Archive for Hymns


Love’s Labour’s Last

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Today I had to fulfill the duty that falls to all musicians from time to time. I played the memorial service of a woman I considered my spiritual mother. Both repelled by the finality of my job, and compelled by the desire to give her my very best music one last time, I prepared myself this morning.

The alarm went off at 7 a.m. I reluctantly rolled out of bed and pulled myself toward my first task: transposing a couple of hymns I did not care to tackle on the clarinet in the key of A flat. I tried them out, although I really wasn’t sure I was even going to look at the music. I taped my “security blanket” to my music stand, as this was going to be an outdoor service.

As each item was readied to go, it was placed next to my purse. But my mind was so foggy. When was the last time it was so hard to gather my thoughts, and gather my things? I couldn’t remember.

Next stop was some iced coffee as it has been sweltering, humid heat in New England the last few days. There are some pills I am supposed to take in the morning. Later in the day I found I had never actually taken them.

Then I ironed my best dress, blue flowers on a white background because we were going to celebrate Faye’s life, not mourn her death. Certainly Faye was celebrating in heaven, but I was missing her terribly. In my clouded thoughts I was turning over what I might share about her at the service. But I can’t share the most important things: how much she loved me, what a great confidante she was, the things she shared with me about her life, what a stalwart supporter she was in the dark times of my life, how much fun we had over the years, but what a rock she was for me. Some things just can’t be expressed. It’s too complicated and too private.

Then we leave, and as my daughter and I start the drive, my mind sets Faye aside and goes into a business mode. People often ask if I will break down when I’m playing. The answer has always been no. I can’t. In those moments I cannot be the bereaved daughter, the saddened cousin, the grieving friend. I am a musician and I have a job to do. Ironically, at the time when I want to put the most love into my playing, I am at my most businesslike.

And this day was an exceptionally tall order on this day. Faye had chosen two songs that were lively expressions of the victory we have in Christ: When the Roll is Called Up Yonder and When We All Get to Heaven. I didn’t feel like playing these at all, even though I knew she was experiencing these wonderful things. There had been a couple of sad attempts at home. Finally, under pressure of live performance, I came up with peppy renditions.

When it was all over and folks were leaving, I played my own selection softly, What a Day That Will Be. It’s a slower Gospel feel, and for me it expressed both what she is experiencing and what I am waiting for here.

I would love to hear about your experiences playing or singing for a loved one’s memorial service. Was it difficult, or did it make your goodbyes easier? No matter what, the last personal song definitely makes a difference.


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The Mighty Power is Indescribable

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There are two songs we sing that remind me of each other but – they’re about three hundred years apart in the making. First, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” was published by Isaac Watts in 1715 and was actually meant to be a children’s hymn. To my surprise the words are associated with at least two hymn tunes: Forest Green and Ellacombe. I had only known of Ellacombe. The Forest Green tune seems to me to be a more likely children’s hymn and so perhaps is the more traditional.

Gazing upon the sky

God’s Power Described

Watts declares God’s power, wisdom and authority using examples of creation. And that’s just the first verse! Looking further we see God’s goodness, His care of His creation, and His omnipotence. So while at first glance it may seem that Watts is primarily extolling creation, that’s not the whole story. He is praising the many attributes of God by drawing our attention to His creation.

I sing the mighty power of God, That made the mountains rise;
That spread the flowing seas abroad, And built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained The sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at His command, And all the stars obey.

I sing the goodness of the Lord, That filled the earth with food;
He formed the creatures with His word, And then pronounced them good.

Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed, Where’er I turn my eye:
If I survey the ground I tread, Or gaze upon the sky!

There’s not a plant or flower below, But makes Thy glories known;
And clouds arise, and tempests blow, By order from Thy throne;
While all that borrows life from Thee Is ever in Thy care,
And everywhere that man can be, Thou, God, art present there.

These verses are split exactly in half in the way they speak of God. The first verse and the first two lines of the second address God in the third person. Thereafter God is spoken to and praised directly.

Fast Forward to . . .

In 2002, Laura Story wrote the song “Indescribable”. These ten years since it has become beloved far and wide. This song is in the verse and chorus style, the verses holding the main descriptions of creation. One example from the second verse:

Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go
Or seen heavenly storehouses laden with snow

It is the chorus which gives us the praises of God, especially how omnipotent and unknowable He is:

Indescribable, uncontainable,
You placed the stars in the sky and You know them by name.
You are amazing God
All powerful, untamable,
Awestruck we fall to our knees as we humbly proclaim
You are amazing God

This song almost completely speaks directly to the Lord. The exception is the second verse, which asks the question, who has done all these miracles of creation? At the end of the last chorus Story’s praise of the creation of humanity and His relationship with them is personally expressed.

