Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Are You Coming to Jesus Tonight?

Praise for the Lord #61

Words: Jessie Brown Pounds, 1889
Music: James E. Hawes, 1889

This is certainly one of Jessie Brown Pounds's most widely known hymns, since it has been a staple of the practice of the "invitation song" among the Churches of Christ in the U.S. (For a brief discussion of Jessie Brown Pounds, see the post on her text, "Am I Nearer to Heaven Today?".) In discussing her writing, I mentioned that "Are you coming to Jesus tonight?" is a better text than I realized; just because it has been sung so often (and because the music is rather lackluster) is no reason to dismiss its value.

Stanza 1:
The voice of the Savior says, “Come”;
The cross where He died is in sight;
E’en now at the cross there is room;
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

Perhaps Jesus' most famous invitation is found in Matthew 11:28, "Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." There are few verses in Scripture that give a picture of more perfect peace and comfort. But Jesus also said, "Come, follow Me," to the rich young ruler, whom He admonished to give up the riches that were entangling his soul. Mark 10:41 even records that Jesus said, "Come, take up your cross, and follow Me." Accepting that invitation is a release from the burdens of sin and despair, but it is also taking on a much more far-reaching commitment than we may even understand at the time. Did the apostles know what they were in for when they answered that call, "Come, and I will make you fishers of men?"

If the word "Come" is in our ears in this verse, the visual motif is certainly the cross. Only the inscrutable wisdom of God could have taken a symbol of suffering, the most shameful death one could die, and turn it into a thing of beauty. "Unto us who are being saved it is the power of God."(1 Cor. 1:18) If the cross was powerful enough to "reconcile both [Jews and Gentiles] into one body,"(Eph. 2:16) is it not powerful enough to overcome the divisions of race, language, and class in our time? Is it not powerful enough to overcome the division that has come up between one individual soul and his or her God?

Are you coming to Jesus tonight?
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?
The Bride and the Spirit invite;
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

The simple refrain pleads with the sinner to take advantage of the time. In 2 Cor. 6:2 Paul quotes Isaiah, "For He says, 'In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I helped you.' [Isaiah 49:8]" Paul then hammers home his application: "Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

The third line is an overt reference to Revelation 22:17, "The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come.'" In extending an invitation the church--the Bride of Christ, Eph. 5:25-32--joins with the Spirit, who through his living words entreats us, "piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart."(Heb. 4:12)

Stanza 2:
The voice of the Father implores
From mercy’s most wonderful height;
His love in that call He outpours:
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

The summit of Mt. Everest is 29,028 feet high, almost five-and-a-half miles above sea level. The deepest known spot in the ocean is even more impressive--the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is 35,840 feet deep, more than six and three-quarters miles to the bottom. From the lowest spot on earth to the highest is a staggering 64,868 feet, more than twelve miles. But even this is surpassed by the inconceivable height of Olympus Mons on Mars, the tallest mountain in the solar system--69,649 feet, over 13 miles above the surface.

How far did God have to reach down to offer salvation to a lost humanity? There is no unit of measure we can apply, because our measurements compare to things we know--a "foot" originated as the average length of a man's foot, and a "mile" was made up of eight "furlongs" or "furrow's lengths." But how do we measure the distance between holiness and unholiness? Between sinlessness and sinfulness? As the psalmist says, "Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens; You who have done great things, O God, who is like You?"(Ps. 71:19)

Isaiah 55:8-9 says, "'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,' says the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.'" It is true of God's knowledge, and power, and justice; fortunately it is also true of His mercy. Psalm 103:2 assures us that "as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us."

Stanza 3:
The voices of loved ones entreat:
You know in your heart they are right;
Then list, for the moments are fleet!
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

Stanza 4:
The voices of friends gone before
Seem floating from regions of light;
They tenderly say o’er and o’er,
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

The third and fourth stanzas enlist the encouragement of friends, both here and those gone on to their reward. In this the author does seem a little maudlin; but does not Hebrews 12:1 say the same thing? "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." Often I have found myself considering, at the memorial service of a dear older brother or sister in Christ, that the best memorial we could give to that person would be to honor the example he or she set in faithfulness. In this same manner I believe we all are at times spurred on to greater zeal, or picked up when we are discouraged, by the knowledge that we have a charge to keep on their behalf.

