Monday, July 24, 2017

"There is never a grief or loss but that Jesus in love will lighten."

This was from Friday. I think I forgot to post it!

Hymn: “Wonderful, Wonderful Jesus” – Anna B. Russell (1862-1954)

Today’s hymn-line comes from another one of those lilting 6/8-metered tunes so familiar to the congregations in my part of the country. Throughout its stanzas, this hymn repeats the phrase “there is never…” applied to many ‘downer’ occurrences, all of which are tended to by the wonderful, wonderful Jesus.

Extreme grief and overwhelming loss may weigh us down more than we realize. In fact, the admission of these is often denied by people going through such emotions. Beneath such a great burden, this hymn-line reminds us that Jesus is available to lighten the load if we but give him the opportunity – yea, even the privilege!

Implants are routinely done nowadays: devices that help send electronic impulses to the brain when certain body parts can’t respond naturally on their own. The most common is the pacemaker for the heart. In this hymn’s refrain, Anna B. Russell reminds us that in the heart he implanteth a song… because songs tend to turn our attention away from our difficulties, at least for a time. According to the refrain’s text, the implanted song is one of deliverance, of courage, of strength. In times of grief and loss, that’s the kind of song we need to hear… and to sing!

Whatever bothersome cargo you carry today, may this hymn or another great song of faith lift your spirit as he lightens your load. With a 6/8 lilt, let’s go skipping through the day!


Thursday, July 20, 2017

"Still all my song shall be: Nearer, my God, to thee."

Hymn: “Nearer, My God, to Thee” – Sarah F. Adams (1805-1848)

It is a real shame that this hymn is mostly remembered as what the band was playing when the Titanic went down and is typically relegated to memorial services and funerals. The haunting, usually-slowly-sung hymn has some wonderful brief phrases worth recounting. It speaks of steps leading into heaven, angels beckoning us homeward, thoughts brightened with praise… and references to the Jacob’s ladder-dream (Genesis 28:12).

My outstanding word in this hymn-line for today is “still.” It’s a great word we use when we mean “after all this time.” I suppose that’s one of the reasons it is associated with funerals or end-of-life events.

Job uses this word many times in his defense against those who encourage him to turn from his God, such as in chapter 13, verse 15: “Though he take away my life, still will I hope in him.” (Some translations use the word ‘yet,’ meaning the same as ‘still.’)

It is that kind of continuing steadfastness to which we all aspire – those of us who seek to be faithful followers of the Lamb. It is our intention to come to the end of our days, still using the word “still”! Of course, you know that I’m going to love this line because it says that my song shall still be, “Let me be nearer, my God, to thee.”

One of my top-ten favorite hymns is “Draw Me Nearer.” Many of you know that one, and it will come up more than once on these blogs! I find myself singing it many mornings while I’m getting ready – out loud if no one else is in the house! It truly is my sincere prayer for every day – to edge a bit closer to my blessed Lord and to the cross where he died.

This Sunday when you stand to sing in worship - whatever your musical style - realize that your praises of the crucified, risen Christ are still genuine – after all these years. May ALL our songs still continue to draw us nearer to the One who is now on heaven’s throne at the top of those steps where angels beckon us to come. May our thoughts and attitudes truly still be brightened with his praise.

Try your best to stop thinking of this as a hymn about a mighty ship going down; rather consider a mighty church rising up in praise, still moving nearer to one another and their Leader.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"Life itself is ours on lease."

Hymn: “Of All the Spirit’s Gifts to Me” – Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000)

One of the newest texts I’m going to cover on this blog is from one of my heroes of modern hymn-writing: Fred Pratt Green, a British Methodist minister who penned some wonderfully meaningful texts which are easy to comprehend the first time you sing them – a goal of anyone who writes songs for congregational use. If you have a hymnal published in the past thirty years, it would be worth your time to read through the full text; for copyright reasons, I shouldn’t print it here.*

Life itself is ours on lease. These six words communicate so much about how our life is not our own; it is loaned to us for a brief period then returned to its owner – our owner – God himself. Green’s British turn of phrase here “ours on lease” brings even more emphasis to ownership.

