Abide with Me and I Need Thee Every Hour

Abide with Me, written by Henry Lyte, is a remarkably well known hymn.  I say “remarkably” because it’s played and sung in many non-Christian contexts, similar to other remarkably popular hymns such as Amazing Grace.

This post may step on toes because of this song’s familiarity and … well, tradition.  And interesting backstory.  (That’s a link to another post.  For the actual story, see the CyberHymnal entry).

Update/Edit: I have found that many, including myself, can easily re-interpret, even as we sing, words of songs to mean what the words/phrases may not actually mean.  For example, the refrain of The Old Rugged Cross, if read, clearly state that we will exchange Christ’s cross for a crown.  Most people I’ve actually talked to said they always thought (i.e., they interpreted it) to mean that we exchange our cross (i.e., “pick up your cross and follow me” sort of idea).  So, when I critique songs, I am truly not critiquing your singing of them.  I have sung many songs and later read them and went “huh?! I was singing that?”  Sad, but true. :)

Update/Edit: Here is an example of the above applied to, in fact, Abide with Me.  And here is another.  :)

Here are the full lyrics:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

So, why is this stepping on toes?  Basically, here’s what I think the problem is with this song: it places the emphasis (and, therefore, the doubt and burden) on Jesus abiding with us.  Apparently, the song supposedly is referencing the “Emmaus road” disciples asking Jesus to “abide with us, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent.”  Clearly, this is not a good biblical example as far as justifying it… I’m pretty sure the disciples simply meant “hey, it’s getting dark, come stay overnight with us.”  Especially since they didn’t even know it was Jesus at that point (it wasn’t until Jesus was “breaking bread” with them that their “eyes were opened”).

Okay, so… my thoughts immediately when thinking about the phrase “abide with me” go to Jesus’ words in John 15.  He says, in several verses:

Abide in me, and I in you.

As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

Whoever abides in me and I in him…

If anyone does not abide in me…

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you…

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.  Abide in my love.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

With this overview and snippets in mind, where is the potential for lack of abiding?  With the exception of “Whoever abides in me and I in him” and “If you abide in me and my words abide in you” … the emphasis is on us abiding in him.  In fact, the whole imagery of the vine is that the branch has to abide in the vine.  The doubt, if you will, is not placed on the vine holding on and possibly losing hold of the branch; the doubt is whether or not the branch will abide in the vine.

With this in mind – that the emphasis Jesus places is not on His abiding in us (because, I think, He has already promised to do that; whether or not He will abide with us isn’t the question!) – what about this song, Abide with Me?

As I read through it, what is glaringly missing is the author resolving to abide in Christ, which is exactly what Christ commanded His disciples to do.  To me, it’s as though the person singing is at point A, Christ at point B, and the singer is asking Christ to move from point B to point A (abide with me) when it’s really, if anything, the singer that has moved away from Christ… not vice versa.

Now, to his credit, Lyte does include several references to the faithfulness of God; “Thou who changest not” and “Thou hast not left me, [even though I have] oft as I left Thee.”  There are also some nice word pictures such as having the cross before his eyes and the idea that ills and tears, though we still have them, are substantially different if we are in Christ.

But I have a very hard time getting past the main (in my opinion :) ) problem of the reversed emphasis.  Do doubts come?  Of course.  But this song never seems to recall to mind that Christ has promised to abide and has declared that He has loved us and it is He that asks us to “abide [in/with] me.”  We should be singing that Christ DOES abide in us and that we desire to abide in Him.  Yes, we often (sadly) stray, but the solution to our straying is not to pray that Christ would abide in us (as though Him not doing that were the problem), but that we would abide in Him.

I realize it is entirely possible that many make this sort of substitution when singing it; the “draw near to God and He will draw near to you” sort of thing; yet even that verse places the emphasis and “burden” on us to draw near to Him.  We don’t pray and wait for Him to draw near to us.  Jesus seems to connect “abide in me” with “abide in my love” in John 15; we certainly would not pray, as though in doubt, for Jesus to love us, would we?  Perhaps we doubt it at times, sure, but I hesitate to lead others in that doubt… and, perhaps even worse, lead others in that doubt without actually confirming that the doubt is incorrect and wrong.

Ok, so what about I Need Thee Every Hour?  This is a strange one, because the chorus is actually pretty good.  It expresses dependence and a need for Christ… and, in fact, after expressing that dependence, emphasizes the actual and correct response:

I need Thee, O I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
O bless me now, my Savior,
I come to Thee.

The author of I Need Thee Every Hour is Annie S. Hawks.  Her pastor was Robert Lowry, who is actually the one who wrote the refrain (and the tune).  Here would be Hawks’ original, then.  You probably will catch the similarities to Lyte’s:

I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine can peace afford.

I need Thee every hour, stay Thou nearby;
Temptations lose their power when Thou art nigh.

I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain;
Come quickly and abide, or life is in vain.

I need Thee every hour; teach me Thy will;
And Thy rich promises in me fulfill.

