December 14, 2019

Hymns that Got My Attention Sunday

Hymns that Got My Attention Sunday

Yesterday in church, it was the hymns that spoke to me. This is not uncommon. Music is like blood to me, the life of my inner being. In worship, more often than not, it is in the hymns that I hear the gospel in wonderful poetry, striking metaphors, and surprising epiphanies. As we sing to God, God is speaking to us.

Here are a few of the ways I heard God speak yesterday.

How Firm a Foundation

Our gathering hymn was How Firm a Foundation, which originated in John Rippon’s 1787 hymn book, and which contains bracing imagery from Isaiah sung to a sturdy early American folk tune. This hymn is meant to infuse encouragement into the believer, to reassure the pilgrim that, wherever the pathway may lie, nothing can separate us from God’s love and care.

Throughout all their lifetime my people shall prove
My sov’reign, eternal, unchangeable love

But what struck me this time was the Lutheran editing of the hymn to put the focus directly on Christ. Most versions that I have sung have the first verse going like this:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!

This point was emphasized in the evangelical Bible churches I’ve attended and pastored, and whenever we were building a service around the theme of the scriptures, we turned to hymns like this one to reinforce the faithfulness of God in revealing himself to us through the words of the Bible.

However, this is how Lutherans sing that verse:

How firm a foundation, O saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith in Christ Jesus, the Word!

When people think of the Lutheran tradition, it is “justification by faith” that comes first to mind in terms of doctrinal emphasis. But one thing I have learned on my Lutheran journey is that the real heart and center of the Lutheran focus is on Christ, and it is Christology that is primary. Many Lutheran scholars today would subsume “justification” under “union with Christ” as the main point Martin Luther made, especially in his early writings and sermons.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God, God’s full revelation of the divine to humankind. The Bible is a faithful testimony to Christ, but the true foundation of our faith is in the person of Christ himself.

Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus

The hymn we sang after the sermon was a fairly new one to me. Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus is a hymn from the Lutheran tradition, penned by 17th century Bohemian teacher and hymn-writer Sigmund von Birken. This hymn fit wonderfully with the message (see yesterday’s post), which emphasized living fully here in this world as we await the coming of Christ and the new creation.

It is one of the few hymns I’ve sung that gives clear voice to the idea of “dying with Christ.” That is, it speaks to the baptismal calling of the Christian, who has been “buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life.” Luther pointed out that our baptism calls us to die to sin and live in Christ’s resurrection power daily.

Let us gladly die with Jesus, since by death he conquered death
He will free us from destruction, give to us immortal breath
Let us mortify all passion that would lead us into sin
And the grave that shuts us in shall but prove the gate of heaven
Jesus, here with you I die, there to live with you on high

God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind

Our sending hymn at the conclusion of the service was this spirited cry to God to fill us and thrust us out to live and proclaim the good news of Christ. The text of God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind is from the 20th century, written by Rev. Dr. Herman G. Stuempfle, who was president of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA. We sang it to the tune CWM RHONDDA, which many recognize from Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah and God of Grace and God of Glory.

Listen to some of its fervent petitions for God to move among us and through us:

Drive us out from sheltered comfort
Past these walls your people send

God of blazing, God of burning
All that blocks your purpose, purge!

God of earthquake, God of thunder
Shake us loose from lethargy!
Break the chains of sin asunder
For earth’s healing set us free!

God of passion, God unsleeping
Stir in us love’s restlessness!

The vivid verbs in this hymn strike home again and again in this appeal for God to revive, renew, reform, and recommission us to go into our world each day with passionate purpose.

Comments

  1. Steve Newell says

    There is a depth of these and other great hymns that many “contemporary” songs miss.

    There is a depth of understanding the human condition.
    There is a depth of understanding what God, through Christ, as done for us.
    There is a depth of understanding of what living in Christ is.

    In addition, the tunes can be easily sung by an individual, choir, or congregation since they were written to be song by the congregation as part of the worship service not performed by a few while the congregation listened.

    • brianthegrandad says

      yes. as i just read them, i sang them under my breath here at my office desk. Guide me o thou great Jehovah is a great song, and the tune and rhythm came back to me as i read and sang these words in my head. oh, that our contemporary song writers would grasp this! and begin writing more congregational songs, and do away with the performative songs that sell on CCM radio!

