Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die."

Yes, this is already in the ground in Pigeon Forge, TN awaiting my ending dates!

Hymn: “There Is a Fountain” – William Cowper (1731-1800)

This hymn written by a fine Englishman is set to an early American melody… and it is familiar to almost all evangelical groups. I realize that some major churches avoid “blood talk” or “blood songs.” Those congregations won’t be featuring this one any time soon! It paints a picture of the blood-redeeming act of God through his Son on the cross.

But the last line of the hymn is the one I want to deal with today because I have long-believed and ‘preached’ the love of Christ which redeems us – frees us – and sets us on our pilgrimage of faith. Some of us stepped into the kingdom at a young age… at Vacation Bible School, church youth camp, perhaps a series of revival services. Others of us came to trust Christ later in life. Either way, since the time we began to wade into the bloody stream and first understood that God’s loving sacrifice of his only begotten Son has indeed provided our redemption, that has been the theme of our life – through what we say (preach) and through how we live (example).

A lot of folks nowadays emphasize the LOVE of Christ... that all-encompassing attribute of our greatest Model. I couldn't agree more; I support that argument whole-heartedly. But for me, it goes one step further: it is the REDEMPTIVE LOVE which sets the Savior apart and raises Him to the place of Lord.

Set to this tune, we repeat the phrase "and shall be till I die" several times, underscoring our commitment to hang on to our faith from here on in… until we are face to face with Christ for all time.

As we make those repetitions, I feel myself renewing that lifelong commitment – rededicating the remainder of my days – to the One whose wounds supplied the eternal-life-giving solution to my sinful state. This transfusion made us “blood brothers” in the kingdom; I am his, and he is mine. This is how I became a member of the family of God.

Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die, and shall be till I die, and shall be till I die. Redeeming love has been my theme, AND SHALL BE TILL I DIE.

Listen to Selah Sing This Hymn

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"His service is the golden cord close-binding human-kind."

Rembrandt "Jesus"
(First posted August 8, 2013)

Hymn: “In Christ There Is No East or West” – John Oxenham (1852-1941)

Inclusive hymns like this one are a fairly new phenomenon so far as hymns go. William Dunkerly’s pseudonym was John Oxenham, and in 1908 he wrote these words which break down many of the church’s self-imposed barriers, especially those related to race and cultural backgrounds. For me at least, it speaks to the widening of the tent of God’s grace in several directions, and I love singing this hymn.

It is the participation in service to the greater kingdom about which today’s hymn-line speaks. Serving Christ by serving others - nearby or in some distant land – is one of the binders of our faith.

In the world of painting, each medium has a different binder… the substance which holds the pigment together. At its basic explanation, there are flakes of color which will not hold together without a binder; the binder with which we’re most familiar is, of course, linseed oil – or oil painting like Rembrandt used here. Without a binder, those flakes of color are basically worthless; they can’t be attached to a canvas to produce a thing of beauty and/or value. But when mixed in with linseed oil, they are suddenly useful. (That is way too simple an explanation of a more complicated process, but you get the point!)

The Christian body has many binders: love, acceptance, grace/mercy, faith… the list goes on and on, and we sing about most of them: Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken, for instance. And, of course, we evangelicals would say that the blood of Christ is our primary binding element.

One of the strengthening binders for any group is service – or working together for the common good or toward a common goal.

In my full-time ministry, most of the projects I oversaw were musical in nature; but working together toward a musical-production goal is a great ‘picture’ of what we’re talking about here. One year at First Baptist in Waxahachie (where I’m now a choir member), we had over 250 people involved on stage in a Christmas production – in a church that ran about 500 in worship. 250 children through senior adults running around in bathrobes pretending they were Judean! Ah, those were the days! But the point is that those major projects bound those people through music and drama… the binders.

But the real beauty is when God’s people work together with folks from other congregations… other ethnic backgrounds… other countries… other races… to achieve a goal. Mixing together skin pigments, using service for Christ as the binder.


"Simply trusting ev'ry day... even when my faith is small."

(First posted August 13, 2013)

Hymn: “Trusting Jesus” – Edgar Page Stites (1836-1921)

This hymn written by a Methodist layman – riverboat pilot - from New Jersey, is much richer in its depth of language than its rollicking melody indicates. Today's hymn-line from the first stanza speaks loudly to this poor heart of mine.

I consider myself a person of great faith – that is, my faith in the Almighty One is solid, I turn to it regularly, I find my strength there, etc.  In other words, this sense of trust is with me at all times. [I hope that doesn’t sound prideful or self-aggrandizing. To the best of my understanding, it is just true.]

