Hymn books: what we’ve lost and gained.

blue hymn booksI’ve really enjoyed following some blog discussions about hymnals in recent weeks (which you can find at the end of this post). In the space of around 30 years most church congregations have moved away from using them at all. Those piles of well-thumbed and well-sung collections of hymns have disappeared from church foyers and from the experience of many church-goers. In fact, if you are under the age of twenty you may have no memories at all of singing from a hymn book.

Last night I pulled out my little, moth-eaten, blue hymnal at the dinner table.  My ‘elderly’ teenagers and twenty-year-old were bemused by the little tome. And while not entirely oblivious to the contents, they did find my rendition of the drawn out and repetitive phrase from “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” quite amusing: ‘And Crow… ow.. ow.. own Him! Crown Him! Crown Him! Crown Him and Crown Him Lord of All’. (Who said hymns were easy to sing, and not repetitive?)

Whenever there is a great cultural shift in the way something is done there will naturally be losses, and gains. (The internet itself is one giant case in point. While it allows me the opportunity to write and share with people on the other side of the world it can also distract me from giving good attention to the people under my roof!)

And of course we shouldn’t forget two things: the church has done without hymn books before – when people repeated or memorised the lyrics; and, the collection of hymns we have used in church in the last few hundred years are not actually the ones referred to in the Bible, in Ephesians 5:18-19. Those hymns and spiritual songs have been lost forever.

For me, the move away from hymn books has meant the loss of something tangible, a bound book of songs for the church, which have been agreed on and published for their value in helping us praise God, in spirit and truth. People could own or borrow a hymn book and look up songs and reflect on the lyrics. As a child who loved words, I spent many a Sunday service pouring over the hymn book (especially if the sermon was very long or over my head). I devoured both the poetry and theology they contained. They challenged me to learn new words and concepts about God. I was also fascinated by the names of the hymn writers and the years they lived, and wrote, as well as the number of hymns written by each person. This little blue book was something of a little Blue Box, bigger on the inside, and a portal to the rich history of the church for the past few centuries. (If you understand this Doctor Who reference, you may like to visit my old Blue Box Parables blog, on finding Christ in popular culture.)

While I have been brought up on hymns, (and learned to sing harmony because of them, and probably learned to read music from the hymn book on the piano at home) I am not mourning their loss. I have been part of the movement of change, and spent the last few decades looking for spiritual songs and hymns which will edify and teach us well. Alongside this new body of songs, most churches retain the ‘good old hymns’ in their repertoire, hymns that are biblical and continue to encourage people today. Modern adaptations of hymns also help keep the ones worth singing alive (while those full of obscurities and archaic phrases are happily shelved for good).

The authors of the following posts have explored these losses and gains in much more detail and you can read them at your leisure. But to close, I will quote myself for a change, and refer you back to a post written in the defense of new songs in 2012.

In a nutshell, I argued that new songs say that God is doing something here and now, not just a few hundred years ago: “. . . it also comes down to the concept of “renewing our minds”. By hearing the gospel explained in new and fresh ways, our understanding of God and the gospel of His grace is strengthened and deepened. That has got to be a good thing.” 

You will find that Tim Challies also picks up this point in the third post below (which is his own response to his first post about things we lost when hymn books were set aside). The second and fourth links below are other people’s responses to Challies’ original post.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please comment below. Blessings!

https://www.challies.com/articles/what-we-lost-when-we-lost-hymnals

https://gregoryktyree.wordpress.com/2017/04/06/what-we-gained-when-we-gave-up-our-hymnals/

https://www.challies.com/articles/what-we-gained-when-we-lost-the-hymnal

https://chrislinzey.com/2017/04/09/hymnals-we-dont-need-no-stinkin-hymnals/

https://sevennotesofgrace.com/2012/07/31/new-songs-say-god-is-doing-something-now/

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Four little girls, suffering and God’s perfect peace

4girlsspaffords1You’ve probably heard of Horatio Spafford. You may realise he is the author of the hymn “It Is Well” (When Peace Like a River) and that he suffered the tragic loss of his four daughters before penning those now famous words. But here is a little more background you may not be aware of, along with an interesting question from Tim Keller:

“Horatio Spafford was an American lawyer who lost everything he had in the Chicago fire of 1871. Only two years later, he sent his wife, Anna, and their four daughters on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean to England. The ship hit another ship and began to sink. As it was sinking, Anna got the four little girls together and prayed. The ship went under the water, and they all were scattered into the waves, and all four little girls drowned. Anna was found floating unconscious in the water by a rescue ship. They took her to England, and she cabled Horatio Spafford just two words: “saved alone.”

spaffordWhen Spafford was on the ship on his way to England to bring his wife home, he began to write a hymn – “It is well with my soul… When peace, like a river…” Those are the words he wrote.

