When John Raised the Bar

I’m amazed by John Wesley.

But not for the normal things.  Not for his character, commitment to Christ, preaching ability, or anything like that.  I’m amazed that he wrote down what he expected his congregation to sound like.

Back in the day (late 18th century England), you only probably had a few books in your house.  Unless you were rich.  Most of those books stayed in your house.  Because of the cost of printing, books were priceless and even regarded as heirlooms.

Only 2 books ever left your house: your family Bible and a family hymnal (if you were lucky enough to own one).  They only left on Sunday.  They were precious to you.  In the front of your Bible was a family list or a rough genealogy.  If you belonged to one of Wesley’s churches, you’d find another list inside front cover of your hymnal – a list of directives.

These weren’t optional.

These weren’t a suggestion.

This is how John Wesley saw worship.

THE POINT:

Imagine what it would be like to worship in Wesley’s church.  Give this some thought.  I mean, how gutsy is this?  Because you and I live in an era of passing worship fads, we might be tempted to believe that Wesley is slightly out of date.  But I’m not so sure.

A few questions:

  1. Do any of the above points rub you wrong?  Care to share why?
  2. Do any illicit an inaudible “amen” from you?  Why?
  3. Would you add anything?

Mr. Wesley, I’m sending a high-five your way.  Thanks for raising the bar, brother.

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A Dusty Book. An Awesome Text.

Dusty books rock.

A few weeks ago, I found myself with an extra hour in my brother’s shared office. Because he’s a literature grad student, his office is full of awesome books.

My eyes fell on a book called “The History and Use of Hymns.” Published in 1903. Perfect! The next thing I knew, I was neck deep in nerd-land.

Happy to be so.

Among the treasures I found was the following hymn by William Cowper, whom I’ve blogged about before. I’m not sure of the story behind this little beauty, but I thought I’d pass it on nonetheless.

A Debtor to Mercy Alone

Love, love, love the lyric.

If you’re a song-writer, let’s find a melody for this. (I’ve got mine, but I’m curious to see what else is out there…)

Your Kid is a Theologian.

I have three kids.

Joseph is 6. Carston is 4. Hannah is 2.

They blow me away. Every day.

Not just in the what they say (as in “those-kids-say-the-darndest-things” sentiment), but in how they perceive themselves and their world. Children have an honesty that – for some reason – continually thrills and bewilders adults.

Although he never married and was never a father, Isaac Watts understood the power of theological education for children. His own theological imagination was stirred early on. His father, a deacon in a dissenting church, encouraged his son to process his world through the lens of biblical theology.

And the result was incredible.

At age 7, Watts used his name as a acrostic for the story of grace:

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

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

Partly owing to the diligence of his own father, and partly as a result of his experiences in the church, Watts created an entire hymnal specifically for children in 1715: Divine Songs for Children.

Most notably, this was the first faith-based song book made exclusively for children.

Watts included some heavy theology in his collection – drawing on the book of Psalms for most of his texts. In the preface (addressed to children’s workers), Watts writes:

“MY FRIENDS – It is an awful and important charge that is committed to you. The wisdom and welfare of the succeeding generation are intrusted with you before hand, and depend much on your conduct.

The seeds of misery or happiness in this world, and that to come, are oftentimes sown very early; and, therefore, whatever may conduce to give the minds of children a relish for virtue and religion ought in the first place, to be proposed to you.”

Heavy stuff. I love it.

FOR PASTORS:  Sometimes I’m that Dad in the front row of the school play with the camcorder.  But cute stuff in church doesn’t stick. Trotting the kids out to sing a special number with Aunt Bea is all well and good, but kids are capable of far more than we give them space (and time) for.  Here are a few thoughts:

1.  A love for children is a good first step. But please, please, please hire people who are capable of teaching. Being a part of a church that supports what I’m teaching my kids is one of the biggest blessings parents can have.

2.  Create space for kids to lead. I’m serious. In appropriate ways, give kids a platform. How cool would it have been if young Watts’ pastor would have encouraged the rest of his congregation to make an acrostic for their names?

3.  Integrate your ministry. Don’t make your sanctuary, auditorium, worship center (whatever you call it) the dominate expression of your church. Instead, pump resources, space, and people into your children’s ministry.

4.  Don’t be afraid of parents. Sure, Watts was a brilliant kid. But let’s not forget: he had a devoted father. Give the parents in your congregation a vision for theologically deep children.

The Creative Church

John Newton

John Newton was a pastor’s pastor.

He preached. He mentored. He wrote.

For sixteen years (1764-1780), Newton served as the curate of Olney parish. Olney (pronounced “all-knee.” ) was a rural area of only 2000 people. The congregation was poor and largely uneducated, most making their living as laborers in the lace industry.

