Wednesday, January 17, 2018

“In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such confiding for nothing changes here.”

Hymn: “In Heavenly Love Abiding” – Anna L. Waring (1823-1910)
Common Tune: NYLAND

Today is Carlita's birthday, so I'm going to elaborate on one of my wife's favorite hymns. It is a great text, one that deserves more exposure than it gets in most congregations. Grab a hymnal and plumb its depths, and see if you don’t agree.

Let me prose-ify this first line to get us started: “Because I am living in the love of heaven – that love best expressed by Christ himself – I don’t need to be afraid of changes that come my way, because I can know safety and security in the confidence that the love of God never changes.”

“Change” didn’t used to bother me the way it does now that I’m becoming more of an old fogy. I admit that I bristle at things being changed up… especially just for the sake of change. I’m pretty sure my new and improved toothpaste has only changed its packaging, by the way!

Maintaining confidence that Kingdom things – at least those initiated by God himself – are not about to morph into something else is an important way to look at my spiritual life. Worship styles may be modified, churches may relocate, church polity may be revised… but the Word of God and his loving-kindness and faithfulness are consistent; safe is such confiding.

Good life-partners provide us with that kind of safe confidence, demonstrating love and faithfulness at every turn. In solid unions, we find ourselves in heavenly love abiding.

Let’s not be so afraid of change itself. Let’s share the assurance that external variations cannot alter the unshakeable Kingdom in which we abide and which abides within us.

Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"They who trust him wholly, find him wholly true."

 Hymn: "Like a River Glorious" – Frances R. Havergal (1836-1879)
Typical Tune: WYE VALLEY

I happen to love Mendelssohn’s oratorio ELIJAH. I think I’ve done bits and pieces of it at every church I’ve served over the years and on two occasions presented a large portion of it in local churches with orchestra. [There are stories behind both of those, but I’ll save those for what everyone refers to as “The Book” of all my ministry escapades!]

The tenor solo sung by Obadiah in the oratorio had never resonated with me in any powerful way until I was involved in a staged production at the now-defunct Glorieta Baptist Conference Center in New Mexico. I will never forget when Forbes Woods came down the steps at center stage all decked out in full biblical regalia (fake beard and all) and looked straight into the eyes of all us space-filling singing/ dancing peons on stage and sang “If with all your hearts, ye truly seek me, ye shall ever surely find me. Thus saith our God.” If I were to use a somewhat antiquated phrase, I would say that I ‘came under conviction’ that he was singing directly to me. Fortunately, I did not run to him and make a public re-commitment of my life before we even got to the fire descending from heaven!

This hymn-line seems to echo that scripture from Deuteronomy: wholly seek, wholly find. In any worship time (personal or corporate), this principle seems to work.

I recall reading A.W. Tozer’s little book, THE PURSUIT OF GOD and coming across the chapter titled, "Following Hard after God." All of a sudden I was transported back to New Mexico and realized that Tozer was talking about seeking God with all your heart in worship. I began to call it “whole-hearted worship” and encouraged my worship-leading groups and individuals to never give it their half-hearted effort, but to go after God as aggressively as they possibly could – not in order to find their place in the spotlight at center stage, but to find God – God and God alone (to quote another incredible tenor Steve Green!)

Sometimes I enter worship holey (shot full of holes from the previous week); and when I wholly give myself over to the holy presence of God, I find him wholly true to all he says he is.

Holey. Wholly.  Holy.

Listen to This Hymn

Monday, January 15, 2018

“Then shall all bondage cease, all fetters fall.”

Hymn: “Break Thou the Bread of Life” – Mary Lathbury (1841-1913)

It seems appropriate on the day which we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday (it’s actually January 15), we should deal with the cessation of tyranny – a VERY biblical principle… one for which I have great concern.

In the context of this hymn text, when the truth of scripture is revealed, “THEN shall all bondage cease (and) all fetters fall.”

It is truly a shame that it has taken the truth of scripture so long to achieve enough comprehension to drive the people of the Author to stand up against enslaved, subjugated individuals and groups… locally and worldwide. How did we miss that consistent freeing theme? Why did the church and her leaders perpetuate the injustice? I am baffled by that.