While much of hymnody (especially the gospel songs from the first half of the 20th Century) point us toward our eternal life - our heavenly home - this one centers our attention back on our current situation. This life I call MINE is truly not mine at all! I need to be reminded of that now and then to keep me from getting what my mama called ‘the big head.’ Arrogance or self-confidence can blur our vision of who we really are; humble gratefulness can re-center our understanding of ourselves and of Jehovah… whose very name means ‘giver of life.’

            In this world I’m driving a “loaner.”
            One day it reverts to its owner.
            No debt to repay,
            So each day I say:
            My God, he’s a wonderful donor!

Not nearly as poetic as Green, but you get the point! [I think that may be my first-ever limerick!]

By its very definition, a lease is temporary… and the owner is compensated as part of the agreement. In the case of our contract with God, HE has paid the price, and WE enjoy the benefit. That is the opposite of our usual understanding of how a lease works.

Okay, fellow lessors: contact your Lessee today. Thank him for affording you the privilege of life. While you’re at it, you may need to renew your lease! 

 * - At you can read the text and hear the hymn-tune played (click midi file). Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page to see words and music scanned from contemporary hymnals.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"I'm possessed of a hope that is steadfast and sure."

Hymn: “Since Jesus Came into My Heart” - Rufus H. McDaniel (1850-1940)
This rip-roaring, toe-tapping gospel song has enjoyed popularity since it first appeared in print in the early 20th Century. Because it is a fun tune with lots of repetition in the melody, it caught on quickly and stuck… and is still used commonly in evangelical worship.

As is true of so many hymns, this one emerged from the soul of Rufus McDaniel in response to a tragedy – the death of his son. It’s hard for us to believe that such a positive set of words could be prompted by a season of grief and loss – especially set to such a lively tune by Charles H. Gabriel, one of the most prolific tunesmiths of the time; we are most familiar with his “I Stand Amazed in the Presence.”

We have a hint at McDaniel’s loss in another stanza of “Since Jesus Came into My Heart” with
            There’s a light in the valley of death now for me…
            And the gates of that city beyond I can see…
            I shall go there to dwell in that city, I know.

The thing that stands out to me in today’s hymn-line is being possessed by hope… owned by, mastered by, controlled by hope. What a wonderful thought. But each time I sing that line, I have to ask myself, “Am I?” Does my steadfast, secure hope truly shape all of my thinking and doing? Am I constantly motivated by a hopeful attitude? I mine the kind of hope that is confidently expectant?

When many of us hear the word ‘possessed,’ our minds go to something evil… probably because we grew up with movies like The Exorcist! But here, possession is a good thing!

Possessed is closely akin the word obsessed… but this is a glorious obsession!

The term fanatic has been cast in a negative light; we are always concerned when someone becomes fanatical about an idea or a cause. It is, of course, the shortening of this word which is our word “fan”… and we are surrounded by fanatics when any sports season is in full swing! A true, obnoxious fan is obsessed with his/her team or celebrity figure… possessed… owned by, mastered by, controlled by.

Without being obnoxious, I want to be a person possessed by great hope… secure faith… firm belief. I certainly don’t want to become hope-less. And I won’t become despairing if my confidence is steadfast and sure – not because I have conjured it up, but because Jesus came into my heart… and he continues to do that just when I need him most.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"See, the Father meets him out upon the way, welcoming his weary. wand'ring child."

Hymn: “Ring the Bells of Heaven” – William O. Cushing (1823-1902)

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" - Rembrandt
This is a fine example of a good old gospel song – a peppy, fun-to-sing one at that! We have sometimes separated our congregational songs into  hymns, gospel songs, praise choruses, scripture songs… and now, even rap. But this is truly a “gospel” song because it is based from one of the great stories told by Jesus from the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, that section which features the three parables of ‘the lost’: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son – all three of which are eventually found, making them parables with happy endings!

