Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can You Count the Stars?

Praise for the Lord #78

Words: Johann Hey, 1837; translated Elmer L. Jorgenson, 1921
Music: STERNENZAHL, German folk tune, c. 1550

By the time he wrote this text, Johann Wilhelm Hey (1789-1854) was court preacher in Gotha, one of the capitals of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the royal family of which included the future Prince Albert who was at that time courting the young queen Victoria.(Cyberhymnal, "Hey") Other than two volumes of sermons, Hey's known writings are almost entirely for children, including two volumes of fables. (Wikipedia, "Hey")

"Weißt du, wie viel Stern­lein ste­hen" first appeared in the second volume, published in 1837) in a section titled "einen ernsthaften Anhang" (which translates more or less as "an appendix of serious [poems]). This appendix also introduced the popular Christmas carol "Alle Jahre weider" ("Every year the Christ-Child comes").(Block, 16) "Weißt du, wie viel Stern­lein ste­hen" is still a popular children's song in its original language. There were many to choose from, but the video to the right seemed to have the maximum level of cuteness! You can sample Hey's fables in English translation rendered by H. W. Dulcken, with the original illustrations by Otto Speckter.

The original German text has been published in several translations, listed in the Cyberhymnal article on Hey, so Jorgenson was not unusual in making his own translation for his classic hymnal, Great Songs of the Church. Elmer Leon Jorgenson (1886-1968) was a child of Danish immigrants, and probably knew German as a second or third language. For more on him, see the article at Scott Harp's, and Forrest McCann's article on the history of Great Songs of the Church.

Stanza 1:
Can you count the stars of evening
That are shining in the sky?
Can you count the clouds that daily
Over all the world go by?
God the Lord, who doth not slumber
Keepeth all the boundless number:
But He careth more for thee,
But He careth more for thee.

The first stanza translates (fairly) literally as:

Do you know how many little stars are
In the blue heavens?
Do you know how many clouds go
far and wide across the world?
God the Lord has counted them,
So that not even one is missed by Him
From the whole great number,
From the whole great number.

When God wanted Abraham to think of a big number, He said, "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them."(Genesis 15:5) A guess at the number of stars in the universe, based on the number believed to be in our own galaxy, and the number of galaxies believed to exist based on current conceptions of the size of the universe, is 100 sextillion (100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), a number several times the size of the U.S. national debt. Of course, if you consider all of the qualifiers involved, based on the fact that we don't really know what might be out there beyond the range of our telescopes. But Psalm 147:4 says, "He determines the number of the stars; He gives to all of them their names."

As for the clouds, Job asked, "Who can number the clouds by wisdom?"(38:37) It would seem to be more possible than counting stars, but immediately we are confronted by two questions: When does water vapor become a cloud? How do you count such a constantly changing phenomenon? Consider this statement from two NASA researchers:
Clouds are a major source of uncertainty in scientists' efforts to understand and predict climate change. The problem lies in large part with the fact that the relationships between cloud properties and atmospheric conditions, while well understood in the microphysical scale of a cloud droplet, are not well known in the large scale of a cloud system.(Tselioudis and Jacover)
I don't quote that to poke fun at the scientists. I appreciate the value of their research to better understand our weather, and I confess that I have often secretly wished I had become a research meteorologist. Weather is an endlessly fascinating subject. But isn't it amusing that millenia after Job spoke, we still have to admit that this subject is just too big for us to grasp? But God knows the ever-changing number of the clouds, down to each drop of vapor that plays its part in a global system.

We could stop here and marvel at the wisdom of God, and take a valuable lesson in humility. But Jorgenson's translation and adaptation of the text introduces a theme that recurs at the end of each stanza: Yes, God knows this world on a macro scale beyond our comprehension, but He is far more concerned with you as an individual. And if His knowledge of the natural world is so far beyond our comprehension, is it not even more certain that He knows our simple needs?

In Johann Hey's original text, this idea is introduced at the very end, but Jorgenson reinforces it at the close of each stanza. It is the answer to David's question in Psalm 8:4, "What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?" Yes, even though God does know the number of the stars and of the clouds, and has the (literally) universal perspective such knowledge implies, He cares for you as an individual. In fact, you are infinitely more important to Him, as proven by His actions.(John 3:16)

Stanza 2:
Can you count the birds that warble
In the sunshine all the day?
Can you count the little fishes
That in sparkling waters play?
God the Lord their number knoweth,
For each one His care He showeth:
Shall He not remember thee?
Shall He not remember thee?

The second stanza, in my literal translation:

Do you know how many little gnats play
In the hot sunshine?
How many little fish, also, cool themselves
in the dark streams of water?
God the Lord called them all by name,
So that they all came to life,
That they should now be so happy.
That they should now be so happy.

