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.
Every believer has seasons of doubt. No matter how strong our faith or our relationship to Christ, hardship comes and discipleship wavers. We wonder where God is, and we question the very possibility of salvation itself. Perhaps that is why God is a God of promises. From the earliest covenants that God made with Cain and Noah to the New Covenant in which Jesus’ sacrifice bridged the divide between God and us, God is unrelenting in pursuit of our hearts and souls.
Sacred music is a reassuring resource for a waning sense of faith. Hymns can communicate God’s sure foundation as well as Jesus’ promise to never leave us nor forsake us. It nurtures us in the church and surrounds us with songs both challenging and familiar to let us know that God is still with us even in the face of opposing evidence.
Many songs that communicate God’s promises come in the form of what many call the great “gospel hymns” of old. These hymns, spanning the 18th to early-20th centuries are remarkable theological powerhouses that act as a balm to our deepest spiritual wounds. They are not just for funerals, they also intend to play in our mind like earwigs when times get tough.
Fanny Crosby, author of thousands of hymns and poems, gifted us with one of the most meaningful of gospel hymns, Blessed Assurance. It is a love song between Savior and saved, a promise that “Jesus is mine!”, a Jesus who whispers love and mercy in the midst of night. Though times of distress, doubt, and hardship threaten to silence us, God’s promises give us a story to tell and a song to sing. If nothing else, we can “praise our Savior all day long” even if it seems fanciful to those who have no belief at all.
A memorable hymn is Great is Thy Faithfulness, penned by pastor-turned-insurance salesman Thomas Chisholm. For me, doubt does not exist throughout the year, but in waves and seasons. At times, my faith crushes all doubt; at other times, my faith may exist as a mere flicker of light in a sea of darkness. No matter, faith incorporates a seasonal rhythm of highs and lows, and Great is Thy Faithfulness affirms it as such: “Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest…join with all nature in manifold witness to Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love!”
There is another set of hymnody that reassures believers and expresses God’s promises. The great reformer Martin Luther penned A Mighty Fortress is Our God in times of trouble, arrest, and persecution. His own bouts of depression and anxiety needed a poetic outlet, and “God’s truth abideth” seemed appropriate for a time of spiritual warfare.
Three similar songs include How Firm a Foundation, Rock of Ages, and The Solid Rock. How Firm is an early hymn overshadowed by mystery. The author is only known as “K” while the author of the tune FOUNDATION is also anonymous. Perhaps that is intentional as it is God, not the author, who speaks to us in four of the five verses: “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed.”
Rock of Ages has a livelier history, if not for content, then for author Augustus Toplady, who feuded with the Wesley brothers. Several things catch my attention: (1) Augustus Toplady is, like, the coolest name ever, (2) who else would have the audacity to call John Wesley (founder of Methodism) the “most rancorous hater of the gospel”, and (3) there is a theory that Toplady plagiarized some of the lines of Rock of Ages from a poem that Charles Wesley wrote some three decades earlier. (All of this is recorded with no small drama in Kenneth Osbeck’s 101 Hymn Stories, pp. 215-217). The dude had nerve.
And the last, The Solid Rock, is just a good song altogether. Published in one of the only hymnals to be distributed during the Civil War, its clear and concise message summarizes everything these gospel hymns mean to me. As a way to end, allow me to quote the first verse in full:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
Thank God for God’s promises!