Speak, O Lord

What is a hymn?

By definition, it’s a religious poem set to song that gives praise and adoration to our deity, God. But what actually makes a hymn a hymn?

IT FUNCTIONS AS A POEM. In Sing With Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnody, authors Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath state that a hymn “should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic, and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it.” Though most modern songs (not hymns) aren’t really meant to be taken as poetry and need the music, hymns are different. When you read the words of a well-crafted hymn, you can feel the cadence, even you aren’t aware of the melody composed for it. That’s why you find a lot of composers writing new tunes for old hymn texts.

ECONOMY OF WORDS. What? Hymns aren’t wordy? Yes, they are, obviously. Hymns establish a certain meter within the first verse. Don’t believe me? Look in our Celebration Hymnal and look at the bottom. Do you see numbers that may look like 8.8.8.8 or 8.6.8.6? That’s the number of syllables in each line. Most hymns will be set to eight syllable lines or alternate between eight and six syllables. Modern hymns, such as our hymn of the month, follow the same pattern.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE VERSE. In contemporary songs, the emphasis is usually placed on the chorus. Our classic hymns did not contain choruses. Hymnologists will argue that if a song has a refrain or a chorus – even if the verses are composed in hymn meter – it is actually a “gospel song,” not a hymn (think “Blessed Assurance”). In general, hymns tell a story in a series of verses, each one building on the other or continuing the narrative of the other. Because of this, hymns can cover more theological ground or present a wider narrative arc than other songs.

PRAISE FIRST, POETRY SECOND. We’ve already established that a hymn is a type of poem. A hymnist writes in such a way that all worshipers can understand and sing along, regardless of their level of education or their experience with literature and poetry. The hymnist’s goal is the same goal of any true writer of songs for God and His church: to give worshipers a language for thankfully praising our Lord and for speaking His truth to each other.

Read the words for our June hymn of the month and you will see why it is considered a
“modern hymn” and not a contemporary song.

Speak, O Lord, as we come to you
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.                                              Your majestic love and authority.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
All Your purpose for Your glory.

Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
Holy reverence, true humility;
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
In the radiance of Your purity.
Cause our faith to rise; cause our eyes to see
Words of pow’r that can never fail –
Let their truth prevail over unbelief.

Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us-
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Robert Robinson had a rough beginning. His father died when he was young, and his mother, unable to control him, sent him to London to learn barbering. Instead, he learned about drinking and gang life. Bothered by an encounter with a fortune teller, he suggested to his buddies they attend the evangelistic meeting held by George Whitefield, one of history’s greatest preachers. That night he preached from Matthew 3:7 after which he burst into tears and exclaimed, “Oh, my hearers! The wrath to come!” Those words haunted Robert for nearly three years, until he gave his heart to Christ. He soon entered the ministry, and three years later at age twenty-three, he wrote “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” for his sermon on Pentecost Sunday. Robinson continued to work for the Lord until 1790, when he was found dead at age fifty-four, having passed away quietly during the night.

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V.1 – Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,  Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise:
Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, Mount of Thy redeeming love.

V.2 – Here I raise mine Ebenezer; Hither by Thy help I come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home:
Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood.

V.3 – O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy grace, Lord, like a fetter, Bind my wand’ring heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.

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There are so many holidays that happen in May: Mother’s Day on May 10th, Armed Forces Day on May 16th, and Memorial Day on May 25th. Of course, this list doesn’t include my personal favorites like Star Wars Day (May the Fourth/Force be with you) and International No Diet Day (May 6th). Nor does it include Walt Draffin’s favorite holiday which occurs on May 13th, Leprechaun Day. It also doesn’t include May 24th which is Pentecost, the day on which we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early followers of Jesus, seven weeks after His resurrection (see Acts 2: 1-4).  “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” was written for Robinson’s Pentecost Sermon in the 1700s and to this day is a favorite of many, myself included.

A fount is a source. The first verse of this hymn is addressed to God, who is acknowledged as the source of “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3). It is asking God to teach (tune) his heart to daily sing praises to Lord (Ps. 47:6). Why? Because like a stream of water, His mercies never end (Ps. 100:5); they call us to a never ending praise (Heb. 13:15). A sonnet is a poem. It is asking God for help to find or create increasingly beautiful ways to express joyful praise of the One who is the source of every blessing and worthy of our best efforts at praising him. The flaming tongues above are likely those of angels can naturally do a much better job of this. The mount on which his eyes are fixed is Calvary where Jesus’ death and resurrection was the ultimate divine act of love.