Verse one is fine and I think verse 4 is probably fine as well.  Verses 2 and 3, though?  Similar to Abide with Me, the author is asking Christ to stay near to me (also similar to Away in a Manger, by the way), and goes so far as to say that temptations lose their power when Christ is nearby.  That may sound nice at first, but think about that for a moment.  When temptations ARE powerful and, well, tempting … is the problem really that Christ isn’t nearby and that we need to petition Him to stay with us?  Certainly not; the problem is that we have strayed from Christ’s side, not the other way around!  Sure, we can say that temptations lose their power when Christ is near (or with) us, but if it doesn’t seem like He is, the fault is surely not His, it is ours.  If we feel that we are apart or separated from Christ in some way, it’s not because He isn’t doing something.

Verse three has similar trouble; come quickly and abide or life is in vain.  Again, it sounds nice, because the idea that life is vain apart from Christ is true!  But unless this is from an unsaved person’s perspective (which it certainly does not appear to be), it makes it sound like unless Christ does something (and quickly!), my life is in vain.  While I realize that it is Christ who calls us and Christ who draws us and Christ/the Holy Spirit who empowers us and gives us grace and everything, we ought to remember His promises rightly; He promised to be with us, to love us, and to abide with us if we abide in Him.  So, if temptations are not losing their power, the problem is not that Christ needs to stay with us, but that WE need to stay with Him.  If we feel life is in vain, it’s not Christ that needs to come to us, it’s we that need to go to Him.

For this song, the refrain somewhat softens it, since it ends with “I come to thee.”  I like the refrain, actually, and from the couple people I have talked to, that’s mostly what people (including me!) think of when you say “I Need Thee Every Hour” (even though that phrase doesn’t occur in the refrain, hehe :) ).

Hopefully there’s at least one or two unbruised toes still out there. 😉 :)

Edit: this morning, I found a couple other posts that seem to have come to the same conclusion.

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Worship Traditions

Traditions in worship (specifically, I am thinking about worship services) are not inherently bad.  They can often be helpful.  It seems they often start from ways of doing things that worked well in some way.  The problem comes when we see the tradition as necessary.

The New Testament church had, it seems, very few traditions like we have them, perhaps primarily because they didn’t have church buildings.  They didn’t really have the luxury of developing traditions that couldn’t be easily moved around.  I’m sure it is similar today in many countries that … aren’t friendly towards Christian gatherings.

We, however, have many traditions.  Now, at this point, I think I would be thinking “you mean like the service order or organs or choir, right?  We don’t have that, we have guitars and no liturgy!  Tradition-free!”  But I’m actually talking about things that are much more basic.  Without further ado…

Pulpits.  Would it feel like preaching from God’s Word if there were no pulpit?  What about plexiglass?  What about a music stand?  What if the pastor was sitting down?  Preaching has nothing to do with having a pulpit or what kind of pulpit you have… but it seems that we think, sometimes, that a pulpit is some sort of special symbol of good preaching.  If your preacher can’t preach with a music stand or if you can’t listen to a preacher without a pulpit, that seems like a misplaced emphasis or reliance on a tradition.

Seating.  Would it feel like “church” if there were tables?  Would it feel like church if you were seated in circles or even on the floor?  We talk a lot about an “audience” and “non-participation” type of service, and frequently the proposed culprit is the contemporary music band … and I think there is significant valid concern there.  However, our seating is typically, basically, theater style seating where all focus is forward… just like an audience.  If that was changed, would it not feel like a “church service” anymore to you?

Music.  If there were no piano, no choir, no organ, no guitars… would it feel like church?  Let’s say it was just singing and drums. :)  (sounds fun, actually!)  You might be surprised, though… in reading a variety of opinions and forums and blog posts and other forms of writing, there are many people who prefer a music style to the extent that they will outright say, in defense of a music style, that other music styles just “don’t feel like church, to me.”  That’s fine, and preference is fine, but if it’s the music style that makes a church service feel like a church service, I am convinced that something is wrong.

The list could probably go on and on.  We get comfortable and cozy in our traditions (announcements, how communion is taken/distributed, where things fall in the service, how long the service is, when it starts, what we wear) and I think we forget what “church service” really is.  It’s not a gathering of nicely dressed people who come together to sit and listen to things.  I’m sure there are better definitions… but it seems to me that a church service is a gathering of believers that are gathered to worship, glorify, and magnify Christ and to encourage each other in the faith through prayer, through partaking of communion, and through the Word of God (through its teaching, reading, and yes, singing).  Pulpits, music style, seating arrangement, location, service order, communion bread type, etc., are all traditional elements that I think are sometimes what I think actually drives us to think it “feels” like “church.” :)

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Hymn Stories, Backgrounds, or Context

I am sure we are all familiar with the story of Horatio Spafford and the hymn It Is Well With My Soul.  If you’re not, a simple summary would be that he wrote the lyrics shortly (as he traveled to meet his wife, he apparently wrote it as his ship passed by where the ship sank) after hearing that his family, except his wife, had all perished due to their ship sinking.  If you read about Spafford’s later life, he continued to have trials and seemed to … well, sadly, have some strange ideas.  This bothers me in that I have doubts as to his spiritual state, which makes the story … difficult, shall we say. :)

There are many other stories, and not just relegated to old hymns… people continue to go through trials and continue to write music and lyrics in response.

Before beginning, I want to make it clear that I realize there are “ways around” this … so this is more about how we think about and how we let ourselves think about “hymn stories” while singing – and perhaps, more importantly, how we tell them to others and what we expect them to do with the knowledge.

