Thursday, December 1, 2016

Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.

The first Sunday in December (usually the second Sunday of Advent) is when Aldersgate traditionally enjoys “Lessons and Carols,” I was (gently) instructed. There are both Advent hymns and Christmas carols included in Lessons and Carols at Aldersgate on the first Sunday in December, I was (gently) instructed.

Thus, the Advent/Christmas music battle ends without a single blow, unless you count “I was instructed” as a warning shot across the bow.

Most of the songs the congregation will sing as part of this year’s Lessons and Carols are Advent hymns, no easy task, as there aren’t that many of them in the Hymnal. Plus, we sang two of them last Sunday.

My favorite Advent hymn is “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” written by Charles Wesley in 1744, which we will sing. I am inspired by the hymn’s history, according to Wikipedia:

“In 1744, Charles Wesley considered Haggai 2:7 and looked at the situation of orphans in the areas around him. He also looked at the class divide in Great Britain. Through this train of thought, he wrote 'Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,' with its second verse as a published prayer.”

Haggai 2:7:
And I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come,
and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts.

Confession: I had trouble locating Haggai, tiny as it is and sandwiched between Zephaniah and Zechariah. I’ve never preached from Haggai.

Wesley’s prayer, the second verse of “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus:”
Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit, rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne. (Amen).

Aldersgate's Advent wreath
Raising us to the Lord’s glorious throne in the hymn must correspond with filling “this house” (the re-built temple) with splendor, in Haggai.  

Hey, I just noticed that in the hymn, “spirit” is not capitalized but “King” is.  Must be a typo for the small “s,” and once again, I am nitpicking. I really shouldn't, seeing as I misspelled "E'er" about a dozen times in the initial publishing of my previous post. 

I have a contemporary version of this hymn in my collection that includes two additional verses that were written much later. The additional verses make it a Christmas carol, so I like Mr. Wesley’s version better, as it is clearly for Advent. However, John’s brother also intended the hymn to remind people of the second coming of Christ.

Here’s something else I just discovered -- “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” can be sung to the (old Welsh) tune of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” I think we’ll sing the hymn again, but to the other tune, farther along in Advent.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as those of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
when half spent was the night.

What does the title of this hymn mean? I don’t even know what “e’er” is short for.  Anyone who has attended church her whole life knows that “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is a “familiar and beloved Advent hymn,” as the United Methodist Discipleship Ministries website says, but this hymn raises more questions than it answers.  What does a rose have to do with Jesse’s lineage?  Why would a rose be blooming in the middle of winter? Who is Jesse? And is “floweret” really a word?

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots. – Isaiah 11:1

I always thought Isaiah was referring to some kind of tree, not a rose bush.  Jesse was King David’s father (therefore the ancestor of Jesus), and come to find out, “floweret” means “little flower.”

I foolishly suggested “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” might be an “easy” hymn Aldersgate's almost non-existent choir could sing for the first Sunday in Advent. I figured we could practice it once or twice and sing it, accompanied by one of our new musicians – no problem! The real problem is that I sang this hymn as part of Union Grove’s little choir, which had some very strong singers who had been singing church music their whole lives. They made the hymn seem easy to sing. This is not an easy hymn to sing.

Despite its obscure lyrics and difficulty to sing (or perhaps because of it?), musical people LOVE "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." I’m quoting from an article in The Atlantic: “What else is there to say? Here is the chill of winter transfigured into an ardent flame; here is theology as harmony. ‘Lo, How a Rose’ even includes an extended pastoral analogy and an allusion to the Book of Isaiah. I’m not a Christian, but I’m at a loss as to what more you could want from sacred music. Kazoos?


Apparently, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” traces its origin back to the late 1500s to a manuscript found in a German monastery. Legend has it that on Christmas Eve, a monk in the monastery found a blooming rose while walking in the woods, and then placed the rose in a vase on the altar to the Virgin Mary.

Sorry to disappoint you, but the historical articles agree that the rose originally was for Mary. Protestants changed the original German (Catholic) lyrics to make Jesus the rose. Here’s verse 2 from the U.M. Hymnal:

Isaiah ‘twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
with Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
when half spent was the night.

The literal translation (from Wikipedia):

The rosebud that I mean, of which Isaiah told
is Mary, the pure, who brought us the floweret.
At God’s immortal word, she has borne a child
And remained a pure maid.

Knowing the history of “Lo, How a Rose” won’t make it any easier to sing tomorrow, or make the lyrics any less puzzling for the “un-churched” people who might wander in off the street. Maybe they will stick around and learn more about the sweet season called Advent.
This year's Advent decorating squad

Monday, November 21, 2016

We Gather Together

Christ the King Sunday usually falls right before Thanksgiving. This presents a dilemma for the worship leader of a church that does not have a separate Thanksgiving worship service: Do we stick with the liturgical year and observe Christ the King Sunday, or do we placate the congregation by observing in some way the crowd-pleasing American holiday, Thanksgiving?

This is made all the more difficult because Christ the King Sunday is a somewhat contrived holy day, added to the liturgical year in 1970, to mark the transition from Ordinary Time to Advent.

