Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Close to Thee

Praise for the Lord #101

Words: Fanny J. Crosby, 1874
Music: Silas J. Vail, 1874

Fanny Crosby probably was the most prolific hymn writer who ever lived, with approximately 9,000 texts (surpassing even the 6,000 or so of Charles Wesley). And though only a fraction of these have stood the test of time, even a small fraction of 9,000 leaves an impressive number of hymns that still give voice to our praises and comfort to our souls. She was truly the standout writer of the early phase of gospel music, and of the 19th century American hymn writers generally; Wilhoff's article in the Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music notes that "with the possible exception of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, Crosby has generally been represented by the largest number of hymns of any writer of the twentieth century in nonliturgical hymnals."(92)

Crosby's tremendous success as a hymn writer (in fame if not in fortune), recognition as a champion of social causes, and reputation for generosity and good works fostered an idealized view of her life that fit the mold of the optimistic, romanticized views of the era. She was portrayed as an unfailingly cheerful "Protestant saint," overcoming all obstacles through hard work and simple faith. A recent biographer, Edith Blumhofer, expressed frustration with journalistic conventions of the era (so different from today!) that seemed purposely to avoid addressing areas of her life that were far less than idyllic.(xii)

Truth be told, Fanny Crosby was in difficult straits in 1874, when "Close to Thee" was written. Her husband, Alexander Van Alstyne, made a meager living as a church organist and private teacher, and Fanny's own income--despite the huge contribution she made to gospel music--was relatively small. When they had money, they had the habit of giving much of it away to those who were worse off; consequently, they lived month to month and moved frequently from one apartment to another. Sometimes they stayed at different addresses.

There was an increasing strain within their marriage that led to a permanent separation just a few years later. No doubt money was a great deal of it; perhaps it was also difficult for Alexander to accept Fanny's celebrity, when his own musical efforts were largely unsuccessful. But another factor, no doubt, was the lingering anguish caused by the crib death of the couple's only child in 1859. After moving to New York in the early 1860s, Fanny and Alexander never spoke of the child; only late in life did Fanny reveal this tragedy, to the shock of her closest friends.("Crosby," Wikipedia)

The sensibilities of the era tended to consider this troubled side of Crosby's life off limits for discussion, and it may ultimately have been to the detriment of her later critical reception. The great American hymnologist Henry Wilder Foote, for example, might not have been so quick to dismiss Crosby's poetry as "overwrought sentimentality" had he known the real depth of personal suffering from which she spoke.(Foote, 270) Her lyrics gain an added dimension of meaning when we look at them as the writings, not of a stereotyped "cheerful blind girl," but of a real woman who had misfortunes and disappointments, made mistakes, and got through the best she could by clinging to a simple faith and an ethic of service.

"Close to Thee" was just such an autobiographical outburst. Crosby said of this hymn,
Towards the close of a day in the year 1874 I was sitting in my room thinking of the nearness of God through Christ as the constant companion of my pilgrim journey, when my heart burst out with the words:

Thou, my everlasting Portion,
More than friend or life to Thee;
All along my pilgrim journey,
Saviour, let me walk with Thee.

(Crosby's Story, 79)
But this reveals another problem in unraveling Fanny Crosby's lyrics--this is from a volume of anecdotal material, taken from interview with Crosby many years after the incident described. Ira Sankey related a different story of the hymn's origin:
The late Silas J. Vail having composed this tune brought it to Fanny Crosby and requested her to write words for it. As he was playing it for her on the piano, she said, "That refrain says, 'Close to Thee, Close to Thee.' Mr. Vail agreed that that was true, and it was agreed that it should be a hymn entitled "Close to Thee."(Sankey, 362)
It is possible that both accounts are true, as far as they go; Crosby's account of the origin of the first stanza does not include the refrain, and Sankey's account of Vail's encounter mentions only the refrain and not the stanzas. Perhaps Vail, editor of the hymnal in which "Close to Thee" first appeared, matched the stanzas to the germ idea of the refrain he had discussed with Crosby. Vail did something similar when he added a chorus to Frederick Faber's "There's a wideness in God's mercy." (Usually under the title, "There's a fullness in God's mercy," this was one of Vail's most popular hymns.) "Close to Thee" was first published in 1874, in Songs of Grace and Glory (New York: Horace Waters & Son), edited by William F. Sherwan and Silas J. Vail.

Stanza 1:
Thou my everlasting portion,
More than friend or life to me;
All along my pilgrim journey,
Savior, let me walk with Thee.

The opening line of this stanza is rooted in the language of Old Testament poetry. A "portion" in the legal sense of an allotted inheritance came to signify the circumstances of life in general; or, as we still say in English, our "lot in life." The priests of Israel had God alone as their "portion" both literally and figuratively, as God told Aaron from the time of the Exodus: "You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel."(Numbers 18:20) In an era when the worth of a man, a family, or a tribe was tied up in land and possessions (is it any different now?), the sons of Aaron had to look beyond the physical to the spiritual.

David adopted this language to himself in the Psalms: "The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; You hold my lot."(Psalm 16:5) "I cry to you, O LORD; I say, 'You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.'"(Psalm 142:5) This is continued by other poets: "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."(Psalm 73:26) "The LORD is my portion; I promise to keep Your words."(Psalm 119:57) The everlasting nature of God's faithfulness is emphasized, and also our choice to receive our inheritance in Him through our obedience to Him.

Perhaps the most moving instance of this poetic image, however, is from Jeremiah's Lamentations:
He has filled me with bitterness;
He has sated me with wormwood.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace,
I have forgotten what happiness is, so I say,
"My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the LORD."

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
great is Your faithfulness!
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"therefore I will hope in Him."
(Lamentations 3:15-24)
Sometimes it takes losing everything else to make us realize that our real hope and future, our "everlasting portion," is in the Lord. Was this the passage that sparked Crosby's lines? She had endured many things in her life that could have made her bitter, but like the prophet, clung to the one thing that made sense of life, and could not be taken away.

Close to Thee, close to Thee,
Close to Thee, close to Thee!
All along my pilgrim journey,
Savior, let me walk with Thee.

"Walking with Jesus" and being "close to Jesus" are major themes of Crosby's hymns, and reflect the 19th-century Evangelical presentation of Jesus as a warm, welcoming Friend.(Blumhofer, 253ff.) The Victorian sentiment in religious poetry tended toward emotionalism, and if it sometimes went to excess, it is not any more to our credit today that we are often uncomfortable expressing such emotion. Even men of the "repressed" Victorian era seemed to find much less difficulty in expressing affection toward a male friend, not to mention toward our Savior!

There is a natural tendency when walking with a friend to fall in alongside them; we would hardly call it "walking with" someone if we did not. We walk close enough to converse, to see the person's face; in other words, to be in intimate communication with each other. If it is a close family member we will walk a little closer because we are at ease with them, and little children very naturally take the hand of someone they trust to keep them safe.

The letters of John are full of references to the Christian's walk, centering on the key passage, "Walk in the light, as He is in the light."(1 John 1:6) We do this when we "walk in the same way in which He walked,"(1 John 2:6) "according to His commandments,"(2 John 1:6) "walking in the truth."(3 John 1:3) A walk, of course, is made up of steps; every step we take, in every decision we make, is either closer to Jesus or further away. If we learn to know Him better, our love for Him will increase; and if our love increases, our desire to walk close to Him, in constant communion with Him, will keep our steps in the light with Him.

Stanza 2:
Not for ease or worldly pleasure,
Not for fame my prayer shall be:
Gladly will I toil and suffer,
Only let me walk with Thee.

Close to Thee, close to Thee,
Close to Thee, close to Thee!
Gladly will I toil and suffer,
Only let me walk with Thee.

This was an honest statement in view of Fanny Crosby's life. The 1870 U.S. Census shows that she and her husband were then living in a boarding house in the middle of Manhattan's 8th Ward. Today, this is the exclusive SoHo district, but back then it was a poor working-class neighborhood just a few blocks from the red-light district off Broadway. By contrast, Crosby's friend Phoebe Knapp Palmer (composer of "Blessed assurance") lived in an urban mansion in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, then a prestigious enclave of wealthy industrialists.

Despite their difficult financial circumstances, Fanny seemed always to keep in mind that others were more in need. When the couple gave lecture-recitals to raise money, they routinely donated half the proceedings to the poor. Beginning in the late 1860s, Fanny worked with rescue missions in some of the toughest New York neighborhoods, speaking and counseling whenever she could. And when friends took it upon themselves to organize activities to raise funds for Crosby in her elderly years, her reaction was always to insist that she was not in need.("Crosby," Wikipedia)

James 4:3 says, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures." Fanny Crosby received that for which she asked, because the example of her life shows that she wanted most to be a help and comfort to other people. Her songs continue to do this even today. To take an example from the Bible, the apostle Paul showed that his great desire and constant prayer was for the furthering of the gospel of Christ. In the first chapter of Philippians, he related the circumstances of his imprisonment and the opposition he received even from some in the church. There were selfish brethren who thought to eclipse his work while Paul was unable to operate freely. But his conclusion tells us all we need to know about Paul: "Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."(Philippians 1:18)

What do we seek in our prayers? The model prayer that Jesus gave His disciples mentions material things only in passing--our "daily bread." These things are important and necessary, but they are not the most important and necessary; the emphasis by far is on seeking a right relationship with God and doing His will. We know how to pray for a material blessing, and for deliverance from a physical hardship. When we learn to pray just as earnestly that we may be better servants to others, better proclaimers of the gospel, and better examples of holy living, we will be more pleasing to our Father.