You see the depths of my heart and You love me the same
You are amazing God

What do you think?

Each hymn of praise expresses itself in the style of its day. For myself, “Indescribable” says something to me in my “native tongue”, the language of today. “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” also combines praise for the wonders of God and creation; using the “Ellacombe” version makes it a vital declaration, while “Forest Green” captures the gentle simplicity of the children’s song it was originally.

Which do you prefer?

Categories : Creation, Hymns, Music
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Sing to the Lord a New Song

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I work as a substitute organist for several churches, “pinch hitting” for a church organist who is sick or away. Not too long ago I spent three weeks at one church while their regular organist had surgery. Since my stay was prolonged, I got an idea.

Sing Unto the Lord a New Song

I decided to ask about teaching a new song to them, one of the hymns recently composed by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “In Christ Alone.” Other congregations I know have been deeply touched by this hymn, which is a great statement of faith in Jesus. At first there were people who discouraged me; they said I wouldn’t get the pastor’s approval. But, you know, it never hurts to ask – and he said yes! I set about making “In Christ Alone” happen for this church.

Can We Learn Something New?

I’d asked a young man at the church to sing the song with me and play along on guitar, but his work prevented him from coming to church on my Launching Sunday. Mine is neither the loudest nor the best voice, but I was going to have to lead this hymn by example. Suddenly I found my Secret Weapon: the choir rehearsed before service, and I taught them the song. They would leave the choir loft by the time the congregation sang the song, but I thought this situation was even better. They’d be standing at their pews, dispersed among the people, singing the newly learned song with confidence. They would “amplify” my singing everywhere.

I Don’t Want to Learn Something New

Before church started, I talked to one gentleman, Rich, who was a skeptic. “I like to sing the things I know,” he told me. I encouraged him that he’d be able to learn it, and I really thought he’d like it. Just give it a chance….

Because, if you think about it, every song of praise to God was new at one time, and some congregation somewhere gave it a chance. And these songs spread and become well known because they resonate with people. The new words give them new ways to voice their praise, and “Sing to the Lord a new song, His praise in the assembly of the saints” (Psalm 149:1) lives, a new and fresh reality.

Can We Sing it Again?

The song was a “hit,” and everyone agreed we should sing it again the next week in order to learn it better. Then my time with the church was up. Their own organist came back to work, and I went on my way.

I returned on Palm Sunday. Rich, my doubter, wanted to know if we could sing “In Christ Alone”. “Oh, you decided you liked it?” I teased him gently. Rich had gone from being against the new song to becoming its proponent, actually anxious to sing it again.

Especially interesting to me was what he said next. “It has words that are easy to sing,” Rich told me. He had stumbled upon a phenomenon I’ve long believed in. As beautiful as older hymns are, as poetic as their lyrics are, they are from a time gone by. They express the faith we share, but in the music and language of the people of their time. We don’t speak that way anymore. Our music isn’t the same style. We need the new expressions that reflect our style and our way of speaking about our faith to add to the rich body of Christian music and lyrics. All those who have gone before have sung their praises to God in the way that reflected the times they lived in. Now we must add our voices, too.

I’m so glad the church has embraced their new song. In August I’m coming back for a few weeks, and we’re planning to learn something else new then. I can’t wait!

Categories : Hymns, Music
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What is Truth?

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Good Friday Prayer Request

My sister and I have long had a tradition of each choosing a special person to pray for on Good Friday. There is no question who my person is this year, and the need is so urgent I want to invite everyone to join me. Janice Wray, a beautiful 20 year old Christian woman, was in a terrible car accident on Palm Sunday. She has broken her neck and twisted her spinal cord. She cannot feel her hands or her legs, and doctors do not expect her to walk again. Please pray for her and her family – healing, strength, comfort, however you are led. There is no limit to how our God can work in this situation.

The Gnawing Question

The narrative of the Passion always draws me in, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. So many parts of it go right to the heart of the matter: who is Jesus, and why did He come to us? This exchange from John 18: 37 and 38 is one that hits me hardest.

Jesus answered, “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

Pilate had a lot of “truth” to balance that day. He had to keep the Roman agenda in mind, but the Jewish leaders had their own idea of truth, and they wanted to entangle him in their plots. Then there is the extraordinary man before him, who began telling Pilate that He was the truth.