Some days, that conviction is enormously huge… how’s that for overstatement?! Really. There are days when that blessed assurance is overwhelming; it gives me the confidence to step out and take risks, even in my spiritual walk. I desire more of those kinds of days.

Other days, not so much. Those are my small-faith days… those days when Jesus’ words “O ye of little faith” seem to haunt me. We all have those, and we shouldn’t be afraid/ashamed to admit it. We are no less Christian at those times – we are not in danger of falling overboard from the Good Ole Gospel Ship. Our humanity is dragging us down; with the seed that fell among the thorns, we are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. (Luke 8)

I remember when preparing Jane Marshall’s setting of Christina Rosetti’s text “None Other Lamb,” I was struck by the line “My faith burns low. My hope burns low.” The sentiment was so well-put that to myself I suddenly said, I know that feeling. Now and again, I still do. The flame flickers. I fear there is not enough wax and wick to go on.

Then, turning to my simple faith, I make it through every day. Another hymn-line comes to mind from “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”:
            In simple faith like those who heard beside the Syrian sea
            The gracious calling of the Lord --
            Let us, like them, without a word, rise up and follow thee.

From the lower levels of our faith, we rise up without a word to follow the gracious calling of the Lord. Our faith once again burns brightly; we glow in our devotion to the One who is the Eternal Flame.

How about you? Having a small-faith day? Your faith burning low?  You may need to sing the refrain of today’s hymn:
            Trusting as the moments fly, trusting as the days go by;
            Trusting him whate’er befall. Trusting Jesus, that is all.
            THAT IS ALL.

With Porky Pig, I stutter, “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks.”

Listen to This Hymn

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Beyond the sacred page, I see thee, Lord."

"Beyond the sacred page, I see thee, Lord."
Hymn: "My Faith Looks Up to Thee"
Hymnwriter: Ray Palmer (1808-1887)

Somewhere along my spiritual journey I realized that God spoke to me beyond the sacred pages… that I could find him very much alive in nature… that I could see him in the lives of people around me and hear him in their words of encouragement and teaching. As long as what those people were doing and saying was in keeping with the teachings of that little zippered black book, I could be enriched and edified by human interaction.

The communicating faithful led me to think outside the book… beyond the sacred page. They widened my horizons and helped me turn some important corners in my pilgrimage of faith.

Lots of people write lots of books and are on lots of television and radio shows, producing lots of video series, etc. Most of them are doing that for the right reasons, I’m sure – and I’ve learned many things from them. But it’s the everyday genuine FOJ – follower of Jesus – whose life and comments continue to shape my walk.

When I sing this hymn-line, I visualize myself looking over the top edge of a page of my childhood Bible - beyond the zipper’s regular pattern - to see God. In other words, I hear him in other words… and see him in other faces.

Thankfully, beyond Revelation 22:21, I see you, Lord.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"Touch with your pierced hand each common day."

"Touch with your pierced hand each common day."
Hymn: "Here at Thy Table, Lord" - May P. Hoyt

Today is probably going to be for most of us "just one of those days." For some, it will be especially good, perhaps exciting - a new love, a career change, the birth of a baby. For others, it may turn out to be a difficult day filled with pain and sorrow, maybe even tragedy. But my guess is that for most of us it will be a common day.

In our manic existence, we sometimes long for an un-frenzied day - one not marked by extreme highs or extreme lows. When asked, "How was your day?", we would be happy to respond, "Level."

Tucked in this tiny communion hymn (usually with only two stanzas printed), we find "Touch with your pierced hand each common day." Unless yours is a faith tradition that observes the Eucharist frequently... perhaps weekly... you don't have many opportunities during the church year to sing this text; but the next time you do, let this phrase resonate deep within you and be your earnest prayer.

Many of us (especially with Baptist backgrounds) know B. B. McKinney's standard gospel song whose refrain repeats the admonition to "place your hand in the nail-scarred hand." Here, however, we are pleading for the outstretched arm of him whose hands were riven, imploring his constant touch upon our lives at all times... even the common days.

It is sometimes easier to be acutely aware of God's touch when we are praising him for his blessings on our best days or begging for his help in those not-so-great times. Let us not overlook that guiding, upholding hand on those other days... like today.