Stanza 3:
Lead me through the vale of shadows,
Bear me o'er life's fitful sea;
Then the gate of life eternal
May I enter, Lord, with Thee.

Close to Thee, close to Thee,
Close to Thee, close to Thee!
Then the gate of life eternal
May I enter, Lord, with Thee.

The final stanza of this hymn uses two familiar old metaphors for the struggles of life--the "vale of shadows" and the "fitful sea." A search of 19th-century works in Google Books shows that these phrases were rather common in religious prose and poetry of Crosby's era. The "vale of shadows" is of course inspired by the "valley of the shadow of death" in the 23rd Psalm. The "fitful sea" was a stock poetic image, especially in the Anglo-American culture that so depended on sea travel. But in the context of a hymn, of course, it calls up the events of the Sea of Galilee when frightened disciples looked to their Lord to save them from a storm.

These phrases are commonplace, even cliched, for a good reason: they express the common experience of humanity. "Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble,"(Job 14:1) and even to the most fortunate of lives "the years draw near of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them.'"(Ecclesiastes 12:1) Much of life really is spent in that valley, as we walk among dangers both physical and spiritual. Life really is much like a stormy ocean, as we are buffeted by pressures from many directions, ever changing, and threatening to overturn us.

Both images reflect the fact that we have to face events beyond our control, and sometimes completely unforeseen. But the child of God knows that we are not alone in this journey; instead, we can say with David, "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." On the ocean of life, we can remember with the Psalmist, "You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, You still them."(Psalm 89:9)

About the music:

Silas Jones Vail (1818-1884) was one of the many lesser lights in the gospel music boom of the post-Civil War era, and like many church musicians before and since, he practiced a trade in order to pursue his passion. In the U.S. Census records from 1850-1870, his occupation is listed as "hatter," and Troy's New York City Directory from 1865 lists "Silas J. Vail, hats," in business at 118 Fulton Street.(894) This is in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center; in Vail's day, it was a mercantile district between City Hall and the Stock Exchange. The hectic bustle of the growing super-city is seen in the print below, which shows hatters' and clothiers' shops along Fulton St. at the intersection with Broadway. Vail's shop was just another couple of blocks up Fulton.

Broadway opposite Fulton Street. Digital ID: 809693. New York Public Library
Broadway opposite Fulton Street, 1860.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Music was Vail's avocation for many years; a search of Worldcat.org, the list of works at Cyberhymnal, and Hymnary.org shows that Vail was writing music as early as 1858, and was active until at least 1876. These are the works discovered in the search, giving an idea of the extent of his activity:
  • "Nothing but leaves" published in Christian Observer (New York), 1858
  • "Beautiful Zion," quartet (New York: Horace Waters, 1859)
  • Contributions to Shining Star: A New Collection of Hymns and Tunes for Sunday Schools (New York: Huntington, 1863)
  • Editor, The Athenaeum Collection (New York: Horace Waters, 1863)
  • "I will be true to the Stars and Stripes," quartet (New York: Horace Waters, 1864)
  • Editor, The Diadem: A Collection of Tunes and Hymns for Sunday School and Devotional Meeting. (New York: Horace Waters, 1865)
  • Contributions to Musical Leaves for Sabbath Schools (Cincinnati: Philip Phillips, 1865)
  • "Happy golden days," solo or duet with chorus (New York: Horace Waters, 1866) N.B. Not the same as "Happy golden years" from Laura Ingalls Wilder books!
  • Editor, Chapel Melodies (New York: Biglow & Main, 1868)
  • Contributions to Song Life for Sunday School, ed. Philip Phillips (New York: Harper, 1872)
  • Editor, Songs of Grace and Glory (New York: Horace Waters, 1874)
  • Contributions to Echoes from Zion, ed. William F. Sherwin (New York: Horace Waters, 1874)
  • Contributions to Singing Annual for Sabbath Schools, ed. Philip Phillips (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1874)
  • Contributions to Royal Songs: For Sunday Schools and Families (New York: American Tract Society, 1875)
  • Contributions to Gospel Hymns no. 2, ed. Bliss & Sankey (New York: Biglow & Main, 1876)
  • Contributions to Good News (New York: C.H. Ditson, 1876)
Vail eventually went into the music business full time, though in a different direction; the 1880 U.S. Census lists his occupation as "piano salesman."

According to Robert Lowry's biographical sketch of Fanny Crosby, Vail began working with her in 1872.(Crosby, Bells, 18) They wrote at least a half-dozen songs together:

"Close to Thee" (Songs of Grace and Glory, 1874)
"Where is thy refuge, dear brother?" (Echoes from Zion, 1874)
"Royal Songs" (Royal Songs, 1875)
"The palace of the King" (Gospel Songs no. 2, 1876)
"O be saved" (Good News, 1876)
"The guiding hand" (Good News, 1876)

Except for the first, none of these are in common use today. Vail's other hymn that has lasted to our time is "The Gate Ajar," with text by Lydia Baxter, written in 1872.(Hymnary.org) Of the two musical works, "The Gate Ajar" with its folksy pentatonic scale seems less dated; and in my opinion, the chorus of "Close to Thee" adds nothing to to Crosby's hymn. In fact, the hymn might have been better suited without a chorus at all. Sing the stanzas to another tune, such as ST. SYLVESTER ("Father, hear the prayer we offer" in most hymnals among the U.S. Churches of Christ), and the simple beauty of the text speaks out much better.

References: Wilhoff, Mel R. "Crosby, Fanny Jane." Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music, ed. W. K. McNeil. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 91-92.

Blumhofer, Edith L. Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005.

Foote, Henry Wilder. Three Centuries of American Hymnody. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940.

Fanny Crosby's Story of Ninety-Four Years, retold by S. Trevena Jackson. New York: Revell, 1915. http://books.google.com/books?id=QsxEAAAAYAAJ

"Fanny Crosby." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Crosby

Crosby, Fanny. Bells at Evening and Other Verses, with biographical sketch by Robert Lowry. New York: Biglow & Main, 1897. http://books.google.com/books?id=upwaAAAAYAAJ

Sankey, Ira. My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs. Philadelphia: Sunday School Times Press, 1907. http://books.google.com/books?id=55ICSWK_wtkC

Trow's New York City Directory, 1865 ed. http://books.google.com/books?id=hY4tAAAAYAAJ

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Come, Thou Almighty King

Praise for the Lord #100

Words: Anonymous, c. 1757
Music: Felice di Giardini, 1769

The authorship of this hymn has been long debated, with little new evidence coming to light. The two men most often connected with it are Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, based on the following circumstantial evidence. The first known publication of this text was in a short pamphlet published sometime prior to 1757. Unfortunately the only known copies of this pamphlet have no title page, and thus give no positive attribution of the authorship of "Come, Thou Almighty King." Even the date is conjecture, based on the hymnals into which it was bound. The pamphlet contains only one other hymn, "Jesus, Let Thy Pitying Eye," which is definitely by Charles Wesley. This suggests that Wesley might have been the author of both, though the hymn never appears in any of Wesley's publications.

All of the known copies of this pamphlet are held by the British Museum, and are found bound into the backs of hymnals edited by George Whitefield, the prominent "Calvinist Methodist" minister. Whitefield's Collection of Hymns for Social Worship was the first hymnal to incorporate the text into the body of the work.(Hymnary.org) Because of this association, Whitefield is sometimes given attribution, but this is even less likely than Wesley's authorship; Whitefield was an editor and arranger, but not a writer of original hymns. He may have selected and arranged the stanzas, however, from a longer hymn now lost to us.

The author of this hymn may have had reason to remain anonymous; the text is an obvious play on the British anthem, "God Save the King," and is found set to that tune in early sources.(Nutter, 2) The implication that we ought to "render unto God what is God's,"(Matthew 22:21) instead of heaping our praise and professions of loyalty upon mere mortals, is well taken. But given the Methodists' history of challenging the positions of the established Church of England, it could also have been taken as a subversion of the King's authority as earthly head of the church.

Stanza 1:
Come, Thou almighty King,
Help us Thy name to sing, help us to praise!
Father all-glorious, o’er all victorious,
Come and reign over us, Ancient of Days!

For sake of comparison, the first stanza of "God Save the King," as found in the Gentleman's Magazine, 15 October 1745.(Wikimedia Commons)

God save great George, our king,
Long live our noble king, God save the king.
Send him victorious, happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us, God save the king.

