Thursday, March 3, 2011

Great David's Greater Son

I've got ideas buzzing around in my head like fruit flies on crack (something I am lucky enough to have personally witnessed, thank you AP biology at Charlottesville High School). For a moment in my midafternoon bath/coffee break they all seemed to gather together and form a picture. Here's hoping I can remember what that picture looked like.

I have an affinity for raw stuff. I like The Clash, The White Stripes, bluegrass. I like un-Photoshopped pictures. I like simple food, plain talk, and dogs that are either all black or all white (weird? maybe). I have a tendency to forget makeup, wearing my raw face in all its glory. I like the Gospel to be unobscured by pop psychology or false promises of prosperity. One of my newest raw likes is The Welcome Wagon, which is not a new band but I don't really keep up with the times very well. I love their arrangement of "Hail to the Lord's Annointed", my personal nominee for the aughts' most underappreciated hymn. I love this hymn. I love the rousing tune, the promises of liberty, forgiveness, and victory drawn from the 72nd Psalm. Though it might smack of social justice to some...

 He comes with succor speedy to those who suffer wrong;
 to help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong...'s a good reminder that the divide between those who seek justice and those who preach the good news of Jesus Christ as Savior is needless; the latter should include the former, and the former is not possible without the latter. (See "Do We Believe the Whole Gospel?") That same verse goes on to sing

to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light, 
whose souls, condemned and dying, were precious in His sight.

"...the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, 
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, 
on them has light dawned."
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, 
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
Matthew 4:16-17

Souls condemned and dying? These are not the physically needy mentioned right there, but the spiritually needy, i.e. all of us. The bad news: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," and the good news: "and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:23-24). To backtrack and clarify, "the people dwelling in darkness" suffer in a spiritual darkness, a separation from God due to unrighteousness. But that is fixable: "This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." (Romans 3:22)

He comes to break oppression, to set the captive free,
to take away transgression, and rule in equity.

Breaking oppression and setting the captive free could be in regards to either institutions like slavery on earth or our bondage to sin. Rather, both. "To take away transgression"--that's definitely freedom from sin we're talking about there. "and rule in equity"--a just ruler? Is there such a thing?!

We in America are big fans of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. There is nothing Biblical about this. In fact, as my husband and I were reminded by a challenging book we're reading, Jesus said this shocking thing to a commandment-keeping rich man who asked about entering the kingdom of heaven. 

Jesus said to him, 'If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, 
and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'
Matthew 19:21

The rich man left, dejected, unwilling to do that. Oh boy, I don't want to be like him. But I am. With God's help, I'm fighting it.

I was talking with my husband about his work and how men perceived as "weak" tend to be really looked down on and trodden upon (what? that sounds like your work too?). We talked about how he had trouble bonding with our little dog because he saw him as weak, because he was fearful and peed every time my husband went near him. We even like to pursue friendships with "strong" people. Today, thinking about this, I realized that I tend to set myself up above women that I think of as emotionally weak. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In James 2 it says "My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ..." and goes on to talk about gold rings versus shabby clothing and all that. Showing preference to rich people is a temptation that has only recently entered my life as I've gotten older and more drawn to material possessions. But showing preference for strong people has always been a thing for me. I like to pretend to be strong (some might say cynical and sarcastic). Regarding the weak, the poor in spirit, Jesus said "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh."
The spiritually poor and the physically poor all need ministry. They need God's love to be expressed in tangible ways. So go check on a friend or give money to a charity. Sell your possessions, either way. And take heart:

The tide of time shall never His covenant remove;
His name shall stand forever,
His name to us is Love.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Creator of the Stars of Night

It's nearly Advent again. A whole year has passed, and a few measly posts here. I much prefer writing in the no-discipline-required venue of my family blog.