Here is what I want you to think about: why would a man dealing with his grief, seeking the peace of God – the peace like a river – spend the entire hymn on Jesus and His work of salvation? And why would he bring up the subject of his own sin at such a time? He wrote:

My sin, oh, though the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

What has that got to do with his four little girls who are dead? Everything!
Do you know why? When things go wrong, one of the ways you lose your peace is that you think maybe you are being punished. But look at the cross! All the punishment fell on Jesus. Another thing you may think is that maybe God doesn’t care. But look at the cross! The Bible gives you a God that says, “I have lost a child too; but not involuntarily – voluntarily, on the cross, for your sake. So that I could bring you into my family.”

In that hymn you can watch a man thinking, thanking and loving himself into the peace of God. It worked for him under those circumstances. It worked for Paul under his circumstances (Phil 4:6-13). It will work for you.

– Timothy Keller, “Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering”, p.311-312

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3)

You can listen to a new arrangement of IT IS WELL by Todd Fields. Find it here on Spotify (our church songlist for 2014).

Green Carpet Players: Endurance Songs

IMG_0210.JPG
It’s always fun to discover a new group of musicians whose sound you enjoy. I discovered this one by following a trail from another blog. They are the musicians from Redeemer Church of Knoxville. Their site describes the songs as “endurance songs, a companion to help you journey by faith every day from Morning to Evening.”
I like the sound of that! The music of our faith is indeed an encouragement.
The album was released 09 October 2014, and can be bought by donation.
http://redeemerknoxville.bandcamp.com

tags: americana christian folk redeemer acoustic rock folk rock hymns liturgy retuned hymns Knoxville

A powerful performance

Bryan Patterson's Faithworks

THE Piano Guys are on a mission to perform at all seven wonders of the world.

For their latest project, they travelled to the world famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil. They created and performed a special piece at the special location, bringing the heartfelt hymn of praise How Great Thou Art together with the theme from the movie The Mission.

Listen and be calmed.

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Hymn lines that didn’t stand the test of time

Today’s post comes from a ‘Gathered Worship Director’ (I like that!) in New Zealand – the original article can be found here at Chong’s Worship: I think you’ll find it quite amusing, but at the same time remember that some lines of our modern hymns may sound equally as strange in a few hundred years time!

old hymnGod’s blessed the church with hundreds of memorable hymns of the faith. Christians and non-Christians alike recognise lines such as “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound…”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, and “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide…” (I’m sure you can think of many of your own examples).

For a bit of a laugh, here are a couple of examples of old hymn lyrics that, although theologically sound, have thankfully fallen out of use:

Stanza 6 in “How Firm A Foundation”:

Even down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.

(Hoary means ancient, aged.)

Stanza 9 of Charles Wesley’s “Come Thou O Traveller Unknown”:

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The term “bowels” used to mean the seat of one’s emotion (what we refer today as our heart).

The first line of Isaac Watt’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was originally:

Hark! How all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of Kings.”

(Welkin refers to the highest heavens.)

And from verse 3 of Joseph Hart’s hymn, “Salvation to the Lamb”:

When we incurred the wrath of God, Alas! what could we worse?
He came, and with his own heart’s blood Redeem’d us from the curse.
This paschal Lambour heav’nly meat, was roasted in the flame.
Repeat, ye ransomed souls, repeat, “Salvation to the Lamb!”

While I like Joseph Hart’s sincere attempt to link Jesus to the Passover lamb in Exodus, this particular imagery is um… hard to stomach (thankfully other people have tried rewriting it).

To fit the language

So why did these hymnwriters use those words? To fit the language of the people at that time, who would have understood the phrases and meanings without any hint of snickering.

Brian Wren in his book Praying Twice adds some helpful insight (p.297-8):

“… The need for change sometimes overrides the need for familiarity… In the Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, [Isaac Watts] says that “what is provided for public worship should give to sincere consciences as little vexation and disturbance as possible” However, “where any unpleasing word is found, he that leads the worship may substitute a better; for (Blessed be God) we are not confined to the words of any Man in our public solemnities.”

“However much we value our past, our present interest in congregational song is not antiquarian, but immediate. We sing to God from today, in lyrics which — whether ancient or recent — express today’s faith. When a lyric from the past gets too archaic to be understood, or too out of sync with today’s hope, faith, and issues to speak for us, it will eventually cease to be sung, or amended to keep it singable.

I was reflecting awhile back on whether Christians had to hang on to obscure hymn lyrics. Ultimately, I think Brian Wren is right – if a line is worth understanding and remembering, it will stay in use. And if it makes you think about your bowels, it’s probably not worth keeping!