A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Calls to Service

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.

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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!

 

 

Finding solidarity with the suffering Christ

crucifix-2-flashAll of us have our own image of Christ ingrained in our imagination.  It’s the image that confronts us when we close our eyes in prayer.  It’s the one representing He whom we worship when moved by a particular hymn or praise chorus.

I raised this idea in a Bible study on the epistle of John.  The epistle, I argued, was basically a commentary on who Christ is: fully human, fully divine–the word, Logos made flesh.  It gives us a vision of who Christ is with graphic language, affirming that “water, blood, and spirit” bear witness to Christ’s work on the cross.

Then I asked the class what kind of “Christ” showed up when they pray.  Many people, myself included, had trouble answering that question.  Not many folks wonder what “image” of Christ their prayers or worship conjures for them in the midst of a spiritual experience.

As a Protestant since childhood, I always had as my image of faith that of an empty cross.  I had a glow-in-the-dark cross on my bedstand to help me sleep at night.  Later, in middle school, Mom and Dad bought me a gold cross to wear around my neck.

There weren’t any crucifixes in my household, no icons either.  “We have an empty cross,” my parents told me, “Because Jesus had been raised from the dead and is alive in our hearts today.”  Perhaps they told me that to make sure that I didn’t turn Catholic (I had been baptized Catholic, and my parents went to a Protestant church only a year after I was born); I don’t know, but it stuck with me.

In high school and especially college, however, when art became important in my life and faith, crucifixes did start to make an impression.  There was something about seeing Jesus on the cross that made an impact on my heart and enriched my prayer and worship.

It’s been years now and I have traveled a little longer down my spiritual path, and I no longer see those two images–the empty cross and the crucifix–as conflicting or contrasting symbols.

I think there are times when we need the victory of the empty cross.  It’s the image that communicates the end of the story, the triumphal finish in which all death will be defeated.  All of us will be raised with Christ.

We also need the Christ who died on the cross and is beholden to it.  We need that reminder that God chose to feel pain, to suffer on our behalf.  We need a Christ who knows how we feel when tears are our only companion, when we are left alone with sorrow because our friends fall asleep in our Garden of Gethsemane.

After the loss of his son to a tragic hiking expedition, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote that it was the crucified Christ, not necessarily the Risen Christ, who brought hope.  He needed Jesus on that cross to show up because it was that Christ who related to Woterstorff’s own grief.

He reflected on the crucifix, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers.  The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart.  Through the prism of my tears, I have seen a suffering God…Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it” (Lament for a Son, p. 81).

Facing tragedy in my own life, I admit that I know what Wolterstorff is writing about here.  I too am not ready for the “victory in Jesus” hymn but insist on the Christ who we sing about in “Man of Sorrows, What a Name.”  That man came back this past Monday, in fact, when 13 more victims succumbed to gun violence in our nation’s capital.

It is the crucified Christ indeed who comes to us as one in silence, humble head bowed, eyes and mouth closed.  There are no answers there, but a very real sense of solidarity.

The cross will surely be empty later, but for now I see myself there with Jesus.  He and I, broken and battered, with something profound and meaningful held in common.  And there, through that darkest valley, I shan’t fear no evil, for God is with me.