Also before beginning, these are not full, complete, ready-for-book-publishing thoughts.  I’m still trying to reason this out, and part of my reasoning out involves discussion or writing as writing (or other’s challenging) tends to encourage clarification and better thinking.  So, challenge away! 😉

Okay, so with that aside … it is perhaps a given that the background and context to a lyric clearly gives a clearer, deeper, and more emotional (often) meaning to the author’s intent with the lyrics.  To use the example of Spafford, his response is more … thought-provoking, knowing what he went through, than it might be without it.  In other words, it is a moving story.

That much is, I think, clear and obvious.  However, here is the question flitting around in my head: how does or should that affect my worship through those lyrics?  Again, using Spafford’s song as an example … when I sing the song, I am singing about me, not about Spafford.  I do not sing “It is well with Spafford’s soul.”  I sing “it is well with my soul.”

What am I getting at.  I think what I’m getting at is this; the heightened emotion at Spafford’s experience seems to be just that; heightened emotion.  But does that heightened emotion and understanding about his experience actually help my worship through that song?

I see two options for understanding someone else’s experience and … attempting … to worship in light of them.

Option one is that the experience points to God.  We are then presented with, I think, two responses.  “Wow, praise God that He was such a rock and shelter in Spafford’s time of trouble” (assuming Spafford was, in fact, saved).  The second is “Wow, if God can be such a rock and shelter in trouble like that, He certainly can be in my less-problematic trials.”  Those, I think, ARE helpful.  I can praise God for His work in other people’s lives and I can, as is the case with many of David’s Psalms, see the experience of others as manifesting God’s love, provision, care, mercy, grace, etc.

Option two is that the experience points to the author.  This is the one that I find problematic, and this is the one I am concerned about, in particular, with hymn stories, especially when presented directly before singing.  Again, using Spafford’s song – the lyrics themselves are highly testimonial and do not directly draw out the truth about God that applies to us now.  Having just heard Spafford’s testimony, my brain kinda goes like this as I sing:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
[just like the ship that sank with Spafford’s daughters!]
Whatever my lot, [like having Spafford’s family killed] Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
[Spafford said this even after that!]

In other words, with the backdrop of Spafford in my brain, I think more about Spafford and his tragedy than anything else.  As I think about having done this, I wonder … was that really worship?  What was I actually singing about?  Is it worship to sing about someone else’s experience while saying “I” and “my” and “taught ME” ?  In other words, I am singing someone else’s testimony at this point…. I’m singing Spafford’s testimony.  But the song is speaking as thought it’s my testimony.  But it’s not, the way I’m thinking about it.

I’m having a hard time putting this coherently, so I hope it is somewhat clear where the trouble lies for me.  Now, I realize that we should be able to simply … use Spafford’s experiences, in our singing, as an example of what our response should be.  Thus, we should sing that God has taught us to say that “it is well.”  But that requires me to think about my life, not just Spafford’s.

Another way to put it would be this.  Spafford’s story should simply serve in the same way that David’s stories in his Psalms do.  They should serve as an example; but I do not sing about David’s experiences with Goliath and Saul and being almost killed as though they were my experiences, nor do I find it particularly worshipful to simply sing about David’s experiences and David’s responses.  However, I don’t think David typically leaves it there; he uses his experiences to point to something about God.  For example, I randomly looked up a Psalm – #102.  David is apparently agonized in spirit: “My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread..”  If I stopped at verse 11, all I would have sung about is David’s pain.  I’m not sure that’s easy to worship through.  But in verse 11, David changes his writing significantly:But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.”  Suddenly, David sings about something that is true for both David and me, and David’s personal testimony only serves as a contrast or example.

I guess this is where I have a harder time with It Is Well.  The song itself is more or less pure testimony.  When I don’t think about Spafford, it’s easy enough to “apply” it to me.  When I am thinking about Spafford, though, even the phrases that I should be singing about me tend to get jumbled in my mind with Spafford and I end up singing about Spafford, not about me.  Is it worship?  Well, that’s not for me to decide :)  But I know I find that my emotions get worked up and tears well up because of someone else’s peace with God all the while expressing my own peace with God.  In other words, my emotions aren’t worked up because of God’s work in my life, even though that’s what the words I am singing are actually saying.

Another way to look at it … is to consider whether we find songs with significant and emotional backstories more compelling than others.  In other words, do our emotions of empathy at someone else’s tragedy begin to color our like of a song not because it causes us to think about God’s faithfulness more, but simply because of our empathy/sympathy for the author?  As a literary work, perhaps it is more significant and a better story, sure.

Ok, now that everyone who likes the story is like “no no no no no!” … 😉  I think most of this has to do with how the story is presented.  Simply retelling the story of Spafford such that my empathy is aroused and my emotions are high is not, I think, good…. at least, it certainly does not help me, Paul, personally.  It actually tends to hinder me from consciously singing the words with meaning for me, as I instead think more about Spafford and his tragedy.  What I think would be helpful – with any hymn backstory – is having the story told and then explicitly applying that story to God’s faithfulness in such a way that it’s clear how it “applies” to me.

Another example that I recall is Blessed Assurance.  Crosby was blind, so it was pointed out that when she says “visions of rapture” … she can’t see right now, she doesn’t have any vision.  That makes an interesting story, but when I sing that, ostensibly about my blessed assurance and my savior (as well as her’s, of course, but I’m not singing “Fanny’s assurance, Jesus is her’s” :) )… how does knowing the interesting literary tidbit actually help point me to thinking about the “visions of rapture” that I am singing about me having?  It actually makes me think more about the literary device than what it will be like for me in Heaven.