In modern times some have called into question the imagery of God as King, because of the negative consequences that kind of absolute authority has had in human hands. But just as we must remember that God as Father is a perfect Father, unlike the imperfect fathers of this world, so we also must remember that God is a perfect King, better than the wisest and most benevolent king who ever ruled on this earth. Beyond that, we must lay aside our natural objection to anyone holding such absolute power; though we rightly object to a fellow human being having such authority, if God is the Creator and Sustainer of this universe, then all such authority belongs to Him by nature.

The Psalms frequently present this metaphor for God's authority over His creation. God is represented as a King who is invincible in face of all mere human threats: "Who is this King of Glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!"(Psalm 24:8) He is invincible in the face of any earthly disaster--"the LORD sits enthroned over the flood"--and unlike human monarchs, God's good reign is everlasting: "The LORD sits enthroned as King forever."(Psalm 29:10) For this reason our King is deserving of utmost respect and honor. "For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great King over all the earth. . . Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!"(Psalm 47:2,6)

But God's power and authority are not the only aspects of His divine reign that are described in the Psalms. In Psalm 74:12 we read, "God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth." The Sovereign Lord is the source of help and comfort to His people, as David said in Psalm 5:2, "Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to You do I pray."

The same picture of God as the Great King is continued in the New Testament: "To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen."(1 Timothy 1:17) But where the supreme moral authority of God was viewed in an earthly context in the Psalms, Jesus portrays the eternal nature of God as the Sovereign Judge: "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."(Matthew 25:34)

Sadly, many reject the lordship of God when it comes to their own lives. "His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,"(Romans 1:20) but some "did not like to retain God in their knowledge."(Romans 1:28) In 1 Samuel 8, the great prophet-judge was distressed that the people of Israel demanded an earthly king in his place; but God told him, "they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them."(1 Samuel 8:7) An echo of this was heard centuries later when a crowd of Israelites cried out, "We have no king but Caesar."(John 19:15) An echo of this is heard still today, whenever some human authority exalts itself as supreme--whether over fellow humanity, or over one's own self--and rejects the authority of God who made us all.

The original text had another stanza next, still found in some hymnals, but not used in the hymnals common to the Churches of Christ in the United States:

Jesus, our Lord, arise,
Scatter our enemies, and make them fall;
Let Thine almighty aid our sure defense be made,
Our souls on Thee be stayed; Lord, hear our call.

This is a reworking of the second stanza of "God Save the King," even more blatant than the first. The early version of the British anthem reads:

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter his enemies, and make them fall;
Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks,
On him our hopes we fix, O save us all!

The hymn seems to take the anthem to task in this stanza, insisting that God alone is worthy of such trust. It is interesting to note that the last line of this stanza in the royal anthem has evolved over the years to "On Thee our hopes we fix," an understandable emendation in reaction to such criticism. The language of this stanza (and of the corresponding stanza in the anthem) is based on Numbers 10:35, which records the invocation given whenever the Israelites began a new leg of their journeys during the Exodus: "And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, 'Arise, O LORD, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.'"

This stanza of the hymn has decreased in usage, however, perhaps in part because of the difficult rhyme between "arise" and "enemies." This is probably a case, however, where changing accents of English have made obtuse what at one time might have been a reasonable rhyme. (No doubt some accents of English could succeed in making this rhyme even today, as "aroise" and "enemoies.")

Stanza 2:
Come, Thou Incarnate Word,
Gird on Thy mighty sword, our prayer attend!
Come, and Thy people bless, and give Thy Word success,
Spirit of Holiness, on us descend!

This stanza, the second in our arrangement, addresses praise to God the Son. "Incarnate Word" is simply an expression of John 1:14, "And the Word became flesh." It is easy to say, and hard to grasp. Many volumes have been written--and not a few doctrinal battles fought--over how the infinite God could become also fully human. But if we look to the "what" rather than the "how," it is abundantly clear how thankful we must be that He did!
For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him.(Colossians 1:19-22)
Because of this Perfect Man who took our sins to the cross, we can approach God with confidence that Jesus will "our prayer attend." We have no standing with God on our own; what can a finite mortal creature of a few years existence say before the Eternal Creator? As Job said, "How then can I answer him, choosing my words with him?"(Job 9:14) But in Jesus we have "an Advocate with the Father,"(1 John 2:1) who has walked in our shoes, whom we can understand as one of us.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.(Hebrews 10:19-22)
The closing part of this stanza refers to the "Spirit of Holiness," an expression found in Romans 1:4 that must in context refer to the Holy Spirit rather than Christ. Whether this transition in mid-stanza was intended or not, it serves the hymn well in our current abbreviated version, giving homage to each member of the Godhead.

This does not refer necessarily to a charismatic experience; the "baptism of the Spirit" experienced by the apostles at Pentecost was exceptional enough that a similar outpouring on Cornelius and his household evoked comparison as an equally significant and momentous event. But we are all called to be "filled with the Spirit."(Ephesians 5:18) "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."(Romans 5:5) We must be "led by the Spirit,"(Romans 8:14) "strengthened with power through His Spirit in [the] inner being."(Ephesians 3:16) Our great hope is to bear the "fruit of the Spirit" in our lives.(Galatians 5:22) Since we know the Spirit "intercedes for us" in prayer,(Romans 8:26) and that we "worship by the Spirit of God,"(Philippians 3:3) it is natural that we appeal to the Spirit of God in our approach to worship.

There was originally an entire stanza directed to the Holy Spirit; this is not used in most of the hymnals of the Churches of Christ, at least in the United States, with the exception of the publications of Will Slater:

Come, holy Comforter,
Thy sacred witness bear in this glad hour.
Thou who almighty art, now rule in every heart,
And ne’er from us depart, Spirit of power!

The idea of the Spirit bearing witness is most clearly seen in this beautiful passage in Romans:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.(Romans 8:15-17)
Stanza 3:
O Lord, our God, to Thee
The highest praises be, hence evermore!
Thy sovereign majesty may we in glory see,
And to eternity love and adore!

The hymn concludes with an outburst of praise to our God, with a prayer that we will be with Him in eternity. We strive to give our "highest praises," but understand that our best falls short. "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?"(Micah 6:6) Even the great temple of Solomon, the greatest work of Israel's most magnificent king, was rightly viewed as inadequate for the God for whom it was built. Solomon, in better, humbler days, said: "But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built!"(2 Chronicles 6:18) But we offer to God what we can, humbly entreating His acceptance of our imperfect worship.

Someday it will be different, though, in the New Jerusalem;
"The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever."(Revelation 22:3-5)
Until that day, let us do our best on this earth to praise Him. When we truly lift up our hearts in selfless worship to Him, we are as close to heaven as we will come, until that great day arrives.

Excursus: Yes, Robert, We Do Believe in the Trinity

Here I am referring to my nephew-by-marriage, who came to the Church of Christ as an adult just a few years ago, having grown up in another religious group. He once asked me about the altered line of Reginald Heber's "Holy, Holy, Holy," which originally ran "God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity," but among Churches of Christ (at least in the U.S.) is usually sung as "God over all, and blest eternally." In that particular case, it seems to have been an accident that some of our hymnals picked up an altered text from a Unitarian hymnal; one of our major hymnal traditions, the Gospel Advocate Christian Hymns series, always used the original lyrics.

But there is another instance of this sort of thing in "Come, Thou Almighty King." The original opening lines of the final stanza were:

To Thee, great One in Three,
Eternal praises be, hence, evermore.

The change to the second line might just be to avoid using "eternal" and "eternity" in the same stanza; I don't see what objection anyone might have had to the original. But the first line is another matter!

First, it should be remembered that the Churches of Christ in this country have a musical tradition dominated by the gospel style, and that our knowledge of the classical hymns has largely been through a process of reintroduction, except for a few old war-horses such as "Amazing Grace." Under these circumstances, it would be easy for congregations to sing a Unitarian-friendly alteration without realizing it had ever been changed. That is probably what happened with "Holy, Holy, Holy;" we simply fell into the use of one or the other according to the choice of an editor at some point in the past.

This is not to say that there has never been controversy among us on the subject of the Trinity. In the 19th century, two of the most prominent leaders of the Restoration Movement, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, were sometimes at odds over this topic. Stone openly questioned the concept of the Trinity, and though neither man adopted a Unitarian view, both were critical of what they saw as dogmatism in the traditional Trinitarian explanations.(Blowers, 356) Campbell may have best summed up the point of view held by most in the Churches of Christ (even today) about the nature of the Godhead: "Language fails and thought cannot reach."(Blowers, 357) The traditional approach, then, has been to carefully examine what Scripture says, then try to say that and no more--even if it leaves some questions unresolved. (This is my reading of Roy Lanier Sr.'s classic book The Timeless Trinity.) If God of the Bible exists at all, the very nature of what He would have to be sets Him beyond human experience; why should we be surprised if there are things about Him we cannot comprehend?