Besides the change from the somewhat unappealing image of swarms of gnats, Jorgenson also refocuses our view of God's relationship to His creation. Hey's text points out, again, the overwhelming transcendence of God as Creator, but Jorgenson looks to the individual care God has for His creatures. Jorgenson is likely referencing the words of Jesus, who used this example more than once:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?(Matthew 6:25-26)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.(Matthew 10:29-31)
It is an argument from the lesser to the greater; if God notices the fall of a sparrow, will He not notice the troubles of His child?

Stanza 3:
Can you count the many children
In their little beds at night?
Who without a thought of sorrow
Rise again at morning light?
God the Lord, who dwells in heaven
Loving care to each has given:
He has not forgotten thee,
He has not forgotten thee.

I translate the German text literally as:

Do you know how many children, early
Rise up from their little beds,
So that they without sorrow and trouble
Are happy throughout the course of the day?
God in heaven has, in all of them,
His joy, his delight;
He knows* you also and holds you dear,
He knows you also and holds you dear.

*Unlike "weiße" at the beginning of each stanza, which means to be aware of in a factual sense, this is "kenne" (related to our old word "ken"?), and means to understand something thoroughly, or to know someone personally.

I cannot sing this without a pang of sadness, because sadly, many little children have more than their share of sorrow. Too many little children wake up to hunger, homelessness, abuse, and war. But I have to believe that God has not forgotten them, and that He certainly has not forgotten their abusers. And may God's people do all we can to be God's instruments of peace and healing, to alleviate their suffering.

But this was not the point Hey, or Jorgenson, wanted to bring up. Little children have an ability to live in the here and now, without worrying about tomorrow. Even those who are suffering greatly often have the ability to put aside past and future, to enjoy the moment. Think about the things that give small children joy--give a child a cat or dog, adopted from the animal shelter at virtually no cost, and she will be as overjoyed as if it were a rare diamond. More overjoyed, actually.

Consider the equality with which small children view the world--they do not care about social class, race, or other distinctions until they are (sadly) taught to do so. I vividly remember my grade-school daughter's encounter with a "subway worker" while we were on vacation in Washington, D.C. She had dropped her notebook on the way out of the station, and we had started back to find it, but a man walking behind us had picked it up and brought it to her. She loudly announced, "Daddy, the subway worker found it for me!" The "subway worker" was actually a very amused one-star general in the U.S. Air Force, but to her eyes, all uniforms were more or less the same and he was just a nice man who helped a stranger.

Jesus commanded us to become like children, and though we find it easy enough to be "childish," we need to continue to strive for that "childlike" quality. "And calling to Him a child, He put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'"(Matthew 18:2-3) What in particular was it about children? "Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."(Matthew 18:4) Only then can we embrace our Father's love to the fullest, and rest in assurance that He is taking care of us.

About the music:

This is a great example of the beauty and simplicity of folk tunes. It covers a range of only six notes (DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA). The four phrases are cast in the common "song-form," aaba; repetition, departure, and return are sketched out in this very simple structure. Additionally, the b phrase (e.g. "God the Lord who does not slumber / Keepeth all the boundless number") is constructed of the repetition of a single subphrase. On a more minute level, the subphrase breaks into two smaller units that are the same pitch and rhythm pattern, just sequenced up a step in the scale (e.g "God the Lord who" and "doth not slumber"). An extreme economy of material makes this easy to sing and easy to memorize, while giving it a sense of coherence and logic.

Incidentally, the constant "short-short-long-long" rhythm of this tune is similar to that of the Ländler, the Austrian-Swiss-Bavarian "country cousin" of the waltz. Americans know it best from The Sound of Music!


"Johann Wilhelm Hey." Cyberhymnal.

"Wilhelm Hey (Dichter)." Wikipedia (German).

Block, Detlev. Mit dem Sternenhimmel die Schöpfung verstehen: ein Arbeitsbuch für Gemeinden. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009.

"The Estimated Number of Stars in the Universe Just Tripled." 80 Beats blog at Discover magazine web site. 1 December 2010.

