Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Surely the Presence of the Lord

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place;
I can feel his mighty power and his grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face;
surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

We sang “Surely the Presence of the Lord” last Sunday as an opener. I like to watch the congregation while we’re singing this hymn to see if I really do perceive “glory on each face.” I hope there is glory on my own.

When I read up on the history of this hymn a few moments ago, I got a little shiver. It wasn’t that the author, Lanny Wolfe, was inspired spur-of-the-moment at a dedication service for a new church building to compose the hymn and sing it, although that was impressive.

No, it was the Internet story that said, “This song is especially important because it helps us to get the emphasis right.  We often talk about ‘the church on the corner,’ by which we mean a particular building.  However, the building is not the church.  The people are the church.  The building is just the place where the church meets.”
I shivered because only an hour earlier, I had written almost exactly the same words in a document I’m using to help facilitate an upcoming church retreat.  
I shivered because things keep falling into place in a cosmic sort of way, and I’ve been here before. I shouldn’t be frightened, but I am. How often have I known that surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, in these people, in this situation, in my prayers, in my life, and in the life of the church I serve – even when I cannot discern the presence of the Lord, even when I do not hear the brush of angels’ wings nor see glory on faces. The Lord was still there, even when I only perceived it in retrospect.

However, when the Lord is in this place, the Lord often seems to enjoy bringing creative inspiration and surprises, like the composition of “Surely the Presence of the Lord.”

In the author’s words from the 1977 event:

“Before our trio got up to sing, the Lord dropped a tune and some lyrics in my mind. What was really strange about the situation is that the music went in a certain progression that I would not ordinarily go to. But when it was time for us to sing, I stepped to the piano and sang through the chorus, just as the Lord gave it. I taught it to the audience.” The author sang the song through completely, and it has never been changed.

I’ve been creatively inspired and surprised myself a few times lately, including surprised twice today. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

Cut and paste:

Friday, March 10, 2017

O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread

O thou who this mysterious bread didst in Emmaus break,
return, herewith our souls to feed, and to thy followers speak.

Charles Wesley was a mystic, I’m convinced.  “O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread” was inspired by Luke 24:13-25, the Journey to Emmaus, and the hymn has a mystical feel to me. By that I do not mean some esoteric experience that ordinary Christians don’t have, but rather, the soul-feeding and communing with God that is possible for all Christians who yearn for it.  Only someone who regularly communed with God could have written this hymn; it exudes authenticity. Can you hear the yearning to know God in it?

Unseal the volume of thy grace, apply the gospel word;
open our eyes to see thy face, our hearts to know the Lord.

I selected this hymn for congregational singing during Communion on the first Sunday in Lent. I laughed to myself when I realized during worship that it is sung to the same tune as “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” the traditional hymn I had forgotten to select for the first Sunday in Lent! 

Of thee communing still, we mourn till thou the veil remove;
talk with us, and our hearts shall burn with flames of fervent love.

A verse that mourns our inability to fully commune with God until God removes the veil and words beseeching God to speak with us, could only have been written by a Christian who knows that God does, in fact, speak with us, and that our response (like those walking to Emmaus) is hearts burning with fervent love.

I remember feeling a combination of relief and joy when I read at the beginning of the book The Practice of Spiritual Direction by Williams A. Barry and William J. Connolly: “We define Christian spiritual direction as help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship” (p.8). The authors just assumed God communicates in a personal way with us!  I don’t know why I found this so surprising.  

I think Charles Wesley would have agreed that God communicates in a personal way with believers who want to know God.

Enkindle now the heavenly zeal, and make thy mercy known,
and give our pardoned souls to feel that God and love are one.

“God and love are one” is an ever-expanding knowing born of prayer and service. It has been such a gradual, sweet, and deepening knowing for me. I also realize that when I neglect the means of grace, particularly prayer and Eucharist, the knowing seems to fade. I’m with Wesley -- yes, Lord, keep me close and give my pardoned soul to know always that God and love are one.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

Lord, who throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray,
teach us with thee to mourn our sins and close by thee to stay.

This is the first year since I’ve been a pastor that I forgot to select “Lord Who Throughout These Forty Days” as the opening hymn for the first Sunday in Lent. I didn’t realize it until the congregation sang the hymn at the joint Aldersgate-Amity-University Ash Wednesday worship service at University UMC in Chapel Hill.

As I sang it, I had a wild thought that I could still change the music for this coming Sunday, but I don’t want to distress our student musician, who probably is already practicing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” as the opener.

“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” was written by Claudia Hernaman (the wife of a minister) in 1873, and by tradition is sung on Ash Wednesday, according to the United Methodist Discipleship website, even though its lyrics more closely match the lectionary reading for the first Sunday in Lent, the temptation in the wilderness.