I don't think most members of the Churches of Christ would object to the original line "God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity" in Heber's "Holy, Holy, Holy," or to "Great One in Three" in this hymn; but this principle of "calling Bible things by Bible names" may have made editors hesitant about using texts with this terminology. The expressions "Trinity," "Three in One," and "One in Three" are not found per se in Scripture, and have a long history of controversy in Christian thought. Though many of us use them ourselves as ways to describe what we understand of God, there may have been an underlying reluctance to employ these in our common language of worship. It may be the same sort of editorial caution that is seen in songs about the Holy Spirit, where there has been a tendency to avoid the subject rather than take a chance of raising objections.

In the case of "Come, Thou Almighty King," there is a very mixed message from the hymnal editors. The Christian Hymns series, edited by Lloyd O. Sanderson for the Gospel Advocate, never included this hymn at all. Great Songs of the Church, edited by Elmer Jorgenson, uses the altered version of this stanza, and hymnals from Howard Publishing (Songs of the Church, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, Songs of Faith and Praise) followed Jorgenson in this usage. Tillit Teddlie's Great Christian Hymnal, which sometimes varies from the others in text alterations, has the same non-Trinitarian-specific version. But at least two of Will Slater's publications--The Church Hymnal (1938) and Hymns of Praise and Devotion (1952)--have the original "One in Three" text. The latter of these also includes the "Come, Holy Comforter" stanza.

After looking at every instance available with full text through Hymnary.org, I can only offer a few observations to add to our understanding of this alteration. First, this is not the usual alteration of the text found in Unitarian Hymnals, which have usually read, "Never from us depart / Rule Thou in every heart" as far back as the Springfield Collection of 1835. As an alternative, some Unitarian hymnals (for example, Longfellow's Book of Hymns for Public and Private Devotion, 1848) drop the final stanza with its explicit Trinity reference. Hymnals by other non-Trinitarian groups (Christian Scientist, Adventist) make other alterations to remove this reference.

It is worth noting as well that a fair number of hymnals from a variety of religious groups drop the final stanza, using only the stanzas beginning "Come, Thou Almighty King," "Come, Thou Incarnate Word," and "Come, Holy Comforter." There are also frequent variations in the opening line of the final stanza--sometimes it is the original "To Thee, Great One in Three," but sometimes "To the Great One in Three." Some hymnals even reverse the expression, using "Thrice-blessed Three in One! / On earth Thy will be done." Perhaps there is a bit of awkwardness in the original wording that has spawned so many different fixes, completely without reference to the doctrinal content.

I have not found the specific alteration known among the Churches of Christ in any source outside of the churches of the Restoration Movement. The earliest instance I have found of this reading is in the Convention Hymnal edited by J. H. Garrison for the International Centennial Celebration and Conventions of the Disciples of Christ (1909). The same text variant is found in The King of Kings (Indianapolis; St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1915). The earliest instance of this hymn I have found in a hymnal produced among the Churches of Christ is in the 1930 edition of Elmer L. Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church. Jorgenson uses the same text variant found in the Disciples publications, and it is likely through his hymnal's influence that it became the common form of this text among Churches of Christ in the United States.

Does this usage imply anything about the Trinitarian vs. Unitarian issue? Jorgenson's 1953 article on the opening paragraphs of John's gospel makes it clear that he believed in distinct but equally divine Persons within one Godhead.(Word and Work) Why would he not have used the original Trinitarian version of this hymn's final stanza? With the breadth of his experience and training, one would expect that he had encountered it. The occurrence of this particular variant in a few earlier Disciples/Christian Churches publications suggests that Jorgenson followed an existing usage within the Restoration Movement.

But in searching through the likely 19th-century sources (publications from the Fillmore company, Standard Publishing, etc.) and the Enos J. Dowling Collection of earlier Restoration Movement hymnals, I am mostly struck by the complete absence of this hymn. It was in use in North America within a few years of its composition, appearing as early as 1761(?) in the Urania tune-book, and was found (with its original text) in hymnals of the Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and of course the Methodists. Why did the churches of the Restoration Movement not adopt this hymn? Was it just accidental, or a deliberate omission? The question awaits further evidence.

About the music:

This tune, usually known as ITALIAN HYMN, apparently was written specifically for this text by the once-popular Italian composer and conductor, Felice di Giardini. How a composer best known for operas and concertos came to write hymn tunes is an interesting story, and involves two important movers and shakers in early Methodist hymnody--Martin Madan and the Lady Bingley. For more about the history of this excellent tune, please see my previous post on Christ for the World We Sing.


"Come, Thou Almighty King." Hymnary.org http://www.hymnary.org/text/come_thou_almighty_king_help_us_thy

Nutter, Charles S., and Tillet, Wilbur F. The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church: An Annotated Edition of the Methodist Hymnal. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1911. http://openlibrary.org/books/OL22883100M/The_hymns_and_hymn_writers_of_the_church

"God save our lord the king." Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gstk.png

Garrison, J. H. Convention Hymnal for the International Centennial Celebration and Conventions of the Disciples of Christ. 1909 http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/jhgarrison/ccp/CCPH25.HTM

Jorgenson, Elmer L. "John's prologue." Word and Work 47/4 (April 1953), p. 77-79. http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/digital/ww/WW4704/W4704077.HTM

Blowers, Paul M. "God, Doctrine of." The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, 356-359.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christ, Thou Alone

Praise for the Lord #99

Words: Swedish folk hymn, translated by Elmer L. Jorgenson, 1921
Music: NEW SWEDEN, Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church, 1921

"Christ, Thou Alone" is a translation by Elmer Leon Jorgenson, editor of the influential Great Songs of the Church series, from an unknown Swedish folk hymn. He also translated the German hymn "Weißt du, wie viel Stern­lein ste­hen" into "Can you count the stars of evening?" and Julie von Haussman's "So nimm denn meine Hände" into "Take Thou my hand and lead me." Just how many languages did he speak? And what was his connection with these repertoires?

The Jorgenson family were immigrants from Denmark; according to Forrest McCann, his father was a member of the palace guard and his mother was a seamstress to the queen.(McCann, 219) The 1900 census for the Dublin/Roselma Precinct, Boone County, Nebraska, gives a snapshot of the Jorgenson family. (Dublin and Roselma were communities west of Albion, Nebraska, a little over two hours northwest of Lincoln, Nebraska.)

Elmer's father, Christ Jorgenson, was born in Denmark in October 1843, and was self-employed in farming. His wife, Nicoline, was born in Denmark in November 1844. The Jorgensons had been married 26 years, and were blessed with eight children, two of whom did not survive childhood. Their adult children, including Alfred (b. Feb. 1879) who was living at home, were born in Denmark; the family came to the United States in 1884. Elmer, age 14, was in school along with a younger sister, Alice, age 11. The younger two children were born in Nebraska. All of the family could read and write.(1900 U.S. Census)

Given his age and the date of the family's immigration, Christ Jorgenson would have been a member of the Royal Life Guards at the Amalienberg palace in Copenhagen during the reign of Christian IX; Nicoline would have been seamstress to the Queen Consort Louise. This was one of the most glamorous and cosmopolitan courts of the era; Christian and Louise had secured political marriages for their children that made them in-laws to most of the royalty of Europe.

It would be interesting to know why the Jorgensons, quite middle-aged by the standards of the day, would leave that life for the hardships of farming in Nebraska. But they were hardly the only Danes in the area! Danish immigration to the U.S. swelled during the period 1870-1895, with most coming to farm in the upper Midwest and Great Plains. In 1872 Den Danske Pioneer--the oldest Danish-language newspaper still in print in the U.S.--began publication in Omaha, Nebraska, and was a cultural lifeline to the far-flung Danish settlers.(Pioneer) A search of WorldCat.org for Danish-language materials including the keyword "Nebraska," shows that another Danish paper, Stjernen, was founded in St. Paul, Nebraska in 1885. The Danish Lutheran Publishing House began operating in Blair, Nebraska in the 1890s, publishing Danish-language religious materials.

There were also publications back in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden about opportunities available in Nebraska, including one published in Copenhagen in 1872 with a title that translates as Concerning the State of Nebraska in the United States, North America, By Far the Best of the Western States for Emigrant Norwegians.(WorldCat, OCLC #468155788) Another title, published in Göteborg, Sweden in 1882, gives a clue to this intense interest: Advice and Information for Those Who Desire to Travel to the Union Pacific Railway Co. (Pacific Track) Land Tracts in the State of Nebraska.(WorldCat, OCLC #185268140) The transcontinental railroad had opened up cheap land, and made farming more profitable by providing transportation to markets.

