Archive for July 2014

Hymns and Spiritual Formation

This is the 27th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

Do people want to live better lives?
Yes, we do!

Do people want to live closer to God?
Yes, we do!

Do people want help praying?
Yes, we do!

In the press of daily living, it’s difficult to stay on focus. It’s difficult to keep our eyes on our heavenly Father, to remember His presence, His power, His goodness, and His unfailing promises. It’s hard to think, feel, and be the persons we need to be.

Singing hymns can help. They plant truth in our minds, hearts, and imaginations. They immerse us in the realities of God and His faithfulness, of Jesus Christ and His life within us, of the Holy Spirit and His empowering, guiding presence. Hymns help us embrace the truth physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The truths we sing weave themselves into our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.

Remember, it is vital that we sing the hymns, not just listen to them. If you want to be entertained, listen. If you want to be transformed, sing!

Hymns draw us to Jesus Christ. Hymns encourage us to trust God and approach Him with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22). Hymns strengthen us to stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured (Colossians 4:12). Hymns help us comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19, NRSV, adapted).

That is the power and potential of hymn singing. Don’t get sidetracked! Singing is not about enjoying a pleasing sound or emotional stimulation. Hymns are not fantasy music. Hymns are reality music. They nurture our relationship with the Living Christ. They turn our attention to His constant presence and interaction in absolutely every aspect of daily life. Hymns help form Jesus Christ within us.

God Answers Prayer

The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:5-7, NIV).

Many years ago I started writing out my prayers. After I read the Bible, I write a prayer in response to what I’ve read. It’s a practice I highly recommend!

One day I read back through some of those prayers. To my amazement, I saw a recurring pattern: I would pray about a need, often in desperation, and a short time later, that need was provided. I prayed; God answered. But by the time the answer came, I was already concentrating on another concern. Thus I sometimes didn’t recognize the answer when it came. And I completely missed the pattern until I looked back.

I rediscovered what I was taught as a tiny child in Sunday School: God answers prayer. When I trust Him enough to bring Him my concerns, He responds. But as James says,

You do not have, because you do not ask God (James 4:2, NIV).

Read once again Philippians 4:5-7 above. I’ve found that these straightforward verses are beautifully true and abound with practical teaching about prayer.

The Lord is near (Philippians 4:5, NIV).

Remember, we are never out of God’s presence. Thus we can pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17), turning to Him anytime, anywhere, as to a Friend right next to us. Prayer can be our constant and natural response to need, or to blessing, or to just realizing that God is with us.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6, NIV).

I’m weary of the “worry cycle” in my life: small problems arise (often the same ones over and over); they start to gnaw at me; then, little by little, they consume my thoughts, chewing up my energy, my joy, and my peace. To fight this cycle, the Lord has led me to vow:

1.       I will present my concerns and needs to Him immediately before they start eating at me. I will bring them to Him every time they come to mind.

2.       Right then I will thank and praise God for the answer He will bring in His own wisdom and time, even though I cannot yet perceive it.

Note that this matches the Scripture’s teaching. Try it. You’ll be surprised how comforting it is to face God person-to-person and trust Him with each concern.

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7, NIV).

The result is one of the warmest and most practical gifts possible: God’s peace. This peace is so deep, so all-encompassing that we cannot even imagine it enough to ask for it. And this peace will guard our hearts and minds, keeping them in Christ Jesus.

This is a wonderful way to live. But it only happens as we simply and consistently bring our concerns to our Father, the One who is always with us, waiting to help us.

Cast your cares on the Lord
and he will sustain you
(Psalm 55:22, NIV).

He Comes to Us

Hear this from Matthew 14:22-27 (NIV):

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. 

When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 

During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

When God’s loved ones are in need,
nothing can keep Him away.

He came to us on the Sea of Galilee.
He came to us on Golgotha.
He will come to us on that final day
on clouds with great power and glory.

Nothing can separate God from His people, and
nothing can separate us from His love.

Listen…and sing if you want:
Hymn: See Him Walk on the Water
Printed Music & Lyrics

Unchain Our Hymns!

This is the 26th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

If hymns are important, they are too important to limit to an hour a week on Sunday. If hymns can nurture our personal relationship with God—and they can!—then why not take them beyond our worship services?

Hymns need to spill out of the sanctuary into our daily lives. Hymns can enrich our devotional practice and nourish prayer. Hymns need to go wherever prayer goes.

