Saturday, September 08, 2012

Come Into God's Presence With Singing

In Psalm 100, one of a number of Psalms I memorized as a child, we are told: ” Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands...Serve the Lord with gladness. ..Come into his presence with singing.

Hymn singing in church has been and still is a vital part of our Christian worship and our discipleship. Our hymnals, next to the Bible have been our most formative resource.

Christians have been singing as long as there have been Christians. After finishing his last supper with his disciples, Jesus, on the very night when he was betrayed, sang a hymn with his disciples before they all went out to Gethsemane.

Charles Wesley's hymn "O Love Divine, What hath Thou Done, " is one for the Lenten Season.
"O Love divine , what hath thou done! ...The immortal God hath died for me! ...The Father's Co-eternal Son...Bore all my sins upon the tree...The immortal God for me hath died!...My lord, my God is crucified."
Our Jewish spiritual ancestors sang. The 150 Psalms in the Old Testament is the Jewish “book of hymns.”

John Wesley in 1761 wrote “The 7 directions for Singing “ and they continue in our Methodist hymnals. In our current United Methodist Hymnal.1. Wesley directed us to, “Have an eye to every word.” and to “above all to sing spiritually with an eye to pleasing God more than ourselves or anyone else. We are to direct our singing to the Lord. So our hymn singing is “To the Lord.”

I am not a musician. But I keep singing anyway. I enjoy singing and was allowed to sing in the Candler chorale in Seminary at Emory University.

I love to sing and I love to cook. So I sing around the house, especially in the kitchen. My daughter Beth likes to laugh and tell that every time she brought a boy into the house after a date, I would be in the kitchen banging pots and pans around and singing, “His Eye is on the Sparrow and I know He watches me.”

One learns more than they want to know about themselves when they have grown children.

My parents loved to sing. My mother sung solos in church as a young woman but she was 38 when I was born. I never heard her sing in church but, from my earliest memories, I learned every hymn in the hymnal from hearing my mother sing them as she did household chores.

As a teen, it embarrassed me to bring friends home when Mama was in the kitchen singing hymns. Today my dear mother’s singing is one of my happiest memories.

I do not have a great many memories of my father as I was only nine when he died after being bed ridden for over a year. But his witness in life and song had a profound influence on me and some of it tied up with his gospel singing.

I remember hearing Papa sing several hymns still in our UM Hymnal. Also he sang other hymns like, “I’m a Child of The King.” My sister, Louise told me that on his deathbed, Papa sang all the verses of “Palms of Victory,” an old hymn about the first Palm Sunday.

G.K Chesterson wrote a few lines of poetry about the lowly donkey that Jesus rode that first Palm Sunday. Chesterson has the donkey to say:
“Fools! For I also had my hour…
One far fierce hour and sweet…
There was a shout about my ears
And palms before my feet.”

The donkey was telling us…Whatever or whomever Christ touches he dignifies…whether a lowly donkey or a lowly person.

In the devastated South still struggling to recover from the Civil War and in the Great Depression, I did not need lessons in "self esteem." We were taught in church that we were so loved and important that Jesus died to save us." My dying father was so sure that heaven was his destination as if his ticket was already in his hand. And I was a witness as I learned the lyrics and tune to:
“Never Grow Old:” by hearing Papa sing:
“I have heard of a land
In the far away strand
Tis a beautiful home of the soul
Built by Jesus on high
There we never shall die
Tis a land where we’ll never grow old”

Charles Wesley, the Bard of Methodism wrote over 65 hundred hymns. When we learn the words of Wesley hymns we are also learning Bible truth. For example, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is truly a “message of the Holy Spirit” in song. It contains 14 references or allusions to scripture passages.
“Breath, O breath thy loving spirit
into every troubled breast!
Let us all in thee inherit,
let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith as its beginning,
set our hearts at Liberty.”
“Finish then thy new creation
Pure and spotless let us be
Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee
Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place
Till we cast our crowns before thee
Lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Bishop Arthur Moore, A South Georgia native and one of our greatest bishops said about Charles Wesley’s “O For A thousand Tongues to Sing.” “We sing “O for a thousand tongues to sing” and do not use the one tongue we have.”

Wesley’s “A Charge to Keep I Have” reminds us as Christians have been given a “charge to keep and a God to glorify.” We have also been given a particular charge or calling that is unique.

When we sing, “When I survey the Wondrous Cross, by Isaac Watts “we are also hearing a good sermon about the cross and the doctrine of the atonement.
“When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the prince of glory died
My richest gains I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
“See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did ev’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.”

One of the hymns I connect with my parents singing is “He Keeps me Singing.” The hymn is still on page 110 in Cokesbury,

The words and music were written by Luther Bridges,(1884-1948) a Methodist pastor and evangelist from Georgia. He was away in a revival meeting in Kentucky when his wife and three children were burned to death in a house fire. Bridges was so devastated and dismayed he stayed to himself for many months.
My mother told me about them meeting Bridges and hearing him preach and tell the sad story about how he came to write “He Keeps Me Singing” in the midst of this great sorrow.
The first words are; “There’s within my heart a melody.” Jesus whispers sweet and low
Fear not I am with you
Peace be still
In all of life’s ebb and flow,
“Jesus, Jesus , Jesus,
Sweetest name I know.
Fills my every longing.
Keeps me singing as I go.”

Many of our most beautiful and effective hymns were written and sung in the midst of tragedy. It is in crisis times that we are stopped in our tracks and say, “Where is God when bad things happen.” Strangely, we do not stop often think to say, “where is God when good things happen.”

When things are going smoothly, we tend to focus on other things, our work, our vacation, holidays or the latest movie or ball game.