William Cowper – a young man plagued with frequent bouts of depression – moved to Olney in 1767. Once a candidate for a finance career in London (a position arranged through the influence of a domineering and loveless father) Cowper’s life was marked with loneliness and pain. Despite his reclusive and emotionally devastating story, Cowper’s years in Olney were the happiest and most stable of his otherwise tragic life.

Newton (who, like Cowper lost his mother when he was 6 years old) seemed to love Cowper out of a bottomless empathy and compassion. They would walk together, write frequently, and share their thoughts about their church. Throughout their friendship, Newton was a trusted confidant, loving friend, and an incredible pastor.

Cowper wrote of Newton: “A sincerer or more affectionate friend, no man ever had.”

Picking up on Cowper’s poetic gift, Newton asked his young friend to consider the idea of collaborating on a hymnal together. The hymns were to be used especially in their small church.

The result: Olney Hymns. 348 hymns (incidentally, with no musical arrangement) including Amazing Grace, and There is a Fountain. Newton wrote over 200. Cowper wrote 68.

Here’s the point: for a church to truly create, it must be alive. Put another way: When God is moving in the life of a local church, that church will then be free to express itself in a tangible way.

For worship leaders: In the preface of the hymnal, Newton wrote: “they should be hymns – not odes, if designed for public worship, and for plain people.” That’s pretty good criteria. If you’re asking your church to engage in worship that doesn’t resonate with who they are, then you’re simply not serving them. Don’t ask them to fake it.

For pastors: Newton engaged Cowper with a great deal of intentionality. The Olney Hymns project was Newton’s way of developing Cowper’s melancholy and reflective personality.

Describing his reason for creating a hymnal (he was a busy pastor after all) Newton wrote in preface:

“…A desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere christians, though the principal, was not the only motive to this undertaking. It was likewise intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.”

Engage the melancholy. Actively love the down-spirited. Mentor the broken. Above all: Make sure you’ve got the time. That sounds incredibly Christlike, yes?

____________

If you’re interested, read the original preface to Olney Hymns here.

Creativity Costs: Isaac Watts

Isaac Watts (Crowder-fied)

Isaac Watts was David Crowder before David Crowder was cool.

Watts (1674-1748) is typically referred to as “the father of English hymnody.” Over his life, he wrote over 600 hymns, including Joy to the World, Alas and Did my Savior Bleed, I Sing the Mighty Power of God, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Here’s the thing:

Watts was a revolutionary.

Theology, literacy, and learning were important to the Watts family – and young Isaac displayed an exceptional ability for learning: He had learned Latin (by age 5), Greek (by age 9), French (by age 11), and Hebrew (by age 13). As a boy, he had the annoying – although charming – habit of echoing his parents’ commands in rhyming couplets: “O father do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”

Yep – Isaac was one of those kids.

In the 18th century, the state church in England was growing stale. Church – and therefore corporate worship – was profoundly boring. Most churches sang slow, ponderous, march-like tunes that sounded more like freshman biology notes than a personal encounter with God. Consider this lyrical gem:

“Ye monsters of the bubbling deep
your Master’s praises spout;
Up from the sands ye coddling peep,
and wag your tails about.”

Yikes. It occurred to young Watts that something had to change.

Isaac continually pressed his father (a respected deacon in a dissenting Congregationalist church) to initiate change, saying: “the singing of God’s praise is the part of worship most closely related to heaven, but its performance among us is among the worst on earth.” Half out of patronizing sarcasm and half out curiosity (knowing his son’s abilities), his father charged him: “Why don’t you give us something better, young man?

Before the evening service began, Isaac had composed his first hymn. Sadly, the identity of this hymn is lost to history. But here’s the kicker: Watts wrote a hymn every Sunday for the next two years.

But Watts’ innovation and creativity came at a cost. Because he chose to write hymns that centered on personal feelings and reflections, he was regarded as “too outside the box” for “normal” church – some even considered him a divisive radical.

Fortunately for us, Watts cared more about the art he was creating for God’s glory than the nay-sayers who would eventually lose worship war of the 18th century.

THE POINT:

For worship leaders: Find the Watts’ in your church – there’s probably more than a few – and give them a platform. Writers, poets, musicians, and storytellers are all over the place. There are budding graphic designers everywhere. Find them. Develop them. Encourage them. Host an art fair. Hold a poetry reading (include your surrounding community). Give painters, sculptors, and visual artists a place in your Sunday morning worship. Just please, please, please – don’t do this half-baked. Do it well.

For the rest of us: It’s easy to complain. Especially about church music. It really is. But few of us will take the initiative to create. Creativity takes courage. Complaining just takes an audience. Take Watts’ father’s words as directed to you: If you’re discontent do something.