Stanza 5:
O who to himself will be true,
Of all whom these voices invite?
Who answers, my brother, do you?
Are you coming to Jesus tonight?

This stanza brings the question to the point. God has done all that could be done (short of overruling your free will), Jesus gave all He could give to redeem you, and the Spirit has called you in unmistakably clear terms to obey. The church, Christian friends and family both here and above are encouraging you to join them. But only you can make that decision!

About the music:
This is the only music in Praise for the Lord by Hawes, and I have been unable to find out even the barest details about him. His music for this text is extraordinarily simple. The music of the refrain is virtually the same as the music for the stanza, with only a slight bit of elaboration. The first three phrases are variations on the same melodic idea. It is music that is easily learned and sings well enough, but is rather pushing the limits of simplicity; the repeated beginning of the melodic phrases, "SOL-SOL-MI-RE-DO-MI...", gets pretty tiresome by the time you have sung it thirty times (three times in the stanza and three times in the refrain, for five stanzas of text).

Friday, June 5, 2009

After the Midnight

Praise for the Lord #60

Words: James Rowe, 1915
Music: Samuel W. Beazley, 1915

James Rowe was a rather prolific writer whose works have retained a considerable currency among the Churches of Christ in the U.S.; despite this fact, however, he is not particularly well-known. I am working on a separate post on his hymns, and hope to find out more of his biography.

This hymn is one of five (that I know of so far) of Rowe's texts set to music by Samuel Beazley, all within the years 1911-1915. Other well-known collaborations by this pair are "Home of the soul"(PFTL#243) and "Ring out the message"(PFTL#833).

Stanza 1:
After the midnight, morning will greet us;
After the sadness, joy will appear;
After the tempest, sunlight will meet us;
After the jeering, praise we shall hear.

"So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."(John 16:22) Jesus spoke these words to His disciples shortly before His death, knowing that the events of the next few days would take them through the gamut of emotional depths and heights. This kind of contrast was integral to Jesus' teaching, as revealed in the Beatitudes:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."(Matthew 5:3-12)

In almost all of these statements the principle is taught that suffering for Christ's sake in this life, is a blessing in the next. This is the essential message of Rowe's text as well. "Midnight" is an interesting time of day in the Bible. It was the hour in which the death angel struck the firstborn of Egypt and brought about at last the release of the Israelites from slavery;(Exodus 12:29) it was the hour that Paul and Silas were miraculously freed from prison in Philippi;(Acts 16:25) and it was the hour at which the sailors carrying Paul to Rome realized they were nearing land and safety after having given up hope.(Acts 27:27) In each case there is a situation that appeared hopeless, yet suddenly turned to an unexpected deliverance. We have the saying "the darkest hour is just before dawn" for a reason; and when we find ourselves in the darkness of suffering, grief, or oppression, we need to remember that God is mighty to deliver, and even the darkest midnight will soon turn to dawn.

Rowe describes two kinds of difficulties in this stanza; one, an inward sadness, and the other, external persecution. Sadness is a part of human life, and we know that Jesus responded to some situations with grief and even tears. He was filled with sadness for the young ruler who would not part with his wealth to follow Him.(Luke 18:24) He wept at the tomb of Lazarus, perhaps in sympathy with His friends, perhaps in sorrow at the misery death has wrought in the world.(John 11:35) And in Gethsemane, of course, His grief was even more apparent, and purely for Himself. There is certainly nothing wrong with feeling sadness; but we need to remember that it will pass, and we need to let it do so. Jesus kept this emotion in check and did not let it debilitate Him.

The Psalms are a great resource for dealing with grief, because the writers dealt with it so much themselves. Almost from the beginning of the book we encounter this theme: "I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes."(Psalm 6:6-7) But immediately following this heartbroken cry, we find this growing confidence: "Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer."(Psalm 6:8-9) David knew that the Lord was with him through the sleepless nights of grief that all of us sometimes experience. "You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?"(Psalm 56:8)

The other source of difficulty in Rowe's text is an active one--the "jeering" opposition of others. We expect the world's opposition, of course; at the end of the beatitudes, Jesus reveals this inescapable logic: He was opposed by much of the mainstream of society; we are seeking to be like Him; therefore, to the extent that we succeed in our desires, we will also be opposed. Sadly, we also find ourselves mocked by those we thought to be allies; no ridicule seems so strong as that coming from one who claims to be a brother in Christ. Paul spoke of the opposition he faced from "false brethren,"(2 Corinthians 11:26) and in John 2:19 we read of those who "went out from us, but they were not of us." Even as we do our best to be the influence we should on the situation, it is discouraging and often heartbreaking to realize that we must put up a spiritual guard against verbal barbs coming from "within the ranks." We can well look forward to a day when we can "lay the armor down", as the old spiritual says.