Denmark's geographic proximity to Germany, Norway, and Sweden, and long history of involvement with these countries, made it possible, even likely, for Danes in the capital city to be familiar with dialects of all three countries. But even in the middle of Nebraska, the Jorgensons were surrounded by the languages of their native home. The Nebraska Staats-Anzeiger began in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1880, and during the following two decades half-a-dozen other German-language papers were begun in the state. Swedish-language publishing started early as well, with the newspaper Vårt nya hem (Our New Home) founded in Kearney, Nebraska in 1877. There were education institutions affiliated with each of these immigrant groups as well. Dana College was founded in Blair, Nebraska in 1884 by the Danish Evangelical Lutherans, and Luther College was founded in Wahoo, Nebraska in 1883 by the Swedish Lutherans (Augustana Synod).(Brown) Concordia College was founded by the German Lutherans (Missouri Synod) in Seward, Nebraska in 1894.(Concordia)

So young Elmer Leon Jorgenson grew up in an environment awash with Scandinavian and German languages, cultures, and music. His parents and older siblings were native speakers of Danish, and there were strong Danish, Swedish, and German cultural institutions all around. Small wonder that he was so open to the great hymn tradition of the Lutheran chorales, and that he showed such interest in translating the folk hymns he probably heard in his childhood.

Stanza 1:
Christ, Thou alone art my Lord, and no other
Shall, on the throne of my heart, rival Thee;
Stronger Thy love than the love of a mother,
Deeper Thy peace than the depths of the sea.

The wideness and inclusiveness of the gospel is a wonderful truth--that "God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."(John 3:16) God "is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."(2 Peter 3:9) The gospel is broad enough to forgive all the sins of the world, if the world would seek that forgiveness. But in another sense, the gospel is extraordinarily narrow. The same Jesus who said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,"(Matthew 11:28) also said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."(John 14:6) That is an astonishing statement!

Imagine hearing someone say, on one of the many religious programs on television, "I know how a person can be saved and go to heaven, I am the only person who understands this correctly, and if you want to go to heaven, you must listen only to me." Our skepticism would be aroused immediately, and we would suspect the person of being either a charlatan or a dangerous fanatic. It would be preposterously arrogant for a person to claim to be the only conduit of truth on the subject. But Jesus said exactly that, because He alone can take the third option. As the Son of God, He claimed to be the exclusive way to the Father, and He absolutely meant it. The gospel is wide enough to save the world, but it is also so narrow that access to it comes down to one Man. This is the central theme of this hymn--there are certain things to be found in Christ alone.

The first stanza emphasizes the exclusive nature of Christ's lordship over our lives. The exclusivity of God is an outstanding theme of the Old Testament, when belief in a single God was out of the mainstream of human beliefs. Psalm 83:18 asserts that, "You alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth." Closely tied to this exclusive sovereignty was the understanding of God as the sole Creator and Sustainer of the physical universe: "You are the LORD, You alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and You preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you."(Nehemiah 9:6) And since God created all things, He is the Lord over all peoples, as Hezekiah expressed in his magnificent prayer: "O LORD, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; You have made heaven and earth."(2 Kings 19:15)

The same exclusive authority is inherent in His Son, "our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."(Jude 4) "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him."(1 John 4:9) He is the "only begotten" Son, monogenes, the only one of His kind. As the unique Son of the Father, He carried those attributes that are present only in God. When a man called Him "good," Jesus reminded him, "No one is good except God alone."(Mark 10:18) If we accept the perfect goodness of Jesus, we must also accept His perfect authority that comes from being Deity. He exercised the privilege of moral judgment and mercy that is unique to a sinless God, causing His enemies to say, "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"(Mark 2:7) They were more right than they knew!

The exclusive authority of Christ was made especially manifest in His Transfiguration. After witnessing a greater portion of His glory revealed, the disciples saw Him speaking with Moses and Elijah--the great represenatatives of the Law and the Prophets. But then the voice spoke from heaven telling the disciples to listen to the Son above and beyond these ancient worthies; Moses and Elijah disappeared and "Jesus was found alone."(Luke 9:36)

In the second half of this first stanza, the unknown author uses an uncommon metaphor in which Deity is compared to a mother; but there is good precedent for this metaphor in Scripture. Here is how God described to Isaiah the coming restoration of Jerusalem:
For thus says the LORD: "Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem."(Isaiah 66:12-13)
In one sense the mother is Jerusalem--God will "extend peace to her," and the returning exiles "shall be carried upon her hip." But in the next verse, God is comparing His comforting of the people to a mother comforting her child. The images used here--a mother nursing a child, carrying the child on her hip, bouncing the child on her knees--are powerful. There is a sacredness, almost, to these scenes; for a little while, there is a world of just two people, mother and child. Christ showed this same tender love for humanity when He sorrowfully said of Jerusalem, "How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!"(Matthew 23:37) He wants to have a personal, loving, and nurturing relationship with each one of us, if only we will let Him.

Stanza 2:
Christ, Thou alone dost from bondage deliver,
Bringing me freedom and blessed release;
Crushing the heart then restoring forever,
Pouring into it the balm of Thy peace.

The Psalms frequently celebrate salvation, usually from a physical peril, and it is here that we first encounter the idea that God is the exclusive source of deliverance. David (who had frequent need for such help!) said, "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation."(Psalm 62:1) Likewise Hezekiah, when he acknowledged God as Lord over all nations (2 Kings 19:15), was seeking deliverance from an invading army. But the bondage of sin is a far greater enemy--it has made the whole of humanity, at least all morally accountable persons, "slaves of sin"(Romans 6:17)--and it requires a far greater deliverer.

There are people among us whose job, day by day, is to run toward danger instead of away from it--firefighters, police officers, and the like--and we are right to recognize the heroism of those who put their lives at risk for others. But even when plunging into a desperate circumstance, these individuals cling to the natural human hope that somehow they will escape unharmed. Jesus had no such luxury; He knew from the beginning that, if the job were done at all, it would require Him to die a grueling and humiliating death. He went forward anyway, and "when He ascended on high He led a host of captives."(Ephesians 4:8)

That means of escape being provided, one would not expect the captives to ignore it or to demand another. I remember an incident off the Atlantic coast several years ago, when three men on a yacht were caught up in the edge of a hurricane and were close to being swamped. The U.S. Coast Guard sent a ship as close as they dared, then dispatched a helicopter with rescuers who lowered themselves down to the sinking ship. The pilot skillfully kept the helicopter in line with the pitching deck, for fear of the rescue jumpers being slammed into it, or of the cable getting entangled and putting the helicopter itself at risk. Finally they reached the deck and were able to strap the first of the yachtsmen into a harness to be pulled up to safety. Now, at that moment, can you imagine that man saying, "No thanks, that doesn't look very safe, or very comfortable, and I am afraid of heights. I'll wait here while you send a boat?"

But that is what too many have done. John 3:16, that beautiful verse, has a tragic corollary in the words that follow it:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
God sent the very best, His only Son, the unique expression of the Father. If we do not accept His offer of salvation, we will not be saved, "for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."(Acts 4:12)

We do not often think of Jesus "crushing the heart," but that is exactly what He said would happen to those who did not receive Him:
"What then is this that is written: 'The Stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone'? Everyone who falls on that Stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him."(Luke 20:17-18)
Jesus confronts us with ourselves, challenging us to see what we do not wish to see. He holds us to His own standard, and takes away our convenient comparisons with the other sinners around us. But realization of sinfulness is the first step toward forgiveness. David understood this well, as expressed in one of the great Penitential Psalms:
O LORD, rebuke me not in Your anger,
Nor discipline me in Your wrath!
For Your arrows have sunk into me,
and Your hand has come down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation;there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. . . .
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.

(Psalm 38:1-4,8)
But in another Penitential Psalm, David shows the outcome of this crushed heart full of godly sorrow:
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
And in His word I hope;
My soul waits for the Lord
More than watchmen for the morning,
More than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
And with Him is plentiful redemption.
And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

(Psalm 130:5-8)
The heart that is hardened will never receive the truth that will bring salvation; God knows that He must first break us so that He can remake us.

Stanza 3:
Christ, Thou alone shalt be master and owner:
Thou art the Bridegroom and we are the bride;
Faithful to Thee, to obey and to honor,
Robed as a queen we shall reign at Thy side.

The third stanza begins with an image that has a hard, ugly history in human affairs. The enslavement of one person by another, or one people by another people, has gone on for as long as history records; and if it was less brutal and permanent in the 1st century world than it later was in the New World, it was still the case that a large number of people in Roman and Greek society were completely subject to the will of another. The gospel led a silent revolution against this institution, one heart at a time, with the central theme of equality in Christ--"Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all."(Colossians 3:11)

The image of masters and slaves was also subverted by its use to describe spiritual rather than physical bondage:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.(Romans 6:16-19)
And Paul repeatedly referred to himself as a "slave of Christ" (doulos Christon), as in Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:10, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1; though many translations soften it to "servant," it carries at least the meaning of "bondservant," that is, a servant bound to service. Paul, a well-educated Roman citizen, equated himself with the very lowest class of his society. He humbled himself, and lifted up his brothers and sisters among the slave class, recognizing that we are all very weak and small before the Almighty God.

As part of the same image, Deity is represented as "Lord" and "Master" (despotes), the same term used for human slave-owners. This is also the root, obviously, of our word "despot." But this is the term used in Jude v.4, monos despotēs theos, "the only Lord God." It is used even more graphically in 2 Peter 2:1, describing Jesus as "the Master who bought [us]."

