Category Archives: Hump Day Hymns

Hump Day Hymns: ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus

Hymnal

Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, 
Just to take Him at His word; 
Just to rest upon His promise, 
Just to know, “Thus saith the Lord.” 

O how sweet to trust in Jesus, 
Just to trust His cleansing blood; 
Just in simple faith to plunge me 
‘Neath the healing cleansing flood! 

Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus, 
Just from sin and self to cease; 
Just from Jesus simply taking 
Life and rest, and joy and peace. 

I’m so glad I learned to trust Him, 
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend; 
And I know that He is with me, 
Will be with me to the end. 
Louisa M. R. Stead (1850-1917)

On a cool Tuesday evening, with the sun glinting off of the rain that had just recently fallen on the grass, I head into my study at church.

My church is a small one which sits atop a hill on the rural outskirts of one of the suburbs west of Milwaukee. While we are located within a major metropolitan area, our church is surrounded by fields and woods on all sides. It has the feel of a small country church not only in setting, but also in atmosphere. We are a church that values simplicity and ordinariness.

Walking past the rosebushes, I step into the building. At the other end, the sanctuary lights are on, and I hear the pianist rehearsing for Sunday morning.

***

Coming out of seminary, I harbored a preference for hymns and songs which plumbed the depths of theology. This was not a result of my education, but rather a result of my own sense of pride and arrogance that led me to think that local churches and everyone in them ought all understand the deep things of faith, the fullness of the sacraments, and the finer points of Reformed doctrine. I shied away from choosing songs and hymns which I deemed to be too simple.

I was amazed by the depth of the things of faith and I could not wait to be a guide, showing others these wonderful things which I assumed would fascinate them because they fascinated me. When I discovered that not everyone enjoyed the intellectual aspect as much as I did and, when it truly came down to it, didn’t care all that much about, for instance, the distinctions between Calvin and Zwingli when it comes to sacramental theology, I decided that my future lie not in the simple and ordinary church, but in the academy. I wasn’t going to be just a parish pastor, I was to be something more, so I thought.

Years later, I found myself not in the academy, but in the parish. I found myself not in a church bursting with artists and writers and academics, but first a poor inner-city parish and now in a rural suburban church, both in America’s Dairyland.

While previously I looked down upon the ordinariness of the church, I have experienced it to be glorious. After all, the church is not solely made up of Theologians with a capital “T”, but also people who grow corn and who raise cows. People who fix cars and who work in breweries. Moms and dads who spend their days trying to reason with their children, and people who spend their days feeling imprisoned in a cubicle under the thumb of a boss who takes out life’s problems on the employees. It is through the process of learning how to live out faith at the factory or the grocery store or while teaching high schoolers to paint that these ordinary people become theologians, even if with a lowercase “t”.

***

So as I stand in the doorway of our little church on the hill, I cannot help but sing along. After all, I know much of the song by heart.

This is the glory of this song. While it may lack theological luster, it is a song that is memorable in its simplicity. It is one that any of us can keep with us while we are cutting grass or chopping wood, or washing dishes, or stuck in traffic. It is a song that can remind us of our faith while knitting or woodturning. It is a song that doesn’t require a particularly astute intellect or any special gnosis.

The wonderful thing about theology is that there are immeasurable depths, but faith is not only for those who can dive and explore those depths. It is also for those who do ordinary and seemingly unremarkable things, who pray heartfelt and often inelegant prayers, who read read devotional booklets after meals, and who continually learn what it means to love God and love others.

I have been trying to overcome the pride and arrogance with which I continually battle. After all, in the end it is not just about what we know but who (and whose) we are. It is not about a destination, but a journey. It is not about competing or showing ourselves to be more learned than the other, but it is about helping one another to grow in our understanding as we are able.

So I have come to love this simple and ordinary song. This simple and ordinary song that I can take with me anytime and anywhere.

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him! 
How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er! 
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! 
O for grace to trust him more! 

 

Hump Day Hymns: Welcome, Sweet Day of Rest

Hymnal

Welcome, sweet day of rest,
That saw the Lord arise;
Welcome to this reviving breast,
And these rejoicing eyes!

The King himself comes near,
And feasts his saints today;
Here we may sit, and see him here,
And love, and praise, and pray.

