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.


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