Friday, May 26, 2017

"My never-failing treasure filled with boundless stores of grace."

Hymn: “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” – John Newton (1725-1807)

Did anybody recognize this hymnline when it first came up? It is from a hymn you have probably sung at some time – one by the same man who wrote “Amazing Grace.” I guess like all hymn authors, some of them stick, and others don’t!

But what a wonderful picture Newton sketches for us: a "never-failing treasure filled with boundless stores of grace.” You picture it in your mind, don’t you? That treasure chest (like the kind Jack Sparrow placed one foot upon in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) simply overflowing with more doubloons and jewels than it can hold. But the riches here are not so tangible. Newton goes back to that amazingness of grace and stacks it high to overflowing from its never-failing, never-ending Source – that Jesus whose name sounds so sweet in a believer’s ear… soothing sorrows, healing wounds, driving away fear, giving wholeness to wounded spirits, calming the troubled soul.

This hymnline is surrounded by lots of Christ-descriptors: rock, shield, hiding place, manna, prophet, priest, King, Lord – my life, my way, my end. So full of imagery and solid theology. My goodness, they don’t write them like that anymore!

Ever try to picture grace? I could direct your attention to the cross of Calvary… or I could remind you of that overflowing treasure chest. Both are pretty good images to bring up when I forget how grace-ful my Christ is.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Hallelujah! I have found him whom my soul so long has craved!"

Hymn: “Satisfied” – Clara T. Williams (1858-1937)

Eureka! This expression of delight at finally succeeding would be a great word to begin this hymnline; if it had another syllable, Clara T. Williams might have chosen it. Not that the word “hallelujah” isn’t a wonderful word for use in hymns, but “eureka” gets to the point of the excitement of having found that which has been long-sought.

Do you ever have a craving… an insatiate desire? Some people say they crave chocolate, but what they mean is “I’d sure like to have something that originated in Hershey, Pennsylvania, about now.” I’ve learned that whatever food for which I suddenly have a craving will be one that is not in our cupboard or fridge! I sometimes get a hankering for a Boberry biscuit – a decadent, sugar-drizzled breakfast item we learned to love from Bojangle’s fast-food restaurants in North Carolina. One of the reasons I can almost smell and taste that morning treat is that I know I cannot have one now that we’ve moved to the Bojangle’s-less state of Texas.

That’s how those kinds of yearnings usually turn out: unfulfilled.

But when our souls hunger and thirst for God, they are totally satisfied; God’s cupboard is well-stocked with all the spiritual blessings we can think of… and he knows exactly which shelf they rest on in order to get them to us quickly.

Jesus tells us in the beatitudes of Matthew 5 to hunger and thirst after righteousness. If we understand righteousness not as some condition of perfection but as the state being rightly related to God in Christ, it is not only something we might crave: it is a craving we can gratify. It is a positional relationship, not a conditional one.

Robert Browning said, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” Great quote, of course. Better yet, “God’s in his heaven, and all’s right between him and me.” I find that to be a much better view of what righteousness means.

I can easily sing the refrain of this gospel song and mean it. Whether I say eureka or hallelujah, it is true of my own personal, spiritual longing… because the next line says, “Jesus satisfies my longings.”

Today, may you be given the deepest desires of your heart. Can I get an “amen”? Or a “eureka”?!

Gaither Vocal Band Sings This Hymn

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"With upright heart I give tender care and sympathy."

Hymn: “Dear Lord, Lead Me Day by Day” – Francisca Asuncion (1927-    )

You may not be familiar with this prayer hymn based on a Philippine folk song. It has appeared in more recent hymnals, but as fewer congregations refer to those pew books, it may well be overlooked. This hymn-line is, however, worth visiting.

Originally written as a children’s hymn, the refrain is simple, child-like… almost ‘cute’:
            Praise to God, Fount of love, praise from morn till set of sun,
            Praise at home, praise at church, praise to God ev’rywhere on earth.

Today’s hymn-line is the final one of the last stanza: With upright heart I give tender care and sympathy. I am attracted to this poetic sentence because we sometimes confuse the terms “caring for” and “taking care of.”

It is possible to take care of someone without truly caring about them. In other words, we may be in a position to help someone – to take care of their needs – and do it passively, perhaps out of duty… or even because we are paid to do so. Our attitude may be “Well, somebody has to do it!”