One day amidst the place
Where my dear God hath been,
Is sweeter than ten thousand days
Of pleasurable sin.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss.
-Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

As a child, I dreaded Sundays. I did not like going to church, I did not like that the whole house slept in the afternoon, and I did not like that I was so mind-numbingly bored in my very small town whose streets rolled up on Sundays.

I recall hearing stories from my parents on their Sunday restrictions. Could ride bicycles, but only to the end of the block. Could play catch with a baseball, but no bat, because at that point it became a game. I remember being thankful, at least, that my parents were a little more liberal with their understanding of Sabbath rest. But, the importance of rest was still there, and the belief that working — particularly when one did not absolutely have to was to be avoided.

When I was young, my parents also avoided going into town to stores that were open on Sunday.

“Why?” I would ask.
“Because we are making them work.” they would respond.
“But they will be there anyway!” I protested.

But my protestation’s didn’t matter. I was the child and I followed the rules, I did not make them.

As I grew older, my schedule grew busier. Between school, band, theatre, employment, and trying to have a social life, Sunday rest became more difficult. No longer was it just boring on Sundays, it was a disruption in my life, a day which did not allow me to be productive, a day which surely must have been designed for a simpler and easier life of yesteryear. Surely when God gave the Sabbath commandment, God didn’t realize all that I had to do.

***

The King himself comes near,
And feasts his saints today;
Here we may sit, and see him here,
And love, and praise, and pray.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss. (Emphases mine)

For me, being a rural Dutch Reformed Midwesterner at heart, sitting is difficult.

“Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”

“Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10a) is difficult. I am much better at “stay busy and try to remember that I am God.”

Sitting is hard, particularly when there is so much to do. I have been a busy-body all my life, and if there is a time when I do not need to do something, I make sure that I remain doing something, to ensure that I stay busy. Rest brings guilt.

I wonder, perhaps, if this is the whole point of Sabbath rest — to be an interruption. To disrupt the rhythm of life, to throw on the emergency brake while speeding eighty miles-per-hour on the interstate. Perhaps it is supposed to feel the tension between resting while still having so much that needs to be done.

***

My spiritual director repeatedly encourages me to take walks in the middle of the day.

“Walk to the lake, take a stroll through the park, it doesn’t matter, but do it,” she tells me.
“But I have so much to do! I have to stay working,” I respond.
“Exactly,” she tells me. “You need to do this for two reasons. First, because you don’t have time, and that is precisely the reason to do it. Second, it is work, because it is reminding you that you are not in charge of everything, that everything does not lie on your shoulders. God is in there too.”

***

Sabbath still remains difficult for me. It is an interruption, and it requires trust and faith.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, NRSV).

I have a difficult time seeing how taking a day off — even going for a walk during the day — is going to work through the problems I face or the stresses that I bear. But perhaps that is the point.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1).

I need to rest not because I can, but because I cannot. The Kingdom of God breaking into to the world is not painless and smooth. Perhaps the point of Sabbath is not to wait until you can stop, but rather simply to stop, and let God take care of some things. It is to remind us that we depend ultimately not on the work of our hands, but on God (who uses the work of our hands).

Easy to think about, hard to do.

Each day I understand a little better that Sabbath is not about what we can and cannot do, but rather, it is about experiencing the good that the world has to offer, it is about taking time special for God, it is about experiencing a little bit of the already in the midst of the not yet.

My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this,
And sit, and sing herself away
To everlasting bliss.

Hump Day Hymns: Christian, Dost Thou See Them

Hymnal

Christian, dost thou see them
On the holy ground,
How the powers of darkness
Rage thy steps around?
Christian, up and smite them,
Counting gain but loss,
In the strength that cometh
By the holy cross.

Christian, dost thou feel them,
How they work within,
Striving, tempting, luring,
Goading into sin?
Christian, never tremble;
Never be downcast;
Gird thee for the battle;
Thou shalt win at last.

Christian, dost thou hear them,
How they speak thee fair?
“Always fast and vigil?
Always watch and prayer?”
Christian, answer boldly,
“While I breathe I pray!”
Peace shall follow the battle,
Night shall end in day.

