Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"The wrong shall fail, the right prevail."

Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

This carol based on a poem by a great American author is the favorite of many, and it’s easy to see why thoughtful singers would appreciate this text.

This hymnline follows the declaration “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” Though written in 1863 during the Civil War years, before the “God Is Dead” movement attributed to the writings of Nietzsche in 1882, Longfellow made this argument for the existence and activity of God, refuting what became known as theothanatology.

Earlier in the carol, Longfellow’s head-bowed despair had brought him to the conclusion that peace does not reign in society because hate is so strong that it derides the concept of “peace on earth goodwill to men.” Interestingly, the belfry’s pealing brought him renewed hope that the promise spoken to the shepherds is still a possibility.

Those of us who have a positive outlook and are possessed of a hope that is steadfast and sure seem to constantly arrive at the conclusion that good will always prevail over evil – that in the final analysis, right trumps wrong.

May the ringing of bells during this season bolster our confidence in this abiding truth. May the song of the angels resound in our heads even during trying, stressful, even warring times. In this modern secular culture, the sense of the sacred may be waning; however, it is up to us believers to speak a word in favor of the survival of God once made manifest in a manger, now illustrated through our very lives.

Andy Williams Sings This Familiar Carol

Casting Crowns with a New Tune for This Text

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Word of the Father now in flesh appearing."

"Nativity" - El Greco
"Word of the Father now in flesh appearing." 
Carol: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – Latin Hymn (Various Translators)

This is one of the few carols (or hymns for that matter) that has no rhyme scheme. Have you ever noticed that? It doesn’t lessen the impact. As a hymn-writer myself, I’ve spent many hours counting the exact syllables and trying make things rhyme; but when the various translators of this carol worked out the details, they didn’t find assonance to be important.

This carol seems to fling wide the gates of Bethlehem and invite us humans in, encouraging us to come joyfully and triumphantly to see this thing which has come to pass. Angels are invited to once again sing their “glory to God in the highest” refrain. In the final stanza (in most hymnals), we sing, “Yea, Lord, we greet thee,” or in modern English: “Yes, Lord, we welcome you!” That may be MY favorite moment in the carol. And the thought continues with, “Jesus, to thee be all glory given” because you are the “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing.”

Today’s hymnline is a versification of the John 1 passage: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory…” I doubt we can truly look upon the holy in any way BUT adoringly… with adoration.

Today and every day and night throughout the year, let us come adoring Christ the Lord – the One who comes filled to the brim with grace and truth. After our adoration, let’s allow him to fill us with both those attributes. If we would do that, our 2017 would be a whole different year.

Celtic Woman Singing This Carol

Sunday, December 25, 2016

"O hush the noise, you folk of strife, and hear the angels sing."

Carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” – Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

We’re back to my wife Carlita’s favorite carol one more time before we get to Christmas Day. I agree with her that this one has too many great lines to overlook any of them.

People of strife – those who stir up trouble wherever they go: I think that’s to whom this hymnline is addressed. We know people like that, and we all hope we are not one of them! Sometimes these are overtly hostile, picking fights, bullying their way through life. Others are much more subtle – the passive/aggressive types who on the surface seem so positive, kind… even compassionate; however, they are constantly plotting ways to get their own way.

Noise-makers are only fitting for New Year’s Eve parties. Human noise-makers are out of place just about anywhere they show up.

We know of times when warring nations have called a total truce during this holiday season. The most famous of these is the one when all was truly quiet on the Western Front on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914 during World War I. They say enemy troops were crossing the battle lines to greet one another with hugs and handshakes… even tears. Some actually exchanged trinkets.

This hymnline calls the conflict-makers to cut it out, at least for these holy days. Instead, let the troubled souls hear the angels call for “peace on earth” and “goodwill to all.” Wouldn’t it be great if these were heard, heeded and applied… and that even the most localized strife (spousal abuse, child abuse, imposed mental anguish, etc.) would be quieted and peace might reign where strife has run rampant?

With the disciples at the upper room table, we must ask, “Is it I, Lord?” If the answer is “yes,” we need to hush the noise and hear the words of the Christmas angels.

Friday, December 23, 2016

"If you take good heed to the angel's word, you'll forget your flock, you'll forget your herd."

Carol: “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” – African American Spiritual

“Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Most of us know this angelic message ‘by heart,’ having heard it read from the KJV for most of our lives… at church and at home. After the Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, and John 3:16, this may be the most quotable scripture!

To summarize what the angel told the shepherds:
- Don’t fear.
- This is good news.
- This news is for everybody.
- A Savior is born.
- Go find the Baby!

If we heed that message, we are likely to put everything behind us and move forward to seek out the King of kings and to enjoy a lifetime of following after him.

In the case of the shepherds, forgetting the flock and the herd would mean letting go of their livelihood – at least for a short time while they scurry into Bethlehem.