Verse two refers to an Ebenezer or our Rock of Help (1 Sam. 7:12) who brought us through our darkness and sin so that we may have eternal life (Deut. 6:23-24). What did God do to bring us this far? Remember the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15? When one of God’s sheep wanders away from the fold, or the pen in which sheep are kept, He goes to look for it. In order to save us, His wandering sheep, He died in our place and placed his blood like a barrier between us and the danger we faced, hell.

Verse three begins with the word debtor, a sense of being ‘dependent’ or ‘bound to’. We are daily dependent on God’s grace. While we don’t owe him anything in return for it, the very fact that his grace is freely given (Eph. 4:7) does daily constrain or “compel” us to walk in His ways. In this verse, the prayer is that the grace we are shown would bind our hearts to Him like a fetter, a shackle used to bind the feet of prisoners, in spite of the temptation to sin and to wander from God. We are prone or likely to stray from God (Is. 53:6), but when we give our heart to God, He will protect and preserve our hearts for eternity (Prov. 4:23).

This song is a prayer that God would send us His mercies, that we would ever praise Him, that we would cry out to Him in our times of trouble, and that He would guard our hearts so that we won’t stray from Him, but rather live with Him throughout eternity.

Hallelujah, What a Savior!

Philip Bliss and Lucy Young were married on June 1, 1859. Philip, only twenty years old, had a remarkable talent for music. Lucy, knowing how talented her husband was, schemed for ways to afford him proper musical training. With her encouragement, he began traveling on an old horse from town to town, carrying a twenty-dollar melodeon and holding singing schools. When Lucy’s grandmother gave them thirty dollars, Philip attended a six-week course at the Normal Academy of Music in New York. Upon completion, he became a full-time music teacher and was soon recognized as a local music authority. Philip and Lucy moved to Chicago so he could pursue a ministry of music there. Between 1865 and 1873, he held music conventions, singing schools, and church meetings. In 1869, he attracted the attention of evangelist D. L. Moody, who continually urged him to enter the full-time ministry of music.

With Lucy’s encouragement, Philip joined Moody’s associate, Major Daniel W. Whittle, as a song leader in a series of evangelistic campaigns; and “Whittle and Bliss” became incredibly famous, holding successful crusades throughout the United States.

By 1876, Philip, only thirty-six, was known as one of the greatest hymnists of his generation; penning classic hymns such as, “Wonderful Words of Life,” “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” and the music to “It Is Well with My Soul.” Late that year, Philip conducted a service for inmates at the Michigan State Prison and sang one of his last hymns, “Hallelujah, What a Savior!”

No one dreamed that both Philip and Lucy would pass away one month later.

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  1. “Man of sorrows!” what a name for the Song of God who came;
    Ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah! What a Savior!
  2. Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood;
    Sealed my pardon with His blood; Hallelujah! What a Savior!
  3. Guilty, vile, and helpless we, Spotless Lamb of God was He;
    Full atonement! Can it be? Hallelujah! What a Savior!
  4. Lifted up was He to die; “It is finished!” was His cry;
    Now in heaven exalted high, Hallelujah! What a Savior!
  5. When He comes, our glorious King. All His ransomed home to bring,
    Then anew this song we’ll sing, Hallelujah! What a Savior!

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I always imaged what it would be like to go to an Ivy League school and be an Art History Major. I love art. Every city I visit, I make it a point to scope out the art galleries. Seeing the images on canvas straight from the brains of the different artists is amazing to me. The amount of creativity and design that goes into each painting or sculpture makes me realize that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Imagine that you had a room full of artists and their only instruction was to paint a picture of Jesus using the phrase “Man of Sorrows” as their inspiration. What would be depicted on these paintings? You might see Jesus on a cross wearing a crown of thorns. You might also see the nails that pierced his hands and feet, the place where the sword pierced his side with the blood running down. What would be the expression on His face?  What would the expression be on yours when you saw this depiction?

Would you grimace at the thought of the sound of the nails going into His hands and feet? Would you immediately begin to think about how he was spat upon, mocked, and insulted?  Would you begin to weep when think about the suffering and humiliation that He endured while He, the sinless Son of God, took upon our sins on the cross so that we might one day have everlasting life with Him in eternity?