Casting my net for good Advent songs to introduce to our congregation, I was ecstatic to find that High Street Hymns has done a version of "Creator of the Stars of Night". It's beautiful, the melody is a perfect match for the words, and the simple chorus that they added is a good balance to the complexity of the verses (which in some versions date back to 9th century Latin). Unfortunately they only included 2 verses and had lots of interlude and chorus time. You can really only sing "Come, oh come" but so many times before you forget what you're singing about and your mind wanders. So I think I'm going to use their tune, with no capo so it's a little low for the congregation but more singable than their very high version, and with these slightly tweaked lyrics:

Creator of the stars of night,
Your people's everlasting light,
O Christ, Redeemer of us all,
We pray You hear us when we call.

To You the suff'ring deep was known
that made the whole creation groan
'til You, Redeemer, should set free
Your own in glorious liberty.

Come, Savior, come.
Come, oh come.
Come, Savior, come
to us.

When this old world drew on toward night,
You came, but not in splendor bright
as monarch, but as humble child
of Mary, blessed mother mild.

Come, Savior, come.
Come, oh come.
Come, Savior, come
to us.

Come in Your holy might, we pray;
redeem for us eternal day
from every pow'r of darkness, when,
Lord, You will judge all sons of men.

To God the Father, God the Son,
and God the Spirit, Three in One,
Laud, honor, might, and glory be
from age to age eternally.

Come, Savior, come.
Come, oh come.
Come, Savior, come
to us.

The song has an easy, lilting rhythm that one of my band members described as being akin to a drinking song. I'd say maybe an end-of-the-night, everyone's fading away to their homes drinking song. It's really easy and catchy, an atypical praise song but one which I hope is still very congregation-friendly.

I ended up going to the 1940 Anglican hymnal and revising the verses from there. In verse 2, I changed "travail" to "suffering", because though I love "travail" I wanted to be realistic--who really knows what it means anymore? I had it slightly wrong and would have changed it to "trouble" until I checked the dictionary. In verse 3 I changed "blameless mother Mary" to "blessed mother Mary" because "blameless" doesn't seem accurate to sing in a Protestant context. We believe in the virgin birth, but "blameless" implies a whole lot more than that. I gave verse 4 the boot, because run-of-the-mill, Army Protestants just don't have quite the attention span of hardcore plainsong-singing Anglicans. The content is good, but I didn't think it added much to this particular song. And I had to account for the extra length from the chorus.

Like "O Come O Come Emmanuel", this one is perfect for Advent because of its echoes of the second coming. The Savior came once, and He is coming again. What a reminder to prepare the way! I also love its echoes of creation, when God made this beautiful world of nothing. My daughter has a Tiny Bear's Bible that is not only fuzzy and good for cuddling with (picture above), it also has some quite nice poetry such as this powerful depiction of creation:

He flung stars into space! He painted the sky!
He lit up the sun! He taught birds how to fly!

I like this verse but am on the fence about including it:
God, grieving that the ancient curse
should doom to death a universe
has found the medicine of grace
to save and heal a wounded race.
Maybe I'll have an alternate version of the song that we do sometimes. That's the beauty--one of the few--of using Powerpoint in church. You can change lyrics with minimal confusion.

A much darker version of the lyrics exists here. That website traces its origins back to the 7th century--how crazy is that? About 1300 years and we can still sing the same things about God.
Hebrews 13: 7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.
Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
In a way, those who came before us in the faith are our leaders, who speak the word of God to us through song. They suffered, died, lived lives of love, and passed on the faith, all for God's glory. Let's sing these old songs with gratitude.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

For us fights the Valiant One

(A Berg, not a Burg, but I didn't have a picture of a Burg.)

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
He utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

~from Psalm 46~

We 'll be attempting to sing "A Mighty Fortress is our God" in church tomorrow.
This shouldn't be news to anybody, but it's a fantastic hymn. And it also requires a dictionary and an attention span. As Joe McKeever (someone about whom I don't know a thing except what I saw in this article when I googled "Lord Sabaoth") pointed out here, each verse is dependent upon the one that came before. No verses hit the cutting room floor on this one. Anyway, it clocks in at a very reasonable 4.

