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  Because you and I live in an era of passing worship fads, we might be tempted to believe that Wesley is slightly out of date.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…)

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.

Desperation Brings Clarity: Rock of Ages

Augustus Toplady was definitely one of those guys.

Augustus Toplady (note the smirk)

You know the kind: on their way to their systematic theology class, six 800-page books under one arm, ready to recant the five points of Calvinism with anyone who would listen – and in theology-incensed 18th-century Britain, plenty of people did.

John Wesley – arguably one of the foremost theologians in England during the late 1700’s – was the object of Toplady’s argumentative fury. Toward the beginning of their relationship, Toplady and Wesley were actually quite good friends. But because of Toplady’s insistence on his particularly narrow brand of Calvinism, his relationship with Wesley became increasingly bitter and distant, resulting in Wesley making this bout-ending remark to a close friend in a letter:

John Wesley

Mr. Augustus Toplady I know well. But I do not fight with chimney-sweepers. He is too dirty a writer for me to meddle with. I should only foul my fingers. I read his title-page, and troubled myself no farther.”

That’s English gentility for you.

Here’s the interesting thing: in the midst of all the arguing, writing, pamphleteering, and preaching, Toplady found a few seconds of give the English language one of its most beloved hymns, Rock of Ages.

The story goes that while he was traveling in between preaching engagements, (and likely on the run from those who would ruin him), Toplady was caught in a life-threatening storm. Finding a limestone boulder along the road, he decided to wait out the storm in one of the crags. While he caught his breath, Toplady pulled out whatever paper he had and began to write:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.

So – what to do with all of this?

Desperation often brings clarity. That’s how most of the Psalms were written – out of a spirit of desperation. Do yourself a favor – forget about the inconsequential pieces of minutiae that invite controversy. Spend your time developing a faith that learns to find God in the moments that matter.

It Came Upon a Third Verse Clear

Spoiler alert: this may well indeed wreck your caroling experience. But it might help it – in the long run.

It’s always bothered me that “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” never mentions sin, Jesus, the cross, or redemption. A little background:

The original verses (there are a total of 5) were penned by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1820-1876). A graduate of Harvard Divinity school, Sears served as a Unitarian minister throughout Massachusetts. While orthodox in his confession, his most renowned hymn has always left me a little dry.

This criticism isn’t new. The British carol scholar Erik Routley wrote that “in its original form, the hymn is little more than an ethical song, extolling the worth and splendour of peace among men.”

Don’t get me wrong: Not every Christmas carol needs to recant the theological veracity of Romans in metered poetry, but it seems like a missed opportunity. Christmas is a time for clarity. But not the militant, wave-a-flag-in-your-face kind of clarity. Not the kind that gets unreasonably offended when a well-intentioned grocery clerk wishes you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” It’s a soft claritya steady clarity. The kind of clarity that uses the front door, and knocks gently – but firmly.

In light of that, I humbly submit my addition:

A painful cross awaits this child
who now in a manger sleeps
For all who know the stain of sin
and dwell in darkness deep
Look now, our God has made a way
His perfect salvation to bring
Redemption’s plan provides our peace
And lifts our souls to sing.

(Thanks Eddie – can I call you Eddie? – for allowing me to impose. Incidentally, I’m looking forward to chatting it up some day.)

A Winter Tree

Christmas Hymn for Communion

Mike is the worship director at our church.  He’s a natural jazz musician with a flare for stubble, odd musical phrasing, and the constant presence of 7th-chords.  No v-neck.  No skinny jeans (thank God), and no extra effort to be hip.  He’s probably most at home behind the piano in somebody else’s jazz trio in the corner of someone else’s club.  He’s also the kind of guy who will spend a whole day scouring old hymnals looking for hidden treasures.  He’s a little odd like that.  And it’s awesome.

But one of the things I really appreciate about Mike as a worship leader is his commitment to honoring past traditions (particularly rich texts) while engaging the current life of our church.  This morning, he and I had to opportunity to lead our church in the following song – sung during communion.  Neither of us had ever heard of it prior to this week.  If you hunt long enough, you can find a video somewhere.  But for now, enjoy the text:

Gathered round Your table on this holy eve,
Viewing Bethlehem’s stable we rejoice and grieve;
Joy to see You lying in Your manger bed,
Weep to see You dying in our sinful stead.

Prince of Glory, gracing Heav’n ere time began,
Now for us embracing death as Son of Man;
By Your birth so lowly, by Your love so true,
By Your cross most holy, Lord, we worship You.

Bethlehem’s Incarnation, Calvary’s bitter cross,
Wrought for us salvation by Your pain and loss;
Now we fall before You in this holy place,
Prostrate we adore You, for Your gift of grace.

With profoundest wonder we Your body take–
Laid in manger yonder, broken for our sake:
Hushed in adoration we approach the cup–
Bethlehem’s pure oblation freely offered up.

Christmas Babe so tender, Lamb who bore our blame,
How shall sinners render praises due Your name?
Do Your own good pleasure in the lives we bring;
In Your ransomed treasure reign forever King.

Thanks, Mike for the early Christmas gift.  I appreciate you, man!

Early Winter Sun (taken at Bode Lakes, Streamwood, IL)