“Well I know thy trouble,
O My servant true,
Thou art very weary —
I was weary too;
But that toil shall make thee
Some day all Mine own,
And the end of sorrow
Shall be near My throne.”
Andrew of Crete (660-732) [Trans. John M. Neale (1818-1866)]

Empathy is one of the most powerful of the human emotions. The ability to be able to understand, not just feel compassion, but to understand deeply what another is going through is significant. This comes not from reading, or studying, but rather simply by living. While many professions reward experience because one grows in one’s capacities to fulfill the tasks of the profession. The most significant thing, in my opinion, for ministry experience is not just growing in one’s skills, but actually living and the increasing capacity to empathize with others.

***

The trinity is likely one of the most difficult central and universal doctrines to Christianity, but is significant for many reasons, and one of those is that it allows God to have the capacity for empathy.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15, NRSV).

For me, it is the empathy in the fourth stanza which brings this hymn together.

“Well I know thy trouble,
O My servant true,
Thou art very weary —
I was weary too;”

***

When I struggle, while expressions of compassion are good, there is nothing like an arm around the shoulder and an “I know how you feel” — and they actually do know how you feel. Even though someone cannot make things all better, someone who can respond with empathy, the concrete knowledge that you are not alone in your suffering, somehow makes it bearable.

This is what is so significant about the closing stanza of this hymn is that it expresses such an empathy. Not simply a “keep going, my child,” but a true empathy, the understanding that Word knows our weariness — because he experienced it too. I personally like the image of God the Son sitting at the right hand of God the Father° saying, “I know what that is like.”

That in and of itself does not make suffering go away, it does not make everything all better, but that does, in some way, make it more bearable.

_______________
°I use these terms in their gendered form, not because of the gender which is implied by the language, but rather because these are the relational terms which are often used in scripture and in the trinitarian formula.

Hump Day Hymns: Come, Lord, and Tarry Not

Hymnal

Come, Lord and tarry not;
Bring the long-looked-for day;
O why these years of waiting here,
These ages of delay?

Come, for Thy saints still wait;
Daily ascends their sigh:
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come”:
Dost Thou not hear the cry?

Come, for creation groans,
Impatient of Thy stay,
Worn out with these long years of ill,
These ages of delay.

Come, and make all things new;
Build up this ruined earth;
Restore our faded Paradise,
Creation’s second birth.

Come, and begin Thy reign
Of everlasting peace;
Come, take the Kingdom to Thyself,
Great King of Righteousness
Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)

When I was a child, I was terrified by the thought of Jesus’ return. I was terrified of the world ending. I wanted to live out my life and not have it cut short. As I have grown, however, my outlook has changed. I long ever more deeply and desperately for the parousia.

In my community I am faced with depths of human suffering. Homelessness, poverty, unemployment, crippling hopelessness, murders, assaults, and prostitution. Every day is another example of how the world is not how it ought to be. While I stand before my congregation of people who all suffer and hurt deeply, people who are visibly broken and cannot hide it as others can, people who have a hard time reconciling the sovereignty and providence of God with their own life experience of barely being able to subsist, even with assistance.

What I appreciate about this hymn is that it, I think, cuts to the core of the issue. Some other hymns will talk about streets of gold and mansions. However, to be honest, I don’t care about mansions or streets of gold, I yearn for suffering to end, I yearn for things to be as they ought, I yearn to have a night with no sirens, and a morning when I can look at the news and see no shootings the previous night. I cry out, “Come, Lord, don’t waste anymore time! Why do you keep us waiting?”

This hymn is honest, and I think that it is both relatable and formative. Who cannot relate to deeply yearning for redemption, to wondering if God actually hears our cries, to grasping on to this hope as if our lives depended on it, even if we have seen no confirmation of it as yet? Streets of gold and mansions are fine, but they are not what I am concerned about, and I don’t know many people who are truly looking forward to streets paved with gold. The people that I know long for restoration and redemption, things to be how they ought to be, for suffering to end and to gain the ability to dwell with God and one another in peace and harmony. Most of the people that I know desire, more than anything, to see a fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah:

No more shall there be in it
   an infant that lives but a few days,
   or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
   and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labour in vain,
   or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
   and their descendants as well. (Is. 65:20-23, NRSV)

**

Come, Lord and tarry not;
Bring the long-looked-for day;
O why these years of waiting here,
These ages of delay?