However, those who take care of someone while truly caring about them are wonderful examples of the way Christ taught us to serve others. These are those who connect with the person in need, have compassion on them, and take care of the situation to the best of their ability.

For me, the best example of this may be at your local hospital: nurses. Having spent many hours in hospital rooms with both my parents, my wife, and friends and family members, I have observed some on the nursing staff who breeze in, tend to the needs of the patient, and quickly move on to the next. They do the job for which they are paid… and they do it with great proficiency.

On the other hand, we have all witnessed the nurse who treats the patient with great interest, who speaks to them with kindness, who truly cares for the person… not just their immediate health needs. These are the ones who (whether they realize it or not) are following that example of the Great Physician… the sympathizing Jesus.

To be this kind of caretaker, humility is required. Time is required. The ability to identify-with is required. Unhurried, sincere attention is given, and the result is more healing than the aforementioned laissez faire approach.

I saw this so much during my mother’s final visits to Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital in Knoxville. Those round-the-clock nurses truly cared about Hedy Huff; they liked her and enjoyed her; they went out of their way to be sure she was well cared for. I flew in from Denver and arrived at the hospital just a few minutes after my mother had died and was met as I stepped off the elevator by my daddy, other family members, Preacher Cope… and several weeping nurses. It was at that moment I realized the difference between “caring for” and “taking care of.”

If you ever have opportunity to sing this hymn, I hope you’ll remember this little blog post. And the next time you see someone giving care-full attention the needs of another, thank them for it. Then go thou and do likewise!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us..."

Hymn: “For the Fruit of All Creation” – Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000)
Typical Tune: AR HYD Y NOS

This hymn has a recurring phrase that ends many of the lines: “Thanks be to God!” It’s a phrase many of us say every Sunday morning in response to the statement, “This is the Word of the Lord.”  As we sing this great hymn, it becomes our repeated common proclamation.

“For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us,
most of all that love has found us, thanks be to God.”

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” I hear people say often. When we get to the point that we are beyond being amazed, astonished, or even flabbergasted, we have stepped outside that realm where God can still astound us… where our reaction can still be awe – even child-like wonder. The great mysteries of God still throw me a curve; I am rarely involved in serious Bible study or theological conversation when I don’t have a flash of amazement. It’s that mystery that keeps me coming back for more. I don’t even WANT to discover all the answers; I want to keep digging and learning, and growing from what I find.

The truth we discover can confound or befuddle us. In fact, it probably SHOULD stupefy us and cause us to stand astonished. Knowing the truth and letting it set us free: what a goal for those of us who are God-seekers.

As Fred Pratt Green concludes, we should be most astounded and confounded by the fact that love has sought us out – that God has been worshiper-seeking (John 4:23), and we have been found. It’s like a grand game of hide-and-seek in which WE were hiding, love was seeking.

For all this, we say as if prompted by Sunday’s lector, “Thanks be to God.”

Hear This Hymn Tune Played at the Organ

Hear a Congregation Sing This Hymn

Thursday, May 18, 2017

"How he loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, never more."

Hymn: “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” – Samuel Trevor Francis (1834-1925)

In describing this deep, deep love of Jesus, Samuel Francis uses some great descriptors:

Tuckaleechee Caverns - Townsend, Tennessee
  • ·         Vast
  • ·         Unmeasured
  • ·         Boundless
  • ·         Free
  • ·         Mighty
  • ·         Full
  • ·         Underneath me
  • ·         All around me.

I suppose we can’t talk (or write) enough about the love of Jesus; obviously, we can’t sing enough about it! It is, you recall, something that only his loved ones know. Beyond explanation or comprehension, the love of Jesus is in every way too precious to put into words! But we keep trying, we who think "the ink of the writer is more powerful than the blood of the martyr."

In my part of Tennessee, we have lots of caverns – incredible creations of God turned into tourist attractions. These made for wonderful field trips during elementary school days. Nothing quite as grand as Carlsbad, but every bit as fascinating. Most were inhabited at one time long ago by native Americans which added to my personal interest in them, even as a child: age-old smoke stains still clinging to the ceilings in the large ‘rooms.’

After paying a modest fee, we would begin our descent into the lower regions of the earth, following a guide dressed in a faux park ranger uniform. We’d finally arrived at the end of the tour, and he would flip a light-switch and plunge us into deep darkness. That was my least favorite part, by the way! It was realizing among all those stalactites and stalagmites that I was deep inside the planet – that’s what I loved.