But let sometime happen… losing a spouse, a job, or discovering you or a loved one may have heart failure or cancer and suddenly life changes and God is back in the picture. Crisis and tragedy serve the function of bringing us back to the recognitions of our limits and our mortality.

My brother Tom dropped out of church for a few Sundays as an older teen. One day he ran into our town’s mayor who told Tom he had been missing him at church. Then he said, half in fun, to Tom, “One day you are going to die and I will say, “poor Tom, he had to die before we could get him back in church.” Tom came home, told Mama about the conversation and asked her to wake him up in time for church the next day.

Some of our favorite hymns were written in times of distress. The hymn, “What A Friend We have in Jesus“ was written by Joseph Striven after his fiancée was drowned the night before their scheduled wedding.

It is said that George Matheson wrote “O Love That will Not Let Me Go” after his fiancée’ broke her engagement to him when she learned of his impending blindness.

In reflecting on my spiritual journey, I was influence by hymn singing. As a child of 11, I was sitting in the Methodist Church where I had been baptized as an infant, listening to the words of a hymn we were singing and pondering the first Biblical question I ever remember giving thought to. We were singing:
“Alas and Did My Savior Bleed.
And did my sovereign die,
would He devote that sacred head
for such a worm as I.”
A few years later some of our church musicians, contrary to Wesley’s advice, took liberties with Isaac Watts’ hymn and deleted “such a worm as I” and replaced it with the more palatable “sinners such as I.”

We might debate the question of whether or not someone should change the lyrics in a hymn after the poet has died. But most of us think it is a nice change. We do not mind being “a sinner.” We may even brag about being a sinner, but none of us relish the idea of being called a “worm”.
This was before WWII, a time when we believed that human beings were getting better and better. All we needed was better education and more bathtubs.
Then we learned about the Holocaust in Germany, where one of the most enlightened and educated nations killed 6 million Jews. We learned about the atrocities of Japan, another educated and prosperous nation…and on and on. Worms?

The evidence is in. Education and prosperity and even social action ...all good things…all much needed things but they cannot save us. They sometimes only may increase our capacity and opportunity for evil?

That day at age 11, sitting in church I was paying attention to all the words of this old Isaac Watts hymn and especially the words, “was it for crime that I have done… Christ died upon the tree… amazing pity, grace unknown… and love beyond degree. “

I was thinking…”how in the world could the sins I commit today have anything to do with Jesus dying on a bloody cross 2000 years ago?”
I was then a thoughtful obedient child. More serious than many I think because of the illness and death of my beloved Papa two years earlier. I suppose I was somewhat like the little 8 year old girl who wrote her pastor one Monday morning.
“Dear Pastor. Yesterday you preached about loving our enemies. I do not have any enemies yet. But I hope to have some by the time I am nine. Love, Mary.”

I could not think of specific sins I had committed, but somehow I grasped a profound truth. I accepted the mystery that God to be God could see into the future as well as the past and Jesus had shed his blood on the cross for me and my generation as well as those of his generation.

I have not mentioned everyone’s favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton who had been a slave trader and became a Christian and an Abolitionist. (Note: this is important...not every "Christian " was an abolitionist but every "Abolitionist" was a Christian. No other religion had seen the evil of slavery and worked to defeat the powerful world wide slave trade)

I have not mentioned two of my favorite hymns, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name.” We must also include the greatest of all, Handel’s “Messiah” and the “Halleluiah Chorus” that lifts us to our feet in awe and praise!

And let me mention Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915) the blind poet who wrote the lyrics and music to over 8 thousand hymns…many of your favorites and mine. Many Cosby hymns still in our Cokesbury and United Methodist Hymnals, are, “To God be the Glory;“ “
“Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord,
Let the earth hear His voice.
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice.”
Come to the Father
Through Jesus the Son
And give him the glory
Great things he has done.”

Cosby also wrote the words and music to: Blessed Assurance”;
"Blessed assurace...Jesus is mine...Oh, what a fortaste of Glory Divine...Heir of salvation...purchased above...Born of His spirit...Washed in His blood."

Thank God, we can come into God’s awesome presence with singing and say with the Psalmist, “let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.“ May we say with our life and with our words, “This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior all the day long
.” AMEN.

1. United Methodist Hymnal, Roman Numeral page 7.


Don said...

Aunt Ruth, what a beautiful sermon on hymns!
If nothing else, it will hopefully keep me from feeling sorry for myself when I think of how blind Fanny J. Crowby wrote 8,000 humns! Wonderful story about Uncle Tom. One of the things I've missed in church in recent years is the absence of the old hymns. Seems choirs want to sing new modern stuff too much and sing hymns only during "camp meeting time" each summer.
Love you much. Don

PTLP Mike said...

Thank you for your wonderful words. Usually by the time Friday comes around I need to be lifted up and your words were certainly uplifting.

Jane said...

Aunt Ruth, thank you so much for this wonderful sermon. Your words touched my soul this morning.
I never knew that Mama Baird sang solos. What a wonderful discovery for me. I heard her sing in the kitchen when I was a child and loved it.
I am SO thankful for my heritage. I am so blessed.

Terrell said...

Thanks for putting up this sermon, Mother. I wish you could put it up as a podcast! I always am enriched by hearing your sermons.
And I love those old songs!

Carol said...

I loved reading about the hymns - I love them all. Thanks.

Patricia McCluskey Mann said...

You are such a blessing 'Sister Ruth' - I, too, grew up on these precious hymns! Nowadays many churches no longer have hymn books and like my 86-year-old girlfriend says: they sing 'Seven-Eleven' songs from an overhead projector! (Seven words - sung eleven times) May God continue to bless you with many more years to bless us all!!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thank you.