What do we learn from these stark words? First, we see the utterly desperate and helpless situation brought about by sin. Once in the shackles of sin, we are completely subject to its power, without even the Roman slave's possible recourse to earning our freedom. Next, we see that our release from sin is bought at a price that we could never pay ourselves; we are at the mercy of another Master's goodwill. And finally, we are reminded that we are still bound, and must subject ourselves to the new Master as completely as we did to the old one. At no point did we become our own, to go and do as we please; "For you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body."(1 Corinthians 6:20)

Of course, this is just one of the ways that Scripture describes our relationship to Jesus; and the severity of the master-slave image, though Scriptural, is offset by the gentler words of John 15:15, "No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you."(John 15:15) This is the character of our Master, the only Master in all history who gave His life to save His slaves; and we can gladly submit our lives to Him!

We have seen Jesus elevate His followers from slaves to friends, but the the metaphor taken up in the second half of this stanza raises the faithful even higher. Now, a man may feel a little awkward to sing of himself as the "bride of Christ," but that is what we all must be!
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the Head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.(Ephesians 5:23-27,32
The mystery is revealed a bit further in the later chapters of the Revelation:
Let us rejoice and exult and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure--for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her Husband.

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, "Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.(Revelation 19:7-8, 21:2,9-10)
The elaborate figurative language of the Revelation shifts the metaphor somewhat, but the point is clear: the church, the redeemed body of the faithful, is the bride of Christ. As the man and woman are made "one flesh" in marriage,(Ephesians 5:31, Genesis 2:24) so the church and Christ are in one body. Christ is the Head of His body, the church; and the church is to submit to Him.

Look again at the teaching of Ephesians 5 about marriage, and consider how it applies to the church as the bride of Christ: we are to be subject to Christ, we are to be "holy and without blemish,"(v.27) and we are to respect the authority of our divine Husband.(v.33) In turn, Christ is our Savior who loves us so much He sacrificed Himself for us.(v.25) He nourishes and cherishes us, because He loves us with a divine love.(v.28-29)

I suppose every man, since the world began, has wished the same for his wedding day; he longs to see a bride beaming with love for him, pure and chaste, without any thought of another. Let us commit ourselves to do all we can to see that Christ's church is just such a bride!

Stanza 4:
Christ, Thou alone into harbor shall guide me,
After the journey forever is o'er;
Safe in Thy glory, no shadow to hide Thee,
Sorrow and sighing shall end evermore.

David the Psalmist had a life with many dangers and hardships, and often betrayals; perhaps this is why his poetry is so expressive of his trust in God. No other had been so faithful to him: "In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety."(Psalm 4:8) In Psalm 62, he spoke on this at greater length:
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
From Him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress;
I shall not be greatly shaken.

How long will all of you attack a man to batter him,
Like a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
They only plan to thrust him down from his high position.
They take pleasure in falsehood.
They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
For my hope is from Him.
He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress;
I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
My mighty Rock, my refuge is God.

(Psalm 62:1-7)
The first disciples of Jesus did not come by this trust as easily. (And to be fair, David sometimes expressed doubt and frustration as well.) In Matthew 8:23-27, the physical presence of Christ was not enough to make them trust that they would get through the storm on the Sea of Galilee. In a later incident (Matthew 14:22-33) involving the disciples, a boat, the sea, and a storm, they were still amazed at Christ's command over the elements. But there were flashes of faith; Peter, on the latter occasion, took a few hesitant steps on the water before his faith and focus failed.

And perhaps the best step of faith Peter took, next to his confession of Christ as the Son of God,(Matthew 16:16) was his frank statement after Christ's "hard teachings" in John 6. After much of the crowd had left and "followed Him no more," Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you want to go away as well?" But Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."(John 6:66-68)

As this final stanza of the hymn teaches, it is Christ alone who can direct us safely through life. Just as He took control of the boat on Galilee and stilled the storm, He can take control of our lives and bring us safely through our storms. Christ alone has the "words of eternal life" that will guide us home. He has been that way before, through both life and death, and can see His people through as well. This is why Paul could say, even under threat of execution, "The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom."(2 Timothy 4:18) Paul's physical fate was uncertain, but his soul was secure. And when, by God's grace, we are there with Paul and all of the saved, "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)

About the music:

Elmer Jorgenson, though profoundly influential on the Churches of Christ as an editor, was not a prolific songwriter himself. Where Lloyd O. Sanderson, editor of the Gospel Advocate hymnals, contributed a large number of songs that are still widely sung, Jorgenson's are few and far between. Jorgenson's translations and arrangements, however, are tastefully done and show the editor's keen eye for good church music. In addition to "Christ, Thou Alone" and "Can You Count the Stars?," already mentioned, he also arranged the lovely "Thou art Merciful, O Father," an adaptation of the Andante theme from Mozart's A major piano sonata (K.331). Like "Christ, Thou Alone," this first appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church.

Showing a modesty uncharacteristic of many other hymnal editors, Jorgenson actually cut some of his own songs from the 1921 to the 1930 edition, including "Christ, Thou Alone" and "Thou Art Merciful, O Father." They might have gone missing for good, had they not been reinserted in the 1975 supplement to Great Songs of the Church, No. 2, when the hymnal was taken up by the Abilene Christian University Press.

I have been unable to trace a source for the melody of "Christ, Thou Alone," but in the course of looking I came across an online version of the 1819 Swedish Psalm-Boken that gives some idea of the singing of these early settlers. This particular edition was published in 1892 in Chicago. The first section, the Psalm-Bok proper, is all sturdy old psalm-tunes and chorales. (An interesting feature of the book is that the pages are cut in half horizontally, with music on the top half and text on the lower half, so the singer could conviently match together any tune and text of a compatible meter.) But on page 415, a new section begins--the Kör-Sånger, or Choir Singer. On the lower halves of the pages following, there are several sprightly works appropriate for amateur choirs. The music of "Christ, Thou Alone" seems right at home among these.


McCann, Forrest. "A History of Great Songs of the Church." Restoration Quarterly 38/4 (1996), 219-228. http://www.acu.edu/sponsored/restoration_quarterly/documents/RQ_38.4_(McCann).pdf

Den Danske Pioneer/The Danish Pioneer. http://www.dendanskepioneer.com/english/index.html

Brown, Ray C. "List of Colleges and Universities that have Closed, Merged, or Changed their Names." http://www2.westminster-mo.edu/wc_users/homepages/staff/brownr/ClosedCollegeIndex.htm

Concordia University web site. http://www.cune.edu/

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christ is Alive!

Praise for the Lord #98

Words: Brian Wren, 1975
Music: TRURO, Williams's Psalmodia Evangelica, 1789

Reports of the death of the classical hymn style are greatly exaggerated. Yes, this kind of congregational song (several stanzas developing a theme in a complex, objective fashion, and in a high literary style) fell on hard times in the early 20th century. The shock of the modern era, and in particular, the First World War, was a death knell to the Victorian era, and to the hymns of that style. In addition, the growth of a competing church music tradition, the gospel song, undercut the influence of the established denominational hymnals. But that tide began to turn again around mid-century, leading to an era of hymn-writing that has been called the "Hymn Explosion." Central to this movement was the founding of the Hymn Society of America (today the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada) in 1922, and of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1936. Stripped of Victorian verbiage and clothed again in frank simplicity of language, this was really almost a revival of the 18th-century style.

So far the Churches of Christ in the United States have not mined this vein of new hymnody very far. There are probably several reasons for this, including the primacy of the gospel style in our repertoire and a lack of contact with the worship traditions that have been most involved with the modern hymn revival. (Our repertoire tends to intersect with those closer to us culturally, such as the Southern Baptists or Pentecostals.) But just as E. L. Jorgenson re-introduced us to the classical hymns of an earlier age with Great Songs of the Church, hopefully we will find ways to embrace the good and useful within this modern movement as well.

Brian A. Wren (b. 1936) grew up in wartime London, and was baptized into the Congregational church as a young man. He is ordained in the United Reformed Church, and began writing hymns during his first ministry appointment at the Hockley and Hawkwell Congregational Church near Essex. During the 1980s he began traveling extensively giving church music workshops, and has continued to do so after accepting the John and Miriam Conant Chair of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in 2000.(Wren, "Biographical")

Dr. Wren is one of the finest writers of the modern hymn school, creating challenging and interesting hymns in refreshingly simple language. His texts have real content, and since I do not always agree with his theology, I cannot always agree with his hymns; but even then I find them to be thoughtful expressions of his point of view.

Stanza 1:
"Christ is alive!" Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring;
Love, drowned in death, shall never die.

