By Joe LaGuardia
A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church. By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul encouraged Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you were called” (4:1). Early in church history, many took this calling to mean the divine orders to which priests, bishops, and popes were commissioned. After the Reformation, of which we celebrated 500 years this past October 31, the church preached that all the people of God are called. It was Martin Luther who lifted up every believer, noting that even the least among us fulfill God’s call in our life when we live faithfully and obediently.
Our sacred hymnody has come from this vocational geography in the life of the church. There are two types of songs that relate to calling: Our call to salvation, and our call to Christian service. Both affirm that God offers us opportunities to choose Christ; worship–and the hymnody that makes up a part of that worship–is our response to God’s gifts and blessings in our life, a celebration of how we have experienced God from one week to the next.
Hymnody that communicates a call to salvation are vast and well-known. In many churches, these are songs that we sing during a time of invitation, either after a lengthy music set or immediately following the sermon. Hymns such as Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy, express our longing for God, our fragility as humans, and the vastness of God’s love. The song, penned in the eighteenth century by Joseph Hart, assures us that in our call to God, God will “embrace us in His arms.”
Other invitation hymns include Have Thine Own Way, Lord, which echoes God’s prophecy to Jeremiah that God is indeed potter while we, God’s people, are clay to be molded and sculpted by our Lord. I Surrender All is yet another hymn that acknowledges our choice to give all who we are to Christ Jesus, to “make me, Savior, wholly Thine.”
A beloved hymn, Softly and Tenderly, authored by Will Thompson became a fast favorite among revivals in Great Britain and the Americas. The great evangelist, D. L. Moody was said to have favored this song above all others, befriending Thompson along the way. Thompson held Moody’s hand on while Moody was on his deathbed (Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories).
A second category of invitation hymns include the commitment to Christian service. Come, All Christians, Be Committed and The Mission God Has Given (a more contemporary hymn) are among my favorites. Both implore believers to “share the gospel with people near and far” and share our blessings with others. Hymns that we sing around Thanksgiving, such as Because I Have Been Given Much, challenges us to give to others: “I cannot see another’s lack and I not share my glowing fire, my loaf of bread, my roof’s safe shelter overhead.”
Invitation and response are our responsibilities in meeting the Lord’s gift of grace and salvation in our life. They do not uphold a works-based righteousness but recall James’ admonishment to Christian sojourners in the world, that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). We need this reminder every week, and our time of invitation is a perfect incubator for a faith that upholds all our callings in Christ.