Thursday, October 20, 2016

You Raise Me Up

When I am down, and, oh, my soul, so weary,
When troubles come, and my heart burdened be,
Then I am still and wait here in the silence
Until you come and sit awhile with me.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains,
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders,
You raise me up to more than I can be.

There is no life, no life without its hunger,
Each restless heart beats so imperfectly.
But then you come, and I am filled with wonder,
Sometimes I think I glimpse eternity.


This weekend, I’ll be an assistant spiritual director on a women’s Walk to Emmaus, and this is the song I’ve picked to go with my talk on justifying grace. For me personally, the song is more about “strength in tribulation” (one of the Hymnal’s categories) than with justifying grace, but more importantly, people know the song and will sing it from the heart.

“You Raise Me Up” is much too contemporary to be in our United Methodist Hymnal, which only includes hymns written up until about 25 years ago. I noticed at least 10 years ago on Walks to Emmaus that the lay volunteers, the clergy volunteers, and the pilgrims mostly seemed to prefer contemporary Christian music to the older hymns. Lately, it seems like the lay people on these Walks don’t even know some of the older hymns available to select.  In years past, I picked “Be Thou My Vision” for group singing, but sadly, people don’t sing it so well because they don’t know it. 

 Then one year, when I was an assistant spiritual director on a men’s Walk, I noticed how much the men LOVED “Mo’ Bettah Life,” a lively, silly Jamaican kind of Christian song. The men sang it with such joy and gusto, I took notice, and then later I selected it for the group to sing. Wow, what a difference between that song and “Be Thou My Vision.” If only we could sound that joyful and lively on Sundays in church.  Maybe the old hymns we sing on Sunday have something to do with the lackluster singing?

Nah, I don’t really think that. Union Grove-Bahama sings the old hymns with joy and gusto.

You want to hear “Mo’ Bettah Life” sung by Shady Grove UMC in North Carolina?

I chose “You Raise Me Up” for this weekend because the women will know it and sing it with spirit. The song has strengthened and comforted me through some trying times, and I suspect others connect with it in a similar way. What is justifying grace, if not God raising us up?

The music to “You Raise Me Up” was written by Rolf Lovland, and the lyrics by Brendan Graham. The song was first performed in 2002. The music resembles the traditional Irish tune, “Londonderry Air,” which is best known as the tune to “Danny Boy.”

Whenever I have walked on stormy seas, it was only because God raised me up.

Friday, October 14, 2016

How Great Thou Art

          Our second finalist for the position of church pianist will audition during Aldersgate’s worship service Sunday, and our opening hymn is “How Great Thou Art.”  The young lady didn’t seem terribly familiar with church music, and I was concerned she would go to Youtube and watch a hundred renditions of “How Great Thou Art” played and sung too slowly.  It’s a praise song, for goodness sakes! I warned her about it, saying, “For an opening hymn when the congregation is singing, you need to play it in a grand and lively way.” She’s coming in early Sunday to practice, so I’m thinking she will get it right.
When through the woods and forest glades I wander,

What could be worse than “How Great Thou Art” played like a dirge, which is the usual way of playing it at the usual service where it is played: the funeral.  I have lost count of how many funerals I have officiated where this hymn was played and sung, usually as a solo. Ninety percent of them? If it’s going to be played like a dirge, a solo is better, actually.  The soloist rarely sings more than two verses. If the congregation slowly sings all four verses plus refrain, everyone is comatose by the end.

“How Great Thou Art” is so commonly sung at funerals, I can watch half a congregation get tears in their eyes when we sing it as a congregational hymn on Sunday. That’s why I select it often, in order to rescue it from funerals and grief.  Do you know why it’s so often played at funerals? – Not because it’s particularly appropriate for a funeral, but because it was the signature song of the 1950s Billy Graham revivals!
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;

For the record, I have never seen a Billy Graham revival, even on TV. I never even heard the man preach. Incredibly, my Southern Baptist parents were not fans.

In The United Methodist Hymnal, the hymn is credited to Stuart K. Hine (1953), but, in fact, it was written by Carl Gustav Boberg in 1885, in Swedish. It was translated into German, then into Russian, and then into English by Hine, who composed and added verses 3 and 4.  The first English translation (by someone else; it never became popular) was more true to the original than our beloved hymn:  

O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,

With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur

“How Great Thou Art” was voted the number two most popular hymn, right behind “Amazing Grace,” in a 2001 poll by Today’s Christian magazine.  I love to sing it (when it’s played in a lively, grand way), I love most of the words (except verse 3, which smacks of penal substitution atonement), and I have good memories of singing it as a lay person before I started presiding at (or even attending) funerals. I remember gazing out a clear church window on a gorgeous spring Sunday morning, singing with all my heart, “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; how great thou art, how great thou art!” 
and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze
Not the U.M. Hymnal, where the song takes up two pages

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Selah: Hurricane Matthew


          Lord God, we thank you for bringing us safely through Hurricane Matthew, and we lift up to you those who have suffered and are suffering from this hurricane, both here and in the Caribbean. Comfort them, strengthen them, help them get their lives back together. Make us aware of the ways we can help; inspire us to do good.  Help us to know: Who is our neighbor, and how can we help? It could have been so much worse, Lord; thank you for pushing this storm out to sea. 

Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life's tempestuous sea;
unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treacherous shoal.
Chart and compass come from thee; Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
- "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me" #509 U.M. Hymnal

Friday, October 7, 2016

Now Thank We All Our God

        How many other pastors are selecting “Now Thank We All Our God” as the hymn after the sermon this Sunday? Perhaps most of us are holding off until Thanksgiving, which is when this hymn typically gets pulled out and dusted off. 
          This Sunday’s lectionary story of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19 seems to fit with the theme of giving thanks (ten lepers were healed, but only one of them returned to thank Jesus), and I chose “Now Thank We All Our God” before the sermon wrote itself in a different way than I originally intended.
Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices
I chose the hymn before I wrote the sermon because this Sunday, the first of our church’s musician finalists will be auditioning during the worship service, and I wanted to get the music to her early so she would have plenty of time to practice.
          The sermon ended up being more about “Your faith has made you well.”  It won’t be the first time – nor the last – that the sermon and the hymn after the sermon didn’t go so well together. 
          We’re hiring a Sunday musician because our musician jumped ship for a higher-paying job.  The lower salary Aldersgate now can afford apparently is enough to attract a number of UNC music students, few of whom were familiar with church music, and at least one of whom had never set foot in a church before I asked them to sit down at the piano and sight-read a couple of hymns. The two hymns I selected for sight-reading were “Amazing Grace” (which I hoped would at least be familiar) and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a simple soulful hymn in a minor key. One of the candidates was completely unable to sight read either hymn but could play Bach from memory like a concert master.
         “Now Thank We All Our God” shouldn’t be too difficult for Sunday’s finalist, who played “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” so soulfully I wanted to swoon.
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices
           “Now Thank We All Our God” has a lovely Trinitarian doxology for the third verse, and I’ve actually used it for a doxology during the receiving of the offering, from time to time.

            It is ironic that such a lovely hymn of gratitude could have been penned by a man who had experienced extreme tragedy.  The author, Lutheran minister Martin Rinkart, lived through war, pestilence, and famine before writing it in 1663. During a severe plague in 1637, Rinkart was the only surviving pastor in his German city, conducting more than 4,000 funerals, including that of his wife. Yet he still could write years later, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.” Amen!

Monday, October 3, 2016

What a Friend We Have in Jesus

I liked being a rural pastor
           On Sunday after the worship service, I sauntered into the church office singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear…” in my best nasal twang, in imitation of a beloved bluegrass version of the hymn I have in my song collection. It was our closing hymn, although certainly not sung “country-style.”
            “What?!” asked one of the money counters, looking at me in surprise.
            So I repeated my rendition in a worse nasal twang. Lighten up, people.
Sunday's wonderful guest musician
            I had just laughed with the guest musician (who is from Bahama, N.C.) that because I was back in Chapel Hill, I had to use proper grammar again, giving up the “ain’t” for “isn’t,” and the “won’t” for “wasn’t.”
            I chose the hymn because I knew our guest musician would play it “right” – right, according to me, which would be lively, on the piano, with little flourishes.  I’m perhaps overly opinionated about most aspects of a worship service, including the music. What could be worse than “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” played like a dirge? Don’t laugh; it happens.
            A church choir I was once part of sang the hymn much slower to good effect. Actually, it was just the words we sang, using the tune of “The Rose.” You remember “The Rose” by Bette Midler? It goes: “Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed. Some say love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed.” Now sing that melody using these words from verse 3: “Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our refuge; take it to the Lord in prayer.”  The words seemed somehow different when the hymn was sung slowly and with feeling, to a different tune.
            “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was the first hymn I ever heard played in church on the non-traditional instruments of banjo and harmonica.  I was a lay person at the time, new to that church, and was delighted. I remember being surprised and a little depressed when I learned that several people had complained about a harmonica being played in church.
            Once, I was conducting a worship service at a nursing home, and I talked about the lyrics to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” before we sang it.  When I got to the third verse and read, “Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer,” I said, “This hymn doesn’t sugar-coat things, does it? It tells it like it is! Have your friends ever despised or forsaken you?” One old lady yelled, “Yes, they have!” 
           Despite its lack of sugar-coating, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” has been accused in The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal as being overly sentimental.  It was written in 1855 by Joseph M. Scriven as a poem to comfort his mother, who was living in Ireland while he was in Canada.

            The words that connect most deeply with me are in verse 1: “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” They resonate, even in a country twang.