In this hymn, Wren examines what the Resurrection of Christ means to us today--not in terms of our future hope, but right here and now. How should our lives be different in view of this fact? He begins with the bald assertion, "Christ is alive!" The same simple but profound statement lies behind the very name of God, "I AM." Jesus is not just someone who lived long ago. He is not someone who, like Lazarus, was raised from the dead once upon a time, but is no longer living. He is "the First and the Last, and the Living One," who told the apostle John, "I died, and behold, I am alive forevermore."(Revelation 1:17-18)

How long, I wonder, did that cross stand "empty to the sky" before it was taken down? And what did the disciples think, if they passed by and saw that empty cross, after having seen the resurrected Lord? No one could have predicted that an instrument of torture and humiliation would become the symbol of a faith, but it did. "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."(1 Corinthians 1:18) The power of God worked through the tragedy of Christ's rejection and humiliation, transforming it into atoning sacrifice and ultimate victory; "for He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God."(2 Corinthians 13:4)

"Love, drowned in death, shall never die." This is a complex thought packed in a few words. Jesus, "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature,"(Hebrews 1:3) came as the perfect expression and representative of His Father. "God is love,"(1 John 4:8) and though there is much more in this concept than we may ever understand, it is the primary expression of His nature, and therefore was embodied in His Son. "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him."(1 John 4:9) Love was "drowned in death" when that perfect expression of God's love was put to death. But God turned the tables on the Devil; what appeared to be Satan's victory, when the sinful world killed God's Son, instead became the ransom through which humanity could be brought out from under Satan's dominion.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God.(Romans 6:9-10)
Dr. Wren encourages us to "let streets and homes with praises ring" as we celebrate this good news. The joyous fact of Christ's resurrection is not something to remember once a year, or even once a week; it is something that should affect us every moment of every day. "In Him we live and move and have our being;"(Acts 17:28) therefore "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."(1 Corinthians 15:17) But if He is risen, we know His promise is true: "Because I live, you also will live."(John 14:19) Paul said, "far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."(Galatians 6:14) How can we keep this good news to ourselves?

Stanza 2:
Christ is alive! No longer bound
To distant years in Palestine,
But saving, healing, here and now
And touching every place and time.

When we think of the suffering of Christ, we naturally think first of His crucifixion and the events immediately leading up to that crisis; but it is also worthwhile to step back and look at what He gave up from the moment He was conceived in the womb of Mary.
Though He was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [that is, "clung to"], but made Himself nothing ["emptied Himself," ASV], taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.(Philippians 2:6-7)
For thirty-odd years He lived in the same awkward, limited form that we all know from our own selves; and then, "being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."(Philippians 2:8) After that period of time, He returned to the eternal glory He has always known:
Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.(Philippians 2:9-11)
But was He the same? Yes, He lives forever; but in the Revelation (5:6, 5:12, 13:8) He is called "the Lamb who was slain." We may not be capable of really understanding what this means, but we are bound to accept it and rejoice in it!
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer Himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then He would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.(Hebrews 9:24-26)
From the human perspective, limited as we are by our moment-by-moment experience of time, the crucifixion was an event that came and went on a particular day in the fourth decade of what we now call the 1st century. But to God, it was "foreknown before the foundation of the world."(1 Peter 1:18-20) To the Creator, who stands outside His creation, every moment of time is forever within His view. (I am indebted here to C. S. Lewis's essay "Beyond Personality" in Mere Christianity.) And if this understanding is correct, one of those moments is that Friday afternoon outside Jerusalem. Although Jesus did make that sacrifice at a particular point in time as we experience it, to God it "touches every place and time." That day never dims in God's memory.

"Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them."(Hebrews 7:25) If the tragedy of Calvary is always before God's eyes, so also is the victory of the Resurrection. "According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."(1 Peter 1:3) And through the "power of His resurrection"(Philippians 3:10) we are "renewed day by day."(2 Corinthians 4:16) Jesus described this continuing flow of life and power in one of His hard sayings: "As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on Me, he also will live because of Me."(John 6:57) Hard indeed, because it speaks to the life of the spirit and not of the body; but that incredible power still flows from our resurrected Lord even today.

Stanza 3:
Not throned afar, remotely high,
Untouched, unmoved by human pains,
But daily, in the midst of life,
Our Savior in the Godhead reigns.

The Creator and Lord of our universe went to considerable lengths to become one of us. He was literally "born in a barn," to blue-collar parents who had to give the poor man's sacrifice of doves instead of a lamb at His dedication in the temple. He grew up in his father's trade of carpentry; and when His ministry began, His first disciples were men of a similar class, the hard-working fishermen of Galilee. He illustrated His teaching using common things--sowing and reaping, hard masters and wily servants, working in vineyards, and the birds, flowers, and trees.

But when He rose from the dead, His followers were shocked into a different realization of who He really was. (Though Peter, James, and John had seen a kind of preview of this at the Transfiguration.) The Son of Man was seen more fully as the Son of God, and in Luke 24:37 we read that some of His disciples at first found it easier to believe they were seeing a ghost. With his physician's critical eye for the evidence, Luke notes that Jesus showed them the wounds in His hands and feet,(v.40) and ate food in their presence.(v.43) The final chapter of the gospel according to John gives similar reinforcement to the humanity of the risen Lord; what could be more mundane than a Man squatting by a fire, broiling fish for breakfast?

The humanity and deity of Christ, His transcendence and yet nearness, are just not easy things to grasp. Some of the earliest divisions in Christianity came about because of disagreements in how to express these ideas. I want to tread carefully where so many greater minds have spoken, but in this (as with many other things) I cling to the principle of Deuteronomy 29:29, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." Let's study carefully what is revealed, and rejoice in the wonderful things we do know, while admitting that there are things we do not understand.

One thing I understand is that Christ, though "enthroned afar," is not "untouched, unmoved by human pains." He is certainly enthroned as the victorious King, because,
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.(Hebrews 1:3)
But He is not some distant spectator, an absentee landlord. "Christ Jesus is the One who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us."(Romans 8:34) Christians have the promise of 1 John 2:1, "But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."

We understand from our human legal systems the importance of having a sharp-witted, experienced advocate to present our case; but the word "Advocate" here implies much more. It is the Greek parakletos, the same word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit in John 14, and carries the idea of standing alongside another to help them.(Strong's G3875) Jesus is at the right hand of God, but He is also by the side of His disciples, so He is exactly where we need Him! A beautiful illustration of this idea is given in Act 7:56, when Stephen, right before he becomes the first Christian martyr, says, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." It is interesting that this is the only reference to Jesus standing, rather than sitting, in His heavenly enthronement. "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints."(Psalm 116:15)

Another vision of the resurrected Jesus that shows us His presence "in the midst of life" is His appearance to John in the first chapter of the Revelation. Jesus stood among seven lampstands,(v.13) and held seven stars in His hand.(v.16) He explained to John that both of these symbols represented the seven churches of Asia, for whom He had specific messages. He was not viewing the churches from some remote distance, but rather was walking "in the midst," just as He promised: "For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them."(Matthew 18:20) The stars He held showed that the churches are like precious jewels to Him, kept carefully in the palm of His hand. And in the letters to the churches, in the next two chapters, we have proof again: at some point in the course of each letter, Jesus says the words, "I know." He said, "I know your works."(2:2; 2:19; 3:1; 3:8; 3:15) He knows what we have done, the good and the bad. He said, "I know your tribulation,"(2:9) and, "I know where you dwell."(2:13) He knows what we are going through, and what we are up against.

Stanza 4:
In every insult, rift and war,
Where color, scorn or wealth divide,
Christ suffers still, yet loves the more,
And lives, where even hope has died.

In his collection Faith Looking Forward, Dr. Wren reveals that the first version of this hymn was written for Easter of 1968--just ten days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In view of the despair and violence that followed, Wren tried to say something "with truth and integrity in words that would be more widely applied."(Wren, FLF, note 20; cited from The Hymnal 1982 Companion, 1:370)

Sadly, the words he wrote in 1968 can still be "widely applied." Things have gotten better in the United States since those dark days; good laws have been passed, and existing laws enforced, to ensure that all enjoy the freedoms with which they are "endowed by their Creator," according to one of our noblest ideals. We should celebrate the progress that has been made. But as Jesus said, "From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts."(Mark 7:21) As long as hearts are full of sin, we will have these "insults, rifts, and wars." It is not really color or wealth themselves that divide us, but the sins of selfishness, pride and covetousness. Every nation and people in the history of this world has a stain on its past, or its present. It can be said of us all, "They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one."(Psalm 14:3)

Like everything else about this fallen world, Jesus came to change that. He pulled together an anti-government extremist, Simon the Zealot, and a tax collector, Matthew, and made them brothers. He talked with everyone--the high and mighty, but also the outcast lepers, the blind beggars, and a woman caught in adultery. He made a point to cross into Samaria, and broke multiple taboos by speaking to a woman by Jacob's well.(John 4) His parable of the good Samaritan made a man whose race was considered inferior to be the hero of the story.

The first conflict in the infancy of the church was along cultural lines, as the Hellenistic Jews felt they were being discriminated against, but this was resolved through establishing a diversified leadership.(Acts 6) The second congregation established after Jerusalem was in the city of Samaria,(Acts 8) and an officer of the much-resented Roman army was the first Gentile to come to Christ.

