a monthly devotional journal
Issue No. 75
The reasons given are many. "The words are old fashioned. Many people don't understand them." "It's too expensive to purchase all those books." "It's a bother to have everyone turn to a page in a hymnal."
Whatever the excuses, the result is the same: the old familiar church hymnal is becoming, in some churches, an anachronism in worship, replaced by the more simple and often repetitious choruses sung from memory, or from printed sheets or projections. Along with the trend toward reaching the younger `unchurched' has come a trend away from use of the traditional hymnal in worship.
The chorus has its place. But in the process of inserting its simplicity, we have lost from our worship much of the profoundly rich and deeply Scriptural text of the hymn.
Eugene Peterson writes...
"In the call to worship we hear God's first word to us; in the benediction we hear God's last word to us; in the Scripture lessons we hear God speaking to our fathers; in the sermon we hear that word re-expressed to us; in the hymns, which are all to a greater or lesser extent paraphrases of Scripture, the Word of God makes our prayers articulate."
Second only to Holy Scripture itself, the hymns of our faith express the deep yearnings and unspoken cries of the heart. When our minds fail to form words to adequately voice the praise rising within our soul, we need only reach out at arm's length to borrow from Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Cowper, Philip Doddridge, Isaac Watts, or Philip P. Bliss.
The singing of hymns is less an exercise in community singing than the opportunity to express praise and testimony beyond our own eloquence. And it is a sad turn of events when such profound thoughts are so readily set aside because their use might be inconvenient. Heaven forbid we should be inconvenienced in our worship.
Let's journey together through the hymnal; let's rediscover some of the Spiritual wealth contained there. Lean forward in your pew to that rack attached to the back of the one in front. Set aside that thin, well-worn chorus pamphlet--just for the moment; there's no reason to throw it away--and remove the older hymnal. Blow the dust off the top and open it.
So where do we begin? Most hymnals contain songs numbering beyond 500. Where do we begin?
We begin where we should always: at the throne. We approach the throne of our God with confidence blended with humility, bow down before Him, and proclaim--before anything else--His holiness.
Turn in your hymnal to "Holy, Holy, Holy." Let's sing together, declaring the identity of our Lord.
Did you see Him? Did you see the Father upon His throne? Or were they just words mechanically sung?
Sing them again--go ahead, we'll wait. Sing each phrase slowly, thoughtfully, taking the time to let the words create their image in your mind.
Approach him reverently, bowing down before Him.
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
The day begins at the throne, raising awakening voices to our God.
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
He is holy, yes, but in His unquenchable might, He is also merciful.
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
Our God is a glorious, supernatural Spirit comprising Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Perhaps the opening stanza of this hymn of praise reminds you of a dawning day, with the sun just rising over the distant hills. Perhaps the words draw a picture for you of the three members of the trinity: the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
The first line of this hymn takes me back to that splendid and horrific scene where Isaiah has been lifted up to the throne room of God and, standing there in the presence of such purity and holiness, he is overwhelmed by thoughts of his own sinfulness.
And that is where worship begins: understanding who we are in relation to our God. Oh, I've not forgotten our standing through the blood of Christ; one thing at a time. First let us truly appreciate who we are in Christ by realizing what we were without Him. As Isaiah said, when faced with such a powerful display of holiness, "Woe is me, for I am ruined!... For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (6:5 NASB)
Without the blood of Christ we couldn't even be here in the first place.
In the second stanza we're reminded that we are not alone in our worship, but part of a vast community that includes the believers around us, the saints who have gone on before, the twenty-four elders (Revelation 4:10), as well as the supernatural beings that populate heaven.
The third stanza (and the only proper way to sing a hymn is to sing it in its entirety) is an admission of our temporal condition. Here is the picture of mankind--both saved and unsaved--living far away from the throne of God. But notice: God Himself does not change. Though ("Tho'") the perception of Him by humans might fade, His holiness remains intact.
Now we rise in our praise, singing together with full voice and glad hearts, the sound swelling upwards toward the throne...
