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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Who is voting for Trump, Clinton–a new Barna update

bargraphThe Barna research group assessed various theological and faith-based segments of the population and grouped them into voting blocs.  For an interesting, yet timely read, follow the link below…

[Curated]

“The Faith and Ideology of Trump and Clinton Supporters”

The battle for the presidency has produced a tight race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Despite the neck-and-neck contest, each candidate is drawing a very different segment of voters. A new study by Barna indicates just how divergent those segments are—and helps to explain how divided the nation is in its vision for the future.

Segments Supporting Donald Trump
The new Barna survey of 1,023 adults, which included 627 likely voters, identified 16 distinct voter segments that are poised to vote for Trump. Those segments range from large in number to a relatively small niche, but they share a conservative view of politics and a common notion of the appropriate direction for the nation to pursue.

[Continue reading here.]

The sacredness of space, and the writing life

sacredspaceBy Joe LaGuardia

It has been some time since I last wrote an article.  I no longer write a weekly column for the newspaper, so that has not helped my cause.

I also moved to a new state, started pastoring a larger church, tried to figure out how to get around town, and sold one house only to purchase another.  Life has not been easy; writing has been harder still.

My hectic schedule and lack of routine is no excuse.  I was just as busy in my old life in Georgia, but still managed to write two or three articles on a good week.

What is an excuse, however, has to do more with preferences than priorities: I don’t have a sacred space in which to write.

I believe it was Anne Lamott who once said that every writer has a talisman that helps inspire the muses.  Some have a special pen or brand of pencil; others use a particular sized notepad.  Barbara Brown Taylor writes everything in longhand; movie director Quentin Tarantino types scripts with a 30-year old Smith Corona; Annie Dillard locks herself in cells and cellars.

For me, spaces have always served as talismans.  One space was in my old house, a writing desk across from the foot of my bed.  I’d wake up early in the morning before the children arose and started typing away.

Another space consisted of the second to the back booth at my favorite chicken wings eatery, where I often read The Christian Century or innumerable books that provided fodder for article and sermon alike.

Moving to a strange land and living in a strange place (we are privileged to stay in a furnished condo until we close on our new home), I have not had a dedicated writing desk set up yet.  I have not found a local restaurant to call home.  I am still waiting for the good folks at The Christian Century magazines to change my mailing address (thank goodness the secretary at my old church loves me enough to mail me back issues!).  I can hardly write.

I may seem odd, but I am not alone in considering the sacredness and utility of space in the grand scheme of practicing my spiritual disciplines, writing included.   In fact, Christians have always considered the importance of sacred spaces.

The earliest space God in-dwelled was a garden, a very fit environment for a Creator whose greatest contribution to time and, well, space is the very act of calling things into being, some of which put us humans here in the first place.

Next was a tabernacle–God’s “throne room”– that was nothing short of a tent that moved with a nomadic people who escaped Egypt and ventured towards– you guessed it– a “promised land”.

In the person of Christ, God chose to “tabernacle” and live among us, declaring that even humans are sacred enough to call home: “And the word became flesh,” John’s gospel reminds us.

“Churches” grew soon after Christ’s death and resurrection, first in the homes of believers (Acts 20:20 tells us that the early Christian movement grew “from home to home”), and then to meeting places throughout the Roman empire.

Brick-and-mortar Churches resulted from a greater concentration of wealth among Christians.  The earliest edifices started as simple stone structures and then evolved into elaborate cathedrals still celebrated today.

Some Christians, tired of being too wealthy and privileged, chose to abandon their belongings and city life for the deserts of Egypt and Arabia.  These desert mothers and fathers noted that the very wilderness in which they sojourned merely reflected the wilderness of all our hearts–sacred spaces were just as important in the “interior” of the soul as exterior spaces were for gathering believers who longed to worship God.

Perhaps the creepiest spaces that Christians occupied were the catacombs of Europe in the darkest ages of Christian history.  Persecuted Christians took up residence among the buried dead to sing praises and proclaim a hope in the resurrection of the Lord.

Now, Christians have diversified sacred spaces so much that people forget the importance of space altogether.  Christians meet in bars, bookstores, coffee shops, cigar shops, beaches, abandoned banks, and “auditoriums.” Even then, regularly scheduled gatherings of believers only prove how ambiance shapes faith communities.

Spaces, whether we recognize it or not, have a sacredness to them that sometimes go unnoticed.  Just try to move states, sell a home, miss a favorite eatery, or close up a church and you will quickly understand how much space creates a place to belong as well as intimate settings where people meet God, hear from the Spirit, and find hope for a new day filled with ever expanding frontiers begging for the Gospel’s invitation.

I was lucky to write this article–I’m still not in a permanent home yet, and in many ways we are homeless until that time comes (but, lo, my cat still found her way onto my laptop keyboard, trying to get a backrub and leaving a wake of odd letters, numbers and symbols on the computer monitor…).    Yet, it helps to note that when we appreciate the spaces that are special in our lives, we can always make room in our hearts to help us along the way when we find ourselves “in between” those times and places most sacred in our life.

After all, we don’t invite Jesus into our houses.  We invite him into our hearts, for each home is where the heart is.