      • Don’t worry — Kanye has it under control!

        • brianthegrandad says

          i actually like what he’s doing. admittedly, rap is not my preferred musical form. the last rap i liked was from the 80s and early 90s. most of the lyrics I’ve read from Jesus is King are pretty good, better than Chris Tomlin’s. Still, it feels like that would be a performative style of music. Great for concerts and listening to for encouragement and to focus on Christ. Not so much to sing as a congregation. that’s the beef i have with CCM at church. The songs are chosen because they are popular on the radio, and familiar to the listener, not because they are made for congregational singing or rich in meaning, or even poetically consistent (ref “like a flood His mercy reigns”). I don’t like Nashville music executives determining what will be sung in churches on Sunday mornings. I’ll defer to Jonathan Aigner for further explanation or defense.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            The songs are chosen because they’re TRENDY. What’s “Ooooooo! POP-ular!”. Christianese Top 40.

            “Just like this pop music fad, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”

            With all the drawbacks and bad habits of lightweight pop music knockoffs.

        • I’ve read that some people see the “new: Kanye as a kind of jokester figure, as is common in folk mythology, exposing the ridiculousness of the ridiculous, and in weird ways calling people back to what is central. Makes sense to me. I mean, who would have thunk that his wife would take such steps back into the church tradition of her ancestors, and have their children baptized as well? May the Lord grant that they persevere in it.

          Dana

    • Your comment made me think that hymns tend to illuminate the Good News, while contemporary songs are mostly just praise songs or simple “declarations.”

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    How Firm a Foundation

    We use that one occasionally at St Boniface, as a Recessional.

    Every time I hear it, I expect J Vernon Magee to come in on the second verse:
    “This is ‘Through the Bible’ with J Vernon Magee…”

    • Ha! That’s a blast from the past!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        During my time in-country, I listened to a lot of Christianese AM Radio (what is not Forbidden is Absolutely Compulsory). Southwest Radio Church (End Time Prophecy), Calvary Chapel, Dr William Orr (“God’s Quarter Hour” — DING! DING! DING!), Calvary Chapel, Haven Of Rest (nautical theme w choral hymns), Calvary Chapel, Counseling With A Purpose (staged psych counseling turned Altar Call), Calvary Chapel, somebody whose intro was “For Christ AND AGAINST COMMUNISM!”, Calvary Chapel, Through the Bible with J Vernon Magee, “Chaplain Ray” (prison ministry stories), some screaming preacher with an accent like Magee (but definitely wasn’t him), etc.

        (I am NOT exaggerating that playlist. That WAS Christianese AM Radio in my area.)

        The only one of those I would still listen to would be J Vernon Magee. The guy was REAL. Old preacher-man who was just taking you Through the Bible cover to cover every five years. (Kinda like a liturgical cycle except chapter-by-chapter in standard order.)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Another hymn we use occasionally is the original tune for a Robert Aspirin filksong (SF fandom novelty song) whose title I can’t remember. I find myself singing the filk lyrics (“…And if you’ve a knife, You’ve no need for a crown”).

        I understand J.S.Bach used to bust up church choirs that way.

  3. there’s something to be said for hymns that rouse us from our lethargy, YES:

    “God of earthquake, God of thunder
    Shake us loose from lethargy!
    Break the chains of sin asunder
    For earth’s healing set us free!”

    wow, that Lutheran wake-up music
    is kind of like the cries of the fighting Irish:

    “The drums are rolling and forward bound
    They’re calling spirits up from the ground”
    (Here Come the Irish of Notre Dame)

    • thatotherjean says

      I had never seen that hymn before. It’s a challenge, and a reminder that we are of and in the world, and the job of Christians is to change it, not retreat from it. I am pretty thoroughly agnostic, but THAT’s a hymn I can agree with, heartily.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Unfortunately, you’re going against many centuries’ precedent of Retreat from the Big Bad World. Changing direction will not be simple or easy.