It also probably isn't news that Martin Luther himself wrote it in 1529 ("Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott") and based it on Psalm 46; it's also called the "Battle Hymn of the Reformation". When I was deciding whether we should do it and reading through, the words "the body they may kill" jumped out at me. My, that's grim! Are we really going to sing about being executed for our faith tomorrow? Isn't that sort of...passé? What an incredibly sheltered life I lead. We worry about Christian or theistic references being scrubbed out of public life, while Christians in other countries worry about being martyred. Themselves. Like, for real. Here's one example. Here's another.

Well, here's what I learned. A "bulwark" is just what it sounds like--something strong that keeps danger out. It can be a literal wall, a figurative support, or in the plural, a wall that goes around the deck of a ship to protect what's on the deck, like sailors. I like that last one best. Something about the idea of weathering the storm with God's protection speaks to me. (But maybe that's because I've never been besieged in an ancient castle surrounded by marauding rival tribes. Maybe then the "wall" would speak to me more.) (On a side note, if we're sailors, how does that fit in with Chaplain Kim's announcement that we are not part of the Navy or Air Force of God--there is just the the Army of God according to Scripture?!)

Lord Sabaoth seems to mean something like "Lord of Hosts" or "Lord of armies". It doesn't seem to have much to do with the Sabbath as far as I've read. This alternate translation of Luther's lyrics has that line translated as "Of Sabbath Lord, and there's none other God" while the standard translation says "Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same". They both rhyme much too well to be close translations, don't you think? I wonder which one is right. Well I don't have time to delve into that. Romans 9:29 calls God the Lord of hosts in the ESV while the KJV & NASB say Lord of Sabaoth. It's a pretty cool phrase if you know what it means. There is one place in which the alternate translation wins hands down: Verse 2, stanzas 3 and 4. The one we'll sing reads "...were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God's own choosing" while the alternate is "...but for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected." Reading all of both translations, though, it's easy to see that for the sake of perspicuity we are singing the better version.

Tim Challies recently linked to a post about an early Protestant martyr (Rowland Taylor in 1555). The author quotes some of his parting words to his family as recorded in Foxe's Book of Martyrs:

"I say to my wife, and to my children, The Lord gave you unto me,
and the Lord hath taken me from you, and you from me: blessed be the name of the Lord!... Trust ye therefore in Him by the means of our dear Saviour Christ's merits: believe, love, fear, and obey Him: pray to Him, for He hath promised to help. Count me not dead,
for I shall certainly live, and never die.
I go before, and you shall follow after, to our long home."

The first song we're doing Sunday--chosen long before I read that quote--is "Blessed Be Your Name".

If you can't stomach the organ, I like this guy's version. Chord chart here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Peculiar Pain

One day...
"I felt like," my husband began in a way which let me know he was reflecting on this morning's church service, "the the worship songs were particularly meaningless today." Agreed! I could hardly bring myself to sing some of them, and at this point I told him so. It turned out that our silences during much of the singing was due to the same reason. We were experiencing the peculiar pain of human-focused worship songs. (Remove one nonessential word from that sentence and you get human-worship songs. Not good.) We just weren't "feeling it", and the songs we were expected to sing with proper enthusiasm and, perhaps, hand-raising, were so completely focused on our own feelings that I did not feel that I could honestly sing them, based on how I happened to be feeling today. Plus, if I voiced those flashing, non-punctuated PowerPoint phrases, I wouldn't be singing about God, I would be singing about me.