After the shadows, there will be sunshine;
After the frown, the soul-cheering smile;
Cling to the Savior, love Him forever;
All will be well in a little while.

One of the lessons we learn early in life is that the sun will always come out again after a storm. In fact, it seems the sun shines even brighter when it returns after stormy weather. The same association is seen in Genesis 9:13, as God points out the rainbow that came after the flood and tells Noah that it should be remembered as a sign of God's mercy. We will certainly face storms in this life, but we should remember that the God who made the rainbow, the Lord who calmed the storm on Galilee, has also promised us a home where "they need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light."(Revelation 22:5)

The second line of Rowe's chorus might be a reference to a line from another, older hymn--"God moves in a mysterious way"(PFTL#192), written by William Cowper in 1774. The fourth stanza of that hymn reads, "Behind a frowning providence / He hides a smiling face." There are times when God's providence seems harsh, when we are made to bear something we prayed to avoid, or when we fail to receive what we requested in prayer. But "how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!"(Romans 11:33) As we live a little longer, we also see occasions in which the burden we carried was a valuable teacher, or was far better than some alternative outcome that we did not see at the time. We also know that there are times when we earnestly prayed for something that God witheld through His wisdom, which would have been to our detriment if our prayer had been granted.

Whatever our troubles, we need to remember that all of this life is just "a little while." Life is short, and eternity is long. Peter reminds us of this at the beginning and end of his first epistle:

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.(1 Peter 5:10)

Stanza 2:
After the battle, peace will be given;
After the weeping, song there will be;
After the journey there will be Heaven,
Burdens will fall and we shall be free.

There is no denying that the Christian life is a fight, else why are we told to "take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day?"(Ephesians 6:13) Yet we also long for a time when we can be at peace. Paul told Timothy to "fight the good fight of faith,"(1 Timothy 6:12) but we can easily sense the joy and relief in Paul's words later as he was able to say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."(2 Timothy 4:7) A day is coming when these struggles will be over, and the victory won.

The Christian life is also often described as a journey. Since "friendship with the world is enmity with God,"(James 4:4) we cannot expect to find a permanent place here and still follow Christ. Jesus pointedly described himself as one who "has nowhere to lay His head,"(Matthew 8:20) and Paul likewise said the apostles were typically "homeless."(1 Corinthians 4:11) Some of this was the nature of their ministry, of course, but it was also part of the deliberate choices they made not to tie themselves to this world. We are better served to think of ourselves as sojourners, like Abraham, who "went out, not knowing where he was going... For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God."(Hebrews 11:8-10)

Stanza 3:
Shadows and sunshine all through the story,
Teardrops and pleasure, day after day;
But when we reach the kingdom of glory,
Trials of earth will vanish away.

The promises of God on this score are sure: "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."(Revelation 21:4) There is an interval of trial and difficulty, but it helps us to bear it when we think of what lies in store for us someday. Until then, we are "waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ."(Titus 2:3)

About the music: Samuel William Beazley (1873-1944) was a prolific songwriter, publisher, and teacher of singing schools whose impact merits a separate post. As mentioned above, he wrote the music of some of the most popular of traditional gospel songs, several of them to texts by James Rowe. (Not all of their music is so successful; see "I choose Jesus", PFTL#269, for an uncharacteristically weak collaboration between these two.) "After the midnight" shows Beazley's versatility; here the composer of the upbeat quartet-style "Home of the soul" and "Ring out the message" adopts a more restrained, old-fashioned gospel style to suit Rowe's quiet, contemplative text. A prominent feature is the leap of a sixth in the melody (e.g. on the word "sadness" in the first stanza), which returns several times and lends the music a sense of unity.