Churches the world over are filled with people who don't feel like being there. To some this is hypocrisy--to others, simply the way of things. In fact, Eugene Peterson claims that the act of worship rightly comes before the feeling:
"Feelings are great liars. If Christians only worshiped when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship that went on. Feelings are important in many areas, but completely unreliable in matters of faith. We think that if we don't feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different, namely, that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act which develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God which is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured."
So we may approach God--whether in corporate or private worship--in a disinterested, apathetic condition. Or we may approach Him with good intent, but lacking the words to express what is in our heart.
The Bible tells us that it is one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit to supply those words.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. Romans 8:26-27
The Spirit may feed us the words to use, or He may simply translate our groanings into the language of heaven. In either case, when we approach the throne with lethargic motives, it is good to call upon the Holy Spirit to assist us in expressing the honest intent of our heart.
When the mind is blank to everything but its fundamental need for God, just as Scripture gives us words we can pray to the Father, our hymnal can supply words with which we can call upon the Spirit to quicken our heart toward heaven. And there are a number of hymns we can use for this purpose. "Breathe on Me, Breath of God" "O Breath of Life" "Come, Gracious Spirit, Heavenly Dove" "Fill Me Now"
The Christian acquires the Spirit at the moment of conversion. He need not repeatedly request Him to enter, to draw closer, for He is already a part of him.
But the Christian, though carrying heaven's passport, is a pilgrim in an unholy land, where he can become insulated from the touch of the Spirit. And this is the condition addressed in the hymn written by George Croly, an Irish minister, serving in the London of the early 1800s.
The world can quickly wrap us up in its dingy flannel blanket, shielding us from the light and life from above--even from the effective touch of someone already a part of us. When this happens, we require no fireworks, no profound angelic visitations--we simply need to know He is still there.
The presence of the Spirit means we are imbued with a hunger for the things of God.
But the flesh cannot possibly sustain this hunger on its own. God is not only the destination, He is the path. He is the one who teaches us the way to Himself.
As the Spirit does His work, as the groanings are translated into intelligible communication, the presence of our God becomes more real, and the heart crescendos upward, reaching, clasping, drawing life energy from the Lord.
Our relationship with God is--as in any human relationship--two-sided. It consists of giving and taking, sharing and receiving. In a healthy relationship, there is action and reaction; when one person does something, the other life is affected.
Honesty, too, is part of any healthy relationship. So when we sing to God to reinvigorate us by His Spirit, we should mean it--and anticipate His reply. Time spent with God should result in a change, not necessarily dramatic, but at least real.
When we approach the throne to declare the supernatural reality of our God, and when we call upon Him to clear away the built-up layers of this `veil of clay', we should expect something to happen in our own life as a result. And very often the result is an offering--and sometimes an offering of our very life.
Here we have demonstrated two of the more unfortunate drawbacks of the hymn form. Because of poetic structure, and the need for common people to catch their breath when singing, the first line--along with the title of the song--has been chopped in two, resulting in a blurred meaning.
means something quite different from
The first line could be interpreted as a plea for God to leave us alone, to `let us be', while the second--and the one more faithful to the intent of the hymn--is an offering of one's life to Him. Two entirely different statements. So, when singing this hymn, one should sing the first two phrases without inserting a breath between, as
As you sing this offering to God, sing it thoughtfully and honestly. Notice that the first stanza, and the end of the last, are an all-inclusive summary: Take my life. All of it. The stanzas between then itemize what our lives consist of: stanzas two and three deal with our physical bodies, while stanzas four through six deal with our possessions and more spiritual side.
The number of types of hymns is almost limitless. Webster's defines a hymn as "a song in praise or honor of God, a god, or gods," but in practice our collection of hymns also consists of songs that explain our faith, witness to God's mercy and grace, pray for help, evangelize, express confession of sins, and illuminate Scripture. And many hymns _ in fact, most--combine one or more of these types.
On its surface, "Great is Thy Faithfulness" falls into the category of praise or worship, since it is declaring an attribute of God: His faithfulness. The song is taken from the book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah...
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD'S great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lament. 3:21-23
as well as the epistle of James.
Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. James 1:16-17 KJV
Yet this favorite hymn is so much more. It is also a song of comfort for the oppressed: God is faithful and merciful. He'll not let you down. In addition, the song is a strong testimony, given by the saved to the unsaved: Look! Look at what our God is like. He will be the same for you!
As we sing this hymn together, rejoicing in the compassion and faithfulness of our God, notice how the words of this prayer represent so many different aspects of life in Christ.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Surely hymns are most valued as trusted reminders of who God is. No matter their subject or theme, most hymns serve to describe, in one way or another, the personality or ways of our God. Even evangelistic hymns designed to win lost souls do so by telling what God has done for them...
...or will do in the future.
Even more horizontal hymns (person to person, rather than the `vertical' person to God) about the body of Christ remind us that the church is based upon the sure foundation of Christ...
...and our mutual adoration of the one God.
Songs of testimony are testifying to how Jesus Christ saved us by His mercy...
...how He brings peace to the believer every day...
...or how the saint has a secure future.
If all the thousands of hymns ever written have a common purpose, it is _ like Scripture--to keep the truth of God before His people. And how very much we need that today.
The Christian life is one of constantly swimming upstream against the muck and refuse of the society in which we must, at least for awhile, reside. Daily we are battered by the unsightly ways of this world; how precious are the wise words of truth contained in our hymns--not only to remind and educate, but to lift us up above this temporal plane, into the pristine heights of the throne room of God.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 3:16-17
Louisa M.R. Stead was a devout Christian who had been called to missionary service. From her native England, she had come to the United States in 1871.
One day Louisa, her husband, and their four-year-old daughter were picnicking at the Long Island shore. Seeing a young boy struggling in the water, Louisa's husband immediately ran to his aid. But instead of being rescued, the terrified boy only succeeded in taking them both under--and it wasn't until later that evening that the body of Mr. Stead was recovered.
Months later, still grieving over her loss and the burden of supporting her family, Mrs. Stead prayed that God would provide for their needs. The next morning she discovered on her doorstep a basket of food and an envelope containing enough money to purchase new shoes for her little girl. Her sustaining faith in God once again confirmed, she penned the following hymn.
It's not uncommon for the typical worship service to end with a quiet, encouraging hymn of benediction, or "good word," such as the following, adapted from Numbers 6:24-26...
...which would then usually be followed by the inspiring, classic sevenfold "Amen."
When I was a kid growing up in the First Baptist Temple, the opening chords of this song always signaled to me the welcome, and long-anticipated end of another tiresome hour spent on a hard wooden pew. It signaled the beginning of the time when I need no longer be embarrassed by the empty rumblings of my stomach, quaking in eager expectation of Mom's delicious pot roast or roasted chicken.
It was tradition. It was the way of things.
There's a different tradition I'd like to see take hold in our churches. Instead of ending our time with God with the customary benedictory hymn, I'd like to see us end our worship with a return to the praise with which we began. Instead of simply ending our service with the obligatory song to get us out the door, let's end it with a summary declaration of the presence and personality of the Lord God.
We worship together, first, to adore and magnify our God, but after that priority, we also come together to learn of His ways, testify to His ministry in our lives, encourage and edify each other in the faith, and to offer up intercessory prayers.
How appropriate, then, to end our time of corporate worship with a hymn (or spoken word) that somehow summarizes all of this in a strong declaration and heading-out-the-door reminder of who our God is. We should be leaving the sanctuary--not with stiff joints from a hard pew, and a rumbling stomach--but with our minds filled with an image of God upon His throne, and our hearts energized by His presence!
This hymn...originated in nineteenth-century Europe. In 1886 Swedish pastor Carl Boberg was caught in a sudden thunderstorm while visiting a beautiful country estate. As the storm passed, giving way to the sweet songs of birds and a green countryside glistening in sunlight, Boberg composed the nine original stanzas of this hymn.
In time the hymn was translated into German and Russian. It was noticed by a British missionary who was serving in the Ukraine. That missionary, Reverend Stuart K. Hine, often sang the song with his wife as they ministered there. Later they translated three stanzas into English from the Russian and Hine himself added a fourth.