 Many years, I have been the pastor of churches that had a separate Thanksgiving worship service, but even then, the people who were not planning to attend the extra service wanted to sing Thanksgiving hymns on Christ the King Sunday. I remember a lay person once saying to a group who had gathered to decorate for Advent, “Last Sunday, I felt so depressed over not getting to sing any Thanksgiving hymns that I wanted to go home and cry.”

As a worship leader, I follow the liturgical calendar rather than the secular one, but I often acknowledge the secular holiday in some small way.

I think I did it pretty well this year. On Sunday, we sang verse 1 of the Thanksgiving favorite, “We Gather Together,” as our congregational call to worship. This was followed by the congregational prayer for Christ the King Sunday (#721), followed by “Rejoice, the Lord Is King” (#715) as the opening hymn. We used the lectionary scripture readings, and I preached a Christ the King sermon based on the Luke text. This was followed by Holy Communion (Aldersgate celebrates on first and third Sundays) and the hymn “Be Present at Our Table, Lord” (#621).

We closed the worship service with the final two verses of “We Gather Together.” 

Both verses seem appropriate for Christ the King Sunday, as they contain kingdom/ruler language.  Here is a portion of verse 2: Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining, ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine. And of verse 3: We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant, and pray that thou still our defender wilt be.

When I researched the hymn today, I was bummed to discover that “We Gather Together” was written in 1597 in Dutch to celebrate a Dutch military victory over Spanish forces. It first appeared in print in 1626 in a collection of Dutch patriotic songs. From one point of view, the song's words have the dangerous assumption that victory in battle means that God was on the winning side. But to view the hymn from another point of view is to give thanks for God's providential grace.  

God providential grace is a great theme for both Christ the King Sunday and Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Selah: Journeys

The morning of Election Day, Nov. 8, I flew to Little Rock for four days to see my extended family. I felt confident that Hillary would be our next president and hopeful about potential changes in North Carolina. Needless to say, I felt quite different when I went to bed that night at my sister’s house. When I woke at 3 a.m. and checked the election results, I could not fall back asleep.

My family and I did not talk about the election, and the TV was turned off while I was there, so I didn’t see coverage of the election aftermath. I stayed off Facebook. I had a good time with my siblings, their spouses, and my mother. On our last night, we ate out at a great Japanese restaurant and took this photo:

Mom, Bob, Beth, Cheryl
My sister, Beth, and I went hiking at Petit Jean State Park. The temperature was pleasantly cool, but because Arkansas had not yet experienced any cold weather, the leaves had not changed. How strange, to be hiking in the mountains of central Arkansas in November with trees still covered in green leaves.

As much as I enjoyed my visit, every time I thought of our country, I felt slightly depressed. I knew I would have to re-write at least part of my sermon; indeed, I took one peek at Facebook on Saturday and was appalled by what I saw. Early Sunday morning, I re-wrote. One of our primary tasks as Christians is the building and repairing of relationships, I preached. We have our work cut out for us.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

For All the Saints

For all the saints, who from their labors rest, 
who thee by faith before the world confessed, 
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Who is your favorite saint, who from his or her labor rests?

One of mine has to be James, who was always so kind and supportive of me while I was pastor of Carr UMC. There was also Olivia, who was the salt of the earth, out in Rougemont. She was a role model for me  – in calm spirit, she could unstop a toilet, deliver a baby, skin a hog, or cook a meal for a hundred hungry saints. I’ll never forget Mary Belle in Bahama, a humble and hard-working Southern lady with impeccable manners and a gentle demeanor.
Two United Methodist saints

That’s not even naming those saints who were related to me by blood, who taught me my faith.

Today, as our opening hymn, we will be singing “For All the Saints,” which was written as a processional hymn by an Anglican bishop in 1864. The first time I remember singing this hymn was in Divinity School, where the students in the chapel sang it so loudly and robustly, the hair on my head stood on end.

At  Aldersgate, only one saint died in the past year, and we will light a big white candle for her, as is traditional at our church (as well as every other church where I have been a pastor). One of our living saints asked me to provide time in the pastoral prayer for the congregation to say out loud names of saints dear to them who have passed away recently, so I will do that.  

Yesterday, I played tennis with a living U.M. saint who attends a church in Durham. She told me how much she misses the All-Saints Sunday traditions that her church used to observe. Apparently, the church no longer lights candles for the recently deceased or sings special All-Saints hymns.  “I even miss those extra words during Communion on All-Saints Sunday,” she lamented (as my mouth hung open in surprise; lay people notice that? How lovely!).

O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold, 
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
 and win with them the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia, Alleluia!

“For All the Saints” has militaristic language which I don’t care for. In fact, I am eliminating verse 3 (above), while singing the other 5 verses. Six verses are too many to sing, in my opinion, and the U.M. Hymnal actually eliminated 5 verses from the original hymn, including this one: 

The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon, to faithful warriors comes their rest; 
sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Aldersgate has a new pianist (actually, two new pianists) who I hope will play “For All the Saints” in a “lively, awakening” way.

My favorite is verse 4:

O blest communion, fellowship divine! 
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; 
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!