Some people are genuinely called to give up their career to follow an inner urging to give themselves completely to some ministry or mission opportunity; and that’s a wonderful thing. However, ALL of us may need to step away from our work-load for a brief time to center our attention on the manger Child. From another carol: “All ye beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low…” Our occupation may occupy so much of our attention that we are bent low by the stress; we may cater so much to the income-producing portion of our lives that we simply have no time to rise up and follow the path of peace… and find the restful hope promised even in this life to those who whole-heartedly seek Christ.
As much as is possible, let’s forget some of the stuff that is weighing us down – maybe it’s our vocation – maybe it’s something else. Let’s take heed to the angel’s word, rise up and follow our spiritual siblings to find anew the new-born King.

The King’s Singers

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"Veiled in flesh the God-head see. Hail the incarnate Deity."

"Veiled in flesh the God-head see. Hail the incarnate Deity."
Carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
Sculpture by Kevin Frances Gray
Meanwhile back at my favorite carol with a little more Wesleyan theology!

The God-head – the Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – Parent, Child, Presence. However you express it, the God-head is all there is of God… the entirety of his essence. And here, Wesley calls on us to look upon the flesh-encased depiction of all that God is! Skin, draped over the totality of the Divine. Now, that should give us pause!

The incarnate Deity is in our midst, and we should offer him his due: the highest, most-sincere praise. “Hail, King Jesus!”

During these last days of Advent, don’t miss seeing/realizing that incarnation!

Susan Boyle with Choir

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease."

"Bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease."
Carol: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – Latin Hymn

This plainsong Advent carol is one of those prayer hymns we’ve discussed already. In this one, we singers are not only asking Messiah to come; we are also making several requests of him upon his arrival and upon the establishment of his Kingdom:

1) Come and cheer our spirits.
2) Disperse the gloomy clouds of night.
3) Send death’s dark shadows away.
4) Bring order to all things.
5) Show us the path of knowledge and lead us in that path.

In the final stanza, we encounter today’s hymnline. We plead for true camaraderie of all peoples in compassion and in thought. “Bring us together,” we pray. “Give a sense of cooperation and agreement. Help us to accept one another’s differences and make those differences work for the good of the Kingdom.”

To do that, the envy, strife and quarrels need to cease. Our praying continues, “Emmanuel, now that you, O God, are with us, call a cease-fire between the warring factions worldwide.”

I know this carol has some definite Jewish overtones – the people of Israel are renewing their belief that Emmanuel shall come to them. As Christians who are confident that Messiah has already made his appearance on this terrestrial ball, we make all those same requests listed above, and we, too, seek commonality of passion and theology; we, too, have had it with the disagreements that arise within the church out of anger, envy and strife. Except for the instigators, nobody likes a good church fight!

As part of a denomination that has suffered its fair share of disagreement – especially in recent years – this prayer carol takes on a fuller significance. When I pray this carol, I mean it: I beg the Good Shepherd to come to enfold all his children who find themselves at war within the flock.

For all of us, conflict is on display worldwide. For some, the conflict may be within their community, their family, or even within themselves. Wherever they are found, may the struggles stop and reconciliation reign.

In the refrain, we are called to rejoice in the promise that Emmanuel continues to come to our rescue. Ultimately, we will enjoy a worldwide heavenly peace. Meanwhile, we keep on prayer-singing!

Great rendition by a cappella men’s group
(does not include this stanza!)

Big choral arrangement that uses this stanza

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv'n."

"How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv'n."
Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

This is one of few “standard” Christmas carols written by an American. There are lots of contemporary ones, of course, but of those we’ve sung in church for years, this one is sort of unique – not being from the British, French or German traditions!

I absolutely love this hymnline because it describes so very well how Christ continues to enter the lives of humankind, just like he did in Bethlehem’s barn.

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

In this text, the word “so” means “in the same way.” In other words, God gives out his blessings in the same way he sent Jesus into the world: silently.

When redemption is poured into our lives, it is indeed a silent process. WE realize the warming, but the person sitting right beside us is totally unaware that it has occurred. In the same way that Christ was quietly ushered into the world (pre-angelic hosts at least!), that same Christ by his Spirit is escorted into waiting, open hearts. No fanfare. No earthquake. In great tranquility.

In governmental parlance, we often talk of the “peaceful transfer of power.” In church-speak, that is what actually happens: the power of God is peacefully transferred into our lives. How silently the wondrous gift is given.

Be silent for a few seconds before you read on.

It was in that kind of silence that Christ first entered your life. I hope that is as precious to you as it is to me. On the other hand, unless we tell them, the person right next to us won’t know it happened. A silent act can be communicated by a verbal witness.

Hear Child-Singer Connie Talbot Sing This Carol
Seems appropriate to hear a child sing this one!

"So prepare to be the home where such a mighty Guest may come."