There are several songs based from stories in the Gospels: “Master, the Tempest Is Raging” tells of Jesus’ calming of the sea, and “The Ninety-and-Nine” recounts the first of these parables from Luke 15. “Ring the Bells of Heaven” alludes to all three of the lost-parables, but it is mostly about the story of the young man we have always called the Prodigal Son… the weary, wand’ring child, a soul returning from the wild, a soul rescued from his sinful ways, a precious soul who’s born again.

We’ve all heard plenty – maybe too many – sermons and Bible studies based on this story of the son who demands his inheritance only to waste it on ‘riotous living’ which includes all those sins we were instructed to stay shy of in the beginners Sunday School class. He comes to his senses and heads home, unsure of how he will be received. It is upon his trip home that the “surprise” of this short story happens. The rising action turns to the father and his over-the-top re-acceptance of the long-lost son who has been incommunicado.

In the Bible story, my favorite line is “And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him…” That sentence speak volumes about the nature of God’s relationship with us; even when we wander off as far as we’ve ever been, when we turn toward home, God sees us… and is “filled with compassion for” us. (v. 20) This is why many people now call this the Parable of the Loving Father instead of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Today's hymn-line begins with the word ‘see’ – as if to say "notice." It’s kind of like when something turns out the way someone else said it would, they say to you, “See, I told you so.” If the line didn’t have to be so poetic as to fit a metrical scheme, it could have been, “Get this! The father meets him…”

Perhaps too much has been made of the father’s un-Jewish-man-like uncharacteristically running down the long dusty driveway, but he certainly wasted no time meeting the wandering child --arms stretched wide open, offering a strong hug -- and walking him the rest of the way to the house.

We’ll get to "see on the portals he’s waiting and watching" in another hymn-line later, but bring that picture to mind. Got it? Now see him jump off the porch… probably avoiding the steps… and rushing toward the now-happy wanderer – knapsack on his back – singing “Val-deri, val-dera.”-- Oops. Sorry. Wrong song! In this case, he may be singing “Glory! Glory! How the angels sing. Glory! Glory! How the loud harps ring.”

Weary, wand’ring child: turn toward home. It will be worth the trip.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Today's Hymnline

The actual hymn "line" for today is: "O Christ, be thou our lasting joy, our ever great reward."
For some reason, it picked up the hymn title instead of the "line" for today.

"O Christ, be thou our lasting joy, our ever great reward."

Hymn: “O Christ, Our Hope, Our Heart’s Desire” – 8th Century Latin Hymn
      [Translated by John Chandler – 1806-1876]

I am often drawn to very old hymn texts like this one from the 8th Century. Fortunately, these have been translated from the Latin for us to sing in our own tongue… for most of my readers, that would be English!

This entire hymn is a sung prayer, and the line I have pulled from it is one that seems to pop off the page whenever I’m in a service where this hymn is sung – or even just reading through hymnals. Yes, I hate to admit it, but I truly enjoy doing that!

In asking God to be the joy that lasts, continues, lives on, we are imploring the continuation of the state of joy which is ours as followers of him. The Bible never mentions the word ‘fun,’ but it uses the word joy throughout… almost from cover to cover. Indeed, there are heights of joy at which we find ourselves: at church camp, on prayer retreats, at intense times of worship… at the birth of a child, the marriage of that grown-up child, the birth of a grandchild. There are too many joys attached to our lives to begin to make even a short list. But joy CAN be our perpetual state of being.

O Jesus, please be that joy that keeps on bubbling up within us. Do not allow us to fall into hopeless despair.

The last phrase of this hymnline – “our ever great reward” – seems to indicate that this joy that I have that the world didn’t give to me is destined to be my eternal great reward. In fact, if the joy of the Lord that is my everyday strength were my ONLY reward, it would be a good one to have experienced and to have relished in this life. My belief system includes an afterlife awaiting, and I am certain that life will be the culmination of this life’s lasting joy, our ever great reward.

O Jesus, if joy were my only reward for being your follower, that would be plenty. Let us more fully enjoy the joy.

From the Westminster Catechism, the first question: What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"From him who loves me now so well..."

Hymn: "I've Found a Friend, O Such a Friend" - James G. Small (1817-1888)

From him who loves me now so well what pow'r my soul can sever?
Shall life or death or earth or hell? No! I am his forever.

