O day of God, draw nigh.

Today’s hymn is an example of one that’s based very closely on the scriptures, but it’s unusual to many of our tried-and-true beloved hymns because it’s based on Old Testament scriptures. “O Day of God, Draw Nigh” was written in 1937 by Robert Scott, an Old Testament scholar and minister of the United Church of Canada. Many of the hymns that come from the Great Awakening and the American Revival movement focus on the Good News of the New Testament, to the exclusion of what can be learned from the Old. This hymn, having been written in the early 20th century, is a Christian hymn with a significant influence of the Old Testament, possibly as it was written during a rediscovery of the Jewish roots of the Christian church, and a resurgence of biblically-centered worship.

As fitting a hymn written by an Old Testament scholar, the text comes from the Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah, Joel, Amos, and Zephaniah. Though it talks about the second coming of Christ, in the spirit of those prophets the hymn also petitions God for “justice in our land” and “to our world of strife [a] word of peace.” This is a song that calls us to radical justice, which is the basis of true hope and freedom. In this manner, the hymn is eminently suitable for today’s church.

The hymn was written for the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order, and was first included in Hymns for Worship, 1939. It first entered Methodist hymnals in 1966.

O day of God, draw nigh in beauty and in power;
come with thy timeless judgement now to match our present hour.

Bring to our troubled minds, uncertain and afraid,
the quiet of a steadfast faith, calm of a call obeyed.

Bring justice to our land, that all may dwell secure,
and finely build for days to come foundations that endure.

Bring to our world of strife thy sovereign word of peace,
that war may haunt the earth no more, and desolation cease.

O day of God, draw nigh as at creation’s birth;
let there be light again, and set thy judgments on the earth.

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Come, thou Fount of every blessing

Come, thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

This hymn is one of my favorites. It was written by Robert Robinson, born in Norfolk, England in 1735. John Julian of the 1907 Dictionary of Hymnology said that Robinson’s hymns were “evangelical but not sentimental… His prose has all…that vehement and enthusiastic glow of passion that belongs to the orator.”

I think that’s what draws me to this hymn– it was written during the hymn explosion of the Great Awakening, but it isn’t sappy. Its emotional restraint gives it a spiritual profundity. Compared to some of the more overwrought, sentimental hymn texts that came from the evangelical movement, the poetic hyperbole in this hymn isn’t overly dramatic– it’s just enough to give us the words to express the feeling of fullness in one’s heart when coming face to face with the staggering truth of God’s love, and the debt we have to grace through Christ’s sacrifice for us. This is why this 18th-century hymn is still so relatable today, because that feeling of spiritual fullness is timeless. The last stanza is like a prayer– Lord, we’re so very prone to wander, and we wish so badly that we weren’t. Here are our hearts, take them and seal them, only for you!

Robert Robinson was born into a poor family, so though his mother wished he would enter the clergy, his prospects were slim. As a teenager, Robinson became apprenticed to a barber in London, though he spent more of his time reading than apprenticing. While living in London, he fell under the influence of a “notorious gang of hoodlums” and began living a life of sin and debauchery. In 1752, he heard a sermon preached by George Whitefield on “The Wrath to Come,” and spent several years of discomfort over his past actions and his spiritual life. He began to associate with a Calvinistic Methodist connexion and to learn from their evangelistic preachers, and he soon after began to preach himself, first with the Calvinist Methodists before being rebaptized in 1759 as a Baptist and preaching for nearly 30 years at Stone Yard Baptist Church at Cambridge.

Robinson wrote “Come, thou Fount” in 1758, and it is thought to be autobiographical, especially the line “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” He first published this hymn in A Collection of Hymns that was intended for use in the Church of Christ in Whitechappel. It has been included in Methodist hymnals since 1822.

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Isaac Watts, Dissenter

Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific hymnwriters to come out of the Great Awakening in England, earning the title of “Father of English Hymnody”. His work helped to establish hymn singing as part of modern Protestant worship, it influenced his colleagues, many of whom became nearly as prolific hymnwriters as he, and it set an example of hymnwriting for the church to come. We still sing many of his texts today, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,” “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,” “Come, ye that love the Lord,” and “Our God, our help in ages past,” and “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath,” which was the hymn on John Wesley’s lips as he died. These and more are an integral part of our church’s hymnody, and will likely continue to be among the most loved hymns of the church.

Watts’ hymns are inspired by both his fierce Calvinist theology and his identity in the tradition of Dissent, the Christian movement that wished to separate from the Church of England in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The tenets of Calvinism: the glory and sovereignty of God, the total depravity of human, the security of the elect, and the all-sufficient atonement of Christ, can be found throughout his hymns. Watts’ commitment to this theology and his love of rhyme and verse already at a very young age can be seen in this acrostic that Watts made of his name at age seven:

“I” – I am a vile, polluted lump of earth
“S” – So I’ve continued ever since my birth
“A” – Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me
“A” – As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me
“C” – Come therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.

“W” – Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ
“A” – And grace divine impart
“T” – Then search and try the corners of my heart
“T” – That I in all things may be fit to do
“S” – Service to Thee, and Thy praise too.

As the story goes, from childhood Watts was frustrated with the lifeless, dirge-like metrical Psalm singing of his time (I’ve written before about the awkwardness of some of these metrical Psalm translations.) In later years he articulated this exasperation that had begun in his youth: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” One day, the young Watts just couldn’t take it anymore and complained to his father, to which the elder Watts replied, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” This challenge issued to a spiritually convicted young man resulted in the writing of over 800 hymns, many of which are still beloved by the church today, and ultimately the fundamental transformation of church music.