        • thatotherjean says

          True, As Chaplain Mike (I think?) wrote in another post, there are a lot of hymns that reflect the attitude of many, perhaps most, Christians, of separating themselves from the world, in favor of concentrating on going to heaven. Rapture-believers seem to have an “it’s all gonna burn; why bother?” excuse for doing nothing–and meanwhile, the planet continues to degrade, thanks to our indifference. Effectively, we’re poisoning the well (and the air, and the oceans, and ourselves). If Christians are supposed to love and care for others, they’re going to have to care both for other people and the planet we live on. I doubt that God will save us, so we’ll have to save ourselves.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Yeah. I got burned BAD in the Seventies by The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay. With a side order of Jack Chick tracts. It’s why I’m so fangs-out on the Rapture Ready crowd to this day.

  4. senecagriggs says

    This is about anxiety, depression and the hymns of my life
    ___________
    “TOXIC INDUSTRY: More than a third of Ph.D. students have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by Ph.D. study, according to results of a global survey of 6,300 students from Nature.”
    ___________

    Many, many times I’ve felt like CM
    ___________

    Yesterday in church, it was the hymns that spoke to me. This is not uncommon. Music is like blood to me, the life of my inner being.

    Sometimes my prayers are simply singing the music of my life:

    “Prone to wonder Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart Lord take and seal it. Seal it from thy throne above.”

  5. rhymeswithplague says

    The actual lyrics from “Come, Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” are:

    Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
    Prone to leave the God I love.
    Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
    Seal it for Thy courts above.

  6. Burro (Mule) says

    It is kind of depressing just how narrow a sliver of Christendom where these musical treasures still have an audience. When I was growing up it seemed to me as though Mainstream Protestantism was the patron and protector of high culture. I remember organ introits and four part choirs.

    I don’t think I’ve heard any of these hymns performed in a worship setting since the nineteen-eighties, when I was Reformed.

    Worship music ain’t either worship or music, and it puts an unconscionable burden on a small congregation to compete with the mega-Disneyesque productions. My wife often complains that the Spanish Pentecostal churches we infrequently visit trot out not-very-good translations of the songs popular on the KLOVE radio and no longer sing the “coritos” based on Scripture she was familiar with.

    I told her the “coritos” were an innovation in her time and older people resented them as replacing the “old-timey” revival songs (which I love, BTW) written in the ‘teens and the ‘twenties of the last century. In their turn, these songs replaced the powerful Reformation and lively Methodist hymnody mentioned in this post.

    The Orthodox church provides a wealth of profound theological contemplation in its music, and there is a lot of music. Unfortunately, it is not my music. It is Greek, or Russian. There are times when I find myself humming the Cherubic Hymn or the Salutation to the Theotokos, but I don’t have the benefit of early imprinting and deep memory that would let them speak to me on the same emotional level as some of the hymns already mentioned.

    There is a lot of what feels like cosplay in my church life, but I ain’t leavin’

  7. My husband & I attended a concert of baroque music last night, held in a beautiful old church. One of the pieces was Brahms’ Warum ist Licht gegeben

    Why has light been given to the weary of soul,
    And life to the troubled hearts? Why?
    They who wait for death, and it doesn’t come;
    They who dig for it even out of secret places;
    Those who almost rejoice and are happy
    That they achieve the grave. Why?
    And to the man whose way is hidden,
    And from whom God himself has been concealed?
    Why?

    Let us lift up our hearts, together with our hands, to God in heaven.

    Behold, we value them as blessed who have endured.
    You have heard of the patience of Job,
    And the Lord’s conclusion you have seen:
    For the Lord is merciful and has compassion!

    Our church lost two elderly members in the past 36 hours. With winter and its darkness and cold crouching at our doors, the music seem unnaturally appropriate.

  8. Ah, a curiosity has arisen around the topic of this post. We’ve discovered there IS something we’re all are unified on (including senecagriggs): HYMNS!

  9. Am I too late ? Been traveling.

    So agree the hymns we sing in our Lutheran Church speak to my soul. Some familiar, some not. Always gospel, Christ centered, Trinidadian.

    As a child my piano lessons included hymns… lots are memorized..a great reference for my Thoughts.

    JVM was my pastor growing up. Til he retired. Have his volumes on my bookshelf, and makes great reference!