As thou with Satan didst contend, and didst the victory win,
O give us strength in thee to fight, in thee to conquer sin.

Aldersgate traditionally does a morning Ash Wednesday service for preschoolers and their parents, which doesn’t have any space for a congregational hymn. No, just the children sing, the parents smile, and I place ash crosses on the foreheads of very young children and adults who tend not to attend church and therefore do not “get” Ash Wednesday at all.
The preschool director (who also places ash crosses), told me we should say, “Remember that Jesus loves you” instead of the traditional, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." All that business about dust and dying -- how depressing!

As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst,
so teach us, gracious Lord,
to die to self, and chiefly live by thy most holy word.

I decided this year that Ash Wednesday at Aldersgate misses the mark, particularly for church members who also attend the preschool service. This year, our members had an opportunity to attend the evening service at University, but few did.

The Ash Wednesday evening service at University UMC was both solemn and uplifting. Despite a thunderstorm, the sanctuary was stuffed full, and I placed ash crosses on the foreheads of dozens of children and young people, all the while saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The music was heavenly, the message good, and the congregants and pastors were friendly and welcoming.

And through these days of penitence, and through thy passion-tide,
yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.

Piano accompaniment from the UM Hymnal; you'll need to copy and paste:

Friday, February 24, 2017

Just a Closer Walk with Thee

I am weak, but thou art strong;
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long as I walk,
Let me walk close to thee.

The pianists at two of the previous churches I have served told me they could hardly manage to play “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”  like they thought a hymn ought to be played.  It begs for a swinging rhythm.

“Well, then, play it the way it feels natural,” I replied. I’m usually up for innovation in music.

In church?, they responded, slightly scandalized. Never!

I have a recording of Sara Evans singing this song at the Grand Ole Opry, and it makes a body want to get up and dance.  Maybe that’s what they meant. We’d all have cardiac arrest if the pianist played it like Sara Evans sings it, and people started dancing in the aisles.

Just a closer walk with thee, grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to thee: Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

I usually select this hymn from The Faith We Sing several times during Lent. It captures the spirit of Lent, to me. What is the Lenten time of preparation if not seeking to have a closer walk with Christ?

This year, I couldn’t wait, and I selected it for Transfiguration Sunday. I love this song! I’ve discovered that congregations tend to love it, too -- must be the unorthodox rhythm. I can’t wait to see what our jazz student musician does with it.

Through this world of toil and snares,
if I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but thee, dear Lord, none but thee.

No one knows who wrote “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” or when it was written. Evidence suggests the hymn dates back to an origin in southern African-American churches in the 1800s. Over the years, it has been recorded by many musicians. According to Wikipedia, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” is a frequent selection for traditional New Orleans jazz funerals.

When my feeble life is o’er,
time for me will be no more;
guide me gently, safely o’er
to thy shore, dear Lord, to thy shore.

In worship or Bible study, I occasionally point out that the final verse of many older hymns deals with death and life after death. Often, the old hymns sum up our beliefs so well and poetically. I’m looking forward to seeking a closer walk with my Lord as we journey toward Easter.

Sara Evans singing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." Sorry if you have to copy and paste.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Near to the Heart of God

There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God;
a place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God.

At our Bible study last week, the question came up that always eventually emerges in a good Bible study: How can an all-good, all-powerful God allow little children to suffer and die?

No one has the answer to this awful question, not even – or perhaps especially – the pastor. I told the group I had some serious questions to ask God once I cross the river, so to speak. But that the thing we trust and hang onto in this life is that God is with us, in and through every tragedy.

There is a place of comfort sweet, near to the heart of God;
a place where we our Savior meet, near to the heart of God.

Congregations love the hymn “Near to the Heart of God” because it expresses so well the conviction that God is with us in all things. In fact, the hymn came out of the great sorrow of its author, Cleland McAfee, after the tragic death of two of his infant nieces (his brother’s daughters) to diphtheria in 1903. McAfee was both preacher and choir director at the campus Presbyterian church at Park College in Parkville, Mo.

As McAfee sat, grieving, wondering what he could preach in church the next Sunday, the inspiration for the song came to him, and he wrote both the words and music. The same week at choir practice, he taught it to the choir at his church, and that very evening the choir sang it outside the quarantined home of McAfee’s brother. They sang it again on Sunday.

There is a place of full release, near to the heart of God;
A place where all is joy and peace, near to the heart of God.
O Jesus, blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God,
Hold us who wait before thee near to the heart of God.

We’ll close our worship service Sunday with “Near to the Heart of God.” I need to sing it and hear it and be reassured that the church and I are always near to the heart of God.