Hump Day Hymns: O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

Hymnal

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give the back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
-George Matheson (1842-1906)

I was helping a friend with yard work and his daughter, a toddler, was right with us greatly enjoying being a part of what we were doing. Suddenly the child turned and began to move, rather quickly, toward the street. My friend reached out and all he could grab was her shirt to stop her from making it there. For a brief moment she struggled against his desperate grasp as he gently tried to bring her closer to himself. She began to cry a little bit, seeing something in the road that she wanted to play with but unable to get there. What we both realized but she did not was that the most important thing is that she was not hurt.

My friend turns to me and says, “I probably look like a terrible parent.”

O Love that wilt not let me go…

My friend’s daughter, of course, did not quite understand the danger about running into the street. She did not understand that cars drive down the street and that up against a car, a toddler will always lose. She did not understand that her father, my friend, was simply looking out for her safety. All she knew was that there was something intriguing in the street that she wanted to explore and play with.

My friend turns to me and says, “I probably look like a terrible parent.”

He brought his daughter in for a hug and gently repeated one of the things that he is trying to teach her, not to run out into the street.

I turned to my friend and said, “No, if you were a terrible parent, you would have let her run out in the street without even caring.”

O Love that wilt not let me go…

Hump Day Hymns: O Thou from whom all goodness flows

Hymnal

O Thou from whom all goodness flows,
I lift my heart to Thee;
In all my sorrows, conflicts, woes,
O Lord, remember me.

When with a broken, contrite heart,
I lift mine eyes to Thee;
Thy name proclaim, Thyself impart,
In love remember me.

In sore temptations, when no way
To shun the ill I see,
My strength proportion to my day,
And then remember me.

And when I tread the vale of death
And bow at Thy decree,
Then Saviour, with my latest breath,
I’ll cry, remember me.
Thomas Haweis (1734-1820)

During difficult times, when I am in despair, I reach for hymns. I sing them to myself. The beauty of hymn meters, of course, is you can match up just about any text and tune which share the same meter. Many times when I don’t know the suggested tune, I will replace it with another tune.

So I sing hymns. I sing them when I’m doing dishes, or (quietly) when I’m on the bus, or when I’m pacing and overwhelmed with worry and unsure if I can make it through the day.

I sing hymns for two reasons. First, singing hymns, with the combination of words and music,  is distracting enough that I can momentarily gain relief from the nonstop tape of worry and fear playing in my mind, and second, it allows me to engage in something that can help me faithfully express my concerns and needs to God.

***

There are some that prize, above all else, spontaneity and extemporaneity of language of faith. While on a preaching assignment in seminary, one of my evaluations from the congregation included a critique of my use of written prayers. The evaluator noted that I should pray from the heart, not from the page. The assumption, then, is that only extemporaneous language is heart-felt.

On a day like today, however, I need to use the words of another — I need common words — to express myself. I am not able to form the right words. This is, of course, why we have the psalms. The psalms are a school of faith from which we never quite graduate.

So today, I am singing this hymn, a desperate plea that God remember me — us — but today, me. I love the simplicity of this hymn’s plea. “Lord, remember me.” The greatest good we could ever have and experience is not that God would eliminate all of our suffering, not that God would make everything better, not that God would do this or that, but that God would remember us. Remember us in our difficult state, remember us in our sufferings, in our conflict, in our trials, in our pains.

In this particular hymn, the hope and faith is deep and strong, yet in the subtext. Some hymns add a stanza or two at the end about the glorious deliverance that God will effect, but not this one. This one ends with a simple plea: Remember me.

I think that God appreciates it when we ask for specific things, specific actions, specific outcomes — all the while knowing that we do not really know what we want or need. However, there are times when we don’t see a way out, when we cannot imagine what peace and wholeness might look like, when a solution evades us, and all we can say is, “God, remember me!”

***

As a child, I never appreciated singing in worship. I thought hymns were boring and mundane. The organ seemed dated. I preferred an ever-changing repertoire of contemporary songs which mirrored the music to which I preferred to listen. But I am so grateful that I was able to grow up singing hymns. Congregational singing of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs has such a wonderfully long and rich history, and for good reason.

Today, then, I am using this time-tested practice to attempt to express my concerns to God, and hopefully to allow my faith to be formed.

O Thou from whom all goodness flows,
I lift my heart to Thee;
In all my sorrows, conflicts, woes,
O Lord, remember me.