"So prepare to be the home where such a mighty Guest may come."
Carol: “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” – Charles Coffin (1676-1749)

I grew up in the Baptist denomination, and none of our hymns had the word “Baptist” in the title! Other denominations, however, often include this hymn about John the Baptist’s announcing the coming of Messiah; as the forerunning cousin of Jesus, that was his calling.

Note: It is important to include the apostrophe after Baptist; otherwise, it sounds like a whole denomination of immersers is wailing on a river’s edge!

The stanza in which this hymnline sits says this in total:
    Let ev’ry heart be cleansed from sin,
    Make straight for God within,
    And so prepare to be the home
    Where such a mighty Guest may come.

Straightening up the house is something we do when we’re expecting guests -- any guests… even regular visitors and family members! That may include hiding some things in the closet, under a bed, or behind the sofa. We want give the best possible appearance, tidied up as well as we can to make the visitor feel welcome – even ‘at home.”

Other carols say, “Let every heart prepare him room,” and “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room…” But THIS line calls Jesus a ‘mighty Guest.’ I think that means the same thing as ‘important’ or ‘extra special.’ The mighty Son of the mighty God is looking for somewhere to take up residence.

Unlike our usual visitors – however glamorous or significant – we don’t need to start hiding things! That all-knowing-ness of Christ sees right through any pretenses we may try to create.

So I suppose this is a season of peace, joy, love, hope… and transparency!

Get your house in order! You may be about to have a Zacchaeus kind of day!

Winchester New Tune at the Organ

Friday, December 16, 2016

"O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing."

"O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing."
Carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” – Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

This one is for all of you who are just worn out from Christmas shopping, party-going, church-concerting --who need a rest period… a time out… to regroup and get back into the spirit of Christmas.

Have you even noticed when you’re at Big Lots picking up those gifts for the most-special people on your list, the expressions on the faces of the shoppers are not like they always appear in old movies and Old Navy commercials? Shopping centers are nothing like those happy sappy songs we’ve sung in our Christmas programs over the years; it’s hard to find shoppers rushing home with their treasures singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

That’s too bad, but it’s a part of our culture that we’re not going to be able to change, so we just accept it and join the flow of jam-packed hallways in the local malls. I also find that shopping online wears me out, too!

Take a load off. Find a bench. Put away your shopping list. Listen to the holiday music being piped in or performed live by the local elementary school choir. Take a deep breath. Settle. Maintain. Be quiet. Rest amid the hectic rush and listen to the whisper of God’s message of peace on earth with goodwill to all. Imagine angel voices singing gloria in excelsis Deo.

Allow the slowing down moments of the season to be cathartic for your weary soul. Listen for the brush of angels’ wings, see the glory of God on each face… because surely the presence of the Lord is with us in this place. Emmanuel.

Today’s promise to yourself: I will rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

(It’s hard to find this stanza on an online recording!)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"What sweeter music can we bring than a carol for to sing the birth of this, our heavenly King?"

"What sweeter music can we bring than a carol for to sing the birth of this, our heavenly King?"
Carol: "What Sweeter Music" - Robert Herrick
Various Tunes

I just love this hymnline... or caroline! Is there any sweeter music in all the year than the carols of this season? Is there a more appropriate way to herald the birth of the King of heaven and earth? I doubt it. Many, many traditions have changed over the past several hundred years, but music -- singing in particular -- has always been central to the festivities... and this is one tradition I am happy to promote!

Yes, I know you're saying, "Yes, but he's a musician. He's done music all his life." You're right, but I think I would still love Christmas music even if I understood nothing of what I was hearing.

I've told everyone that when I retired from the full-time music ministry, I had done 41 Christmases -- and that was enough. It was sort of a joke, but there is some truth to the fact that people who conduct music put a whole lot of energy and creativity into the months between September and January. But all 41 years (and a few since) I have fallen into my chair exhausted... but supremely fulfilled because I've tried my very best to bring the sweetest possible music to the ears of the Baby Jesus... and hopefully to the ears and lives of people in my congregations.

Seriously, folks: "What sweeter music CAN we bring than a carol for to sing the birth of this, our heavenly King?" That's not a hypothetical question, by the way!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"Let loving hearts enthrone him."

"Let loving hearts enthrone him."
Carol: “What Child Is This?” – William C. Dix (1827-1898)

A carol that begins with a question, winds its way through the manger scene, speaks some theology, calls forth the magi (and us) to bring him gifts honoring his arrival, and in most editions, ends with this line: "Let loving hearts enthrone him.”

We all have to ask ourselves during these weeks leading up to Christmas who we think this is? We find ourselves with the very adult words of Jesus ringing in our ears: “Who do people say that I am?” That leaves us wide open for answers like these: the One who ushers in the most profitable merchandising season every year, the do-gooder of Galilee, the man who healed people and preached a lot. Ultimately, we are faced with the second half of that inquiry: “Who do YOU say that I am?” Hopefully it doesn’t take us long to agree with Peter’s assessment that this baby is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

He was that from the beginning, you know – not just after he began his adult ministry. You might say he was that from the VERY beginning, but for sure I think we would all agree that from his first earth-breath, he was the Son of Jehovah.