And, again, I think this is how the story is presented.  It’s not enough to simply tell a good story.  If the story doesn’t actually help me understand the lyrics such that they carry more weight and meaning for me, is it actually good to bring up right before singing it?

Ok, so, my actual conclusions.  I do not think the stories are bad, but I think they can cause us to think more about what the song meant to the author even though we’re presumably singing as though it’s our experience.  Emotionalism – i.e., feeling “worshipful” because we are emotional – is very easy to “fall into” with heartstring-pulling stories (e.g., Spafford’s).  Emotions are not bad, I think we have too little in many … conservative circles :)  But, as is so often pointed out with contemporary music, conflating emotion and worship is not good; therefore, presuming that we are worshiping better because of Spafford’s emotional story simply because we feel like we are is also not good.  Just as music producing emotion rather than the content, I don’t think empathy producing emotion (rather than the content) is good.  Lastly, I think we should be careful not to allow a backstory to make us think a song’s lyrics are better than they are.  I think It Is Well does have good lyrics, so don’t get me wrong there. :)

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Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

There are two passages that get a lot of air/paper/screen time with regard to music in the church. Colossians 3:16 (Google Chrome’s spellcheck doesn’t have the word Colossians in it?! weird) and Ephesians 5:19

Two thoughts that were thunked 😉 yesterday afternoon. First, almost everyone agrees that there really isn’t much, if any (and if there is, we don’t really know) technical difference between the terms Psalm, hymn, and spiritual song. The words:
Psalm – psalmos – just means a “pious” song… i.e., a song to a god.  Also can refer to the plucking of an instrument (i.e., the noun form of “to pluck”).
Hymn: hymnos (or humnos) – a song of praise to the gods, heroes, or conquerors; a sacred song, a hymn.
Song: ode – a song.
Interestingly, in Ephesians, the word for “making melody” is psallo, the verb form of psalmos (“Psalm”).

(pardon my terrible Greek. 😉 )

So, first thought. While most agree that technical differences aren’t really there … it seems that many (and I have read several now) go on to try to distinguish between them, using words like “probably” or “perhaps” or “we believe.” One that I’ve read says that that “psalmos” means OT Psalms, “hymn” means songs that were meant to be theologically rich, and “spiritual songs” are songs of personal testimony about grace/salvation.

What?!  So, we start out by saying that we don’t know the differences between the words, but then we go on to try to place differences on the terms … that strangely match a particular line of thought about Psalms, hymns, and “choruses” of today?  This seems like it’s kinda sad and strangely self-proclaimed eisegesis (another word Google doesn’t have).  If we don’t know what the words mean exactly when distinguished from each other… then let’s just leave it at that and surmise that Paul was referring to a variety of song forms.

Edit: I ran across this right after posting:

From my own experience, the common American evangelical interpretation is to take this to mean something like “psalms (from the book of the Bible), hymns (roughly, older style Christian songs), and modern Christian songs,” which is an anachronistic approach to these words.

On to the second thought.  Almost every time I’ve read or heard about this passage, it focuses on “what do the words mean” in more or less answer to the question “what kind of songs should the church do?”  What is interesting, I think, though … is Paul’s context.  In Ephesians 5, he puts it in the context of being filled with the Spirit.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

We all know the “do not get drunk with wine […] but be filled with the Spirit” verse.  But what about going on, which Paul does in the same breath … well, pen stroke … unless he was dictating 😉  Anyways, Paul just moves right in; what does he explain “be filled with the Spirit” with?  Addressing one another through singing with your heart, thankfulness, and submission.

Now, we read that submitting part and go “yes, everyone needs to do that.”  We read the thankfulness part and say “yes, everyone needs to do that.”  We read the singing part and say “well, I don’t sing” (well, I don’t submit.)  Or “I sing, but it’s just for God to hear, not everyone else” (addressing one another?)  Or “whether or not I sing is between me and God.”  Or “it doesn’t matter what I look like when I sing, God sees the heart” (it doesn’t matter what I look like when I submit/when I’m thankful).  Again … what!?  Are we really this picky and choosy with what Scripture we follow (the ones we like and sound easily attainable for us) and which we don’t?  Nobody would think it’d be okay to say “I’m just not a thankful person, so I don’t do that whole thankfulness part.”  Why is it okay to say “I’m just not the type of person that sings in church, so I don’t worship like that.”

I realize there are people who are tone-deaf.  Very, very few (one statistic I saw put it around 4%).  Most people CAN carry a tune, bucket or not. :)

How about Colossians.  It is, of course, very similar:

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In this case, it’s connected to the peace of Christ ruling our hearts and the word of Christ dwelling in us.  Again, Paul says that we address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and again he references our hearts in the context of singing – as well as thankfulness.

One last conclusion; singing (in gatherings of believers) comes from our being filled with the Spirit, our hearts being ruled by the peace of Christ, and the word of Christ dwelling in us… to the extent that, to Paul, in writing to two separate churches, it seemed like the natural follow-up to saying to “be” those things.