Paul and Silas had had a difficult day. A good deed got them attacked by an angry crowd, dragged before a magistrate, stripped and beaten and then thrown into prison with their feet in the stocks. So what were they doing at midnight? Moaning in pain? Complaining about injustice? Feeling sorry for themselves? They were praying aloud and singing hymns! No piano or organ. No band. No recordings. Just two believers, sitting in the midst of suffering, darkness, and injustice and singing hymns. Read the whole story in Acts 16:16-40 and find how it all turned out.

A similar story comes to us from the 18th century. Crossing the Atlantic, the ship in which John Wesley was sailing was caught in a storm. Though an Anglican priest, he was terrified, afraid for his life. While having his crisis of faith, he heard a group of German Moravian believers calmly singing their hymns. The experience had such a profound effect on him that it would change his life.

In both cases, hymns were a natural, deeply personal expression of the believers’ faith. They bubbled to the surface in life’s most difficult hour. The hymns gave them a way to mentally and emotionally affirm their confidence in God. They were thus able to face their trials with joy and unshakable peace.

Their hymns also became a life-changing testimony to the unbelievers around them. Note that musical style wasn’t what appealed to the listeners. The stories don’t even mention it. The attraction was the joy and faith of the singers, not the songs themselves.

So don’t leave our hymns locked up at church. Don’t let our hymnals stay nailed to the pew. Up until the last hundred years or so, hymnals were a personal item. The Bible and the hymnal were the believer’s most treasured devotional possessions. Whether or not you use hymnals in your church services, get your own hymnal and keep it with your Bible. That will be the first step toward getting hymns into your heart and into your daily life where they can do the most good.

Glorify Jesus Christ

Jesus said to them…”Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20:21, NASB)

The Father sent His Son into the world.
He equipped Him with His own Spirit and sent Him to
speak the Father’s words and
do the Father’s work
in the Father’s power.
The Son came with this burning desire:
to glorify the Father.

The Son sends us into the world.
He equips us with His own Spirit and sends us to
speak His words and
do His work
in His power.
We go with this burning desire:
to glorify Jesus Christ.

His Spirit has one aim,
to glorify Christ (John 16:14), and
He fills us with that same desire.
We want to
live, and
so that everyone around can see how
gracious, and
loving is Jesus Christ, the Living Son of God. 

Listen…and sing if you want:
Hymn: Not I, but Christ
Printed Music & Lyrics

True Bread

I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. (John 6:48-51, NIV)

Father, how often have You offered us life that is deep, rich, satisfying, and unending, and in our hearts and desires we looked right past You. We continued to crave physical comfort, human approval, and security we could hold in our hand.

You offer us Bread that satisfies our beings completely and forever. We spend ourselves reaching for bread that only satisfies the body, and only for a few hours.

Father, You offer us Jesus Christ. We can know Him and live in Him by simply trusting You.

Come, all you who are thirsty,
you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55:1-3a, NIV)

Listen…and sing if you want:
Hymn: We Taste Your Life and Long for More
Printed Music & Lyrics

We or I?

This is the 25th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

In our desire to worship God with one heart and one voice, some suggest that “we” language is more appropriate in worship than “I” language. As a hymnwriter, I believe that stance is well-intentioned but misguided.

Yes, a “we” perspective in worship is a worthy and constructive goal. Both scripture and experience point us toward that synergy where worshipers join in heart and voice. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

But individual worship is still the essential component. Though “we” language is highly appropriate and expressive in some hymns, in others it can hold the truth at arm’s length. It can lessen the impact of the hymn on the individual worshiper. When it does, corporate worship is weaker, not stronger. A.W. Tozer said it this way:

“Someone may fear that we are magnifying private religion out of all proportion, that the `us’ of the New Testament is being displaced by a selfish `I.’ Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become `unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified. The body becomes stronger as its members become healthier. The whole Church of God gains when the members that compose it begin to seek a better and higher life.” (from THE PURSUIT OF GOD, by A.W. Tozer, © 1948 by WingSpread Publishers)

To underscore this point, look at our classic hymns. The following powerfully corporate hymns were all written as “I”:
Amazing Grace
And Can It Be?
Arise, My Soul, Arise
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
How Great Thou Art
I Sing the Mighty Power of God
O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing
Our Great Savior
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
This Is My Father’s World
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
…and many more

Through these “I” hymns we experience a powerful “we” in worship. Would we be drawn closer together by eliminating such from hymns from our worship? Certainly not. It is our common experience with God’s universal greatness and love that binds our hearts together. Shared personal faith is what unites us, not imposed “we” language.