I'm a sinner saved by grace who still lives in a world chock-full of sin and the resulting pain and suffering; I'm being sanctified by Jesus, but on some days I'm still up to my eyeballs in sadness, depression, doubt, or just plain bad attitude. So it's not helpful to me to sing about myself, but more importantly it borders on the blasphemous to fill God's place in the song with me. Why should I sing about my emotions when I could be singing about God's attributes? Why sing about my response to Him when I can sing about what He's done for me? Even when the songs are written with the best of intentions (as I am sure many of them are) the lyricists seem to have chosen the second-best option--writing about the prodigal son returning when they could be writing about the Father standing with open arms to greet him.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Love That Will Not Let Me Gogh

Theories on the butchering of van Gogh's ear seem to abound, but the latest involves his despair over his brother Theo's impending marriage and (as anticipated by Vincent) subsequent distancing, emotionally and financially, from Vincent. Regardless of the truth of this theory--it seems to stretch the evidence a little in my highly experienced art historian-detective opinion--it reminded me of the story of one of my favorite hymns. I can't verify this either, but here it is anyway.
The hymn-writer himself, George Matheson,
purportedly wrote,

"My hymn was composed in the manse of Innelan [Argyleshire, Scotland] on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister's marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high."

The first and only place I've ever heard it is on an Indelible Grace CD (the first, I think, sung by Sandra McCracken). It's catchy, hopeful, and has a feeling of driving-ever-onward. Unfortunately it's not as singable as, "Arise, My Soul, Arise" or "A Debtor to Mercy Alone" off that same album. Sidenote. On their
RUF Hymnbook I (waded through the inexplicably horrendous grammar to) read the "History of the Hymn" and learned that he, too, went through the senseless tragedy of losing a sibling to marriage... no, really, it was a big deal. The legend is that years earlier he'd been dumped by a fiance who learned that he was going blind, and his sister had ever since been a great friend and caretaker to him, as he'd gone completely blind. (It is one thing to be born with a disability, and an entirely different thing for it begin to afflict you well into your adult life. With the former, you can be used to it, but with the latter the transition is so hard.) But now his sister was being united in a radical way with another man, to be responsible for her own family. He was back on his own. But through his sadness God actually brought him joy.

Verses 3 & 4: (but go read the others also!)

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.

What different responses these two men had to similar circumstances of ferocious loneliness! Van Gogh's characterized by despair and mutilation, Matheson's by hope--"...and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." Romans 5:5
I like how Matheson mentions the temptation to close the heart to God's gift of joy--to essentially choose bitterness. But if I'm sensitive to God's will I will obediently receive his gift of comfort, not wallow in self-pity. It's strange to think that I would choose the negative option, but that's sin. I can flee from the cross, or I can linger and gain endless life.

Friday, December 25, 2009

On Jordan's Bank

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
Isaiah 40:1-5

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Come, then, and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings from the King of kings!

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
Make straight the way for God within;
Prepare we in our hearts a home,
Where such a mighty Guest may come.

For Thou art our Salvation, Lord,
Our Refuge, and our great Reward.
Without Thy grace our souls must fade
And wither like a flower decayed.

Stretch forth Thine hand, to heal our sore,
And make us rise and fall no more;
Once more upon Thy people shine,
And fill the world with love divine.

To Him Who left the throne of Heaven
To save mankind, all praise be given;
Like praise be to the Father done,
And Holy Spirit, Three in One.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.'"

Matthew 3

I know this comes a little late, but I think we could use a lot more Advent music in our lives. I love the image of our sinfulness as being a "sore". OK, maybe I don't love it, but I definitely approve. It's painful, ugly, persistently unhealed, until it's healed by Christ's hand. He "left the throne of Heaven"--think about that for a second--to become a newborn in a cattle trough. No golden fleece diapers. "To save mankind, all praise be given..."

According to Bebo Norman:

And the angels filled the sky
All of heaven wondered why
Why their King would choose to be
Be a baby born to die

And all fell silent
For the cry of an infant,
the voice of God
Was dividing history
For those with eyes to see,
the Son would shine
From earth that night

To break the chains
Of guilt and sin
To find us here
To pull us in
So we can join in Heaven's song
And with one voice around the throne

("Born to Die")

Sorry, Bebo, but I don't get a "wondering why" feeling from that glorious gathering. The angel that Joseph dreamed of said with purpose, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1) The angels that visited the shepherds said,
"Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
(Luke 2)

Who knows how much of God's plan the angels knew at that point? But clearly they knew that God's Son had become the Son of Man to save us, and they rejoiced in that.