Hump Day Hymns: If Christ is mine, then all is mine

Hymnal

If Christ is mine, then all is mine,
And more than angels know;
Both present things and things to come,
And grace and glory too.

If Christ is mine, let friends forsake,
And earthly comforts flee;
He, the full source of every good,
Is more than all to me.

If Christ is mine, unharmed I pass
Through death’s dark dismal vale,
He’ll be my comfort and my Stay,
When heart and flesh shall fail.

O Christ, assure me Thou art mine;
I nothing want beside;
My soul shall at the Fountain live,
When all the streams are dried.
Benjamin Beddome (1717-1795)

Last week, in Hump Day Hymns, I reflected on a question which is also pertinent for our hymn for today: Is God enough for me?

This is a question that is becoming increasingly more relevant.

We are witnessing the end of Christendom, and I think that this is a good thing. Our social fabric is becoming closer to that of the early church, when Christianity first flourished. After all, Christianity grew up in a the pluralistic culture of the ancient Roman Empire. It was only later that Christianity became a state religion, became synonymous with riches, power, authority, and empires.

In the days of the early church, Christ was all that they had to offer. Missionaries could not woo people with offering them status, power, or opportunity. There was no special status for Christians, in fact, for quite some time, it could actually work against them. All that they had to offer these people was Christ and the community of Christ.

I welcome the demise of Christendom because Christendom presented an idol. It presented power and strength, it attempted to present an alternative to the one whom we follow, who died naked on a cross.

This is what is so wonderfully formative about this hymn.

If Christ is mine, let friends forsake,
And earthly comforts flee;
He, the full source of every good,
Is more than all to me.

When it comes to my congregation, Christ is all I have to offer them. We are a poor church in a poor community. We aren’t a status church, our building isn’t beautiful, by being a part of our church community it will not give them anything to talk to their friends about (“Oh, well I go to the basilica down the street”). We don’t have a lot of programs for people, we can’t pay their rent. I still have people say to me, “I’ve been going to this church for years…!” But we don’t have anything to offer, except for a deeper understanding of and relationship to the triune God.

This is a question that we wrestle with all the time: Is God enough?

Our ministry can offer nothing except for Christ, is that enough?

This is a very real question for me as well, as I see no stability or security for my own livelihood either.

Like many hymns, this also invites the singer into the famous line, and existence which we all inhabit, “I believe; help my unbelief!” At the same time that one sings, “If Christ is mine, then all is mine,” we pray, “God, help it be so!”

When we sing these words again, and again, they will begin to sink in.

O Christ, assure me Thou art mine;
I nothing want beside;
My soul shall at the Fountain live,
When all the streams are dried.

God, let it be so.

Hump Day Hymns: Father, whate’er of earthly bliss

Hymnal

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov’reign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise.

Give me a calm, a thankful heart
From every murmur free;
The blessings of Thy grace impart,
And let me live to Thee.

Let the sweet hope that Thou art mine
My path of life attend;
Thy presence through my journey shine,
And crown my journey’s end.
Anne Steele (1717-1778)

“God wants you to be a champion,” the man on television tells me. The man with the million dollar smile and the thousand dollar suit. “God needs you to plant a seed,” another one tells me. “But if you plant that $100 dollar seed — if you give something for God to work with, you will receive a harvest of ten-fold.” “Allow the blessings to multiply your material investments — name it and claim it!”

It sounds nice. It sounds attractive. All I have to do is think good thoughts and and say good things and Jesus will make all these blessings will flow my way? I must have been doing things all wrong for much of my life thus far.

This equation of God as a vending machine can be read both ways. If we do this, God will give us that. This also leads us to reading it the other way, if this bad thing happened, we must have done that bad thing to deserve it.

While one one level, it is one thing to think that God will give us whatever we decide that we want, the true damage of this line of thinking cuts much deeper. I minister in a poor community – in a neighborhood where wants and needs go unmet or insufficiently met. What truly grieves me to my core, though, is that when things are truly not going well, when they are not sure how they are going to pay their rent, when they get laid off…again, when their children get caught up in a multi-student brawl at school which require several police officers, people tend to think that God hates them. “I don’t understand why this is happening, Pastor,” they tell me. “What do I have to do to get God’s favor?” they ask me. “I pray, and pray, and pray, and it seems like God never listens!” they cry out in desperation.