Tselioudis, George, and Evan Jacover. "Clouds in midlatitude storms." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Goddard Institute for Space Studies. August 1997.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Breathe on Me, Breath of God

Praise for the Lord #77

Lyrics: Edwin Hatch, 1878
Music: Robert Jackson, 1888 (TRENTHAM)

In my paper "'A place in the soul, all made of tunes': what church music collections teach us about history, theology, and culture," I explored in a limited way the historical place of song about the Holy Spirit in the singing of the Churches of Christ. If I may be pardoned the convenience of self-plagiarism, here is the background of the issue:
There has been significant debate over the years, of course, on several fundamental questions. How does the Holy Spirit communicate and operate—through the Word only, or independently from the Word as well? What is the role of the Spirit in conversion, and what exactly is the “gift of the Spirit” in Acts 2:38? How does the Spirit “indwell” the Christian, and what does He do? These are not simple questions to answer, as evidenced by the differences (though sometimes exaggerated) between the views of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.(Foster, 97) By the turn of the century there was general consensus that the miraculous gifts of the first century had ceased, but other aspects--especially the nature of the Spirit’s work in conversion and indwelling--were vigorously debated on the pages of the Gospel Advocate and other journals during the 1890s.(Foster, 99-100) When the charismatic movement of the 1950s and 1960s began to impact the Churches of Christ, this old fault line emerged again in exchanges between heavyweights such as Guy Woods, J.W. Roberts, James D. Bales, and Roy Lanier.(Foster, 102-103) Abilene minister E.R. Harper (a staunch “Word-only” advocate) perhaps best stated the fears of the times in his 1976 book Order in Reverse, in which he outlined an inevitable slippery slope from the “personal indwelling” position held by many conservatives to the full-blown charismatic practices of the Pentecostals.(Foster, 103-104)
This history seems to have led to, or at least abetted, only limited adoption of songs about the Holy Spirit in the hymnals, and in the actual repertoire, of the Churches of Christ. (Of course, this is probably true generally when one looks at the numbers of songs written specifically about each Person of the Trinity.) But as time went by, the number slowly increased, largely by adopting hymns that discuss (relatively) less controversial aspects of the Spirit's work, such as fruit-bearing and sanctification. Many of our hymnals now include such hymns as "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart," "Gracious Spirit, dwell with me," "Holy Spirit, faithful Guide," "Holy Spirit, Truth divine," and the hymn under discussion.

Edwin Hatch (1835-1889) wrote very few hymns, and this is the only one to achieve wide circulation. He was a scholar of Biblical languages, and was best known in his field for a concordance to the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, a rich resource for the backgrounds of Biblical Greek.("Hatch.") Oddly enough, his hymns include another on this same subject that seems almost like a reworking of its ideas, "Holy Spirit, breathe on me" (not to be confused with any of several contemporary worship songs using the same line). "Breathe on me, Breath of God" was first published in a privately published pamphlet, Between Doubt and Prayer, in 1878.("Breathe") It was originally intended as an ordination hymn.(Hymnal 1982, v.3b, 951)

Stanza 1:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Describing the Holy Spirit as the "Breath of God" may seem an odd figure at first, and perhaps it is best to begin by noting that there is no indication that Hatch intended any detraction from the personhood of the Spirit. (The pronouns of direct address found throughout the rest of the hymn should be enough evidence.) I believe Hatch, as a linguist, was simply playing on the Greek pneuma, which means either "breath" and "spirit" depending on context. There is an even more direct source of this metaphor in John 20:22, where the resurrected Christ, "breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'"

Christ's action may seem a little unusual as well, until we remember Genesis 2:7, "then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." Just as Adam needed the "breath of life" to become a living man (both physically and spiritually), it is the Holy Spirit's "breath of life" that revives us from spiritual death in sin; "if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness."(Romans 8:10)

The Bible represents the "breath of God" as immensely powerful: "Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at Your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of Your nostrils."(Psalm 18:15) "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host."(Psalm 33:6) Only such power could create that greatest wonder of all His creation, a living soul. God declares that the eternal sentience that each of us possesses is "the breath of life that I made,"(Isaiah 57:16) and Job says truly that "it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand," that is, capable of a moral sentience.(Job 32:8)

When that precious soul is stained with sin and has become spiritually dead, only an equal power can revive it. Jesus said in John 6:63, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." Here we see the means by which the Spirit begins His wonderful transformation, using His "sword of the Spirit,"(Eph. 6:17), because "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."(2 Timothy 3:16)

Yet even after this rebirth, the initial "sanctification of the Spirit,"(1 Peter 1:2) the "washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost,"(Titus 3:5) there is still a ways to go! "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life."(Romans 6:22) And, "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit."(Galatians 5:25) It is this continuing process of sanctification that Hatch addresses in this hymn, as we are built up(Eph. 2:22) and strengthened(Eph. 3:16) by the Holy Spirit of God.

