Come, Sinners, To the Gospel Feast!

I always love the feeling of anticipation I get on Saturday nights, making sure everything’s ready for the next day’s church services, planning how early I need to be there to warmup and get everything ready, and in tonight’s case, finishing the preparations to the lesson plans for Sunday school. Inbetween tomorrow’s services I’ll be talking about some hymns tomorrow morning with one of the Sunday school classes, and my research has made me realize anew how blessed the United Methodist tradition is to have had John and Charles Wesley as its founders.

One of the hymns we’ll be discussing is Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast, which we’ll be singing for Communion Sunday on February 5th.. It’s one by Charles Wesley, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a hymn with more theology crammed in its verses. The invitation it extends to the world mirrors the UMC tradition of having an open communion table, and on top of all of that, it’s simply a joy to sing.

Back in the 1700s, anyone who had ideas of reforming the Church of England had to be careful of what they said and who they said it to. John Wesley was one of the loudest and most troublesome for the Church and its Bishops– he ruffled feathers by doing things like preaching in the fields to the common folks, the “unchurched”, those who had fallen from their faith. He felt he was called as a priest to minister to all, and so he did, and the common people loved and admired him for it. However, his actions had consequences: by not playing the political game of the Church and its bureaucracy, he was either ignored or villified by Church officials. His brother, Charles kept his reformist attitudes quieter and spent his time writing the hymns for which he is known today.

When you combine John’s radical-for-his-day, Bible-based teachings with Charles’ gift for music, you end up with a hymn like this one. During their day, Holy Communion was offered once a quarter (every three months), and the Wesley brothers taught that it should be taken at least weekly. (Currently, the standard UMC tradition is the first Sunday of every month.) They also taught that instead of being a boring, ritualistic, unimportant event in the life of the Church, receiving the Eucharist was of extreme importance for the spiritual health and well-being of the Body of Christ, and that while it should be treated with reverence, it is also a time of rejoicing in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is illustrated through the verses of the hymn.

Come, sinners, to the gospel feast,
let every soul be Jesus’ guest
Ye need not one be left behind
for God hath bid all humankind.

We are all sinners, and we are all welcomed to the table, every last one of us. In fact, it’s because we are imperfect that we need to receive his grace. We are all human. Not a single one of us could possibly be good enough to receive the gift he has given us through the Holy Sacrament. And he calls us to the table all the same.

Do not begin to make excuse;
ah! do not you his grace refuse;
Your worldly cares and pleasures leave,
and take what Jesus hath to give.

No one has an excuse for not coming, including not being worthy of His body and blood. If you use that excuse because you’ve recognized your sinful nature, that’s the reason itself that you need the grace of Jesus so desperately. Remember, our Lord ate with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes– if he didn’t buy their excuses, he’s not going to buy ours.

Come and partake the gospel feast,
be saved from sin, in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of our God,
and eat his flesh and drink his blood.

This is the verse that bothers Protestants the most, because we don’t usually believe in transubstantiation as Catholics do. The idea that we are to “eat his flesh and drink his blood” makes many of us uncomfortable; and yet, if we dump the idea we must dump John 6:53

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

So what are we to say to that? Well, we know that Christ’s presence is known through the elements of bread and wine and is real, and that when we eat and drink the elements we are receiving the Divine Grace which is able to save us from our sin. The elements don’t change, but they do communicate to us, they do transmit to us, the real, Divine, Saving Presence of Jesus Christ — which is what we mean when we talk about grace, and when Charles Wesley wrote “be saved from sin, in Jesus rest,” he is talking about just that grace.

You can see that Charles covered some critical theology in this one hymn about communion. He wasn’t a loudmouth like his brother John, but in this hymn he wrote of theological ideas that were radical reformist teachings in his day, and that were to become some of the teachings of the Methodist church when it separated from the Church of England. We are invited regardless of who we are, we are welcomed as sinners in need of His love, and we are given His grace that saves us from sin. Alleluia 🙂

I encourage you to look up some of the verses we don’t usually sing. I’ve found at least 16 verses in total so far, and they’re very interesting to read and think about.

O Lord, From Whom All Good Things Come

“We get nearer to the Lord through music than perhaps through any other thing except prayer.” — J. Reuben Clark Jr., Oct. 1936

At this week’s rehearsal, we’re going to be starting work on a piece called O Lord, From Whom All Good Things Come, by Jean Pasquet. It’s a setting of the collect for Rogation Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer, and it’s a very beautiful piece.

O Lord, from whom all good things do come; grant to us thy humble servants, that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Rogation days are, in the calendar of the Western Church, four days traditionally set apart for solemn processions to invoke God’s mercy. There’s one major Rogation Day, which is April 25th, and then three minor Rogation days, which are the three days preceding Ascension Day. Although Rogation Sunday isn’t until April, I’ve chosen for us to sing this piece in February rather than on Rogation Sunday, because by mid-February, we’re starting to become more Lenten-minded, and the piece fits well with the development of those thoughts.

