Thursday, January 28, 2016

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

Hymn: “No, Not Despairingly” – Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acappella Singing of This Hymn (Church of Christ)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This hymn sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Monday, January 25, 2016

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

Guercino - "Christ and the Woman of Samaria"
Hymn: “Why Do I Sing about Jesus?” – Words & Music by Albert A Ketchum (1894- ?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 22, 2016

"And run not before him."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear an Instrumental of This Hymn

Thursday, January 21, 2016

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

Rubens - "Adoration of the Magi"

Carol: “What Child Is This?” – William C. Dix (1827-1898)

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

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

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

Hear violin solo on this tune by Lindsey Stirling

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Guide us to thy perfect light."

"Guide us to thy perfect light."
Carol: “We Three Kings” – Words & Music by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear Robert Shaw Chorale sing this carol

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

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

Matthias Stom - "Adoration of the Magi"

Carol: “As with Gladness Men of Old” – William C. Dix (1837-1898)
Common Tune: DIX

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hear a simple solo singing of this carol

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

Monday, January 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A men’s group sings only the first stanza

A Paul Manz organ setting

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)