This is a longer hymn-line than usual, but I couldn't pare it down.

For just a moment, think back to a time when you realized that one of your acquaintances had become a friend. Was it a slow process, or did it happen fairly quickly? Did that friendship develop into a deep relationship, or did it "cool down" with time? If this friendship has lasted for a long time, then just now you should have felt a warmth in your spirit; you probably sensed a smile come to your face.

This entire hymn is about Christ's constantly-developing friendship with those of us who genuinely believe in him... who are working at the relationship from our side as well. Again, the warmth -- the smile. (sigh)

This hymn-line happens to be the final two phrases of the text, and it turns the following prose from Romans 8:35-39 into poetry:
What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.  For I am persuaded , that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present , nor things to come ,  nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When I sing this hymn-line, my favorite part is the word "No!" It is one of those times when no is positive. It is not like a childish refusal to eat vegetables; it is more akin to our use of "no way"... no way that's gonna happen! In spite of everything, Christ and I are bound together forever! (I'll give you a moment to reflect on that!)

I also think there is a significance to Small's use of the word "now": From him who loves me now so well. In that snippet, we are reminded that the love for Christ for us is in the here and now - not only at the moment of our redemption, or into eternity... or even yesterday. Right now, he is still working on his side of the friendship, loving me so well. I need to reciprocate in kind.

An un-severable friendship. What a blessed assurance!
(It has the words so you can sing along if you'd like!)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Dark is the stain that we cannot hide."

Hymn: “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” – Julia H. Johnston (1849-1919)

I got into trouble with this hymn one Sunday morning when I was serving First Baptist Church in Kingston, Tennessee. It was the day after the Tennessee Volunteers lost to Alabama in nearby Knoxville. Much to my embarrassment, we stood and sang, “Look, there is flowing a crimson tide.” Yes, there was an audible response from the congregation!

Today’s hymn-line points out a truth about ourselves that we don’t necessarily want to face up to: we are sinful people by nature. We may be able to hide/cover-up that embedded nature to our fellow humans, but we cannot hide it from our all-knowing, all-seeing Maker.

I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter years ago and have seen a couple of movies and stage plays based on the story. It would have been a popular read during Julia Johnston’s life, so it may have played into her writing of this hymn-line. That emblazoned “A” certainly comes to my mind every time I sing this hymn.

After hearing a church-lady go on and on. complaining about a street person who had attended a worship service in a downtown city church – how he reeked of alcohol and tobacco – a very wise gentleman said to her, “I thank God my sin doesn’t smell.”

All of us have sinned and continue to miss the mark; some of us miss it less frequently than perhaps we used to! I am indeed glad that I am not forced to have my shame embroidered on my clothing; I am equally glad that my iniquity is not odorous. I am allowed to work out my sinfulness privately before God.

Amazingly, there is a grace that flows like a crimson tide, cleansing even the darkest stain left behind by our most grievous indiscretions. This marvelous, infinite, matchless grace is pouring forth freely from yonder on Calvary’s mount. We need to be reminded of this.

So, walk past the cosmetics counter; stop trying to cover up your sin blemishes. Head instead toward that Old Rugged Cross and allow yourself to be covered once again by the outpoured grace that is greater than all our sin.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"To us he'll condescend."

Hymn: “Come, Christians, Join to Sing” – Christian H. Bateman (1813-1889)
Typical Tune: MADRID

This grand hymn calls us all to combine our voices in song. I guess its title could have been tattooed across my forehead for my ministry, because this is exactly what I was calling folks to do – luring them to join the song of the blessed.
British Artist: Ghislaine Howard

As we sing through this text, all the phrases make sense; they’re all praise-y and typical-ish until we get to today’s hymn-line. Condescend? Isn’t that a negative word? Doesn’t that mean that he will talk down to us or treat us with disrespect? In our vernacular, this is a patronizing word – not one I attach to the Savior Christ. “Descend” I would automatically comprehend; but “condescend”? Not so much.