Were there difficulties over these things in the early church? Certainly! Acts 15 tells us of an early problem with some Jewish Christians trying to bind their traditions on the Gentiles. In Romans 14 we learn that the Gentile Christians sometimes tried to enforce their issues of conscience as a rule for all. The second chapter of the letter by James shows us that there was discrimination relative to wealth and position. The early church, made up of people coming out of a sinful world, had every problem of class and race division that the sinful world has today. But as David Lipscomb pointed out in an 1878 Gospel Advocate article,
That race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love, and brotherhood in Christ Jesus.(Campbell, 29)
It is worth noting that Lipscomb was a Southerner, writing from Nashville, Tennessee during the troubled and violent Reconstruction period following the Civil War. Lipscomb was not saying this to win any political points or to garner more subscriptions; it probably had much the reverse effect. But the truth of what he said still rings out; the early church accomplished something incredible, overcoming the barriers that people put up between themselves and others. We can do so again, if we do what they did and follow the Lord they followed. The world is crying out for healing of these divisions; will Christ's followers not take the lead?

Stanza 5:
Christ is alive, and comes to bring
Good news to this and every age,
Till earth and sky and ocean ring
With joy, with justice, love, and praise.

Early in His ministry on earth, Jesus went to the synagogue in His home town, Nazareth. No one was surprised to see Him there, for attending worship services "was His custom."(Luke 4:16) I suspect few were surprised at Him reading the Scriptures; perhaps He had done so often before. The reading was from Isaiah 61:1-2,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
They knew that He had begun teaching in the synagogues,(Luke 4:14) so they were not surprised when He sat back down in the position of a teacher beginning a lecture. Instead, they "fixed their eyes upon Him" in expectation.(Luke 4:20) But I would love to have seen their faces when He made that first statement! "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."(Luke 4:21)

For those with ears to hear, Jesus was proclaiming His life and work to be the good news, the gospel, that would comfort the poor and sick, and would liberate the captive and oppressed. This good news "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes."(Romans 1:16) And central to the theme of this good news--the gospel, the evangelion--the keystone holding it all together, is the resurrected Christ. Paul reminded Timothy to, "remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel."(2 Timothy 2:8)

It is an "everlasting gospel,"(Revelation 14:6) never out of date; it is perfect in every respect, with no need for substitution, replacement, or modification. Paul even said, "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."(Gal 1:8) It is relevant and applicable to "this and every age," and if the times do not agree with this good news, it is the fault of the times and not of the message.

It is a gospel for everyone; by His own command, Jesus and His redeeming work is the good news to be preached "to the whole creation."(Mark 16:15) It is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed," all the way back in Genesis 12:3. "Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all."(Colossians 3:11)

And the result? Where Christ is, there is joy. "Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory."(1 Peter 1:8) Where Christ is, there is justice. "Justice and mercy and faithfulness" are the "weightier matters," in Christ's own words.(Matthew 23:23) His followers will be like Him, and "execute justice and righteousness in the land."(Jeremiah 33:15) Where Christ is, there is love. Paul admonishes us in Ephesians 5:1-2, "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 finally, where Christ is, how can we but praise Him for all these things His good news has brought us?

Excursus: Gender-Inclusive Language in Hymns

Gender-inclusive language has been with us a few decades now in the public sphere, and I believe we have gotten past the initial awkwardness of the "he/she" era, into a manner of writing and speaking that simply avoids gendering language unnecessarily. I am not casting stones at those who do not follow this trend; the intent and spirit of what is said is more important than the changing forms of expression. But for myself, I do try to be respectful and inclusive of both genders when I write, just as I try to be respectful of my readers in other countries by acknowledging that my experience is mostly limited to the Churches of Christ in the United States.

When it comes to the language of hymns, we all recognize that the expressions "mankind" and "all men" that occur in some texts were not meant to exclude women, but simply reflect the linguistic usage of the era in which they were written. We accomodate the antiquated language of the King James Version in many hymns as well, with the same understanding (though obviously this is not the same kind of controversy). But if a subtle alteration to a text can make it more inclusive, I am glad to use it. I find it jarring, for example, to sing "Rise up, O men of God" in a mixed assembly. (Though there is an argument to be made, that it is usually not the women who need to be spurred to greater activity!) If I had the altered version of this text that simply changes the line to "Rise up, O church of God," I would use it instead, reserving the original for occasions when the men specifically are to be addressed.

But when we are speaking of God, this is a different subject entirely and deserves careful examination. Brian Wren has written clearly and thoughtfully, over many years, on the power of metaphor in shaping our thinking about God and about the Christian life. It is a necessary part of our understanding of unfamiliar things, to compare them to more familiar things.

But though I appreciate the attention he has brought to the subject, it is in the application of these ideas that the liberal and conservative must part ways, because I simply hold to a more literal and verbal concept of the inspiration of Scripture. Since God reveals Himself in Scripture as masculine, as a Father, and as a King, I will not apologize for using the same terms, though I am always glad to refine my understanding of what these descriptive terms really teach us about God. Dr. Wren revised (rewrote, really) the final stanza of this hymn for just such issues. The original text was:

Christ is alive! Ascendant Lord,
He rules the world His Father made,
Till in the end, His love adored
Shall be to every man displayed.

(Hymnal 1982 Companion, 1:370)

The revision of this stanza was doubtless driven primarily by the author's later dissatisfaction with his choice of metaphor--specifically, the depiction of Christ as the "Lord" who "rules" by the authority of His "Father." From Wren's 1989 book What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology, I understand that it is not so much the masculine portrayal of deity that he takes issue with, but rather the metaphor of masculine power and control. This is a different subject, perhaps, because there is masculine power as taught in Scripture and modeled by Christ, and there is masculine power as we see it in sinful men. But here again, my view of Scripture forces me to accept the way God has chosen to reveal Himself.

I think Wren is saying more than that, however, and despite my differences with his premises there is still much to take away from his arguments. God has chosen to reveal Himself in certain ways, using certain metaphors; but He is not limited by our language or understanding. Jesus is a King, and God is a Father, but They are far above and beyond even the best kings and fathers this world has known.
What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!(Luke 11:11-13)

We have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.(Hebrews 12:9-10)
God obviously has power, control, and authority, but exercises it in a manner beyond any comparison to the power, control, and authority that is so often abused in this world. Earthly fathers can be abusive bullies, and too many are; but God is better even than the gentlest, most nurturing father who ever lived on this earth. Kings and other kinds of human leaders can also be abusive bullies, and too many are; but God is wiser and more just than the very best earthly leader who ever lived.

It is very much worth noting, as Wren does, that God has also revealed Himself in images of feminine tenderness. This is perhaps most notable in Matthew 23:37, when Jesus expressed His desire to gather in the people of Jerusalem "as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings," a metaphor also frequently found in the Psalms. But I will continue to speak of God as "He" (and to be fair, Wren was not among those insisting on "She"), and I will continue to submit to Him as my Sovereign. Let us never limit our understanding of God, however, to a worldly and fallen conception of masculinity.

About the music:

TRURO first appeared in the second volume of Psalmodia Evangelica (1789), edited by Thomas Williams. It is named after the city in Cornwall.(Hymnary.org) The tune is sometimes attributed to Williams, but appears in his work without a composer named. The more recent attribution to the English music historian, Charles Burney, is without foundation. Originally harmonized in three voices, the common four-part arrangement was written by Lowell Mason.(McKim, 21)

The style of the the melody is very similar to that of "Joy to the world," and the tune has the same feel of a Handel march.(Hymnary.org) The rhythm of the opening phrase, in fact, is identical to that of "Joy to the world," and the notes are an exact inversion (move in the opposite direction), descending the scale instead of ascending.

This tune is not very familiar to the Churches of Christ, at least in the U.S.; but since this is a Long Meter text, it could be sung to any good Long Meter tune. DUKE STREET ("Awake, my tongue, thy tribute bring") is very similar, and OLD 100TH would do as well. For something of a quieter character, MARYTON ("O Master, let me walk with Thee"), HESPERUS ("Father and Friend"), or ELEOS ("Father of mercies") would work.


Wren, Brian A. "Biographical Information." Columbia Theological Seminary. http://www.ctsnet.edu/Files/Directories/Emeriti/Resumes/Wren_Brian.pdf

Wren, Brian A. What Language Shall I Borrow? God-Talk in Worship: A Male Respone to Feminist Theology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009.

Wren, Brian A., and Peter Cutts. Faith Looking Forward. Carol Stream, Illinois: Hope Publishing, 1983.

Glover, Raymond F. The Hymnal 1982 Companion, 3 volumes. New York: Church Pension Fund, 1994.

Strong's G3875. Blueletterbible.org. http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3875&t=ESV

Campbell, Will D. Race and the Renewal of the Church. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962. http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/rmeyes/willcamp.html (Excerpt.)

McKim, Linda Jo. Presbyterian Hymnal Companion. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.

"TRURO." Hymnary.org, also credits Psalter Hymnal Handbook. http://www.hymnary.org/tune/truro_williams?tab=about