A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: God’s Promises

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 RockHow 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!

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A Pastor appreciates the Hymns: Controversy!

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.

Hymns and hymnals have not been without controversy.  At times, controversy erupts when publishers change beloved verses in the hymns as a way to update the language.  Other times, the inclusion or exclusion of hymns can become a source of contention.

The most recent controversy involved the publication of the Glory to God Presbyterian hymnal in 2013, which centered on pushing variations (while limiting others) of the theological concept of atonement– one particular doctrine of atonement in which Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross was said to appease God’s wrath.

The exclusion of one such hymn that communicated this model of atonement, In Christ Alone, created strife.  Some thought the exclusion to be intentional, but editors indicated that they were unable to secure copyrights appropriate in changing the verse, “As Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “on that cross Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”

The publisher argued that there were some songs included that spoke to this type of atonement, but they emphasized the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice as an atonement for sin rather than an appeasement of God’s wrath.

Controversies in our own Baptist tradition abound as well.  In one controversial publication, the 2008 Baptist hymnal failed to put “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the first hymnal (it was #2 in the 1991 hymnal, right behind a congregational litany).  Another debate ensued as to whether to include “I Come to the Garden Alone,” which some scholars argue is theologically inaccurate.

Other controversies focused on whether to include contemporary songs or choruses.  These are primarily theological: What songs or choruses reflect a biblical message and inspire hearts to soar heavenward while our knees bend towards Christ?  What songs are so individualistic that they do not express any community theology or serve a pedagogic function for the church whatsoever?

In my own ministry, I have not had a particular dog in the hymnal fight.  I have, however, been intrigued to hear how other, more interested parties have weighed in.  I knew one minister of music who thought that excluding “Holy, Holy, Holy” from the #1 spot in the Baptist hymnal was among the greatest sins in human history.  In conversation with another music minister, I learned that there is too much “white space” in the new Celebrating Grace hymnal–and why kill all of those trees when you can use a more effective typeset?

Conflicts surrounding hymns and hymnals will always surface as long as churches insist on having hymnals in the pews and of reading music as a crucial part of congregational worship.  Yet, debates over hymnody communicate an important truth: Hymns mean something to us because they stir emotions, nostalgic or otherwise.

Hymns mean something because they teach us things about who God is and who we are to God.  We link emotional expression and theological depth with the songs we sing–a peculiar hallmark of churches and of sacred music in general–so they become meaningful in more ways than one.  So when a publisher comes out with a hymnal and people begin to notice that The Old, Rugged Cross is nowhere to be found, then you’re certain to find yourself in the middle of a hymnal fight.  Watch out, it could get ugly!

 

 

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: The Power of Poetry

By Jackson Thomas

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.

This is an excerpt of a sermon by Jackson Thomas from 18 October 2017, preached at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, Georgia during the church’s annual Christival: A Celebration of Faith and the Arts series.  Jackson Thomas serves as Youth Ministry Coordinator at Trinity Baptist Church.

Words are incredible tools. Speech is one of the many things that sets us apart from the rest of creation. We have a uniquely human ability to communicate with each other in a very definite way. If someone speaks with a different language, we can even learn that language.  Words are such powerful tools that with the advanced ability to communicate afforded us by the use of words, we have done some truly incredible things as a species.

The way we express ourselves using these tools is multi-faceted. We use words in the form of writing, speaking, and singing all to spread a message.  We have always tried to find a way to make our particular message be remembered for generations. Most prominently, we write the things we want remembered.

The written word is incredible and has an interesting history.  As writing gained popularity it was alleged that Socrates actually hated the concept of the written word because it would “create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls.”  Obviously, this thinking didn’t catch on as writing has become the cornerstone for spreading information.

In fact even that way of thinking wouldn’t be known about today had Plato not written about it for later generations to read. And more than passing along information, writing allowed for an entirely new form of art to express feelings or tell fantastic stories and even worship; especially worship.

The other interesting thing is the forms writing would take. Originally the only proper way of writing was poetry. Prose was considered lazy and uninspired.  There’s a bit of a pattern here, but poetry does provide a particular boon in that the human brain is predisposed to pick up on patterns.  We love patterns. It’s why there have been studies done in which the letters in the middle of a word are jumbled, but so long as the first and last letter are in their proper places, we can generally read what it says.

What’s truly interesting is where these patterns come from.  It’s as if when God breathed life into us, He did it in a song. Because of this rhythm, we have written poetry for as long as the written word has existed. Poetry was most notably utilized as worship in the forms of the Psalms, of which biblical book makes up the single largest text in the Bible.  Psalms express the whole spectrum of human emotion and how it all relates back to God. If God is the Word, how could we ever fully express our truth to Him without utilizing words?   God gave us perhaps an even greater gift in the concepts of meter and rhyme. So, in an attempt to fully utilize God’s gifts, so that we may fully worship Him, I’d like to share a poem.

Breath of life, expand my lungs
And make my life feel whole
Create a song behind my tongue
And let me sing my soul

Let my worship fill the air
And fully resonate
Within the souls of all who hear
So we may celebrate

And when the silence overcomes
And all the songs do end
Then let the rocks cry out their praise
Let them make us understand

Breath of life, expand my lungs
Help me find the words to say
Let me heed the words sang by the rocks
Who taught me to how to pray

It is fascinating to me that music and poetry always fit so nicely together. Probably because music is designed to take advantage of the rhythm poetry so naturally exploits anyway.  It is the most natural progression from poetry, and music is absolutely a fantastic form of worship that became so prevalent it is still actively practiced by most modern churches.  Because of that, music is one of the most fantastic and influential forms of worship, even if the actual words are unknown.

There is a song being sung throughout creation, and that song will never really be silenced. Jesus said as much when he talked about the rocks speaking up were everyone else to be silent. And while only humans respond to rhythm, we certainly aren’t the only beings who sing. We are but one voice of many on the choir of creation.  We, along with all other beings, are singing the song breathed into us during creation. We are writing and singing the creation song at all times. We are a part of something great, put together by God to connect us all so that we could understand what it is to really be a part of creation.

There is also song in silence, just as musicians are encouraged to “play the silence.”  Silence reveals parts of ourselves we probably would not have been able to see otherwise. For some, silence is uncomfortable. In a world as loud and hectic as it is today, is there any wonder why?

There is a song being sung throughout creation. There is poetry in the silence. In silence, it is possible to hear the voice of God speaking to us. It is because of this, Jesus often went off on His own to pray. So He could hear God speak back to Him. Silent prayer is often the best way to hear the words to write and, by allowing ourselves these moments of silence for writing, writing itself becomes worship and connects us to the song God breathed into our lungs at the beginning. We can connect wholly with God, the Word and truly begin to understand what that means.

That said, there is a sort of responsibility on our part to utilize those words correctly. Especially when it comes to what we write, our words will live on in some way. So when people hear you speak or read your writings, are they hearing the song of creation? Are you connected with God, the Word who spoke the world into creation? As we go out about our daily lives, I implore you to listen to the song creation is singing, and when you hear something that stands out as significant, write it down. Take a silent moment to really hone in and listen to the song and put into words the song being sung. Let God, the Word, speak through your life and your writings, so all of God’s gifts can be shown through you.