God's immensity does not change based on our perception of Him. The truth of God is that He is, in the true sense of the word, great--He is grand and glorious.
There are gods who wish us to remain blind to the truth about them. They revel in deceit, and present themselves to us as angels of light when in truth they are vermin of darkness.
But the Lord God of heaven desires that our eyes be kept fully open. He has nothing to hide. He knows that the more we see Him as He is--the more fully we comprehend His truth--the closer will be our communion with Him. And that is His true desire.
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. Psalm 95:1-3
Our God is inescapable. He's left his fingerprints on everything around and above us. To gaze into the starry hosts and not see God is to question the very premise of a supreme being.
For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. Col. 1:16
And we're left with only one way to respond: to joyfully sing His praise.
While the quietude of nature draws us one step closer to the presence of God, the sounds manufactured by civilization most often insulate us from Him. They represent, for many of us, society's bent away from God, and as such, work against the indwelling Spirit's bent toward God.
We all need a quiet place where we can commune with God. It may not always be a forested glen. We can commune with Him in the arid solitude of the desert; on the shoreline, with its pounding breakers to mask the sounds of everything else; in the privacy of our car, while on the freeway; or in a quiet, inner room of the house.
Wherever it may be, we must find and use that personal place where it is easier for us to find God's holy presence. We must find and frequent that place where His voice is not masked by the invasive cacophony of the world.
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." John 15:12-13
Look up into His face and praise Him for loving you enough to die so that you might live. He didn't bargain His way out of it, but went voluntarily to the shame and degradation of that hideous death--for you. He didn't die for you alone, but He died knowing your name.
And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
But this Jesus, this Christ, did not remain in the grave, but rose victoriously in defeat of death, turning the shame and humiliation of the cross back on Satan himself. We do not worship a dead Savior, but one who lives today as He always has: at the right hand of God the Father.
So open the floodgates of praise and worship Him!
Issue No. 75
[1.] Please do not interpret this statement, or this issue of Aspects as a whole, to mean that I am opposed to the use of `choruses' in personal or corporate worship. My call is simply for balance. After all, from the Psalms to The Revelation (Psalm 33:3; Psalm 40:3; Psalm 96:1; Psalm 98:1; Psalm 144:9; Psalm 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Rev. 5:9; Rev. 14:3) we are called to sing a "new song." As we incorporate the new, however, we should make it a point to not ignore the rich heritage of the old. (return to footnote 1)
[2.] A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity Press, 1980), p50. (return to footnote 2)
[3.] Isaiah 6:1-13. (return to footnote 3)
[4.] Reginald Heber, 1783-1826. (return to footnote 4)
[5.] A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p50. (return to footnote 5)
[64.] George Croly, 1780-1860. (return to footnote 6)
[7.] Frances Ridley Havergal, 1836-1879. (return to footnote 7)
[8.] Thomas O. Chisholm, 1866-1960. Copyright c 1923. Renewal 1951 by Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved. (return to footnote 8)
[9.] John H. Stockman, 1813-1877. (return to footnote 9)
[10.] Samuel J. Stone, 1839-1900. (return to footnote 10)
[11.] John Fawcett, 1740-1817 (return to footnote 11)
[12.] Francis H. Rowley, 1854-1952. (return to footnote 12)
[13.] Luther B. Bridgers, 1884-1948. (return to footnote 13)
[14.] Edwin O. Excell, 1851-1921. (return to footnote 14)
[15.] Louisa M.R. Stead, 1850-1917. (return to footnote 15)
[16.] William J. Petersen and Randy Petersen, The One Year Book of Hymns (Tyndale, 1995), compiled and edited by Robert K. Brown and Mark R.Norton. (return to footnote 16)
[17.] Carl Boberg, 1859-1940; translated by Stuart K. Hine, 1899-1989; Copyright c 1953, renewed 1981 by Manna Music, Inc., 35255 Brooten Road, Pacific City, OR 97135. International copyright secured. All rights reserved; Outside USA: Copyright c 1953 Stuart K. Hine/Kingsway's Thankyou Music, P.O. Box 75, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN23 6NW, UK. (return to footnote 17)
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