Hatch looks at this from the standpoint of our imitation of the character of our Lord. In Ephesians 4:31 Paul warns us that it is possible to "grieve the Holy Spirit of God," and if we would avoid this we must seek to think and act as He has shown us. Paul expands on this idea in a very practical way: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."(Ephesians 4:31-32) We must put away those fleshly things that offend the Spirit, and imitate the godly habits instead. "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. . . . and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord."(Ephesians 5:1-2, 10)

Stanza 2:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Almost every religion, however far-fetched, has some ritual of purification; it is as though we perceive, even in the midst of our sins, how wonderful it would be had we never taken that wrong path. The law given at Sinai had numerous and visible symbols of purification, keeping the issue of purity ever front of mind for those living under that dispensation. But in Hebrews 9:13-14 we read that a final, perfect purification is now available: "For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" Jesus framed His mission in just these terms, in His "High Priest's" prayer: "And for their sake I consecrate Myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth."(John 17:19)

That purification, that sanctification, is begun when the blood of Christ is applied to wash away our sins in the ritual of baptism.(1 Peter 3:21; 1 John 5:6). But it continues as long as we live in the flesh, as John so beautifully describes: "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure."(1 John 3:2-3)

This pursuit necessarily begins with knowledge of and obedience to the will of God. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."(Romans 12:2) Jesus promised that God would "sanctify them in the truth," because "[His] word is truth." If we do not learn God's will and yield to it, we cannot be pure; but if we do, we cannot help but become so. Key to this, of course, is the doing. Our aim is "to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God."(1 Peter 4:2)

Hatch's hymn ties together the doing of God's will with endurance, and rightly so. As I write this, we have completed a little over a quarter of the year 2011. I suspect that for many of us, an honest accounting of New Year's resolutions from January would show that most of them did not survive these three months intact. They may not have made it three weeks, or even three days. Our spiritual resolutions sometimes fare no better. "For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised."(10:36) Here we may well appeal "to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being,"(Ephesians 3:16) "that we may continue to run with endurance the race that is set before us."(Hebrews 12:1)

Stanza 3:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Till I am wholly Thine,
Till all this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

We are at war, or we have already surrendered, whether we realize it or not. Peter informs us of this in his usual terse fashion: "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul."(1 Peter 2:11) Paul himself described this struggle against the fleshly passions in Romans chapter 7, at length exclaiming, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?(v.24) It is a fight to the death, but a fight we can win. Paul, ever the lecturer, goes into more detail in Galatians:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.(Galatians 5:16-25)
Yes, it is a struggle; but by the Spirit's help we can choose the right and reject the wrong. We can start within our own thoughts, "for those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit."(Romans 8:5) "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire,"(James 1:14) and if we dwell on these fleshly desires we will almost certainly give in to them. Of course, telling ourselves not to think about something is not much of an option either; instead, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."(Philippians 4:8)

"For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."(Romans 8:13) "So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus."(Romans 6:11) We know that we are supposed to leave that "old man of sin" dead in the water (literally!) of baptism, but I must confess that the "old man" shows a remarkable tenacity. I suspect most of us need to be much more serious and dedicated in our efforts to make progress in "putting to death the deeds of the body" that grieve the Spirit within us.

It was the custom when I was younger (I haven't heard this done in a while) for our youth to sing the text of Galatians 2:20, accelerating the tempo with each repetition until it could go no faster. Singing Scripture is certainly a wonderful way to memorize, but we also need very much to mull over this verse at a slower, more thoughtful pace: "I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ, liveth in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."

Stanza 4:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.

"It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."(John 6:63) In this declaration Jesus once again associated the Spirit's life-giving work with the power of the inspired Word. It is that Word of God that shows us the way to forgiveness, and giving access to spiritual life; it is that Word that continues to guide us and sanctify us.

But in some fashion, the Spirit's work relates as well to the resurrection, and to the eternal life to come. It is difficult sometimes to separate figurative from literal "life" in such discussions; and perhaps no separation is intended, and both are equally true. Romans 8:11 says, "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you." Though the immediate discussion is connected to spiritual death and spiritual life, our hope for physical resurrection is equally dependent on Christ's physical resurrection--"knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence."(2 Corinthians 4:14) Galatians 6:8 is even more explicit concerning the Spirit's role: "For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." Spiritual life here, and eternal life to come, both flow from the working of the wonderful Holy Spirit of God.

A note on the rhyming: Before we criticize Hatch's rhyming of "die" and "eternity," we must note that John Donne's famous sonnet "Death be not proud" ends in a couplet using almost the same words: "One short sleep past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die." Hatch was no doubt familiar with that poem, and perhaps others using such rhymes.