Those are the memories which come back to me when I sing this hymn about the deep, deep love of Jesus. 
But today’s hymn-line that Jesus ever, ever loves and never, never changes – this is the one I am drawn to. I admit that I wonder if the writer borrowed that nevermore word from Edgar Allen Poe! Even if he did, I love his use of it here.There is something about the always-ness of God that attracts me to him and in turn, causes me to try to attract others to him.

Quoth the hymnwriter, “Nevermore.”

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

“Just a smile from my Savior, I know, will thro’ the ages be glory for me.”

Hymn: “O That Will Be Glory” – Words and Music by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932)

We all seem to have some preconceived notions of what heaven… or glory… is going to be like. Some of these are based on scripture, some on traditions, some on hymns and gospel songs, and some are just based on what we ‘want’ it to be like.

The man who wrote such hymns as “I Stand Amazed in the Presence” and “In Loving-Kindness Jesus Came” draws a poetic picture here of what he anticipates by the closing line of the chorus: “When by his grace I shall look on his face, THAT will be glory for me.” You may have heard me say before that the one thing we agree on about heaven is being eternally in the presence of Christ… that “face to face with Christ my Savior” kind of event.

This certainly holds true in this hymn. The three things Gabriel looks forward to are 1) being near the dear Lord he adores, 2) looking on the face of Jesus, and 3) finding on that face an endearing, glad-to-have-you-home smile. I have to admit that I concur.

One of the best things we can share with another is a smile – a genuine, heart-felt smile. Many a teacher, coach, parent have shown approval by nothing more than a nod and a smile. Nothing seems to communicate “good job” any better – no trophies, no ribbons, no gradebook entries.

And from the Savior of humankind, we all would like to hear the “well done, good and faithful servant” commendation; but mostly, we want him to lower his chin a bit and show his teeth through the upturned edges of his lips.

Meanwhile, it is our calling in this life to bring joy and a sense of value to those we encounter throughout the day, especially those whose station in life may not be brightened by very many smiles – the waitress, the grocery checker, the janitor, the bus driver, etc. Those who serve us are often the least appreciated and are least-often the recipient of a smile and the words “good job.” Unto the least of these, we need to constantly BE the presence of Christ. Then we can enjoy HIS smiling face all the more, and that will be glory.
(Sorry about the bouncing ball!)

Friday, May 12, 2017

“For the joy of human love… for all gentle thoughts and mild.”

Hymn: “For the Beauty of the Earth” – Folliott S. Pierpoint (1835-1917)
Common Tune: DIX

Unless you are a hermit or a real loner, you will agree with this hymnline because few of us can exist without some kind of human affection – from spouses, family members, close friends, folks at church, people with whom we work, etc. We know the warming effect of someone’s entrance into the room and that racing-forward smile when you greet someone special at the airport… just outside security, of course!

I think it is a universal emotion: love. While all cultures do not base their marriages on love, those people MUST have others they care about and enjoy – someone without whom they could hardly exist. This world-wide finding joy in the reciprocated fondness for another human is at the heart (no pun intended) of our relishing this life promised to us in abundance.

In these joy-based relationships, we don’t fear one another. Instead we have gentle thoughts and mild reactions. This gentleness and this mildness are peaceable, calm, kind, pleasant; one of the synonyms is “easy-going.” In other words, we don’t have to constantly work to keep these affiliations intact; such connections become a natural part of who we are and who THEY are.

Some of us have found a life-mate whose presence brings us this kind of joy. We are fortunate indeed to have joined our lives with theirs... and in some cases attached ourselves to the larger loving pool of their family. Some have bound themselves through other means and avenues of friendly interaction. If you fall into either of those categories, you need to sing with confidence the line which follows in this text: “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise” – because these loving relationships are God’s provisions, and they have been rationed out in just the right proportions to keep us ever happy and ever blessed.

Hear This Hymn Sung

Thursday, May 11, 2017

“O let our joy be unconfined. Let us sing with freedom unrestrained.”

Hymn: “Sometimes Alleluia” – Chuck Girard (1943-    )

Unlike many of my choices, this is not from Crosby, Wesley or Watts. This one is more like something from Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Written by a member of Love Song, the first Christian rock band to achieve success, this quiet, calming early chorus-style hymn is one many us remember singing at camps and rallies in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This hymnline is an admonition to worshipers, encouraging a freed-up response to the Presence.