Three years ago thisweek, the airwaves were inundated by stories of the senseless murders of four journalists/cartoonists in Paris, while little was mentioned of the two thousand slaughtered in Borno, Africa, at the hand of the Boco Haram. Less glamourous, I guess – less likely to draw a crowd to march arm-in-arm down the dusty streets of the small towns in that Nigerian state. I am all for the freedom of the press, but I am more-so for the freedom of individuals and groups who are going about their everyday lives and suffering not for publishing offensive cartoons but for simply being.

I will step off my soapbox now to say that when the layers are peeled back and the Word of God is read and understood without prejudice or agenda, something will be done to end the rampant spread of evil suppression and repression the world around – at least down the street.

The hymnline that follows this one is, “And I shall find my peace.” With Paul McCartney, I have to say, “Let it be! Let it be!” [That’s “amen” in church-speak!]

An Instrumental Medley Beginning with This Hymn

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

"Count your blessings! Name them one by one... see what God hath done."

Hymn: “Count Your Blessings” – Johnson Oatman, Jr. (1856-1922)

According to this hymn, some of the ‘rewards’ of counting your blessings are:
- It will surprise you what the Lord has done.
- You will be singing as the days go by.
- Angels will attend, bringing hope and comfort.
- Every doubt will fly.
- You’ll see what God has done.

None of us would likely sit down with a legal pad and begin making a list, naming all our blessings one by one. We know that would be a futile, unending endeavor. Our minds are boggled even before the pen touches the paper.

On the other hand, just considering our blessings as one big category is equally ineffective… if not worse. Making a wide gesture and declaring that “all these blessings” are from the Lord disallows us the special blessing of seeing each one individually… and appreciating them as separate indicators of God’s watchcare and provision in our lives.

Somewhere in between – that’s where we need to land. Looking at the overall swath of God’s blessings in our lives while being keenly aware of each one individually – even if unable to make an exhaustive list!

Tallying our blessings is one of the ways we can truly SEE what God has done prior to this place in our history. It makes us more conscious of what he is doing here and now; it also loosens the ground ahead to be more fertile – more open to receiving the blessings that await us between now and this time next year!

Hear a Fun Ragtime Setting of This Hymn

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"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

Okay, here is one more carol to consider as we move out of the caroling season. Epiphany seems to call us to move on toward Lent; however, it won't hurt us to spend one more day closer to the manger than the cross.

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 three interims 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!

Monday, January 8, 2018

"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

Sunday, January 7, 2018

“Fall on your knees.”

Carol: “O Holy Night” –Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

“Fall on your knees” is a call-to-worship, and to me it is in an interesting context; it seems to be stronger than “kneel” or “bow down.” It seems to be more of a reflexive action… one we do before we realize what we’ve done!

I’m a movie-lover, and two scenes from fairly recent films come to mind: 1) SAVING PRIVATE RYAN when the mother gets word that her sons have been killed in battle, and 2) MICHAEL CLAYTON when Tilda Swinton realizes her undoing. In both these cases, the women fall to their knees in shock; in our case, it would be awe. Upon realizing we are in the presence of a holy God, our reflex might be to fall to our knees without thinking it through: “Now should I raise my hands, should I bow my head, should I dance, should I be still?” Without any contemplation, we react in a way appropriate to our own expression, uncaring or unaware of anyone else’s reaction.

Whatever your natural, unbridled, child-like response, let it happen during this Epiphany season. If it’s as extreme as falling on your knees or prostrate (face down, arms spread) or standing still, let it be your honest, open response to the arrival of Emmanuel. It is an event worthy of your authentic worship response.

Susan Boyle Sings This Carol

Saturday, January 6, 2018

“In his name all oppression shall cease.”

Carol: “O Holy Night” – Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

Oppression, slavery, mistreatment, abuses of all kinds. If I had one wish for every new year, it would be the cessation of all these. In other words, I guess my desire – my prayer – would be for peace, just like the angels promised.

These are the kinds of things that I can actively eliminate from my own habit-cycle, but I can’t seem to do much about it outside my own little piece of the globe. I can give to organizations that seek to eradicate these from people-groups, I can stand up for human rights, I can elect leaders who join me in my concern… but CAN all oppression cease?