Of course it is almost certain that the pronunciation was considerably different in Donne's day; just how much is a matter of debate. In the dialects of north England and Scotland, "die" might still be heard pronounced "dee," as in the Scottish song "Annie Laurie," which ends with the line "And for bonnie Annie Laurie / I'd lay me doon and dee." Other views that I have seen kicked around on poetry blogs suggest that "eternally," a relatively recent import from Latin in Donne's time, was perhaps pronounced "eternal-lie," rhyming with our standard pronunciation of "die." Yet another solution arises in this University of Kansas production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where "eye" and "insufficiency" are made to rhyme as "aye" and "insufficienc-aye," odd-sounding to the American ear but well within the scope of some living dialects of British English.

None of this helps us Americans much, of course, because these words just don't rhyme unless we pronounce them in a fashion unnatural to our dialect; and I suppose a forced pronunciation of "dee" or "eterni-tie" in Hatch's hymn would be far more distracting than the dissonance of the rhyme in our current pronunciation. At least we can understand why he wrote it that way, and know that it wasn't a want of skill.

About the music:

Robert Jackson (1842-1914) composed TRENTHAM for the hymn "O perfect life of love" by Henry W. Baker, one of the founding editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The text and tune first appeared in the publication Fifty Sacred Leaflets in 1888. Over the years, however, it has become more associated with Hatch's "Breathe on me, Breath of God."("TRENTHAM")

The editors of the Psalter Hymnal Handbook call TRENTHAM a "serviceable tune . . . barely adequate for the fervor of this text."("TRENTHAM") Serviceable is about right, and could be said of many good hymn tunes. Whether it matches the "fervor of this text" is another matter; fervor can be loud and boisterous, but sometimes it is quiet and intense. The latter mood is helped by TRENTHAM's narrow melodic range, which has an almost chant-like quality.


Foster, Douglas. “Waves of the Spirit against a rational rock: the impact of the Pentecostal, charismatic, and third wave movements on American Churches of Christ.” Restoration Quarterly 45/1-2 (2003): 95-105.

"Edwin Hatch." Cyberhymnal.

"Breathe on me, Breath of God." Cyberhymnal.

The Hymnal 1982 Companion, ed. Raymond F. Glover. New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994.

"TRENTHAM." Psalter Hymnal Handbook, quoted at

Friday, April 8, 2011

Blest Be the Tie that Binds

Praise for the Lord #76

Words: John Fawcett, 1782
Music: Johann G. Nägeli, 1832; arr., Lowell Mason, 1845 (DENNIS)

In 1772, John Fawcett (1740-1817) was an up-and-coming Baptist minister preaching in the little congregation at Wainsgate in the Yorkshire village of Hebden Bridge. With a large family to feed, and aspirations to greater fields of service, he was no doubt eager to accept when he was offered the pulpit at the large Carter's Lane Baptist Church in London. It would place him at the center of English life, with opportunities to hear and be heard, and access to all the major publishers. But according to tradition, after preaching his farewell sermon, he was so overcome with emotion at the thought of leaving the hardscrabble Yorkshire congregation, he decided on the spot to turn the position down. He would remain in Hebden Bridge for the rest of his days.("Fawcett")

Whether the stories are factually accurate or not--that he had his wagons loaded, then was overcome by the weeping of his congregation who had come to see him off--giving up the position in London was significant. Hebden Bridge is a town in the Yorkshire hills that at the time could only be accessed by a single road in and out, running along the backs of the surrounding ridges. It would later become a center of the textile industry, and today is home to an artists' colony, but it would never be London. By contrast, John Rippon, who took the Carter's Lane position in 1775 and stayed the next six decades, became editor of the National Baptist Register and editor of the widely successful Selection of Hymns (1787), a major supplement to the Watts tradition. He was author of "How firm a foundation" and many other well-known hymns.("Rippon") Fawcett labored in relative obscurity, though his still-popular hymn texts include "How precious is the Book divine" and "Lord, dismiss us with Thy blessing" in addition to "Blest be the tie."("Fawcett") But looking at it from that perspective, Fawcett came out rather well; "the ties that bind" has come down as a figure of speech known to most of the English-speaking world. Though it is hard to pin down a phrase's first use, Fawcett's hymn is surely the oldest and best-known source. The hymn itself appeared in the 1940 film of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

Stanza 1:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Twice during His prayer for His disciples in John chapter 17, Jesus spoke to His Father of His desire, "that they may be one, even as We are One."(v. 11,22) Fawcett may have had these verses in mind in writing this stanza, and they are worthwhile for us to examine. Since this is the example to which Jesus wished us to aspire, what can we learn about the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit?