With it’s repeated “This, this is Christ the King,” in many ways, this carol could serve as our ‘confession of faith’ during the Advent season.

May those of us who love our Christ put him in his rightful place… on the throne of our lives. From there may he rule not only in December, but all year long.

Josh Groben Sings This Stanza First!

This Carol on Guitars

Monday, December 12, 2016

On the First Day of the Year

Here are two settings of a new hymn text for the first Sunday of the new year. Because New Year's Day falls on Sunday this time, I thought I should write an appropriate text for anyone who's looking for something "fresh" or who wants to start off 2017 with a "new song."
The first way I set it was to the REDHEAD tune ("Go to Dark Gethsemane") altered to repeat the first line, making it AABA form.
The second one will probably be easier to sing with most congregations since we've so recently sung "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing."
Please feel free to share this around the internet. The only reason I've resorted to posting my hymns is because I want them to be sung and not die a slow death in one of my file drawers! Permission to use in worship is printed at the bottom of each. [I think if you click on the image, you can save it... or send it!]  One of these days when hymnals come back into vogue, maybe I'll have more of them in print!!!

"God has opened heaven's door, and we are blessed forevermore."

Carol: “Good Christians, All Rejoice” – 14th Century Medieval Latin
            Translated by John Mason Neale

Ever notice how many carols are in 6/8 time? We use “rollicking” and “lilting” to describe the way their tunes dance along. They don’t get much more carefree than this tune! At the same time, its words speak some pretty decent theology!

Most of us may have loved this one as children because it was our one chance to sing “ass” in church and snicker behind our hands! Newer hymnals have removed that euphemism and left us with an unlaughable “beast” in its place.

Today’s hymnline draws a picture for us of what God does as he sets our redemption into motion: he swings wide the substantial doors that once upon a time may have separated humankind from the divine… and sets us on the road from Bethlehem to Calvary to Joseph’s Burial Garden.
Maybe it’s because of the music that accompanies this text, but something Medieval comes to mind… like from the period in which it was written. Heavy, heavy castle doors come into my view – maybe even a drawbridge. And I can almost hear the rumbling as the gates slowly open to reveal all that awaits… those blessings that are ours forevermore… because Christ is born today.

It’s a picture worth conjuring up because anything that can help me ‘see’ what God has done for me in Christ Jesus sticks with me much longer… especially when that sight is accompanied by music!

Sung by an Asian choir

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Love's pure light radiant(ly) beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus..."

"Love's pure light radiant(ly) beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus..."
Carol: “Silent Night, Holy Night” – Joseph Mohr (1792-1848)

While you join in the singing of familiar carols this season, I hope you will enjoy the experience; but even more, I want to be sure you get the message from each one.

A pet peeve of mine is the way we rip apart the meaning of the Christmas carols by breathing at the wrong place: this is one of them. We tend to breath between “love’s pure light” and “radiant beams.” We may do that because we don’t realize that in the translation from the German, we ended up with an adverb that does not end in ‘ly’! Before this sounds like a grammar lesson, the phrase should mentally read like the hymnline at the top of this post, realizing that love’s pure light is radiantly beaming from the holy face of Christ.

And those beams are like the ones that peep over the horizon at the rising of morning sun – it’s the dawn of redeeming grace. God provides us with lots of graces: sustaining grace, fortifying grace, comforting grace, etc.; but THIS is the beginning of grace that redeems us! We get our first glimpse of that redemptive possibility in the face of Bethlehem’s Baby.

This entire stanza is addressed TO Christ; that’s why there’s a comma after “Son of God.” So as we sing this, we’re saying, “Jesus, there’s a pure light emanating from your holy face, and in that light we can see the genesis of grace that redeems.”

As you sing this carol or hear it piped into the shopping mall… or Wal-Mart!... realize what it is saying, and rejoice in that knowledge. For those of us who believe Christ to be the Son of God, this should be one of our very favorite hymnlines during the season!

from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

PS – Not wanting to get off my soapbox on this breathing-in-the-wrong-place thing, another place we miss the meaning is in the first, most familiar stanza. Read the whole line to yourself without breaking: “All is calm all is bright ’round yon virgin mother and child.” Around that virgin mother and her child, everything is calm and bright. Makes so much more sense, don’t you think? I’m stepping off my soapbox… for now.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

"Holy Child... teach us to resemble thee in thy sweet humility."

"Holy Child... teach us to resemble thee in thy sweet humility."
Carol: “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” – Edward Caswall (1814-1878)

This hymnline prayer comes from a carol we don’t all know well… if at all. Here is the first stanza:
            See amid the winter’s snow,
            Born for us on earth below,
            See, the gentle Lamb appears,
            Promised from eternal years.