I admit that I always take a momentary time-out while I remind myself that this word (especially at the time of its penning) can also mean to stoop, to lower oneself… or to use an even more archaic word: deign.

“He humbled himself…” (Philippians 2:8) He stooped to wash the feet of his disciples. He bent down and blessed the children along his path. We have plenty of Bible-story snapshots of the holiest-of-all bending to where the lowest-of-the-lowly were.

Recently, I heard Wayne Watson sing these words from one of his greatest hits:

            Jesus, he meets you where you are.
            Jesus, he heals your broken scars.
            All the love you’re longing for,
            All the love you need is
            Jesus, the Friend of the wounded heart.

It’s that kind of sentiment that I must admit when I sing “to us he’ll condescend.” THEN I will not only understand what the word means, I will experience what the word tells me about how Jesus treats me… meeting me where I am, befriending my wounded heart.

Come on, Christians! It’s a hymn-line worth singing!

Monday, July 10, 2017

"Who in each sorrow bears a part that none can bear below."

"The Heavy Burden"
[Honoré Daumier]

Hymn: “There Is a Name I Love to Hear” - Frederick Whitfield (1829-1904)

There are indeed earthly sorrows that no other human can help us carry. We know those sorrows – the loss of friends and family members, great career difficulties, the final implosion of a long relationship… and our personal list goes on and on, sometimes beyond anyone else’s imaginings. Because we keep that stiff upper lip and maintain the cheerful countenance, those around us may not even know that we need their help to shoulder the current load.

This One who first loved us, and about whom we sing of our love – he can take on any sorry we may hoist upon him and help us deal with it. He may even turn that sorrow into eventual joy.

My wife Carlita is terribly fond of a Rascal Flats song that talks about coming through difficulties into eventual joy:
            Every long lost dream led me to where you are.
            Others who broke my heart, they were like Northern stars
            Pointing me on my way into your loving arms.
            This much I know is true:
            That God blessed the broken road
            That led me straight to you.*

For most of us, there have been many broken roads – probably more broken dreams. Above all the stuff that seemed at the time to be broken, there stood a loving, observant, compassionate Savior. And as soon as he saw that the sorrow was about to weigh us down and make us immobile, he changed positions and came underneath us to bear the part that none can bear in this life.

Upon comprehending his help and feeling the weight somewhat lifted, we have no other refrain to sing but: O how much I love Jesus… because he first loved me.

Hear Alan Jackson Sing This Hymn

Friday, July 7, 2017

"O let me ne'er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet!"

Hymn: “This Is My Father’s World” – *Maltbie D. Babcock (1858-1901)

First, let me say that I love this hymn… I love singing it in worship and in private. It is so filled with hymn-lines that you’ll hear from this hymn several times if you follow these posts!

At our house, we watch way too much television (Non-watchers: do not send me condescending messages about this obvious addiction, and I’ll try not to send you emails about yours!) and read too many newspapers and magazines – so I am very much aware of the strongness of wrongness in our world.

We watch a lot of detective/mystery shows… especially from the BBC. I know those are made-up stories, but they are based in human nature – the dark side of carnality.

But the news media communicates the realities of evil: the rising head of wrong. I won’t begin making a list of all the human-instigated tragedies; you know them as well as I. You and I share the shock of “breaking news” stories, especially those which are human-upon-human. We shake our heads and ask, “What’s wrong with the world?” I wish I had a nickel for every time Carlita has said while watching the evening news, “That is just wrong!” I have no choice but to agree with her.

We can – and do – become overcome with reports of evil lurking about us, splashed onto our flat-screens and across our sheets of un-bleached newsprint. When bad behavior tends to asphyxiate me, I have to breathe in once again the reality of my faith - to bring back to the top of my mind that this IS my Father’s world, dang it… he is still the Ruler thereof. How easy that is to forget.

He is also that by which goodness is measured… that kind of ruler! I only remember a few lines from my earliest French vocabulary exercises; in one of them, we held up a one-foot flat wooden strip saying, “Voici mon règle.” Fifty years later in life, I need to say that more often: “Here is my ruler.” This is how I’m going to determine right from wrong. Better yet, “God is my ruler.”