From the age of twelve, when He was first old enough to be recognized as a man of Israel, we see Jesus' close relationship to His Father in the fact that He stayed behind in the temple when His family had come up to the feast. "And He said to them, 'Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father's house?'"(Luke 2:49) To Jesus at least, it was obvious that this was where He belonged; it also shows that His relationship to His Father's house was more significant than His relationship to his earthly parents' home at Nazareth. He would echo this idea during His ministry when He said, "Whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother."(Matthew 12:50) His love and respect for His Father's house was shown in striking fashion when He defended it from dishonor by driving out the moneychangers and sellers of animals, saying, "Take these things away; do not make My Father's house a house of trade."(John 2:16)

Do we say along with David, "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go up to the house of the Lord?'"(Psalm 122:1) Do we long to be in God's house more often? Does the house of God--the spiritual building of His people, not the physical structure--seem like our true home in this world? Here is our true family; here is our true home. Yes, the people are imperfect; they were in the days of David and in the days of Jesus as well. But may we never forget that it is the house of our Lord, not an institution of our own devising and ownership.

We also see that Jesus knew His Father's mind and was in complete agreement in His thoughts. In Matthew 11:27 He said, "All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." The agreement of Jesus with His Father's will was seen by His words: "I do nothing on My own authority, but speak just as the Father taught Me."(John 8:28) His actions likewise were in perfect agreement with the Father's will, because, "the Son can do nothing of His own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise."(John 5:19) It was so obvious as to hardly need mentioning: "Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does His works."(John 14:10)

If this was true for the unity of Jesus with His Father, how much more so for the unity of His church, both within itself and with its Head? If all Christians were to earnestly seek to "speak just as the Father taught" and to do "only what [we] see the Father doing," as represented to us by His perfect Exemplar, would we have the divisions we see today? Would we have the worldliness and pettiness that infects so many congregations? Remember where Jesus set the bar for obedience, when He said, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will."(Matthew 26:39) May God help us to so submit ourselves in unity under His will, following the example of Jesus who said, "I know that His commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told Me."(John 12:50)

Finally, the fellowship and unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit is so perfect that to know one of Them is to know all Three. Jesus told Philip, "Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father."(John 14:9) and said to His detractors, "If you knew Me, you would know my Father also."(John 8:19) Can that be said of us? It was Jesus' prayer that our love and unity would show the world that He is with us: "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me."(John 17:20-21) It was God's will that His gospel be carried into the world by us, like "treasure in jars of clay."(2 Cor. 4:7) In His parting instructions to His disciples, Jesus said, "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be My disciples."(John 15:8) God help us to seek that love and fellowship with one another that will truly be "like to that above."

Stanza 2:
Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

Jesus set the first example of praying for His body of believers. In the "high priestly" prayer already mentioned (John 17), He prays that the Father will "keep them from the evil one"(v.15) and "sanctify them in the truth."(v.17) He prays that we "may become perfectly one,"(v.23) and that "the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them."(v.26) Ultimately Jesus desired, "that they also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory..."(v.24)

The early Christians were a praying people, and lifted up the concerns of the church to their Father. They prayed God's guidance in the selection of church leaders.(Acts 1:24, 6:6, 14:23) They prayed for boldness in sharing the gospel,(Acts 4:29) and for deliverance from persecution.(Acts 12:5,12) They prayed for the salvation of those outside Christ,(Romans 10:1) and for the forgiveness of repenting backsliders.(Acts 8:24, James 5:16) They prayed for the physical wellbeing of the saints as well.(James 5:14-15)

The apostles devoted themselves to prayer as a major part of their ministry.(Acts 6:4) They prayed for the continued strength of faithful congregations, and for the restoration of the wayward.(2 Cor. 13:7-9) They prayed that the churches would grow in love,(Phil. 1:9) and grow in knowledge of God.(Col. 1:9) They requested prayers as well, especially for the successful furthering of the preaching of the gospel.(2 Thess. 3:1) Above all, we see the apostles giving thanks in their prayers for the encouragement they received from faithful Christians. As John said so lovingly, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth."(3 John v.4)

In the 122nd Psalm, David said, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!"(v.6) How much more should we pray for one another in Christ's spiritual Jerusalem, the holy temple of His church? Lift up the names of your elders and deacons, ministers and teachers. Lift up the names of the sick and the struggling. Pray for the elderly, for the children, for the teens and young adults, for young parents and older parents, for every person in every situation. Pray for the congregation to be bound together as a family of God, a tool in His hand to do His work, with every part working in harmony!

Stanza 3:
We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

As in all things, Jesus set the example here too. John tells us that after the death of Lazarus,
When Jesus therefore saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, He groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said unto Him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, "Behold how He loved him!"(John 11:33-36)
It is the shortest verse in our English Bible, but is profound in inverse proportion to its length. Jesus above all those present had the firm conviction that Lazarus would live forever in the world to come, beyond this life. Jesus alone of all those present knew that even that hour, the sisters' separation from their beloved brother would be ended miraculously. But He was no less sympathetic to their grief, and to the grief that death has brought upon this entire sad, weary world, because of sin.