For now, I’ll zero in on this later stanza:
            Teach, O teach us, holy Child,
            By Thy face so meek and mild,
            Teach us to resemble Thee,
            In Thy sweet humility.

The request to learn to resemble Christ catches my attention. We bat around so many other terms like reflect, mirror, imitate, etc., but this is what I want personally: to resemble Christ. When someone looks at my life, I would love to bear a resemblance to the One I call Lord.

Most of us resemble one (or both) of our parents; we say that we “take after them” either physically or in our actions. The way we laugh may be the exact replica of our mother, or we may have the same voice inflection of our father. In my part of the country, they would say that I’m the “spitting image” of my daddy… but that I’m my mama all over again. I’m happy with that designation and recognition. I remember one time when a perfect stranger came up to me and said, “You’ve got to be Raymond Huff’s son” – just by looking at me.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if someone walked up to you during this Advent season and said, “You’ve got to be a child of the King.” – not because you look like Elvis, but because you act like Jesus… you are Christlike in the way you approach every detail of your dealings with others.

Admittedly, we don’t act-out our Christian faith to BE noticed, but we must admit it comes as a blessing when someone DOES notice and says so.

Are you teachable? Is humility something you want to learn? If so, this is a good time of the year to study the life and teachings of the One who is displayed in stable-beds all around us. Watch him… emulate him… glorify him by being a resemblance of who he is!

Julie Andrews sings this carol (but not this stanza!)

A Norwegian setting of the full text

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"O how much God gave to us that day."

Carol: “The Birthday of a King” – William Harold Neidlinger (1863-1924)

“’Twas a humble birthplace, but O how much God gave to us that day.” That’s how the second stanza of this carol begins. It gives us some contrast between the humble birthplace and the glory of redemption. It almost puts us back to list-making and/or blessing-counting; the implication is that what God gave to us at Bethlehem is beyond calculation… and indeed, it was… is.

Most of us know the familiar refrain of this carol –
            “Hallelujah! O how the angels sang.
            Hallelujah! How it rang!
            And the sky was bright with a holy light,
            ‘Twas the birthday of a King.”

- but like many hymns and carols, we sometimes miss out on what the center of the text gets at.

This hymnline ought to stick with us for this day in Advent as a constant reminder that the blessings continue to roll down from that first-century event… and we stand to benefit from all of them. Better than waiting to open the mysterious packages underneath our Christmas trees, being open to and appreciating all that God does for us makes the Christmas season more meaningful and lightens our darkened days with a holy light, reminding us that “It’s the birthday of my King."

Hear the Nashville Singers

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing."

"Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing." 
Carol: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” – Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876)

“Heads up!” Don’t put it off. “Look now!” This seems to be a call to immediate response to the sound of angels’ wings… and the words they sing/say.

This stanza of the carol is addressed to all who find themselves beneath the crushing load of life, whose bodies and spirits are drooping under the weight of the struggles. Perhaps these encumbrances are the result of a birth defect or a disease, of their own bad decisions/sins, of the ‘cards they were dealt’ early on in life. Maybe they are overloaded with the problems of others – family members, friends, coworkers. Whatever has brought them to their knees, they feel like they are always on an up-hill trek, that every step is painful, and the progress is slow. I think we get the picture. In fact, it may be a picture of ourselves.

With heads hanging low, we are given hope that the better (glad and golden) hours are ahead because for unto us a Child has been born. Look up… now… and realize it. Be lifted from your bloodied knees to stand again complete. The Great Physician now is near; the newborn King comes to lift up the fallen, heal the sick and restore the weak.

This reassurance came upon the midnight clear two centuries ago, and it rings just as true today. Perhaps it’s just the word of hope we need to hear today.

I had trouble finding a recording that included this pivotal stanza!

Monday, December 5, 2016

"And all flesh shall see the token that God's word is never broken."

"And all flesh shall see the token that God's word is never broken."
Carol: “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” – Johannes G. Olearius (1611-1684)
Tune: GENEVAN 42

Catherine Winkworth’s translation of this ancient hymn text grabs me, reminding me that throughout time, God has presented us with signs of his promises: the rainbow in Noah’s day, the pillar of fire for Moses’ troops, the covenant with Abraham, and ultimately revealing himself in THE Sign: the Lord Christ. It is that revelation that we come to celebrate during this season.
The sending of his Son was the ultimate token of his everlasting promise to the people of Israel. At Bethlehem’s manger, God is saying, “See. I keep my word. I always do.” On a nearby hillside the angels echo the sentiment, “Unto you a Savior is (finally) born” – that Savior you’ve been anticipating since the beginnings of the covenant relationship God had with the Jewish nation.

This carol is a great versification of Isaiah 40, opening with the same statement we find there spoken to the prophet by the Lord:  “Comfort, comfort ye my people.” In 40:5, we find the text on which my favorite Christmas chorus from MESSIAH is based: "And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.” It is from THIS passage that today’s hymnline is lifted; I think you can see the parallels without my going on and on about them!

