Most people who know me personally know that I love hymns. I do not love hymns because they are “traditional” or “the way we’ve always done it”, but I love hymns because, in my experience, there is a richness and depth to hymns that cannot be matched by the so-called “contemporary” music which is often utilized in churches nowadays.
I like singing hymns and I like reading hymns. The soul of the hymn is not in the particular musical arrangement which is set to it, but it is in the spirit and the purpose of the composition. It can be argued that removed from music, a hymn text is simply a poem. In a way this is accurate as a characteristic of a hymn is that it is designed to be sung. However, a hymn has a particular function that many poems do not: they are designed to be a collective voice — collective confession, profession, prayer, praise, lament — of a congregation. When a gathered community sings a hymn, they claim the words not only collectively or individually, but both at the same time. Worship is formative, and hymns are designed to form our faith as individuals and as the Body of Christ. So I still think that even without music a hymn still retains these unique qualities.
One of the aspects of these old hymns that I love so much is how, even though the style and the music may be dated, what the hymns express are timeless. I find it fascinating that Christians hundreds of years ago struggle and wrestle with the same things that we struggle and wrestle with today. They deal with thoughts, feelings, concerns, worries, weaknesses that transcend time and space. The timelessness of these hymns can also be seen in the effort in putting old hymns to new music, most notably by Indelible Grace Music.
This effort is a wonderful bridge between “traditional” and “contemporary.” As I have mentioned before on this blog, I grew up in Michigan’s Bible-Belt in an evangelical subculture. It was a place and time in which there were rifts forming between older folks and younger folks. The older folks thought that the younger folks were irreverent and too accommodating to the changing culture. The younger folks thought that the older folks were old fashioned and stubborn. This often centered around musical styles: the older folks preferring hymns with organ accompaniment, and the young folks forgoing hymns for simple (and too often simplistic) praise songs set to upbeat music using guitar and drums.
Although we are no longer at the height of the “worship wars,” there still remains, in my experience, a mentality of old vs. new, of adapting to meet the culture vs. remaining stuck in our ways. I can understand this to some point, however, I think that in doing this, we can lose something, not just “the way we’ve always done it”, but something which is deep and rich in our Christian tradition.
On Wednesdays, at least most Wednesdays, I will present and personally reflect on the words of a hymn; something that has spoken to me in a particular way, and that hopefully, and more importantly, will speak to you. This is one of my ways of sharing this journey that we are on. My hope is that in the sharing of and my simple reflections on these hymns, it will prompt others to reflect on them as well — to be reminded of familiar hymns, and to discover new ones. I don’t expect that you will find anything brand-new in these posts, but that is not my goal. My goal is not to create new beauty, it is simply to rediscover (or be refreshed to) and present old beauty — that which has been handed down to us — and to blow the dust off of it a bit. So I invite you to reflect along with me on some of these hymns, and feel free to share some of your favorites. Christians have had thousands of years of development, growth, and reflection of a variety of forms…we do ourselves a disservice to ignore it. Hymnody is only one of those strands of history, but it is an important one.
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.
Let the world despise and leave me,
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
O while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me,
Show Thy face and all is bright.
Go, then, earthly fame and treasure,
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure,
With Thy favor, loss is gain
I have called Thee Abba Father,
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.
Man may trouble and distress me,
’Twill but drive me to Thy breast.
Life with trials hard may press me;
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me
While Thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’twere not in joy to charm me,
Were that joy unmixed with Thee.
Take, my soul, thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station,
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee,
Child of heaven, canst thou repine.
Haste thee on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer.
Heaven’s eternal days before thee,
God’s own hand shall guide us there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.
-Henry Francis Lyte (1743-1847)
This hymn that has been on my mind is no exception to the beauty and fascination of hymns that I discussed above. This particular hymn, the words alone, are exceptionally moving, and express a multitude of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. These words are both an expression of belief, and a desire for belief; a trust in the protection of God, and a plea for assurance of that protection; a statement of trust, and a supplication for trust.
This is a hymn which is quite formative in its nature. When I read or sing this hymn, I often wonder, do I ask “earthly fame and treasure” to leave, and to I ask “disaster, scorn, and pain” to come to me? Do I believe in my heart and in my actions that in God’s service “pain is pleasure”? Do I truly take seriously Jesus’ call to carry the cross? Taking our cross makes for great sermons, and it makes for wonderful abstractions, but we are not called to carry an abstract cross, we are called to carry a very real cross.
As I understand it, the essential message of this hymn is that nothing at all can compare with the excellence of the divine, no trial can overshadow the light of God. We don’t seek out suffering and we don’t turn a blind eye to it. Suffering is not part of the good design of the world, but it can, at times, be a byproduct of following God. At times, following our worldly desires and following God can conflict, and when this conflict happens we must choose the latter even if it means “let the world despise and leave me.” The worst thing that can happen is not loss of “worldly fame and treasure”, it is the turning from our path of following God.
This is one of those hymns that I carry with me and I can sing constantly without growing tired of it. I try to carry my cross, but I don’t always succeed. I try to focus my eyes on God alone, but I often find my gaze wandering. I try to stay on the road of discipleship, but sometimes I get curious and take a side road. The reason that I like this hymn is not because I can do all of these things, but because this is for what I strive. Sometimes all that we have to offer to God is our broken and feeble attempts, and if that is all we have, we must still offer it to God, knowing that God’s grace will hold together our broken discipleship.