Following the example of our Lord, Christians "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep."(Romans 12:15) I remember a preacher of the gospel, whose teaching I much admire, saying that we should not weep at the passing of faithful Christians, because it shows a lack of perspective. I respectfully disagree, though of course we do not "sorrow as others who have no hope."(1 Thessalonians 4:13) Jesus wept from sympathy. In Acts 8:2 we read that after the martyrdom of Stephen, "devout men carried Stephen out, and made great lamentation over him." It was no lack of faith, but rather an understandable grief at being parted from this faithful servant of God who was so much appreciated and loved. Likewise, Dorcas was mourned by the widows of Lydda,(Acts 9:39) because they had been so blessed by her benevolence. People who make a difference, leave an empty space when they are gone. We can't help but feel a twinge of sorrow, even as we take inspiration from their examples and look forward to seeing them again someday.

Righteous tears also flow out of concern for souls in danger of being lost. After his scathing first letter to the Corinthians, Paul told them in his next epistle that "out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you."(2 Corinthians 2:4) He warned the Ephesians "night and day with tears"(Acts 20:31) to avoid the error that would soon be sweeping the churches. And Paul, who could be so strong in his language toward the false teachers, said also, "For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ."(Philippians 3:18) He took no joy in condemning their error; tears flowed freely for the brethren he had lost, and who he prayed would turn back.

Stanza 4:
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

Life is full of partings, and we can mark off sections of our lives by them. Certain ones stand out in my life, which probably have parallels in yours: leaving my little home town to move into the city; leaving my parents' house to go to college; driving to another state to start a new job; sending that youngest child off for his first day at school. There is a certain grief over what has gone by, never to return.

Even more so is it true when we are parted from someone whom we know we shall not see again in this life. We get some sense of this in the first chapter of Acts, when Jesus left the disciples for the last time:
So when they had come together, they asked Him, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." And when He had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven."(Acts 1:6-11)
The apostles were eager to start the next chapter, but then were a little bewildered by what that chapter actually was. The message of the angels is just as appropriate to us today: Keep moving. Look forward. Focus on the goal.

Though we have no detailed description of what must have been a highly dramatic event, the scattering of the Jerusalem church brought Christians to the same crossroads. They had been all together in one happy family; now they must go separate ways, without the guiding hands of the apostles. Their response? "Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word."(Acts 8:4) The church spread into Samaria, to Antioch, and soon launched out into missionary efforts far and wide. They faced forward, kept moving, and remembered the goal.

But the partings were real, and difficult. We see this in more detail with Paul's journey back to Jerusalem, and his (presumed) last meeting with the elders of the church at Ephesus.
And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.(Acts 20:36-39)

The same human sense of grief at parting is apparent in the last chapter of Paul's second letter to Timothy, as he recounts those who had abandoned him in prison at Rome, and also those he had sent away on behalf of the Lord's work. "Do your best to come to me soon."(4:9) "Luke alone is with me."(4:11) But Paul too kept facing forward, remembering that one Friend would never leave him: "But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it."(4:21)

Stanza 5:
This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

Fawcett probably had this passage in mind:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.(Hebrews 10:23-25)
Though it certainly teaches us to be faithful in our attendance to assemblies of the church, this passage says much more. There is a Day approaching, and it should energize us to both feeling and action. As Paul told the Christians in Rome, "the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.(Romans 13:11-12) There has been much debate as to what the 1st-century Christians believed about the return of Christ, and whether Paul himself taught that it was coming within their lifetimes. This verse is worth our meditation as we consider that subject--for whether Christ comes an hour from now or in some millennium yet to come, our personal "Day of Reckoning" is certainly closer today than it was yesterday. If Christ does not come first, we will all individually come to the end of our courses in this life; and so, we certainly must live as though Christ is coming in our generation!

For the faithful Christian, thinking about that Day is a cause not for fear, but for encouragement and inspiration. There is no sitting on our laurels, waiting for the trumpet to sound. Rather, Paul's discussion of the matter with the Philippians is a bustle of energy:
And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.(Philippians 1:6-10)

Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the Day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.(Philippians 2:14-16)
Live in expectation. Long for the Day. Learn to say, along with John, "Come, Lord Jesus."(Revelation 22:20) Of course, as the old joke goes, many want to say, "Come, Lord Jesus, but not before Saturday night." This is a lot of our problem in thinking about our mortality and the certainly of judgment.