These two centuries later, we need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness; what God says, he will do – eventually, finally. And even though “Standing on the Promises” is not a song for this season, that’s exactly what we need to continue to do.
Hear the Choir of Conrad Grebel College

Friday, December 2, 2016

"Pleased as a man with us to dwell."

"Pleased as a man with us to dwell."
Carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

This is my favorite Christmas carol. Charles Wesley had a way of putting his theology into poetry that still makes sense, long after his pen left the paper. His hymns almost always get at the heart of the gospel, and this one is no exception.

Today's hymnline tells us that Christ was “pleased as a man with us to dwell.” It was his pleasure to step from heaven to earth, to take on flesh, to live among humankind. I don’t think he and the Father had to come to some kind of deal or that he left heaven kicking and screaming.

As the Philippian Hymn says: “Christ, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient…” Taking on human likeness, appearing as a man, humbling himself, obeying, becoming a servant. Emmanuel. God WITH us.

And loving every minute of it – taking great delight in living among those whom his Father had created and placed on the earth.

I, for one, am glad he did.
Amy Grant Sings This Carol

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"He comes to make his blessings flow."

"He comes to make his blessings flow."
Carol: “Joy to the World” – Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

We have innumerable blessings, you and I. It's an inexhaustible list. Do you see how those blessings pile up? That’s a blessing in itself!

This Isaac Watts carol is really a re-versification of Psalm 98; if you read that Psalm, you’ll see the parallels. Today’s hymnline follows the phrase, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” In place of the infestation of these negative aspects of life, “He comes to make his blessings flow (as) far as the curse (of sin) is found.”

There are many reasons Christ came; we could grab a legal pad and start making another list! But one of them is to replace the curse of sin with the blessings of himself – so that his blessings might flow into and through our lives… for our own edification and for those around us who may still be up to their necks, strangled by the thorns of sin and sorrow.

It is a shame when a blessing comes into our lives, stops there, and goes no further. “Paying it forward” was a Biblical principle long before it was a movie or a common catch phrase. As the blessing pile higher and higher, we become hoarders… yea, even Scrooge-like!

Let me give us another challenge for the Advent season: Because he comes to make his blessings flow, let’s pass along every blessing we possibly can. Let’s take up the blessing industry and be about our Father’s business!

Lord Christ, may every blessing that flows into me flow out of me into someone else. Amen.

Hear Choir from George Fox University

Hear Dolly Sing This Carol (with Stella on the Front Row!)
Sorry she doesn’t sing this stanza.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"To show God's love aright she bore to us a Savior."

Carol: "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" - 15th Century German

We are in the season of Advent. In most of our churches, we will light candles each week as we make our way from darkness to light… make that to THE Light! Choirs will process, lessons supporting each week’s theme will be read from the Old and New Testaments -- and someone needs to stand and say “Let the anticipation begin!” (Okay, yes: I saw  THE HUNGER GAMES film series and read the books!)

If no one at your church makes that proclamation in the service, say it to yourself… on this and every day from now until Christmas Eve. Anticipation is a great motivator… and not just with ketchup bottles!

In this wonderful, beautiful fifteenth century hymn set to a sixteenth century tune, we find today’s hymnline. She (Mary) brought forth her Son in order to show God’s love appropriately – showing fallen humankind how God’s love acts! Like the rest of us, she couldn’t make that kind of exposure on her own. You and I are called to show God’s love aright, also. No archangel showed up at the foot of our bed, but a messenger of God – his Spirit – came and set us onto the path toward kindness, compassion, mercy… and, of course, love.

Though we don’t bring Christ into the world physically as Mary did, we DO display him through our lives to people who walk in darkness – when half-spent is their night.

This Advent season, let’s set as one of our major goals showing God’s love aright – properly, authentically.

Let the anticipation begin.

Hear This Carol Sung by Atlanta Chorus Directed by Robert Shaw

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"We too should be voicing our love and devotion."

"We too should be voicing our love and devotion."
Hymn: “Let All Things Now Living” – Katherine K. Davis* (1892-1980)

This Thanksgiving hymn many of us sang recently opens with “Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving to God the Creator triumphantly raise.” I actually like to sing this hymn all year long, not just during the last week of November, because it is one of those hymns that beautifully describes God in poetry that is well-constructed.

After listing many of God’s creative, sustaining, redeeming works, today’s hymnline continues: “We too should be voicing our love and devotion, with glad adoration a song let us raise.”

We voice lots of songs and expressions of our love for God, but here we are called on to declare our devotion – our promise, our pledge, our guarantee.

Olivia Newton John had a hit song in 1978 titled “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (from GREASE). Most of us can hum it and at least sing the ‘hook’. For Christ-followers, however, we lift up our commitment to him singing “Hopefully Devoted to You.”