This post is not just for people who have trouble singing or something.  It also is for those who find it very easy to sing and enjoy singing – the question then is not “why DON’T you sing” but why DO you sing?  Singing primarily because you enjoy music isn’t what Paul said, either… “let your love of music dwell richly in you” wasn’t in there.

It ought to be the love of Christ that causes us to sing.

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Church Hymnody Is Not Pauline Hymnody

It’s always surprising to read arguments for why we should do traditional hymnody that include Biblical passages that refer to the word “hymn,” as though the hymns that Paul sang were anything like (in a literary or musical sense) what a “hymn” is now. Even leaving open the possibility for someone to think that Paul’s exhortation to sing hymns is in any way directly related to traditional hymns (including both their textual and musical styles) is not a good thing.  Paul’s usage of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” do not in any way correlate to any modern (and by “modern” I mean anytime in the last 1000 years ;)) development of literary or musical style!  The words had meaning back then… and they didn’t mean what they [usually] mean today.  People had music and literary styles back then – in Greek, in Hebrew, etc. – and they aren’t English or German styles.

There are good arguments for keeping and pursuing traditional hymnody and good arguments for pursuing … non-traditional hymnody :)  And bad arguments for both, too, of course).  But there is no direct biblical argument to be made for a 16th/17th/18th literary and musical styles, nor any direct biblical argument for a 20th or 21st century style.  All of this in the context of “that I’m aware of,” of course.  I have read a variety of arguments, but they resort to, at best, logic-based appeals to biblical principles and attempts to extend them to music or appeals to music theory/history or church history.

A simple example, I think, of a good reason for keeping and pursuing (meaning extending, writing, etc.) traditional hymnody is that many like it.  The same goes for non-traditional hymnody.  Many like it, too.

In fact, I would go further than that and suggest that there is not really a good biblical argument to be made for exclusively pursuing or using  high/classical/grand/complex/whatever art or music, either.  Certainly not from the New Testament, and I think one would be pretty hard pressed to show that the Israelites used “extraordinary” or “uncommon” or “entirely different from the rest of the culture” music.  Oh, they certainly took the “worship music” seriously, of course, but I have not come across something saying that they avoided “common” music or “music that the masses used” or that they came up with their own musical style so that it would be different (and, indeed, were commanded to do so, since they were under the Old Covenant after all).  There isn’t even something about differing their worship music’s style or instrumentation from the Canaanites.  Their dress, their cultural practices, their sacrifices, their incense, their food, their offerings, even their place of particular worship were institutionally differentiated in the Mosaic law… but apparently not their music style and instruments.  With all the detail that God went into in the Mosaic law, leaving out music seems like a glaring error if He actually DID require the Israelites to do so.  And if He did not, then it seems biblically problematic to try to argue from the Old Covenant in such a way to say that it sets up a standard/model for the New Covenant with regard to being separate in music just like they were in other temple worship ways.  I am not an OT scholar, so if I’m glaringly missing something in the Mosaic law/Old Covenant, I definitely would appreciate being corrected :)

Also, another statement that I thought was … well, backwards, was that if we teach young people to value hymns, they will value good theology.  What?!  That should be entirely opposite.  If our hymns are that good – and they should be! – then if we teach young people to value biblical theology and teach them to pursue Christ, then they will value the hymns … if, indeed, the hymns reflect that.  Teaching them to value hymns before teaching them to value the theology is, I think, completely backwards … and, IMO, reflected this particular author’s bias.  The quote:

It is exceedingly important that we teach hymns and psalms to covenant children as part of their catechetical training.  If the next generation will learn to love great hymnody and psalmody, they will love sound doctrine. [emphasis mine]

On the bright side, the author did do a good job of theologically pointing out that singing with understanding is extremely important, and that singing to God without really knowing what you’re saying is … well, at best, not worship.  Congregational songs need to be understandable; if they are not, they need to be explained or not done.  

There are, of course, other things I didn’t like and other things that I did like.  I’m leaving out the name of the author/book on purpose, FYI.  I haven’t decided if it’d be good to mention it or not. :)  A book that I will mention would be John Frame’s book, Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense.  He comes from a very similar position and even comes from a very similar musical preference, but I think he comes to a much more biblical conclusion and places the emphasis on the actually important matters in a more clear way.  If you’re looking for a book on contemporary music, I recommend it!  (yes, there were things I disagreed with, too, aren’t there always? but not very many, actually).

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In Awe of God: A Series on the Biblical Theology of Worship

This is a series that our church did recently.  You can find all the sermons and handouts here.  This particular handout is one I had a … hand 😉 in, if you’re interested.

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What Is True Hymn Form?

I stumbled across this post today, rather by mistake in searching for something that the post happens to mention (The Look by Newton/Kauflin).

What I found interesting was that the author of the review appears to have decided on what a true hymn is.  It seems to be characterized by adjectives like stately, uncomplicated, pre-19th century).  While I can certainly agree that a lot of contemporary music is difficult to sing and is rather complex and really shouldn’t be used in a congregational setting, perhaps, I find it odd to assume that the 20th century person cannot advance past 19th century hymn melody.  Using perhaps the same sort of argument, I might simply refer to 19th century music as boring, overly simplistic, and inexpressive.  Apart from anything else, it’s my opinion about what I like to be a hymn vs. what he likes to be a hymn.