You all know by now that I’m pretty straight-laced when it comes to congregational singing, preferring the sturdy to the slight. Over the years of exposure, I realize that bits and pieces of some of the less-than-sturdy texts and tunes have invaded my memory bank, and that these – like the hymn fragments upon which this blog is based – come to the forefront at times when I need their self-contained brief messages. THIS is one of them.

Generally speaking, we traditionalists are a timid people when it comes to our worship. We are likely to be more constrained than we are to be uninhibited… more guarded than outwardly expressive. This text calls us to release ourselves and speak/sing our truest feelings about God and to God as we worship privately and corporately.

My attempts to “maintain” during worship may disallow me from releasing my praise.

We – you and I – need to be sure we don’t allow the spiritual straight-jacket of our upbringing or our style preference to hold us back from letting God see and hear our real self.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to dance about the room and cast off our clothing a la David in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 6) – nor does it mean we have to raise our hands or sway back and forth like the audiences on AMERICAN IDOL. It does mean that our best worship happens when we don’t hold back from God the best expression of our truest feelings.The person next to us need not know how immersed we are in the experience, and we certainly shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves, whatever form our expression takes.

For me, you may not see it on the outside with raised hands or dancing feet, but I just may be “letting myself go” on the inside. After all, if my worship is truly for God, what he sees and knows is more important than what YOU see and know!

In our worship, we have to some extent built up prison walls around ourselves, punctuated by razor-wire that insures our security. It may be time to step out of our confinement… to put our San Quinten behind us. This could become a break-out experience for us. Willing to give it a try?

Hear This Song

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

“He for conflict fits and arms us.”

Hymn – “Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him” – Thomas Ken (1637-1711)
Common Tune: ACCLAIM

“He for conflict fits and arms us,
Nothing moves and nothing harms us
While we trust in him.”

This is not a line from “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or one of the more militant hymn texts. While it may have had some battle implications when Thomas Ken penned these words, their application works for us in our everyday lives which, like it or not, are filled with conflict – some great, some miniscule… but often at the moment seeming insurmountable.

We have put on the whole armor of God from Ephesians 6, haven’t we? Aren’t we dressed head-to-toe with the belt of truth, vest of righteousness, shoes of readiness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and prayer? According to Paul’s letter, these will make it possible for us to stand firm in the midst of all kinds of evil.

We have been well-suited to our environment. We are tailor-made to be God’s people – fearfully and wonderfully constructed. We need to look to our strengths (above) and not hide behind our weaknesses. Nothing can move us entirely off-balance because we are planted firmly in our relationship with our Designer. We may get roughed up a bit – even injured in the conflict – but no spiritual harm will come to us while we trust in him.

When I got up this morning, I didn’t go looking for conflict; but it always seems to find me! You probably feel the same way. Well, let’s agree not to let it defeat us. Let’s hold up under the struggle, believing that the Tailor has clothed us well. His armor is a perfect fit.

This Hymn Karaoke-Style!

Friday, May 5, 2017

"All things bright and beautiful... the Lord God made them all."

Hymn: “All Things Bright and Beautiful” – Cecil F. Anderson (1818-1895)
Common Tunes: ROYAL OAK, SPOHR

First, let me say that I love this hymn text… set to most any tune. I especially love John Rutter’s setting (see below). I always enjoy singing it and love what it has to say. However…

For those of us who are not so bright and beautiful, I want to say that the Lord God made US all, too! “All things dull and hideous” would not make nearly such a great hymn title, but the Lord God did make them/us all.

I know it’s a children’s hymn about nature and not human-kind, but admit it: all of God’s creatures great and small are not all that lovely. Let’s talk about alligators, naked mole rats, blobfish, and Madagascar’s aye aye. Did you ever see a close up of a California condor? But the Lord God made all those, too.

Now that I think through the text, all of us aren’t all that wise and wonderful either. Some of us are dim-witted and average-ish. The good thing is that most of us are bright in our own way and beautiful to someone.

Fellow not so bright, unattractive, everyday folk: we were designed by God and cared about just as much as the most brilliant Homo sapiens and the most striking flora and fauna. This hymn is about all of us; we only sing about the attractive living things.

