Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Three Theological Hymns

This past Sunday, I was happy to hear a sermon on Hebrews 1 and 2 from Amy (located here if you'd like to listen to its Sunday evening form). Hebrews has long been my favorite book of the Bible, largely for its theological depth, as well as all its temple and covenant imagery. For this sermon, which focused on God speaking to and through the Son, the Son becoming human, and the Son's subsequent reign in heaven, we chose three hymns: "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," "Of the Father's Love Begotten," and "At the Name of Jesus."

These are three excellent hymns, all with weighty theological statements. Rather than reproduce all their texts here, I will provide links to their cyberhymnal versions. They all three deal with the Father and the Son, and, while it was not a focus of the sermon, angelic beings, which do figure in the text (reminding me of Eastern Syriac liturgies). The first, "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," is well-known. While I've heard complaints that it's not the best because it ascribes attributes to God with no reference points, its latter verses, especially, tell much of the wonder of the incarnation. Most hymnals combine the last two verses in order to remove the "vile from our hearts" language, and to conclude with "light hideth Thee" in order to make a nice reference back to the first line of the hymn. It was written in 1876 by Walter C. Smith, a Scottish Presbyterian minister.

The second, "Of the Father's Love Begotten," has briefly come up before because of its Trinitarian final verse. Its text is usually shortened to three verses, those beginning with the title, "O ye heights of heaven...," and "Christ to Thee, with God...." I've wondered why it is always included in the Christmas sections of hymnals, but reading the full verses make it more clear. It gives a wonderful view of the incarnation (even in just those three included verses). It comes from the fifth century, but was translated during the Oxford Movement by John Mason Neale. Its chant tune makes it slightly difficult for congregational singing, but not impossible.

The final hymn, "At the Name of Jesus," is a version of Philippians 2:5-11, the famous Christ hymn. A weighty statement itself with its idea of kenosis, the hymn gives singers much to think about. Our hymnal includes verses 1, 3, 4, 7 and 8, with the majestic tune KING'S WESTON by Vaughan Williams.

While these are three excellent doctrinally-conscious hymns, I began considering if they were too difficult when put together. I don't delude myself to think that everyone pays attention to the texts they're singing all the time, but I like to think that some do and that everyone does part/most of the time. Each of these hymns, though, could have a whole sermon series based on it. Is it too much to ask to have a congregation sing them all in a Sunday? Or is it better to have more hymns like these and leave out some of the others, in the hope that people would learn their theology better?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Happy Father's Day—Especially to You, Dad!

Having a baby has made me very reflective, just as I imagined it would. We found out she was coming on Maundy Thursday, and she was born just ten days before Christmas, which gave me such a new appreciation for both Mary's experience and to the pasch itself.

It's also, of course, caused me to think about my own parents. I was especially thinking about my father recently when I was playing a funeral. Bad theology always rears itself at funerals during people's remembrance times, and this one was no exception. I started amusing myself—rather morbidly, since it was a funeral—by, after planning my own funeral, thinking what I would say if it was my father who had died. But, I decided better to say (or write) it now, when he's around to appreciate!

I think my father is best described from the beatitudes, because growing up in our home I saw him demonstrate these teachings of Christ so well.

Matthew 5:3-11
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I've always understood this verse to be saying not to be too attached to material things. His ever-growing collection of books aside, I remember so many times that I spilled a huge drink on something (even books), only to be cheerfully told "that's OK!" as it was cleaned up. Later in my life, when my parents sold the house they'd been paying on for almost 20 years to move to their current farm, they forgave part (or most, I don't remember) of the down payment from the poor family that was moving in. Some called that naïve, but it showed me that gaining material things was not as important as helping people.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Everyone mourns sometimes, and of course my father is no exception, from deaths of family members, to difficulty finding jobs. Through everything he is strong, but not afraid to cry, too. And, as a pastor, he's done a great deal of comforting those who mourn, himself.

Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
My father is a very gentle person. To me, I can only think of one time when he yelled at me as a little kid, and he instantly took me in his arms and apologized profusely. As I've gotten older, I've seen his gentleness shown to others, too. While he was slandered by some fundamentalists, I've never heard a negative word about those people from him. When trouble was caused in his church by members who grew angry with him and other members, I never heard anything other than the positives in the situation from him.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
My dad is one who seeks righteousness, and encourages it in others, too. As an early teen, he always put me on the hot seat, asking how my Bible reading and prayer life was going. I always saw him deep in Bible study, and it was a good example for me to follow.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
I've mentioned above how many times I was forgiven without even asking, and how money was forgiven to the poor family buying our house.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I can't know what's in my dad's heart, so I'll leave this one alone. I would direct you here, and say that I've generally seen only the fresh.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.
As I grew older, the neighborhood in which we lived was becoming worse and worse. When I was 12 or 13, I had a friend over on Sunday afternoon. We heard shouting at the apartments across the street, and saw a large crowd gathering around two men, one with a butcher knife and the other with a machete (or not, but it seemed that big then). My dad ran out of the house, ran right over to them, and talked them away from each other, and dispersed the crowd. I remember being scared to death, and then incredibly proud of him, as the police showed up to cart one of the two away.

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I combined these last two, because they're related. Another time, one of the knife-wielders was drunk and yelling outside our house. My dad went out, and the man started yelling at him, calling him "preacher" like it was a curse. My dad just listened, and, when he took a swing at him, ducked and then pinned him until the police arrived. It was never clear what exactly was going on there, but "Preacher" had something to do with it.

Also, before I was born, my dad left the United Methodist Church, because he stood for what he believed, and did not baptize a baby. Although he would soon become a Baptist, it was not just adult baptism that was the trouble, but also that it was not even a member of the church. He nevertheless got in quite a bit of trouble over this refusal, and left rather than cause divisions in the church.

Of course my father is not perfect, since no one is but God. But, Happy Father's Day to him, a wonderful example to me as a new father!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Hymn Festival!

This Saturday at Woodside, we're having a hymn festival with hymns based on psalm texts. We'll be singing "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," Vaughan Williams' setting of the Old 100th, and many others, as well as hearing a couple of organ pieces from me and a piece from the choir. All are welcome to come join us! Here's directions from Google maps.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Singing Kate to Sleep

When I sing our new baby to sleep, I often turn to hymns, probably because I know them best. It has been eye-opening to me to see how many hymns I know most of. That aside, I've discovered that some hymns are more lullaby-like than others. For example, "Disposer Supreme" hardly seems appropriate.

Conversely, many American melodies from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are very easily sung at bedtime. Perhaps it's the pentatonic nature of them, coupled with their easiness to sing in general, but many of them have a wonderful, gently rocking quality that calms my daughter right to sleep (most of the time).

One such gentle melody is the tune RESIGNATION, taken from William Walker's Southern Harmony. Published in 1835, the Southern Harmony was one of the most influential of the shape note tunebooks, selling over 600,000 copies during the 19th century. RESIGNATION (don't be confused—the melody is printed in the tenor there) was joined with the text "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need," a paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm by Isaac Watts.

I'm shocked to discover that Watts has appeared nowhere on kirchenlieder, for he is often called the father of English hymnody. The oft-repeated (although possibly apochryphal) story goes that Watts complained to his father, a dissenting pastor in Southampton, that singing the psalter at church was dull. "Write something better," his father said, and so Isaac did. He became a famous hymnwriter, as well as scholar in general. His books on logic were used for decades in many of the major universities, as well as several of his other writings.

Some of Watts' best hymns come from his own psalm settings, published as Psalms Imitated in the Language of the New Testament—indicating Watts' changing of the texts to indicate Jesus, and, in some cases, replace Israel with Great Britain. Watts was best known in America through a couple of publications: first, what was known as Rippon's Watts or Rippon's Selection (often used in Baptist churches); and, preserving them further, the shape note hymnals, among them the Sacred Harp and the one at hand, the Southern Harmony. Here is this text, presented in the three-verse format of Southern Harmony. The last verse is especially good.

1. My shepherd will supply my need;
Jehovah is his name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wand'ring spirit back,
When I forsake His ways;
And leads me, for His mercy's sake,
In paths of truth and grace.

2. When I walk thro' the shades of death
Thy presence is my stay;
One word of Thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.

3. The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year

Besides the New Year, the eighth day of Christmas, and my mother's birthday (the first baby boomer—1/1/1946), there's more reason to celebrate. There's a new blog in town, a joint project with millinerd. We'll be exploring architectural developments in North American churches, with accompanying pictures.