Another interesting part is that, according to him, The Look has a melody that is very solo-ish and borders on becoming a “song” and not a “hymn” (interesting distinction, I might add).  I found that the melody to The Look is actually quite simple.  The chorus has a bit of syncopation, but not much.  I have absolutely no problem, nor anyone else I know, remembering the tune and being able to hum or sing it.

Also, it appears that the author would prefer to preserve the original words as much as possible.  While I do understand this and realize people may have different opinions of lyric changing… it seems hard to lump this into a merit/value judgment of the song.  Perhaps you think it’s not fair to the author of the original, that’s fine.  I personally think that, were I able to talk to Newton, he would rather have me change lyrics to make it more understandable to today’s context than simply not use his words.  Of course, it gets a bit iffier when the poem may not have actually been meant as a hymn, which I don’t think it was … but, either way, it seems that Newton would be glad that something he wrote would be used to worship God rather than be picky about it and say “well, if you can’t keep the same words I wrote, then I don’t want you to use it.”  :)  I might be stepping on some toes, especially of songwriters 😉 but assuming we’re all writing for the same aim – to worship and glorify God and encourage others – then it’s hard for me to get too picky about rights and all that.  (that said, I do my best to follow the laws for that, in case you were wondering!)

I wanted to find out what a “true hymn” was more specifically, but couldn’t find it.  I’d be curious to know what the author thinks qualifies as a hymn … or what qualifications it needs to pass.  Unless, of course, songs and hymns are both equal in his view, and it’s just a terminology thing; but that doesn’t appear to be what he thinks (hymns > songs in his terminology).

I also found it disheartening that his ideal (and, admittedly, he expressed that it was indeed his personal opinion, so that’s good) included a vast majority of hymns from pre-19th century.  We should be diligently trying to build on the past hymn writers, to continually seek to express our worship of Christ in … well, to use an overly used word, a relevant context.  New truth?  No way.  But I don’t talk the same way they did in the 17th century, so I don’t expect my songs to, either. I appreciate the old hymns, I appreciate knowing and singing them, but given the choice, I would like to also encourage people from today to write hymns as an expression of their own passionate worship of Christ, and not simply assume that nobody can improve on Wesley.

Incidentally, Wesley came after Watts; I’m glad Wesley didn’t get told “are you trying to improve on Watts?  Give up now, you can’t, just sing Watts’ hymns.” 😉  Hyperbole and exaggeration to be sure (and different continents!), but… :)

Now, I’ll get off all of your toes. 😉 Seriously, I hope I didn’t step on any.  If you’re one of the people who I know would prefer not to change old hymns, I apologize for the toe-stepping 😉 and I do respect the opinion.  I just disagree, to some extent. :)  (I will say that I would hate to have someone edit my song to make it say something I would not have wanted said! so I understand in certain circumstances how it would be a bad thing…)

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Worship in Response to Testimonies

… specifically, testimonies of God’s grace.  This is something that I have personally struggled with, and I’m fairly certain many others have as well… both in relation to one’s own testimony of God’s grace (specifically, salvation) as well as responding to others’ testimonies.

It seems we tend to have two problematic responses… or perhaps three.  They seem to stem from a low view of depravity, a low view of salvation, and even a low view (or a “cheap” view) of God’s grace.

The Sensationalist in Us

Or, perhaps, the dramatist.  We like sensational stories, stories with irony or high contrast, stories that grip us.  When it comes to salvation testimonies, testimonies of God’s grace, we seem to be moved far more easily by a sensational story; one of “really bad” sin contrasted by some sort of amazing work of grace.

In other words, a story of someone “unlikely” to be saved that is saved.  Is that really accurate, though?  I can’t seem to think of any biblical basis for God being more joyful over a “really bad” sinner vs. a “not as bad” sinner.  Maybe because there’s not really a “really bad” and “not as bad” sinner… we’re all deserving of hell and we were all in rebellion to God?  There seem to be varying degrees of expression of depravity.  This does get to some pretty controversial theological issues – such as varying degrees of eternal punishment or whether or not you can sort of be “more sinful” by the amount or kind of sin, etc.  Regardless, though, when Christ speaks of joy in heaven over a lost sinner being redeemed, He didn’t qualify how much joy based on how much sin… so maybe we shouldn’t either. :)

The Jonah in Us

Jonah had a problem: he didn’t want to go preach to Nineveh, not because he was afraid of them (though he had reason to be, they were brutal!) but because he was afraid God would save them because he knew God was merciful.  Yikes.  He *didn’t* want them to be saved.

We think that’s horrible, of course.  So, how about those Muslim terrorists?  How about abortion doctors?  Drug lords?  Presidents that we don’t like?  How about Kony?

I know with some of these, I seem to automatically … not really desire them to be saved.  Depending on how close to home they have hit (and, admittedly, I haven’t been attacked by Assyrians lately ;)) and how much I’ve personally suffered from them, it gets gradually more of a desire for them NOT to be saved.

Now, obviously, wanting justice is good.  But so is wanting men to be saved.  There seems to be a tension there.

The “That’s Nice”-ist in Us

I couldn’t think of a nice descriptive word for this one, but this is the reaction to “boring” testimonies.  I know I’ve had it.  I have a “boring” testimony; Christian family, good church, saved at a young age.