I’ll remove my tongue from my cheek now so I can sing this wonderful hymn!

Mormon Tabernacle Choir Sings Arrangement of ROYAL OAK Tune

John Rutter Conducting His Setting of This Text

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own."

Hymn: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” – Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863)

I think I would have enjoyed getting to know Fredrick Faber. First of all, he was British, so I’m sure he was fascinating… had probably visited Downton Abbey. He was a deep-thinking theologian, and his thoughtfulness is obvious in a couple of his other hymns: “Faith of Our Fathers” and “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art” for instance. I would love to have had tea with him and been able to discuss theology!

This hymn overflows with pithy one-liners; it is packed full of thought-out truths, versified for singing. The first stanza is worth the price of ticket:
       “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.
         There’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty.”

Woah! As I often say, “I wish I had written that!”

But today’s hymnline is so on-target and speaks such a loud message to the church today… a century and a half later. The limiting of God’s love is of our own doing; the boundless love which Scripture teaches has been pulled back and boxed in by humankind, and exclusion has replaced inclusion. This troubles me a lot… a whole lot! Where in Holy Writ do we find a teaching of Jesus that tells us to draw a line outside which the love of God is not available? I don’t find it.

This hymnline is followed by an even more cautionary thought: “And we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.” Read that again and ponder for a moment those times when we as individuals and congregations and denominations have made way too much of the vengeful, angry, strict… even bullying… God, and forgotten to magnify his loving, forgiving, grace-filled nature. We’ve done it (according to Faber) with a fervor that God himself will not allow.

I know I’ve “gone to preaching” here, but this is one of my tallest soapboxes! And this grand old long-dead English poet-theologian verbalizes it so very, very well. If I had the opportunity to sit down to tea with him, I think his spirit would agree with my spirit, and I’d have to say, “You go, Fred!” He’d laugh, I’d blush – then we’d talk more about the nature of God in Christ Jesus.

“Father, forgive us for magnifying your strictness when we KNOW you are a merciful, kind, open-armed Deity. Teach us a lesson from this hymnline. Amen.”

Sung by Young Men’s Choir from England


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

"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!

Monday, May 1, 2017

"Adoration leaves no room for pride."

Hymn: “When in Our Music God Is Glorified” – Fred Pratt Green (1903-     )
Typical Tune: ENGLEBERG

This new hymn (1972) is one you may have not sung, especially if you are in a projector-driven service where for the most part only the hymns with familiar tunes are included. Even so, this one would be worth teaching to any congregation and making it as familiar as “How Great Thou Art”!

It’s common lack of use notwithstanding, Fred Pratt Green's hymn is filled with wonderful phrases about worship – especially the musical elements. It ranks right up there with “Fill the Earth with Music.” :) … or perhaps it’s the other way around!

This hymn-line drives home a very, very important truth about what happens when engaged in acts of adoration – or worship: there is no room for the ego! My personal pride must be set aside in order that I can express how proud I am of God… how much he is revered… what a high value we place on him. In order for him to be magnified (increase), I take the place of humility (decrease). See John 3:30.

To put that into the language of music, I must decrescendo so he must crescendo!

There is no place for show business in the worship business. Entertainment is not commensurate with a spirit of sincere worship. I am startled by it every time I sing this hymn; fortunately the congregations I have led most recently have known and appreciated this hymn. It is one I catch myself singing on my own – a lot actually – because I need to be reminded of this as much as anyone: hubris and holiness are not compatible.

It doesn’t mean that my personal tastes must be set aside in order that the person down the pew from me can exercise his/her preferences. To me, this says that when we approach the throne together, we ALL have to ‘check our pride at the door.’ The narthex of every church in the world this morning should be stacked to the ceiling with pride-backpacks left there by those who have entered the sanctuaries/worship centers. Perhaps we need to install a pride-check closet instead of a coat-check closet!

You’ve heard the phrase “my pride and joy”? In worship, these two cannot genuinely coexist. We should be going after a pride-less joy. It could revolutionize corporate worship, especially if all of us in the room – the leaders and the participants – all of us set aside the deadly sin* of pride. When that happens, I think the adoration that emerges might be unprecedented, overwhelming.

It is a more exciting thought that I can get my mind around. I’m sincerely waiting for that to happen one Sunday morning – maybe even this week.

  * The seven deadly sins are: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Most would say that pride is at the root of the other six!

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)