This saddens me more than I can express.

But really, who can blame them, or anyone, who follows this line of thought. Turn on any television and you will get some version of prosperity theology.

I try not to alienate folks, but sometimes that goal is difficult. So I’m just going to say it…I don’t like prosperity theology.

I grate against anything that promises us financial blessing, worldly success, expanded territory, or anything of the like. I don’t like it because it attempts to offer an alternative to Jesus’s message of taking up our cross (whatever that may be for us) and following Jesus (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23).

What is so lamentable about this is that when we get so caught up in what God isn’t giving us and what we did or didn’t do to not get the thing that we wanted/expected/thought we needed is that we may miss the actual core of everything: God.

This is not, however, to exonerate the church from its responsibilities of mercy and care for physical needs. To be sure, the church must work to meet physical needs. We need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. The church needs to work to ensure that everyone has access to clean water for drinking. The church needs to work to ensure that everyone has a level playing field in the world. After all, the church is (and should be) a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

But, it is terrible to get caught up in the, “God didn’t give me this car that I asked for, so God must be ignoring me”, which can easily lead to the more insidious, “I am poor/troubled/&c., therefore God must hate me.”

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…“(John 9:2-3a)

***

The question that I always ask myself is this: “Is God enough for me?” That is, if God is all there is, if there is no prosperity or wealth, no worldly success or honor, no power or authority, if there is even no sense of security or stability — if simply God is all there is…will that be enough?

I think of the first question and answer of the Westminster Catechism (if you can forgive the gendered language, I’m quoting directly):

Q: What is the chief and highest end of man?
A: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.

God exists to be enjoyed. We are not to enjoy the things that God gives us or does for us, we are to enjoy God.

***

Hymns are formative — and this is the reason why the hymns and songs that we use in worship must be good hymns which speak honestly, deeply, and soundly into the Christian life. This hymn helps correct the prosperity fallacy.

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov’reign hand denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace…

Steele writes beautifully about desiring to be given a “calm [and] thankful heart”, to be free from murmuring — to live only to God, to allow God to be the light in our journey and to be the goal of what we seek.

My concern with over-materializing our relationship with God is that what we truly desire is not God but the material thing which has been promised, which we can attain or obtain. But this is nothing short of idolatry, and rings as hollow and shallow as idolatry.

The good news of this hymn is that struggles and even denials of “earthly bliss” are simply a part of life in the not yet. The challenge is to remember that the only “sweet hope” that we have — that we could ever have — is that “Thou art mine.”

***

Truly if someone like Anne Steele, whose mother died when she was three, was disabled at age nineteen, and whose fiancé drowned the day of her wedding…if someone like this can write these words, I can sing them and allow them to speak to my life.

Hump Day Hymns: Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed

Hymnal

Alas! And did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die!
Would He devote that sacred dead
For sinners such as I!

Was it for sins that I have done
He suffered on the tree!
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut its glories in,
When Christ, the great Redeemer died
For human creatures’ sin.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
‘Tis all that I can do.
-Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

I’ve often been uncomfortable with the talk of blood in the church, and songs have often made me feel more disgusted than comforted. Take for instance Cowper’s well-known hymn:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains…

The imagery here is gruesome and unsettling. A fountain. Of blood. We seem to have become preoccupied with blood and death. Had I not been raised in the church, I wonder what I would have thought if I stumbled into a church which were singing either of these hymns.

It was not until I heard a lecture several years ago by a Scottish theologian that it was put into a new perspective:

…Maybe we should be wary about too quickly turning blood into spirit…blood will keep coming back to mess up our worship, to remind us that we are here because someone got killed; some body got slapped and whipped and nailed and lynched – somebody got blamed – and God did something with God called atonement that is both mysterious and troubling and precious…

**

I think that this is what was at the core of the Gnostic controversies in the early church. There was much more going on than just splitting doctrinal hairs, it was about much more than just deciding who was “in” and who was “out”. These had to do with the core of the gospel and how redemption happens, and what redemption means.

I’ve always preferred spirit to body. Spirit is neat and clean; body is messy and dirty. It is much easier to come to terms with faith when one believes in the immortality of the soul and heaven is some kind of ethereal spiritual existence.