I also like the phrase “with glad adoration” – not coerced or forced, but gladly offered up. I am personally delighted to sing great hymns and songs of the faith… the ones that express my adoration of him who created, re-creates, sustains and redeems me. I know I am not alone in that; otherwise, you would probably not be reading this blog.

This week, of all weeks, we SHOULD be voicing our love and devotion with glad adoration. Sometimes I encourage us to internalize concepts; this time, let’s verbalize them… voice them… even to strangers.

Hear This Hymn Sung

Hear Children’s Chime Choir Play This Hymn (directed by Jeff Reeves)

*PS – Katherine K. Davis was also a composer of wonderful church music and is best known for her Christmas Song “The Little Drummer Boy.”

“And guide us when perplexed.”

Hymn: “Now Thank We All Our God” – Martin Rinkart (1586-1649)

“Unable to understand something clearly or to think clearly.” So says Merriam-Webster as to the meaning of perplexed. Surface perplexity happens to most of us regularly if not constantly: we are baffled by technology, by science, by the way humans treat humans in traffic or at the shopping mall. God’s guidance out of the simplest lack of understanding or clarity is a good thing to desire, but here I think the hymn-writer was after a deeper, more profound uncertainty… even one which becomes for us a state of mind.

An old gospel song says it like this:
    Trials dark on every hand,
    And we cannot understand
    All the ways that God would lead us
    To that blessed promised land;
    But he guides us with his eye,
    And we'll follow till we die,
    We will understand it better by and by.

It boils down to that I-just-don’t-get-it place in our thinking. A deeper lack of understanding. We are truly puzzled by the way our life is going. We seem to ask “Why?” more often than wish we did. We join the Children of Israel traipsing through the wilderness, for the most part following Moses’ directions and leadership, yet always wondering… to the point of complaining and wanting to give up.

This one-line prayer “Guide us when perplexed” gets at this shared human problem. The puzzlement is common to all of us; the way we handle it varies. But looking to God for guidance, even when we are totally confounded with our “why list,” will set us apart from other wondering wanderers. After all, it’s a wilderness out there.

Puzzled? Baffled? Confounded? Unsure? Me, too. I am, however, confident that with God’s good guidance “we will understand it better by and by.” For that, we can be thankful.

The MTC Sings John Rutter’s Arrangement of This Hymn

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Who, from our mother's arms, hath blessed us on our way."

Hymn: “Now Thank We All Our God” – Martin Rinkhart (1586-1649)

It’s a week from Thanksgiving, so it seems right that we turn our attention toward hymnlines from hymns we typically associate with this American holiday.

Our God “who, from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

"Migrant Mother" Dorothea Lange
Generally speaking, our mothers are our original caretakers. Good mothers become for their children the very representation of who God is and how he treats us. This hymnline helps us get that perspective, reminding us that from our first breath, God has blessed us with innumerable  love-gifts… and those love-gifts continue, no matter how many years we may be removed from those mother-cuddled hours.

We believers are richly blessed as we make our way through life. (We’ll deal with “Count Your Blessings” later this week.) The danger is that we might begin to consider our blessings as routine, not noticing the little things with which God seasons our life.

On next Thursday, most of us will have some of the richest, best-seasoned dishes we’ll have all year long. Those old family recipes on grease-spotted note cards seem to hold back nothing from the spice rack when it comes to food preparations for this holiday. Even then, we’ll think to ourselves, “This tastes so much better than food tastes throughout the rest of the year,” but we’ll likely give any thought to WHY that is true.

Let’s not overlook those blessings with which our God spices up our life… those small zests added to our mundane existence. We cannot truly be a blessing to others until we realize how blessed we are.

NOW, let’s all thank our God with hearts and souls and voices! NOW!

Sing along with this hymn

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

There Is a Balm

I've always loved this hymn and have found it a personal healing agent for me and for congregations.
However, what the second stanza in most every hymnal about preaching like Peter and Paul Never made sense in the context of the spiritual. So why not shake things up and alter some jots and tittles in hymnody... and maybe help some rich, meaningful tunes and texts make more sense!?
As always - use and/or share.

Monday, September 26, 2016

"Let not your foolish pride rebel."

Hymn: “’Take Up Your Cross,’ the Savior Said” – Charles W. Everest (1814—1877)
Various Tunes

One of the scripture passages my mother drilled into me is from Romans 12:13: “A man should not think more highly of himself than he ought.” I have used this verse on lots of boasting people throughout the years; it was one of my go-to verses when Dustin was growing up, and I now find myself inserting it into conversations with my grandsons. It sounds more like Ben Franklin, but it really is from the apostle Paul!

More modern translations update it and are less sexist: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you should,”

This six-word sentence from a little-used hymn stands as a reminder to any who may take more credit for their advances, their talents, their achievements than they ought. Our pride – foolish though it may be – has a tendency to rebel against our redeemed, Christ-like nature. That’s when we have to “put a lid on it” – or in the words of that great theologian Barney Fife: “Nip it.”