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Choosing music for worship, the sequel

Yesterday I wrote extensively about the preparations for choosing music for worship, along with many of the resources I use for finding hymns and discovering new ones. So much of the legwork that goes into choosing music happens before you even pick up a hymnal, and if that’s done well, choosing the hymns and songs themselves don’t take long at all.

It’s these fundamentals of scriptural study and resource exploration that the Spirit uses to guide our worship planning and music selection.

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Choosing music for worship

How exactly do pastoral musicians choose hymns and anthems for use in worship? When I first began choosing music for worship, I wasn’t very confident at it, so I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned for fellow colleagues, and for those who aren’t church musicians. Over the years I’ve had several people say to me, “Wow, that hymn just happened to fit the sermon topic so well,” and they were surprised to find that it was actually done on purpose 🙂

My particular expertise in developing worship music comes from thematic worship built around the Word. Within the United Methodist Church, this often comes from the lectionary readings for the day, but pastors have the freedom to build several-week sermon studies on specific books or topics, and most pastors take advantage of that freedom. Whether the scriptures come from the lectionary or an alternate schedule, however, I believe that worship centers around the Word of God. Thus I work to see that all worship aspects under my supervision support the presentation and understanding of the Word, and I have found thematic worship to be the most effective vehicle for the presentation of the Word to the congregation. It is by far not the only valid worship style, it’s the one that I’ve grown up with in the United Methodist Church, so it’s the worship language that I most fluently speak and most effectively use.

So, in a thematic worship service, how does one go about choosing music?

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Awkward hymns

There are some absolutely wonderful hymns in the heritage of the Christian church. I’ve shared about quite a few of them… and I have more waiting in the wings. One of my favorite things is to explore the background of the hymns we know and love, that we’ve grown up singing, that we could practically sing by heart.

But every hymn isn’t a winner. More specifically, not every hymn is appropriate for use in worship, even if it’s one that you personally enjoy and connect with. Occasionally, one of these never-going-to-be-a-classic hymns is included and published in a hymnal for all of posterity to cringe at- which should remind us that just because something’s in a hymnal, doesn’t mean we should use it in a worship service.

Sometimes the cringing comes from dated lyrics or ideas. This is definitely the case of a substantial number of hymns and songs found in the Methodist The Faith We Sing and the Presbyterian Sing the Faith; there were a lot of great songs that came out of the 80s contemporary Christian music scene, but most of them now are just very, well, 80s. As amazing as it is, I could go my whole life without needing to hear the song “Our God is an Awesome God” one more time 🙂

Even before the 80s, dated ideas in the music of the church were a problem. There were many hymns written around WWI and WWII that have rather graphic descriptions of battlefields, and that discuss Christian engagement with a world that God loves in entirety, in the midst of the devastating world wars. These were incredibly important tools for the church at that time, helping them come to terms with the ravages of war and yet hold on to a forgiving Christian faith. These hymns are included yet in many of our hymnals, but some of the violence in the imagery is no longer appropriate or relatable for today’s church.

Other times, the issue with a hymn is a difficult, unsingable melody; there are a number of these in our hymnals, because when many of these tunes were written, we had nationwide choral education beginning in grade school and continuing throughout adulthood– our country used to be a singing country. We largely aren’t anymore, so we need to choose hymns based on the musical abilities of our singing congregations. Which tunes are singable and which aren’t really depends on the congregation these days. Some congregations know how to sing German chorales but aren’t comfortable singing songs that come from the American Revival or the contemporary Christian movement; others can’t engage with chorales but love the Revival hymns. Some congregations have a higher number of trained musicians, or they follow well the lead of the choir, and with other churches you have to be sensitive to the musical abilities of the congregation and choir and choose music more carefully.

And there are some rare instances when a hymn is just icky or awkward. Sometimes you’ll flip through and find a hymn that just makes you uncomfortable when you read or sing it. And sometimes you’ll find yourself arguing with the theology in the text as the congregation sings (or maybe that’s just me…)

One such hymn that I’d like to look at today is from the 2011 United Methodist supplemental hymnal Worship and Song#3174: “Christ, We Are Blest”.

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All creatures of our God and King

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels;
    praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon;
    praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
    and you waters above the skies.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for at his command they were created.

Psalm 148:1-5

Today’s hymn is All Creatures of Our God and King, UMH #62. The text’s authorship is credited to St. Francis of Assisi, who was born in 1182 in central Italy. Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant, though after a short stint in the army, he came to Christ, renounced his wealth, and began traveling. He lived simply and preached the gospel to all he met, seeking to bring others to see the love of Christ. His humble life helped to reform the Roman Catholic Church, and his followers became known as the Franciscan order.

Francis composed a hymn shortly before his death called “Cantico di fratre sole”, or “Song of Brother Sun.” He loved nature and wrote this hymn to exhort all of nature to worship God. The hymn was written in 1225, but was not translated into English until 1919 by Reverend William Draper, who transformed Francis’ text into the hymn we know as All Creatures of Our God and King for use in a children’s festival.

This hymn is not subtle about what it is calling Christians to do: praise His name in every single instance of our lives. It bears close resemblance to the call in Psalm 148 for all of creation to praise God, and is just as thorough as the Psalm about naming every single part of creation that should praise Him.

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