This, however, is not the world that I live in — this is not the world that we live in. We live in a world of the physical, we live in a world when bodies are broken and messy. We live in a world where there is blood and other bodily fluids. We live in a world where redemption and restoration is physical, not just spiritual.

It is important that the church is a place where we can speak of blood and other messy things.

The reality of the situation is that I, along with other followers of Christ, follow someone who died naked on a cross. There is little dignified about that. There is little which is neat and clean about that. There is little which is easy to understand about that.

At our church we don’t have spiritual worship — we worship in and with our bodies and all that comes along with them. Perhaps talking about blood is not to be avoided, after all, we all have blood pulsing through our veins which keeps us alive. Perhaps talking about death is not to be avoided, death is something which we will all experience. Perhaps we can talk about new life only because we can first talk about death. Perhaps blood and death (and subsequent life) are the only things about which the church can clearly speak.

Alas! And did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die!

If we can’t talk about blood and death in church, what can we talk about?

Hump Day Hymns – Lent edition: The Glory of These Forty Days

Hymnal

The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made, 
Himself has fasted and has prayed.

Alone and fasting, Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came 
The steeds and chariots of flame.

So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lion’s might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The heralds of Messiah’s name.

Then grant that we like him be true,
Consumed in fast and prayer with You;
Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see your face.
-Gregory the Great (540-604), Trans. Maurice F. Bell (1862-1947)

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”

The gritty ash grinds into my forehead as one of the elders dips her thumb into the dish full of ash which is as dark as my sin, and marks a cross into my forehead.

As she marks the cross, she looks me in the eye while reciting those haunting words reminding me of my mortality, of my brokenness, of my sin, of who I am and who God is.

Today, Lent begins. Lent is a season that is filled with prayer, repentance, and change. It is a season when it is common to give something up, or to take something on. We do this in order that we can identify with the sufferings of Christ, and in doing so, we can enter into a deeper and closer relationship with the divine. This causes Lent to, even further, be a somber season filled with suffering, and self-denial. While I appreciate Lent and other melancholy seasons, this hymn invites me — invites us — to nuance the way in which we view and experience Lent.

I have never before heard the forty days of Lent used in the same sentence as “glory” and describing the observation of Lent as a “celebration.”

What I have often forgotten in my own observance of Lent, is that the purpose of this season is to bring us into deeper relationship with the divine, and that God brings joy — a joy which is deeper and richer than simply happiness.

The wonderful thing about this particular hymn, is that it links fasting and praying with joy, glory, and celebration. Suffering is not an end, it is only beneficial insofar as it brings us into a closer relationship with God and helps us to experience the joy and glory of God with fresh eyes of the heart.

***

I have been trying to figure out how I am going to observe Lent this year. I have found that giving up meat, giving up dairy, or something of the like does not bring me to a place where I can experience the joy and glory of God with new eyes and a renewed spirit. As often happens, my life goes on as normal only without meat, without dairy, or whatever the case may be.

Truthfully, I don’t need to give up meat or dairy in order to experience suffering. Suffering is all around me, all around us. My ministry is exceptionally taxing, I continue to struggle with discerning God’s calling on my life. There are shootings all around me on a regular basis, some of which reach closely to members of my congregation. I have had loved ones die, many unexpectedly and early. Daily, I see and interact with people who sleep under bridges and hidden away in parks and who try desperately to live through the frozen night to see another day. Compared to all of this, giving up meat for forty days does not seem to be that much of an experience of suffering.

What I need is not something to make me feel melancholy, I live that way throughout all of the other seasons, what I need is not something to make me experience suffering, that is something which is lived and experienced throughout all of the other seasons. What I need is this:

Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see Your face.

This year, for Lent, I will not be giving anything up. Fasting is good, it is something which, rightly practiced, can refocus our lives and renew our spirits. I will continue in my typical practice of fasting, but I will not fast from anything new. I am going to celebrate Lent by seeking the joys and glory of God even amidst the brokenness and of the world, and allow that experience of glory to purify my heart, my soul, and my life.. After all, this is what Lent is about: turning us back toward God in preparation for the new life of the resurrection.

This year, then, as the grass greens, the bare and dead-looking trees bud new life, and as the flowers send up shoots, may my heart also spring fresh shoots of new life and a new commitment to following the triune God.