We humans have a tendency toward forgetfulness. We can only point out others’ sins when we are able to forget our own. When in the midst of great difficulty, we tend to forget the great promises of God. We basically forget whose we are. We are children of the King… the Ruler of the earth. After all, this IS my Father’s world.

As you move through today, don’t let evil get you down – don’t allow the Evil One to grab your attention away from the Good One – the Lord God himself.

Although the wrong may often seem so strong, let me never forget that God is still the Ruler.

*- Not one of our most familiar hymn writers, Babcock, an American, was a Presbyterian pastor, famous for his oratory and beautifully descriptive use of language and poetic devices in his sermons. This is his only hymn still in common use. It was published by his wife after his death, so he never heard it sung.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

"In self-forgetting love be our communion known."

Hymn: "A Parting Hymn We Sing" - Aaron R. Wolfe (1821-1902)

This rarely-used hymn has been omitted from most recent hymnals. The singing of closing hymns that send the congregation out after corporate worship has become a thing of the past but were commonly used in the worship of our forebears. Nonetheless, this is one of those phrases that jumps out at me when I DO have the opportunity to sing this text.

This hymn-line is a more poetic statement of "They'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love," and quite honestly, we'd rather sing songs that are worded in a straight-forward way... poetic or not. However, encouraging the community of faith ("our communion") to make known their presence in the world by being people of self-less love is a great way to dismiss the flock.

In our social culture - especially American - the concept of self-less-ness is one of the most difficult of Christ's teachings for us to truly "get." Everything about media and the daily buzz among our peers, our leaders, our coaches is self-promotive. We are making ourselves the center of our universe. We hear the word "entitled" applied to more and more individuals and groups.

This hymn-line is a positive reminder to me - and hopefully you - that it is not all about me... that it is when I forget about myself that I am more Christ-like in my treatment of my fellow humans. In order to not be Oprah-ized into self-centered thinking and behavior, I have to remind myself of this constantly, more constantly than I should. When self-less-ness becomes our natural mindset, we come closer to "arriving" at that to which we are called.

May the faith community to which I belong be known around town as a group of self-forgetting, compassionate people.

Not as poetic, but that's what I get out of this hymn-line.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"From sinking sand... with tender hand he lifted me."

Hymn: “In Loving-Kindness Jesus Came” – Words & Music by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932)

Whatever happened to kindness? Whatever happened to loving-kindness? When did rude and condescending become the norm? Or has it?

The opening line of this hymn describes the way Jesus approaches us: in loving- kindness, with mercy, through grace. That pretty well describes the Christ to whom I am attracted… still.

Stooping to scoop me up in his arms from sinking sand – even sinking sand from which I have been rescued previously and to which I too often return – THAT is the Savior I know and love… and worship.

He doesn’t grab me up by the scruff, yanking me against my will. It is rather with tender hands, soothing me and comforting even as I struggle to be freed from the quagmire which so strenuously seeks to suck me further downward.

I have many people to thank for showing kindness to me over the years, but I have Hedy and Raymond to thank for teaching me the importance of being kind… to extend that Christ-like loving-kindness. It was part of their nature… and it is becoming mine… and in turn, my nature is turning more toward Christ-like-ness.

Complaining, demanding one’s own way, whining – these are not the qualities that others are drawn to. And if we intend to be attracting people to our Lord, we must… absolutely MUST take on more of his kind nature. Some of us would rather robe ourselves in holiness than immerse ourselves in kindness. Wouldn’t some holy kindness be a possibility?

The next time I really want to be ‘mean,’ I need to remember the first line of this hymn… and come at life with loving-kindness – not forced nice-ness, but kind-hearted-ness which comes naturally because I am taking on HIS nature.

Remember, it wasn’t that long ago you were up to your neck in some kind of quicksand… and in loving-kindness Jesus came along. Constant awareness of whence we came and who brought us to where we are can make a real difference in our attitude, turning us from cranky fault-finders to pleasant representatives of the One who lifts us still. 

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)