I have to believe that it can, and that the infusion of the Spirit of Christ into the hearts and minds of the offenders is indeed capable of wiping out cruelty and subjugation wherever it raises its ugly head… or hides itself behind conventional facades. Not only is his name wonderful, it is also powerful – and freeing.

We started the Advent season with the singing of "O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive [people of all kinds] who wait in lonely exile." Before we step into Epiphany - to all those who fall into this category, I want to say with confidence: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee.”

UCLA Choir Sings This Carol

Friday, January 5, 2018

"Consider well and bear in mind what our good God for us has done."

Carol: “Good People All, This Christmas Time” – 12th Century Irish

Because this is not one of those familiar ones that come tripping off the tongue, I will print the first stanza; when you listen to it, you’ll realize how very Irish it is!

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved Son.
With Mary, Joseph we should pray
To God with love this Christmas Day.
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born.

I’m using this carol NOW because it seems to go along with our taking down the tree and re-packing all our Christmas decorations – telling us not to forget why we have just celebrated this high, holy church season.

Consider well: think sincerely on the past few weeks of Advent’s anticipation and Christmas’s fulfillment. 

Bear in mind: carry with you into the next year the truth, the joy, the shared love of the recent days.

It’s a bit archaic, but we still hear people say (especially in arguments), “Now bear in mind…” That translates to “Now don’t forget.” Seems that this phrase from the ancient Irish carol is reminding us to remember what God has done for us in the midst of all our partying, eating, singing, concerting, etc.

Something you might do to help you with this: Write those first four lines of the carol on a large piece of paper and place it on the top of the last tub you store away after undecorating. Then when you open the box next year, you’ll be reminded of what the season is all about BEFORE you start decorating!

Hear This Carol with Allison Krauss with Yo-Yo Ma

Thursday, January 4, 2018

“Seraph (and) cherubim…veil their faces to the Presence as with ceaseless voice they cry, ‘Alleluia.’”

Carol: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” – Fifteenth Century

Many of you know that I collect Mickeys, Magi and Angels. I have slowed my angel-collecting since it has become trendy to do so; remember the words rebel and southerner are almost synonymous! Because I have several seraphim and cherubim sitting on shelves around the house, this hymnline may be more significant to me than it is to others.

Today we consider one of the holiest hymnlines ever penned (translated). It is definitely one of those “picture this” phrases. In the Presence, even angels cover their faces and voice their praises. While an obvious allusion to Isaiah’s sixth-chapter experience, these words set to this haunting melody conjure up a warming, hair-on-the-arm-raising reaction (as opposed to arm-raising!). I never sing or hear this without putting myself in their place – standing (or flying) before the very form of the Almighty, now shaped as a human. The melismatic “alleluia” rolls from the lips of the winged messengers, and I have no recourse but to join them… and my mortal silence is broken.

Fernando Ortego Sings This Carol

I love Cynthia Clawson’s version of this, but can’t find it online to share with you. Visit and buy the CAROLSINGER album!!!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

"Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in."

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

Before we get into the Epiphany season, while we’re still in Christmastide, I want to hit a couple of significant carolines – and this one qualifies:

    “No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
    Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

As mentioned before in one of my hymnlines on the first half of this stanza (“How silently… the wondrous gift is given”), this line follows that thinking. The word meek is so often categorized with “weak,” and that’s not a good thing. The first synonym for meek is humble – then submissive and compliant. All three of those fit better into our understanding of the biblical concept (and this carol’s meaning) of those meek souls who stand ready to receive the Christ Child: humbly, in submission, open to being shaped or molded.

The word that always jumps out at me in this hymnline is the word “still.” Even now, over 2,000 years later, the dear Christ is standing by, reading to make his entrance into the lives of the meek souls. About thirty years after the manger event, the grown-up Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) People of gentleness and kindness seem to have a special place in the mind and heart of God, and he is STILL being welcomed and received by folk of that ilk.

He still comes to us. Be still to receive him.

[Everybody skips this stanza, it seems… in worship and on recordings. I couldn’t find another good recording online to post. I guess you’ll have to sing it to yourself!]

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

"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. This season includes 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!!!

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)