But that’s no less a testimony to God’s grace than any other amazing and sensational story.  God, still being in control, perhaps chose to show grace even in my circumstances of being born/raised.  I know many others are in this “boat” so to speak.

So, when I hear testimonies like that, I need to remember; young people were just as depraved and still required God’s Son to die on a cross to save them, and those young people still deserved eternity in hell just like a serial murderer or rapist.

Adjectives Used with “Testimony”

So, here’s a question.  Having worked through the above, how do we refer to people’s testimonies?  For example, he has an awesome testimony! or his testimony is very moving! or great testimony! or …

Are those adjectives I really want to use?  Hm.  Perhaps “is very moving” is accurate; but shouldn’t any rebellious person that turns to Christ be moving to us?  It’s moving to God.  How about “great” … shouldn’t all testimonies be great?  They seem to be to God.  “Awesome” sounds kinda generic these days… but aren’t all graceful movements of God’s love to call a sinner to repentance awesome?

Perhaps our language and response should change.  Mine should.  For example, I shouldn’t respond more energetically to one testimony given at baptism than another, should I?  This is a bit convicting.  But, this is all worship, and worship based on the grace and Spirit of God moving in someone else’s life; how is it right that I worship more energetically just because someone happened to sin more, in my eyes, than someone else?  Humm.

Feel free to disagree and comment, of course. :)

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Church Music Categorization

Terms Overview

As part of a handout for church to accompany sermons on music, my pastor and I have worked on term definitions … it’s difficult for the common modern terminology, since it’s not like there is really a correct definition.  Basically, we’ve come up with two main definitions which encompass a lot of music, but not all:

Hymn: a sacred text with multiple verses that is meant to be sung as a group and has some amount of theological depth, profundity, progression of thought, or something to think about.

Chorus: a sacred text that is relatively short (i.e., one might say it is “one verse”) that is meant to be sung as a group.

Mostly, this is based on how the terms are typically used when used in a consistent way (e.g., not referring accompanying music style or age of the text).

Categorization

However, these are both categorizations.  A certain amount of danger exists in categorizing them – though it is definitely helpful in communication – because we like to base value, worth, or “worshipfulness” on our categories.  For example, I have definitely thought of hymns (though I didn’t have a very good definition of what exactly that meant) as being, in some way, better than choruses.  I would typically rationalize this by simply saying that they contain more theology, more depth, more to think about, etc.

But can I really say that, in terms of worship, choruses are not as good (and thus, “not as worshipful”) than hymns?

No!

Like the heading? 😉  No, I can not say that a chorus is, by nature of song form or some measure of “depth” or amount of words, less worshipful or “less good” than a hymn.  I think there is a certain amount of wisdom that should be employed in determining when certain song forms are more appropriate and more effective … for example, at certain times, we tend to want something to think about to spur us on to think better of God.  Other times, we may have enough to think about and it would be more effective to have a relatively simple song to respond with.

But here’s the real clincher for me, so to speak.  If I am tempted to think that, because a given chorus is short, repetitive, and “shallow,” that it is therefore less worshipful than a deep, profound, and rich hymn … what about the Psalms and the songs in Revelation?

For example, Psalm 136.  Extremely repetitive; every other phrase is for his steadfast love endures forever.  That means that, in the space of 26 verses, you sing that line 26 times and some other line 26 times.  50% of the song is made up of six words.  And some of the preceding phrases are pretty short; like listing a couple kings:

Sihon, king of the Amorites
for his steadfast love endures forever

and Og, king of Bashan
for his steadfast love endures forever

Another example would be Psalm 117.  Very short.  Two verses consisting of a command to do one thing, and one reason why.  Here’s it in its entirety, ESV version:

Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!

I would call this a chorus, if I were to categorize it according to modern terminology.  Now, I think I would be in grave error if I were to say that this Psalm exemplifies minimal worth as worship because of it’s brevity and lack of depth.  If I think that, I should take that up with David and the Holy Spirit 😉 And I have a distinct feeling I’d most likely lose that argument.

Here’s another example, New Testament this time.  Now, as my pastor pointed out, Revelation has a lot of background to it … all of redemptive history supports these songs.  We also have a lot of knowledge about redemption, though, so I think the point is still there.  Here is one of the songs that John heard (Revelation 4):

[the four living creatures: ] Day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

I kinda doubt this somehow means they literally say those words over and over and over for all eternity, I assume this is in some way sort of representative of what they are saying.  But, regardless … this is not particularly deep nor is it long at all.  This is definitely a “chorus.”  Yet the four living creatures are, er, clearly doing some pretty good worship here.  I would be very wrong to say “well, Mr. Living Creature, your chorus is okay, but I really think you ought to add some depth to it.”

Later on in Revelation 4, the twenty-four elders use this chorus:

Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

Short, brief, to the point, and … well, fairly shallow as we use term to refer to the depth of songs.  Definitely worshipful.

