sing corporately: preferring Jesus over anything is a noble goal, perhaps not yet achieved in my own life.

It’s a question we all have to deal with on our own while not being judgmental of anyone else down the pew. It would be great if we could all sing the final line with all sincerity and commitment: “I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords (offers me) today.”

Hear George Beverly Shea Sing His Hymn

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Let the Amen sound from his people again, gladly..."

"Let the Amen sound from his people again, gladly..."
Hymn: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” – Joachim Neander (1650-1680)
        Translated by Catherine Winkworth

First of all, let me say that I love this hymn all the way through.

This hymnline calls on the people of God to sound the truth again… it seems to imply that this should be done with fervor, maybe because of the way the melody rises at that point.

The very word “amen” has been curiously interpreted for us throughout history. Although it has come to mean “I agree with what you just said (or sang),” at its center is more of an agreement with the truth of faith; in Scripture, it is sometimes translated “verily, verily” or “I tell you the truth.”  It is a uniquely Judeo-Christian word – though in Islam a similar “Amin” is used.

My point here is simple: I think this hymn is calling the church to stand firmly for the truth, using a uniquely sacred word. We might even think of it as “Let God’s truth sound from his people again.” No more standing back and waffling on the issues; in agreement, speak the truth… and do so “gladly” – not coerced or because it is expected – but because you want to.

The next time this phrase comes across your lips in worship, let it stir up within you its intended call to speak the truth… stand for the truth… live the truth – individually and corporately because we are his glad people.

Hear Fernando Ortega Sing This Hymn

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"Tell me thy secret, help me bear the strain of toil, the fret of care."

"Tell me thy secret, help me bear the strain of toil, the fret of care."
Hymn: “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” – Washington Gladden (1836-1918)

Have you ever turned to someone you admire for having come through a difficult time or whose life is just one trial after another and said to them “What’s your secret?” You don’t mean it is a secret as such; you mean “How do you do it?”

This hymn draws a picture of walking along a road… or through a meadow… or up a mountain trail with Jesus – just the two of us. As we walk, I have the wherewithal to turn to him and ask, “What’s your secret?” or “How do you do it?” Knowing that his humanity brought with it bearing up under the strain of difficult days and might have included fretting over the cares of this world… ultimately dying a cruel death at the hands of enemies. What IS his secret?

We figure that if we understood how HE did it, we could do better ourselves as we face rough spots, trying times.

Some of you will remember a song from the early 1950’s called “It Is No Secret.”  That song is all about how there is no secret to WHAT God can do in Christ; this hymnline asks HOW did the Son of God hold up under the human struggle that was his to bear.

This is somewhat of a mystery, but as we delve deeper into the life of Christ and look at how he reacted and what he said, we have a better understanding of the secret of his success. When we study his teachings and try to get at the crux of the matter, we are more likely to find a pattern for facing our own struggles in a Christ-like manner.

It may be that Christ will lean over and whisper hope to us. If and when he does, we welcome that voice that makes our heart in its sorrow rejoice.

Hear an A Cappella Singing of This Hymn

Monday, February 3, 2014

"Jesus is the song of life... joy... love."

“Jesus Is the Song”: Words & Music by David Danner – 1951-1993

David Danner had the gift of writing singable melodies as evidenced in his ‘classic’ Easter musical “Joy Comes in the Morning.” This is one of his anthems that has been restructured and included in hymnals; it is an excellent example of his text-writing as well as his music composing.

Today’s hymnline comes from the refrain and reminds us that Jesus IS the song of life, the song of joy and the song of love. Not only do we sing songs about Jesus, this text tells us that he embodies the song… and that he gives his song to me.

The verses tell us that Jesus
- is Lord and King
- is in control of everything
- loves us
- bids us to sing
- calms our hurts
- dries our tears
- gives us fear-facing strength
- sends his grace
- restores our weary souls

The upshot of this hymn is that Jesus is not a hoarder. He is generous in giving away himself.

As a musician, I have always felt that any song that comes from me comes first from Jesus. David Danner was able to word that beautifully for me to communicate it to others.

Having heard… or experienced… his song, I sing it… tell it… to others!

Sung by Ensemble of Young Women

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)