The word “rogation” comes from the Latin verb rogare, meaning “to ask”, and this Sunday was often used along with the gospel reading “Ask and ye shall receive”, from the gospel of John. The tradition was also for priests to bless crops at this time, and people usually fasted in preparation for it.

So it’s historically a Sunday of “asking” of the Lord. Take a closer look, though, at what this prayer is actually asking of the Lord. It’s a personal prayer, not a family- or community-minded one, and as far as personal prayers go, it’s pretty single-minded. It’s definitely not asking “Dear Lord, please let the Broncos win.” Or “Lord, please let me get that promotion.” It’s simply asking, “Lord, fill my head and my heart with good things, and help my actions be good, too.” It reminds me of a saying my parents had when I was a kid, in reference to low-quality television shows: “garbage in, garbage out!” If God helps us put good things in our hearts and minds, good things ought to come out in the form of actions.

When you think about it, when we pray for ourselves our top priority really should be that our thoughts are pure and good, because then our actions do have a higher likelihood of following suit. This turns the focus of the prayer away from what He can do for us, to what WE can do for us with His help. It puts the onus on us to become better Christians, rather than to sit back and wait for Him to “fix” us. And be honest: how often do we go to Him in prayer and have a laundry list of the things we want Him to take care of in our lives? Yes, as Christians we are to turn our burdens over to Him, and He’ll take care of them. But what do we carry on our shoulders that shouldn’t be a burden in the first place? What burdens should we just not have assumed in the first place, because either we don’t have control over the outcome anyway, or it just doesn’t matter in the longterm? If we get that first priority settled, good thoughts and good actions, then most of those other worries will likely fade into the background.

Lord, this week, help us to worry only to ensure that we are filled with concern over things that are good, and that our actions this week reflect those good thoughts. Help our focus in our lives to be on what glorifies you, and less on the various trivial worries we might have in our day-to-day living. Put good things into our hearts and minds, so that good things will come out.

[FYI:The choir will not be singing an anthem at church this week, but you are sure to enjoy the bell choir’s performance instead!]

Very Bread, Good Shepherd, Tend Us

There’s an old joke about how much the archaeologist’s wife liked being married to an archaeologist. The older she got, the more interesting he found her!

I tend to take a similar approach to music. I appreciate music that’s been recently composed, but I find that the history of a piece of music adds a depth to the emotion behind the composition.

At tomorrow night’s rehearsal, we’re going to be starting work on a piece of music by C.L. Talmadge. It’s a musical setting of a prayer written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. It was originally recited for private devotion at the elevation during the Mass (and was written in Latin at the time).

Very bread, good Shepherd, tend us
Jesu, of Thy love befriend us,
Thou refresh us, Thou defend us,
Thine eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see.
Thou who all things canst and knowest,
Who on earth such food bestowest,
Grant us with Thy Saints, though lowest,
Where the heavenly feast Thou shewest,
Fellow-heirs and guests to be. Amen.

We’re going to be singing this on the first Sunday of February, and I’ll talk more about the prayer itself as it gets closer to that Sunday. Tonight I’d like to discuss the music. Charles L. Talmadge wrote this anthem in 1971, but he wrote it in a motet style, which originates from hundreds of years ago. So I think now is as good a time as any to talk about the way way way beginnings of the church music we know and love today!

 

Back in the day, music happened in the church. The church was starting to see the influence that music could have on the soul, and as they tended to do, they decided they had to have a monopoly on that kind of thinking. And so, successful musicians worked for churches, wrote music for churches, and religious was one of the only ways to go as far as music went.

Some of the earliest written music from the “western culture” of music was Gregorian chant. If you’re a Catholic, chances are you’ve heard chanting in your service before. If you’re any kind of Protestant denomination, you may not have. If you haven’t: they have many of the same parts of the rituals we’re familiar with, only the leader sings certain parts in a monotone instead of speaking the words. The leader picks one note, one pitch, and centers their chanting/praying around that note and nearby notes. Parts of the Catholic and some Episcopalian services still retain chanting, only it’s evolved into what’s called “plainchant” or “plainsong”. An example that’s we’re all familiar with is O Come, O Come Emmanuel, which has its origins in plainchant from long ago.

At some point during the medieval period, people realized that some notes sounded good sung at the same time, so they started to harmonize the plainchant, and suddenly polyphony was born! And of course, the church had something to say about that. Since they couldn’t stop it, there were very strict rules that you had to obey, lest the congregation be unduly influenced by the power of music and get carried away. They even labelled a certain pair of notes “the Devil’s Interval”.

As this music and the harmonizations became more and more popular, the motet evolved from being primarily liturgical and sacred into a secular form of music, made its way out of the church setting, and soon took the form of a madrigal, which is a more familiar type of music to many people today. And this basic form that was established by motets serves as the template for which many older hymns were composed, and is the form which we recognize for traditional hymns today.