Honesty in the Pew: Come, Thou Fount

Robert Robinson

Robert Robinson was a drunk.

Then a pastor.

And he was good at both.

Born in 1735, Robert Robinson is best known for writing “Come Thou Fount.” His father died when he was eight years old. He grandfather disowned him for the sum of ten shillings and sixpence (about a week’s wages at that time). At age 14, he was sent to live with his uncle in London where he ended up as barber’s apprentice.

With no father to guide him, Robinson’s life took a turn for the worse. Like the prodigal son, Robinson had a few questionable friends, a little spending money, and plenty of opportunities.

At age 17, Robinson and his group of friends planned to attend a meeting hosted by the fiery yet pastoral preacher George Whitefield (think “Billy Graham meets Mark Driscoll”). The plan was simple: “scoff at the poor, deluded Methodists.” He was every preacher’s nightmare – a professional heckler.

But in the curious providence of God, Whitefield’s words haunted Robinson.

For 3 years.

In 1755 at the age of 20, Robinson gave his life to Christ. Two years later, he gave his church the following words:

…Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love
Take my heart, O take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.

Sadly, his words were personally prophetic.

An often-told (yet slightly apocryphal) story goes that toward the end his life, Robinson was riding in a stagecoach when he noticed a woman sitting opposite him, deeply engrossing in a hymn book. He listened as she hummed a tune to herself. At one point, she turned to him as asked his opinion about the hymn. Robinson burst into tears and said:

I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I have them, to enjoy that feelings I had then.”

Robinson’s gift to us was his honesty.

For pastors: It’s important to remember that Robinson wrote the words for “Come Thou Fount” just prior to accepting a call as a pastor. Imagine yourself in his shoes: Standing before your congregation and boldly opening your skeleton closet. Admitting all your secret doubts and fears in front of the people who you hope to lead. Frightening, yes? But few things speak louder of a leader’s love for his people than his honesty before them.

For worship leaders: It takes honesty and transparency to connect with words like “prone to wander, Lord I feel it – prone to leave the God I love.” But too often, we rush people into God’s presence – skipping over the impulses of confession and repentance. By the time you ask them to sing: “here’s my heart, Lord take and seal it” very few people actually mean it. Most people end up only half-connecting, feeling like something important is missing.

Intentionally leave time (if only 30 secs or a minute) for honesty to emerge naturally.

Show them how to be quiet. And be quiet well.

Pain Invites Empathy: It Is Well

Horatio Spafford lived in Chicago. He was a lawyer. He had 4 kids.

The Spaffords had been planning a family vacation to Paris. But at the last minute, Horatio was kept back with urgent business. Sending his wife Anna and their four daughters ahead of him on the SS Ville du Havre, he expected to be only a few days behind them.

After a week of sailing, the Ville Du Havre collided with the Scottish clipper Loch Earn at 2am on Saturday, November 22. Realizing that danger was immanent, 313 passengers scrambled for the lifeboats. But having been freshly painted, most of the lifeboats were stuck to the main deck, and the passengers were able to break a only a few loose.

The ship sank in 12 minutes. 226 passengers were lost.

Upon reaching Wales 9 days later, Anna telegraphed her husband:

"Saved alone. What shall I do."

 

After hearing the news, Horatio left Chicago on the next ship to Wales to bring Anna home. At a point in the North Atlantic crossing, the captain called Spafford to his cabin to inform him that they were passing the spot where the Ville Du Havre went down.

Pulling a piece of hotel stationary from his pocket (pictured below), Spafford penned the words to the hymn.

It Is Well (original)

Interestingly, the original last line – “a song in the night,” from Psalm 42 – differs from what we sing today. In a later edit, Spafford thought his original words too dark – preferring instead to allude to the more hopeful Rev. 22:20 “…even so, come Lord Jesus.”

At the end of all things. Resurrection. Beautiful.

Here’s the point:

If you’re a church leader, how do you encourage those you shepherd to handle tragedy? David wrote some of his best poetry in extreme pain. Don’t merely preach at them. Give your people a platform and a voice. Invite empathy back into your church. The next “It Is Well” could be sitting quietly in the third pew from the back. Approach them. Be creative. Listen. And be genuine.

If you’ve experienced any level of tragedy, what have you done with it? Without sounding dismissive, it’s easier to play the wounded bird than the one who tries to sing – although faintly. Share your story. When you do, two things will happen: 1) By externalizing your pain, you’ll gain perspective on what God’s plan for pain. 2) You’ll likely find resonance with others for their benefit.

Share your story. Listen to others. Grow in grace.

sources:
– Association of French lines, Maritime Naval History.
– 100 Hymn Stories, Osbeck.
– An American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Sparffords and the American Colony in Jerusalem, Talese.