Frankly, I tire quickly in the presence of anyone who goes on and on about how God has done this and that in their life. I guess it is not possible to over-glorify God, but that kind of language often tends to make that person appear more spiritual than the rest of us. I am equally put off by those who never give their Creator credit for their creativity and accomplishments – those who wallow in their position among the “Me Generation.”

As an FOC (follower of Christ), I need to strike a happy balance here. I need not take too much credit for my successes, while at the same time not make myself appear to be holier-than-the-rest-of-you. It is a tight rope to walk, but it is do-able if we consciously pay attention to how we make our way.

My old self is rebellious… at times it seems out of control. This is when we rein in who we used to be and behave like we strive to be, in order to represent the One we call Lord. Another phrase I picked up at home was “give credit where credit is due.” Not scripture, but applicable to this hymnline.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"We will rest where the steps of Jesus end at his throne."

Hymn: “Footsteps of Jesus” – Mary B. Slade (1826-1882)

In my hometown, they celebrate “Decoration Day,” an annual tradition common to rural areas in some southern states. Many of you who read this will be unfamiliar with the ritual of decorating the graves of the departed, but to many folks, this is a big deal. The hillside in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where my parents, grandparents and other family saints are buried is at its most colorful on that weekend – adorned with bouquets great and small… real flowers, plastic and silk reproductions. For most, it becomes a reunion day – the only time on the calendar when they come into contact with old friends and family members.

These whose lives are remembered on that first Sunday in June are those who have entered their eternal rest – whose pathways in their earthly life were intent on following the footsteps of Jesus wherever they might have been steered. Their proximity to the feet of Jesus would obviously bring them to sit at his feet as he sits now enthroned.

Many of those who’ve gone on before us into glory had rough, difficult lives, surviving the Great Depression, World Wars, years of un-productive crops and/or dying livestock, factory shut-downs and lay-offs, and so on. They rarely found time to slow down and rest. Most knew nothing of vacations or getting away for a weekend; many had never ventured outside their county or state.

Their pastors may have in their sermons painted glorious pictures of the pearly gates opening into ivory palaces with streets paved with gold; but for most of the bedraggled listeners in the pew, their ears perked up when there was mention of the promised rest. Not only would they meet their loved ones there, but they would actually have time to fellowship with them for extended periods of time without being bothered by animal feedings, seed-planting/harvesting or punching a time clock… or taking care of an extended family’s needs.

Let’s admit it: We, too, look forward to the rest more than we look forward to the architecture.

Either way, it behooves us to follow in the steps of Jesus so that when we arrive at the throne, we’ll recognize his feet – then we can lift our eyes to behold him face to face. We’ll spend time praising him; we’ll catch up with those who got there before us and know their way around. And the rest (remainder) will be rest.

Piano arrangement

Thanks, Barbara Whaley McClure for the photo posted on Facebook.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

"When we reach the end of our hoarded resources, our Father's full giving is only begun."

Hymn: “He Giveth More Grace” – Annie Johnson Flint (1866-1932)

Written by a school teacher whose career was cut short by crippling arthritis, this stands as her only still-sung hymn. In fact, it was popularly sung as a solo in the 1940’s and 50’s and has only recently been included in books for congregational use.

In a very poetic way, Flint was able to capture FDR’s “when you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on” adage in a way which beautifully depicts the abundant generosity of God.
When we have tried in our own strength to accomplish great tasks or to overcome great difficulties, we can “tie a knot” in our rope and wait for God to intervene.

To put this hymnline in context, here is the full stanza:
    When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
    When our strength has failed when the day is half-done,
    When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
    Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

We all know that we should have sought out his assistance and guidance in the first place, but our human nature has caused us to turn to some other colloquial adages like “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “I did it my way!” We join the chugging uphill steam engine repeating the mantra “I think I can! I think I can!” We have yet again been Oprah-ized into self success.

Over my 66 years, I have accumulated a good number of creative resources; I’ve had to reason my way through many dilemma in my ministry and my personal life. Amazingly, sometimes that works for me. Other times, I come up way short on my “hoarded resources” and have to send out my call for help. I’m not alone in this; I have many cohorts in this method of doing life!

I love the way Flint calls God’s openhandedness “full giving”… and that we only see the tip of that generosity: it is only beginning to kick in on our behalf.

I would dare say that everyone reading this hymnline today is approaching the end of their rope in some area of their life-journey – and as far as you can tell, the end of that rope is nearing more rapidly than we would like to admit. Go ahead and tie that proverbial knot and wait; stop trying to achieve success on your own. Allow God’s full-giving nature to activate itself in your situation. See if the burden isn’t lifted… or at least lessened.

Larry Ford from one of the Gaither Homecomings

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)