Lord Jesus, in our common, ordinary, everyday lives, keep your nail-printed hand on us. As we glance at your strong fingers as they touch the deepest places of who we are, may those attendant wounds remind us that we are redeemed by the event that caused those marks. May those hands lift us when we are down, subdue us when over-stimulated, and lead us ever in the path that brings us closer to yourself... because we know from another hymn-line that the way of the cross leads home. Amen.

Hear this hymn sung
(I have no idea why he's in a closet?)

Friday, March 6, 2015

"Reclothe us in our rightful minds."

(First posted August 13, 2013)
Hymn: “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” – John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
Common Tunes: REST (sometimes called ELTON), and REPTON

Ever feel like you’re losing your mind? Yeah, me too – more often than I’d like to admit. So when I get to this hymn-line in a service, under my breath I whisper an “A-men!”… let it be so, Lord Jesus!

Do you realize how many great authors go by three names? This fact actually came up in a final JEOPARDY! this week: “Born in what's now Maine in 1807, he's honored with a bust in a special section of Westminster Abbey."  Carlita and I both knew it was an American poet (Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, duh!), but when we started quickly listing the three-named authors, we were thrown into a longer list than we had anticipated. Of course, she got it: William Wadsworth Longfellow. Not one of the three auditioned contestants got it, I might add! I guessed John Greenleaf Whittier… totally unknowing that he, too, was born in 1807!

Whittier wrote this great hymn text; it will come up more than once in the hymn-lines because it is laden with pithy short phrases that hold up on their own – like this one.

We as wayward, foolish people stand stripped of our faculties – and our nakedness-of-mind makes us uncomfortable, embarrassed, ashamed. When I was growing up, I often heard people around me say of someone else in the community, “She ain’t right.” As derisive and politically incorrect as it was, what they meant was the she wasn’t in her rightful mind.

This hymn-line follows the opening sentence of the first stanza: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways.” [Pardon the sexism, but it WAS the Nineteenth Century!] Some more recent hymnals restate it as “Dear Lord and Father of us all…” Either way, we plead forgiveness and ask to be set aright in our thinking.

In scripture, the Levites are commanded to put on linen garments, penitents were instructed to put on sack-cloth with ashes, and we are all commanded to put on the whole armor of God. In this hymn-line, we are asking for God to put on us once again the covering of right-thinking as it relates to him and to one another.

When Adam and Eve came to their sense of sin, the first thing they realized was their nakedness. You and I may need to come to our senses and ask that we be reclothed and launched back onto our pilgrimage with rightful minds. We might find that it’s our mindlessness (I would never use the word “stupidity”)  that has caused us to sin in the first place.
Listen to a simple congregational singing of the first two stanzas

PS – I can’t decide if I want to be a famous respected author and revert to Ronald George Huff, or be a rich and famous author like J. K. Rowling and stick with my initials. Perhaps I should work on being a valid author first! :)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"Well-spring of the joy of living."

Hymn: "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" - Henry van Dyke (1852-1933)

Ever been to a "well house" or a "spring house"? One of the perks of growing up in the country is having experiences that just not everybody has enjoyed, and this may well be one of them for me.

My mother took us -- I should say dragged us -- annually to the place where she was born: a then unoccupied, tumble-down structure sitting amongst several acres of weeds. Each time we visited that plot of ground, the house was more tumbled-down than the previous year. I never liked walking through the weeds for fear of snakes and other east Tennessee varmits, but we trudged from the road toward the spot so dear to the childhood of Hedy Inez Smelcer Huff.

Although the house was dilapidated and was eventually razed, there still stood the well house. It was terribly small, built of some earthy substance kind of like adobe... my Dad called them mud bricks... with a wood shingled roof. This tiny structure was built over a spring -- an artesian well. That fresh-water source was so important to the families who had lived there originally that they covered it. I understand that it was always cool in there, so they sort of used it as a refrigerator, too.

On the outside of the well house there hung a tin dipper. After all those years, the dipper still hung there. And without thought of who may have used the dipper last, we always carried it inside and had a drink of the amazingly cold, fresh water. Perrier had nothing on this natural spring! And if you've never drunk from a tin dipper, you don't understand the sensation - the rush - when the cold tin hits your lips before the water does. I can still remember it as if it were yesterday although it was well over fifty years ago. That annual trek to the well house was one of the memorable joys of my growing up years.

Therefore, every time I sing this hymn-line, I'm reminded of the ice-cold tin dipper filled with water. And without thought of the unsanitary way we participated in the rich history of that long-flowing spring, I realize once again that God is truly like that spring: still there, still available, still refreshing those who drink of him. All I have to do is dip into the well and enjoy.