But if there is reason to fear the judgment, as the Roman governor Felix did in Acts 24:25, there is no reason to remain in fear. Those who have accepted God's grace by obeying the gospel can say with Paul, "There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing."(2 Timothy 4:8)

Stanza 6:
From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

Brother Avon Malone had a humorous saying (one among many!) about the unity of the church:
To live with saints in heaven above
Will be a wondrous glory;
To live with them here on this earth
Is quite another story.
Jesus calls us to a unity that parallels that between Him, His Father, and the Holy Spirit. Obviously we are a little short of that mark, even at the best of times. We must do our best--and we can do much better--but perfect unity will come only in the sinlessness of heaven. There we will be, finally, what God means for us to be.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.(Revelation 21:4)
Among the many wonderful Christians whom I have been privileged to know, and then have been parted from for a time, one goodbye stands out in particular. She was a German, the wife of a minister in the Gemeinde Christi (Church of Christ) in Augsburg. For many years her husband, Rudolf Rischer, had been assisted by the Chapel Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. Christel was very ill with late-stage cancer when they visited Nashville, and it was clear that it would be her last trip to the United States.

Christel spoke very little English, and at a church dinner given in their honor, I recognized the tell-tale signs of a person who is not following what is being said to her. (Living as I do with three hard-of-hearing individuals, I have acquired some talent of observation in this area!) I felt sympathy for her plight and decided to do my best to converse with her in German. After my first few carefully rehearsed sentences of introduction, I was somewhat at a loss; but I think it amused her somewhat, and at least it took the pressure off of her and put it on me.

I can never forget her last words to me. I could only think of the formal German farewell, "Auf wiedersehen," ("[wishing] to see you again"). She taught me a more customary farewell among friends, especially Christians: "Bis dann," ("until then"). I know it's a fairly standard saying, but between Christians who live an ocean apart, and whom death would soon part, it took on an unmistakable depth of meaning. We will see each other again; if not in this life, we will at least see each other then. To Christel, a lovely woman of God, and to many others, "Bis dann."

About the music:

Hans Georg Nägeli (1773–1836) was a German Swiss composer, music publisher, and music educator of considerable importance in his time. He was contemporary to Beethoven, and was the first publisher of Beethoven's op. 31 piano sonatas, groundbreaking works in that composer's famed middle period. Nägeli's compositions were primarily choral music and solo songs, prefiguring the rapid expansion of the latter genre in the hands of his younger contemporary Franz Schubert.(Grove)

Nägeli was firm believer in "music for the masses," and did much to found the Liederkranz ("singing circle," more or less) tradition in Switzerland. These were men's (sometimes women's) amateur choirs, and in an age in which clubs and societies were very popular to begin with, they became a fixture of middle-class entertainment. The music was essentially popular but made occasional forays into the classical realm, and was a mixture of sacred and secular works. A somewhat similar tradition in the United States is the glee club and the barbershop chorus.

Lowell Mason, the great "improver of public taste" and founding father of American music education, took a great deal of inspiration from Nägeli's theories about music education. On his 1837 trip to Europe he carried a letter of introduction to the Swiss composer, and traveled to Zurich specifically to meet him. Unknown to Mason, Nägeli had passed away prior to his arrival. Mason's travel journal reports that he bought all of Nägeli's published works that he did not already possess.(Mason, 9) He also met with Nägeli's widow and son to offer his condolences. The son gave Mason a copy of one of his own songs,(Mason, 96) so it is possible that Mason might also have received the DENNIS tune in an unpublished manuscript. Eva O'Meara's 1971 report on the Lowell Mason collection at Yale University indicates that Mason acquired over fifty titles in all from Nägeli's family.(O'Meara, 200)

The first appearance of the tune DENNIS was in Mason's Psalter of 1845, where it is claimed to be, "Arranged from H.G. Nägeli." Just how much "arranged" is the question! The origin is sometimes claimed to be from "O selig, selig, wer vor dir," a hymn in Nägeli's two-volume collection Christliches Gesangbuch (1828).("DENNIS") The first volume is available online; unfortunately, the hymn in question is in the second volume, which I have not been able to examine. But looking at the first volume, it seems hard to believe that the DENNIS tune came from these fairly standard Lutheran-chorale-type tunes. More likely, in my opinion, is that Mason arranged DENNIS from a secular work, such as An die Abendsonne for example. (If you like classical music, take a look around the rest of this wonderful web site,!)


"John Fawcett." Cyberhymnal.

"John Rippon." Cyberhymnal.

"Nägeli, Hans Georg." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 20 vols. London: MacMillan, 1980.

Mason, Lowell. A Yankee Musician in Europe: The 1837 Journals of Lowell Mason, ed. Michael Broyles. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1990.

O'Meara, Eva. "The Lowell Mason Library." Notes, Second Series, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Dec., 1971), pp. 197-208.