There Are Longer Songs

Clearly, there are also longer and much more in-depth songs… in the Psalms and in Revelation both.  This is not to raise up choruses or simple songs as what we need to be singing, nor is thinking wrong, nor is the didactic side of music unuseful, etc.  This is only to point out, to myself first, that simple, short, or “shallow” does not mean it’s less worshipful.  Does it need to be predicated on the truth?  Yes, of course it does.  All of the above short songs refer to some sort of truth, and they certainly came from hearts that know the truth.  But does the lack of depth or breadth in any given song mean that that song should be considered less worshipful for us to sing?  I really don’t think so.  And this is a change in my thinking :)

Appropriateness and Effectiveness

So, with the idea that hymns and choruses are not more or less worshipful, as a category, than the other … what about what is appropriate or effective?  I think this is where our confusion lies.  Sometimes, a thoughtful depth in a song is very effective and appropriate; other times, a simple song that we can use to respond from what we already know is effective and appropriate.  It requires wisdom to know which will likely be best.  In general, I’d probably error on the more-thought side, since we don’t tend to think enough as it is 😉 But this is not based on the worshipfulness of the categories.

This is not to say, by the way, that “I love you, I love you, I love you” sorts of songs or something like that are automatically supposed to be the diet of the church 😉 It’s instructive to note that even these short songs or highly repetitive Psalms did have truth in them; just not as much as we might be used to in our hymns…

Interesting stuff to think about.  Well, for me anyways. :)

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Physical Expression: Inconsistent Expectations

I have come to realize that I tend to have a lot of inconsistent expectations with respect to various aspects of life.  Here is one that I’ve been thinking about more recently.

Kids and Adults: Distractions

Kids

When a child is distracted from doing his school work because some other child is doing something else (assuming they are not directly picking on the kid or something, of course), we don’t tend to immediately tell the distracting-child to stop it; we tell the child being distracted that he needs to focus, that there will always be distractions, etc.

Adults: I can’t do it!

Contrast the above to the church.  When in a church music setting, if there is something that we are distracted by, our automatic reaction is they need to stop that, it’s distracting me, I can’t worship!  Something seems … inconsistent there.  What makes it even worse is that the other person is doing the same thing we are, just a little differently … as opposed to one child playing and the other working or something like that.

Sub-Culture

It’s interesting to point out that what we are distracted by is entirely cultural.  Some sub-cultures in America (even church sub-cultures, like charismatic circles) aren’t distracted by it; other ethnic cultures (say, African, or South American) dance and wave their arms all the time and nobody is distracted from what they’re doing at the time (like celebrating someone’s marriage or something like that).  The whole point isn’t to say “other cultures do it, so we should.”  The point is that what we get distracted by is shaped by our culture; we allow ourselves to be taught what is “distracting.”  We even try to teach kids what shouldn’t be distracting… except in the church; it’s ok to be distracted there, it’s the other person’s fault for distracting you.

Sports and Worship

What do sports and worship have in common?  Celebrations occur in both. :)

So, a group of guys are watching a football game… it’s the 49ers vs. the Patriots or something.  The 49ers score.  The group of [bay area] guys celebrate.  They raise their hands, they cheer, they clap.

Without getting into what is reverent and such, let’s contrast how we celebrate.  We would think it absolutely ridiculous for one guy, in the above example, to say to another guy, “hey, man, I can’t celebrate with you clapping like that… could you cut the distracting physical expression and let me celebrate?  I just can’t think about the 49ers scoring with you going on like that.”  The thought of the 49ers scoring impacted all the guys so much that they have no problem remembering it, and they are expressing joy and happiness… and, in fact, they want the other guys to celebrate with them and wouldn’t like it if there were unaffected fans.  “Come on, they just scored!”

So.  Someone in church raises their hand in celebration as we sing about Christ raising us up from the dead at the last day, as we sing about His glorious second coming, etc.  I get distracted.  What?!  Someone else is trying to worship God and proclaim His worth and worship, just like I am… and I allow my thoughts of God’s greatness to get replaced by thinking about how distracting it is that someone is raising their hand in response to their understanding of God’s greatness?  Is seeing someone else worship expressively really so distracting that I can’t worship because of it?  That seems so silly, yet that’s definitely what I allowed and even trained my mind to do in the past.  Because I didn’t worship that way, I allowed myself to be distracted when someone else worshiped that way… all entirely based on sub-cultural expectations and not the Bible.

How About John

John, in his Revelation, saw huge multitudes of people fall down and worship before the throne of God.  John said, “Whoa whoa whoa, guys, I can’t worship God with all this distraction going on; could you guys tone it down so I can worship in my own way before the throne?”

Ahhhh, no, not really.  John didn’t seem to think it odd that such extreme responses occurred when seeing the greatness of God.  So, I ask myself; why in the world do I allow myself to be distracted because someone raises their hand in response to singing about God, all the while knowing that if I truly saw the greatness of God, I myself would fall flat on my face?  How distracting would that be to other people … but would I care?  No.  In fact, I would expect everyone else to do the exact same thing.  :)

Conclusions

So, my conclusion is this; I allow myself to be distracted too easily.  I want to worship God in my own, quiet little bubble and don’t want others to pop that bubble and distract me from thinking about God (as though it’s thinking about God is such a fragile thing that I really, really need to focus hard on it without distractions … hmm).  I don’t want to see someone else worship differently from me, because that distracts me from worshiping.

All this seems to be inconsistent.  I should be glad and thankful for people so moved by God that they express themselves in very communicative ways.  Are there things that perhaps draw undue attention to yourself, especially dependent on the culture?  Sure.  But that’s not an excuse for me to perpetuate my thinking of self-absorbed worship that requires everyone else to stop distracting me lest I lose my focus.

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