PS - When my grandmother Charity Smelcer died, the only one of her possessions I requested was the tin dipper that always rested on the counter by her kitchen sink -- used daily by her and all the rest of us in the family. Who needed a Dixie cup when you could drink from a common cup? It's pretty beat up, but it hangs by the door that leads to our garage, reminding me every morning of my roots... and the taste of cold well water.

Listen to This Hymn
Sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Sung by Cynthia Clawson

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain."


(First Posted on August 13, 2013)

Hymn: "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" - Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676); translated by James W. Alexander


Such somber hymns as this one are often passed over for worship except maybe on Good Friday. After all, the thing is harmonized by J. S. Bach; and you print that in your bulletin in many churches, and you hear eyes roll! Too bad -- on several levels.

Because we skip this hymn, we don't get opportunity to sing today's hymn-line often enough - if ever. Whether we sing it or not, it's worth giving it a look.

With two grandsons, I frequently hear the phrase, "It wasn't my fault." Seems that whatever has gone wrong, the one closest to the accident immediately, instinctively speaks those words. In my attempt to teach some wonderful abiding truth, I hear myself say, "It's okay. Everything is not somebody's fault."

But when it comes to Christian theology, the One whose sacred head is thorn-pierced had to endure the "deadly pain" because it WAS my fault... and the fault of everyone who has transgressed against God at whatever level - of everyone who went deliberately in a direction opposite to the ones clearly lined out for us in scripture - of everyone who (shall I dare say it?) sinned.

We get this from Isaiah 53:5 ("He was wounded for our transgressions... bruised for our iniquities.") and First Peter 2:24 ("He himself bore our sins" in his body on the cross...") among others.

If I had been at Golgotha on that Friday long ago, I might have instinctively uttered that same phrase: "It wasn't my fault." I probably do that now when I reflect on the cross-event; but in the back of my mind a still small voice whispers, "O, but it was."

To rephrase this hymn-line - and since it is a translation based from a Medieval Latin poem, it's probably okay to do so - it might read: "It was my fault, my fault that you had to die like that."

Fortunately for me and my fellow sinners, the words we hear from Golgotha are, "Father, forgive them because they don't understand what they are doing" -- or have done.

A downer? Well, it shouldn't be, especially if we keep singing:

     O make me thine forever, and should I fainting be,
     O let me never, never outlive my love to thee.

Mine, mine the ongoing transgression.
Never, never an outlived love.

Listen to This Hymn
Sung by the amazing Fernando Ortega

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"All I have needed thy hand hath provided."

(Republished from July 9, 2013)

Hymn: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” – Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960)

I scarcely get past these words in the refrain of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” before my singing is impeded by the lump in my throat; this is often accompanied by tear-filled eyes. It is one of my very, very favorite hymn-lines. And yes, I could care less about whether or not I seem like a manly-man when I react to it with great emotion!

As those words form in my mouth I am immediately reminded that it is God’s provision that has brought me to where I am today – spiritually, physically, emotionally, relationally, etc. There is no part of who I am that has not been shaped by the provisional hand of my Creator.

When I sit around between Sundays, I often wish for things I’d like to have… or might well have been able to have if I had taken a different direction with my career choice. This hymn-line does not say that everything I ever “wanted” has been provided; if that were the case, I’d have to attend a name-it-and-claim-it church. However, I can sing with confidence that my needs have been provided for throughout my life and my ministry – not by my cleverness or cunning, not by my creativity or talent – but by the strong, powerful, gentle hand of the One I call Lord – my Jehovah-Jireh: the Lord who provides.

Meanwhile, back at the attributes of God (to which I seem to return too often in these writings), my most-cherished attribute of God is his faithfulness. When I do weddings, I always talk about how important this is in a marriage – how important it is in mine! I remind them that they can make it through a lot of pot-holes on the matrimonial highway if they remain faithful and are confident their partner will always do the same.

Faithfulness is a more intimate attribute than dependability. One can be dependable - be there for you, always show up, etc. - just because its their nature to be so. But faithfulness goes a little deeper than that, motivated by an intentional attachment, closely connected by an innermost personal relationship.

I am delightedly overwhelmed that we share a provisional, intimately faithful God, so join me as we sing out loud once again:

     Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
     Morning by morning new mercies I see.
     All I have needed thy hand hath provided.
     Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

(gulp) There I go again. Could someone pass me a Kleenex please?

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)