A Bach prelude and an R. E. M. offertory
Breakfast with Jesus -- video

Three of the Staples

Number eighteen in my hymn series.

This post is devoted to three of the hymn staples that I've sung all my life in every church in every setting.

For my installation as Associate Pastor for Student and Family Life at Rolling Hills Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas I chose as postlude Martin Luther's great hymn and staple of Christian hymnody "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

A mighty fortress is our God, 
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not His equal.

One time in Oklahoma City when we had sung this hymn, a visitor who was a recovering alcoholic came up to me to say how powerful were the lyrics of this hymn, though she thought the music was "awful."

She was drawn to what has made this hymn a classic and a staple--its theme that God's power as revealed in Jesus will defeat the evil in our lives.  

And tho' this world with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph thro' us:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

***

IMG_20140602_113235140

Another staple I've sung all my life in every church and every setting is "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise."

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.

This hymn, which is number one in the UCC's New Century Hymnal, I have a complicated theological relationship with.  At CoH-OKC I told our Music Minister Bill Wade that it was on the very boundary of what I could sing, very close to becoming one of those hymns I could not sing.  At First Central, I've had a more relaxed attitude toward it.

What are my issues?  

I am a Process philosopher.  I believe that God is an actual entity not distinct from the rest of the cosmos.   That God exists within time.  That God changes and develops while interacting with the rest of the cosmos.  This hymn, however, is representative of the traditional theological view that God is unchanging and unchangeable.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

The poetry is those last couple of lines is quite good.  Actually throughout this hymn is good poetry.

I am also turned off by its remote images of God "in light inaccessible hid from our eyes."  I'm much more drawn to the idea in "This is My Father's World" that "in the rustling grass I hear him pass."   Yet, the third verse does push against the remoteness of the first verse:

To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish--but naught changeth Thee.

And the final line of the final verse says "O help us to see 'Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee!"  Which suggests that God is not remote or hidden, but that the divine glory is just so bright that God is difficult for us to behold.

Because the hymn itself is so complex in its theology, because its poetry is so beautifully crafted, and because I also believe in pushing against and challenging my own theological perspective, I keep singing this hymn and selecting it for worship, even though I fundamentally disagree with it.

***

The final staple I want to draw attention to in this post is "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."  As a child I loved this hymn, primarily because it is set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from the finale of the 9th Symphony, which means that you get to hear one of the most glorious pieces of music ever composed.  I have no qualms at all about singing this hymn.

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow'rs before Thee,
Op'ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, 
Fill us with the light of day!

One of the strange choices in the New Century Hymnal was to change all the Thees and Thous.  I'm okay with their gender inclusive language (though some of the adaptations are awkward), but I really dislike the elimination of Thees and Thous.  It just doesn't work for me, so when we sing some of my favourite old hymns, I still sing them with the old second person pronouns.  Though there is something nice about changing "the dark of doubt" to the "storms of doubt" I don't care for 

Joyful, joyful, we adore you,
God of glory, God of love;

I far prefer how the Metropolitan Community Church changed that opening, while also being sensitive to gender inclusive language.  Here is their adaptation of the entire first verse, with some really nice language that frankly I still sing, prefering this to both what I grew up with and the UCC version:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Living Love;
Hearts unfold like flow'rs before Thee,
Opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive all fear and doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness, 
Fill us with new life today!

"Drive all fear and doubt away" is a powerful phrase, particularly from a denomination whose ministry has primarily been focused on the liberation of LGBT persons.  Which also makes the "Fill us with new life today" so powerful and, I think, more effective than the somewhat bland "fill us with the light of day."

One of my favourite names for God comes from this hymn, a name I use often in preaching, praying, and writing prayers for worship.

Thou art giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Wellspring of the joy of living,
Ocean-depth of happy rest!

It's that "Wellspring of the joy of living."  I used it first for a sermon title at Royal Lane on Graduation Sunday in 2003 when I preached on friendship and blessing.  The phrase seemed to particularly fit some of the young people we were celebrating that year.

The Baptist Hymnal did not include the fourth verse, which I've only come to sing in recent years:

Mortals, join the mighty chorus which the morning stars began;
Boundless love is reigning o'er us, reconciling race and clan.
Ever singing, move we forward, faithful in the midst of strife 
Joyful music leads us onward in the triumph song of life.

Or, alternately:

Ever singing, march we onward, 
Victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life.

I like the "sunward."

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