Pilate did not see that Jesus was the truth above all the others. With some misgivings he continued trying to balance the false with the true until it led to Jesus’ death sentence. But the disciples, or at least Philip, didn’t comprehend it fully, either. Jesus had just hours before told his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) He is telling them that He Himself is everything they need – an astounding thought. But Philip answers, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” He doesn’t see that the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. Jesus explains to him, “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9b)

Even today I don’t think we always have such an easy time knowing what is truth when we go to live it out. Yes, Jesus is the truth. He tells us the truth of our spiritual condition. He gives us His blood, that becomes our salvation. What about truth in our day to day situations?

Two 21st Century Questions

Last summer someone urged me to walk away from my mortgage. Instead I chose not to believe her claims that the house was worthless and I would never be able to afford it. I fought to keep my house. Was that my stubborn pride, or was I fighting for what I believed God wanted me to have? What is truth?

When my son was on drugs several persons urged me to toss him out of the house. They were sure this would straighten him out and help me regain a peaceful home. I never could do it. Had I done it, he would never have gotten my help to keep him alive when he overdosed. When he came back from rehab, some still felt he should not live with me. My son and I have fought and negotiated and learned from each other over these months. We are closer than we ever would have been because I did not kick him out. What is truth? Was my method just the truth of a sentimental mother or was it a reflection of God’s truth for our situation? It is easy to say now that it seems to have worked out well. I took a lot of opposition for the decisions I made and the stands I took. And remember, those with contrary advice felt they were reflecting godly wisdom, too.

You know many examples from your own life. Things come up, and then what is truth? And is my truth a reflection of His truth?

Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life

This has made me think about the hymn, “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life,” written by George Herbert, who lived from 1593 to 1633. The music, while sounding characteristic of Herbert’s era, was actually the work of 20th century composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Jesus’ declaration, “I am the way and the truth and the life” ceased being only doctrine to Herbert and became his own truth. He embraced Jesus, calling Him “my way, my truth, my life”. But there’s more. Herbert shows in his verse that he expects the way, the truth, and the life to speak into his life, teaching him and changing how he lives it.

Come, my way, my truth, my life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife;
Such a life as conquers death.

Just think: a way that is so easy and light that we breathe peacefully in it; a truth that comes in and settles conflict without and our hearts within; a life that we live knowing “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

I hope in your Easter you find Jesus to be your way, your truth and your life as never before.

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Joy in Serving Jesus – Song

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Today’s blog is a companion piece to “Where is the Joy Part 3,” which I wrote last week.

When I wrote my blog about the joy in serving, I had an old hymn in mind.  So old, in fact, that I went through four hymnals before finding it!  Evidently this one, written in the early 1930’s, has been passed by over time.

The lyricist, Oswald J. Smith, found the secret that finding what Jesus would have you do lifts your own burdens and brings great joy.  He writes about that secret in the fourth verse.  He knows, too, that the joy that Jesus gives never fades.  The last line of the chorus says, “There is joy, joy, joy that never shall depart.”

Mr. Smith had a real experience.  He was not writing about doctrine he’d picked up somewhere.  “Joy that throbs within my heart” doesn’t come from what he knows, it comes from what he’s lived.  That’s what I love about this hymn.  This heartfelt testimony about lasting joy is still true 80 years later, and we can still have that joy.

Joy in Serving Jesus

There is Joy in serving Jesus,

As I journey on my way,

Joy that fills the heart with praises,

Every hour and every day.

Chorus: There is joy, joy,

Joy in serving Jesus

Joy that throbs within my heart;

Every moment, every hour,

As I draw upon His power,

There is joy, joy,

Joy that never shall depart.

There is joy in serving Jesus,

Joy that triumphs over pain;

Fills my soul with heaven’s music,

Till I join the glad refrain.

There is joy in serving Jesus,

As I walk alone with God;

“Tis the joy of Christ, my Saviour,

Who the path of suffering trod.

There is joy in serving Jesus,

Joy amid the darkest night,

For I’ve learned the wondrous secret,

And I’m walking in the light.

Since I’ve come to realize this hymn is well known to me but probably not to others, I searched for a YouTube video so you can hear the song, composed by Bentley D. Ackley.  This is definitely a home grown church video, but you’ll be able to hear the music and these words together.

I hope you enjoy this song and that it will encourage you all the more to draw on Jesus’ power and find the “Joy that never shall depart.”