 

What I like about this anthem is that Talmadge took this prayer from the 13th century and wrote the music in a style that originates from the same medieval period. This kind of unity between words and music gives the piece authenticity, and helps us as a choir to paint an image that harkens back to Christians of long ago.

I think as modern Christians, sometimes we have a tenuous relationship with music from years past. Some say, “that kind of music won’t attract the young people,” and others say, “that music is old and boring,” and still others say “give me a melody! I just don’t know what I’m supposed to sing!” It’s sometimes easier to give in and go contemporary because there is some good music in the contemporary world as well. The problem is, the heritage that these hymns gives us connects us to generations and generations of Christians, and that importance should not be underestimated.

In my opinion, older hymns are like the works of Shakespeare and Dumas: there’s a reason that they have lasted hundreds of years– they’re good, the music is gorgeous and the message is theologically sound. The problem is that it doesn’t always mean they’re accessible to the congregation member, to the layperson who has no idea who St. Thomas Aquinas is, or to the non-musician who wants to sing and raise their voice in praise to their Lord.

If we ignore the historical importance of our hymnody, we lose an important connection to our Christian ancestry. But if we fail to acknowledge our audience, we may as well not even be singing at all. So the question becomes, how do we help congregation members connect to the history of our hymnody, and yet make sure that the music remains accessible to the untrained layperson?

I don’t have an answer to that. At any rate, I’m looking forward to working on this anthem with my choir. It’s a beautiful prayer, and the harmonies of the motet really let you sink your teeth into them. But mostly I pray that this offering of music is meaningful to just one member of the congregation, which is my prayer each and every Sunday. 🙂

Now Thank We All Our God!

So, let’s talk about hymns.

A hobby of mine is learning about how hymns came to be. The stories are moving, occasionally tragic, and demonstrate strength through God’s faith like nothing else. I could talk about Rejoice, The Lord is King, which the Wesley brothers wrote after they watched women and elderly beaten in front of them by mobs in Cornwall, while they stood firm in their belief that God would protect them. I could talk about the well-known story of Silent Night, composed for guitar accompaniment when the organ in a rural German church broke on Christmas Eve, and now one of our most beloved carols.

But I like to learn about and share some of the lesser-known, and often just as moving, stories.

 

Today, we’re talking about Now Thank We All Our God. It’s in the UMH (United Methodist Hymnal) as #102, but is known all across the Christian tradition. It was written by a Lutheran pastor in some of the most inconceivable conditions.

German Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkart served in the walled town of Eilenburg, his hometown, during the horrors of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. The city became a refuge for the surrounding areas, and when the Swedish Army barricaded the city gates, the fugitives started to die from plague and famine. The population of Germany went from 16 million to 6 million during the war.

1637 was the year of The Great Pestilence, which saw the death of 2 of the walled city’s 4 pastors. The third pastor fled the city and could not be persuaded to return, and so Martin Rinkart was left by himself to conduct services for as many as 40 to 50 persons a day–some 4,480 in all. In May of that year, his own wife died. By the end of the year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services.

The Swedes at last demanded a huge ransom, and it was Rinkart who left the safety of the city walls to negotiate with the enemy. Due to his courage and faith, there was soon a conclusion of hostilities, and the Swedish Army left Eilenberg to start rebuilding.

 

What blows my mind about this hymn is that he wrote it after all of that. After burying nearly 5,000 of his countrymen, including his wife and two of his fellow pastors, what could he have found to be thankful of?

There are 138 scripture verses devoted to the subject of thanksgiving, but why are there so few hymns on the subject? And besides that, when is the last time that you thanked God after something didn’t go your way, after a disappointment or a pain in your life?

I know that I have thanked Him in retrospect. There have been times when He closed a door that was where I thought He wanted me to be, and it was devastating. Only later did I see that the door opened instead led to multiple doors open from there. I see why he led me in that direction and not the other. But it takes an extraordinary faith to trust that bigger picture while you’re in the moment of devastation and pain, before you have the luxury of seeing where He plans on taking your life. He uses closed doors– and in fact, I believe He closes them Himself sometimes– all to put you where He wants you to be, and in the midst of pain and sorrow, it’s so difficult to remember that it’s all part of what God has in store.

It must be even more difficult to write a hymn of thanksgiving during such incredible pain and sorrow, but that’s exactly what Martin Rinkart did, and Now Thank We All Our God has been sung around the world ever since.

Hello world!

Hi everyone! I’m creating this blog to keep up with current and former church choir members, and to chat about nerdy church organist topics.

If you don’t know me, I started on piano when I was 4, and I’ve played organ since I was 13, and have been a church musician for 12 years. I fell into the organist role by accident, and it was the best accident God has ever thrown my way. I like hymn study and theological discussions, I instinctively prefer German organ music but some French stuff is growing on me… I play gospel/spiritual music far too often, and I adore corny jokes. Corny musician jokes? Even better.

Welcome!