Fruits of Repentance

Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2, NIV)

Throughout our Christian walk, Christ calls us out of destructive life-styles and toward Himself. For many of us, responding to His call involves throwing off hurtful habits that have entangled us. While some seem instantaneously delivered from these habits, others must follow a process that can be frustrating and discouraging.

If you struggle with such a habit or with some recurring sin, this passage may prove helpful:

When the crowds came to John to be baptized, he demanded that they “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8, NIV). Seekers from a variety of backgrounds wanted to know what this repentance demanded of them. They asked, “What should we do then?” (Luke 3:10, NIV).

John answered by spelling out specific life changes that each group needed to make. Those with plenty were to share with the needy. Tax collectors were to collect only the taxes the law required. Soldiers were told not to extort money, not to make false accusations, and to be content with their pay.

For all of us, repentance is more than words, no matter how sincerely spoken. It is more than good intentions, no matter how pure and noble. If repentance is real, it will be accompanied by changes in the way we live, changes that act out our desire to turn away from sin forever. When our prayer is “lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13, NIV), we will do all we can to avoid that temptation.

If sin is a problem in your life, and if you deeply long to break your cycle of failure, why not get in line with the sinners, soldiers, and tax collectors? Ask God with a sincere and open heart, “What fruits of repentance would You have me produce, Lord? What changes would You have me make to break my sinful patterns?”

Listen, and I believe you’ll get an answer tailored to your need. The Savior will not ignore a seeking heart, and His wisdom is extremely practical. He may ask you to consciously avoid certain situations or to establish more positive habits. He may want you to make yourself accountable to a trusted Christian friend.

Whatever His response to you, write it down and begin obeying Him. Remember, you live in His presence every moment. Trust Him one step at a time, and He Himself will lead and enable and bless you.

The Pearl of Great Price

Jesus said: 

 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. 

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46, NIV)

Material riches bring only temporary comfort,
shallow stimulation, and
a false sense of security.
Material riches are simply a means to an end,
and often a poor means at that.

What do you really want?
Maybe comfort…or satisfaction?
Are you longing for pleasure that truly lasts, or perhaps
life that never dies?

Go to the Source.
Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.
He is the hidden treasure.
He is the pearl of great price.

Release your grip on everything else, and
reach for Him.

Listen…and sing if you want:
Hymn: Pearl of Great Price
Printed Music & Lyrics

The Value of the Hymnal

This is the 24th in a series of Friday posts on congregational song.

I have no interest in revisiting the whole debate about hymnals versus projection. But whichever one you are presently using, it is constructive to remember the continuing value of the hymnal.

For those of us who choose and lead hymns, we need to keep at hand a large and varied collection of hymns. Not only is it a useful source, but it challenges us and holds us accountable. When we were compiling the Sing to the Lord hymnal, we sent out a usage survey for its predecessor, the Worship in Song hymnal. We asked worship leaders to tell us how often they had used each hymn in Worship in Song in the past 12 months. Respondents told us over and over again that, having been forced to go through the entire hymnal, they were shocked and disappointed at how few of its riches they had been enjoying.

Without a hymnal to stretch us, we are more likely to take the path of least resistance. We draw from our limited memories and reuse the same familiar hymns again and again. A hymnal disciplines us and draws us deeper into the wealth of wonderful hymns that are always at our disposal.

The hymnal is also a priceless devotional book. More will be said about that in a later post.

As you look to the future, are you hoping for improvement of projection technology, or are you planning for a hymnal purchase? In either case, it’s helpful to remember the advantages unique to a hymnal. Here’s at least a partial list:

  • With a hymnal, we can see the music and visually follow it, even if our musical ability is limited. For some of us, trying to sing a melody we can’t see is unnerving.
  • Part-singing is a beautiful tradition in the church. Current projection systems will make it extinct.
  • With a hymnal, a glance at the page shows us the size and shape of the hymn. As we head into the hymn, we can see where we’re going.
  • With a hymnal, we can also look back. If a verse stirs us or puzzles us, we can read it again and ponder it.
  • Most hymnals tell us not only who wrote the hymn but when. Readers want to know when and by whom a book is written, and the same information is helpful to singers.
  • A hymnal can go places a projection system cannot. Hymns need to reach beyond our church sanctuaries, and a hymnal helps make that possible. Again, more about that in a later post.

As we move forward, let’s not leave behind treasures that are still irreplaceable. No matter how useful our projection systems, a hymnal remains one of those treasures.