Personally, I would hope that you would rejoice.

Rejoice?! Why would I rejoice while looking at a picture of my Savior on the cross??

Why should we rejoice? Because that’s not our God. Our God is no longer on a cross. Our God is alive and we’re forgiven! The gates of Heaven are ready to burst wide open when He comes back to take us to our home on high. It’s going to happen, folks. And I’m ready. Are you?

What a message of hope Philip Bliss brought to us in this beautiful hymn!

I’d Rather Have Jesus

George Beverly Shea, “America’s beloved gospel singer,” traveled with the Rev. Billy Graham evangelistic team beginning in 1946 up until his death in 2014. He was born in 1909 in Winchester, Ontario, where his father served as the pastor for a Wesleyan Methodist Church. Mr. Shea’s mother, the church organist, had a piano that came from England; and, seated in front of its keys, she became a sort of “human alarm clock” for the family, playing an E-flat chord and singing a song every morning.

When George Beverly Shea was twenty-one, he began working for the Mutual Insurance Company of New York, assisting medical examiners in obtaining information relating to the applicant’s health history. Among those who came into the office was Fred Allen, host of a coast-to-coast radio talent show. Learning that Mr. Shea enjoyed singing, Mr. Allen arranged an audition, and a few weeks later Mr. Shea found himself singing “Go Down Moses” to a nationwide audience on the National Broadcasting Company. Though he lost the contest to a yodeler, he received fifteen dollars (equivalent to $224 today) and a taste of widespread fame.

One Sunday shortly afterward, Mr. Shea sat down at his mother’s organ  to practice for the morning church service. His yes fell on a clipping she had left for him there, a poem written in 1922 by Mrs. Rhea F. Miller. As Mr. Shea read the words, they spoke to him about his own aims and ambitions in life. An appropriate melody came easily, practically composing itself.

When Mr. Shea’s mother came in from the kitchen, he played and sang it for her. Wrapping both arms around him, she placed a wet cheek against his. In church that morning, he sang “I’d Rather Have Jesus” publicly for the first time. It later became a sort of “signature song” expressing his own aims and ambitions in life.

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I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold; /  I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands. / I’d rather be led by His nail-pieced hand.

Refrain: Than to be the king of a vast domain or be held in sin’s dread sway.
I’d rather have Jesus than anything This world affords today.

I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause; / I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame. / I’d rather be true to His holy name. Refrain

He’s fairer than lilies of rarest bloom; / He’s sweeter than honey from out of the comb;
He’s all that my hungering spirit needs. / I’d rather have Jesus and let Him lead. Refrain

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**In Matthew 16:24-26, Jesus says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold…

**Philippians 3:8 says, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” I’d rather have Jesus than world-wide fame, I’d rather be true to His holy name …

**Philippians 1:21 reminds us: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I’d rather have Jesus and let Him lead …

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In an interview, Joni Eareckson Tada once said, “I really would rather have Jesus. I would rather have Him than be out of this wheelchair and on my feet not knowing Him.” That’s how satisfying Jesus is. That’s how gratifying being close to Him really is. Jesus is that satisfying. Being close to Him is better than any amount of not walking, especially if that walking could take you down a wrong road. You and I are intimately and intricately connected to our Christian brothers and sisters. Our attitudes can rub off on others. God can take our joy and infuse it into the hearts of others. When people see that we are
satisfied in Christ, it inspires them to do the same.

I charge you with this: Get your heart happy in God before you go out and meet other people. He is the God of joy and we are His ambassadors to weak and weary people all around us. Make it your fight to stay satisfied in Christ, no matter what. Prefer Jesus over all other things; choose Him above any other pleasures. Because when you do, you will be strengthening and uplifting and edifying the body of Christ like nothing else. Be happy in Jesus and people around you will never be quite the same.

Jesus Loves Me

Anna and Susan Warner lived in a beautiful New York City townhouse with their father, a successful lawyer, during the mid-1800’s. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837 destroyed their finances and forced the family to move into a ramshackle Revolutionary War-era home near the West Point Military Academy. Knowing they needed to begin contributing to the family income, they began writing stories and soon became very well-known. One of their most successful stories was a novel entitled Say and Seal. It was a story of a young boy who was dying. In the book, his Sunday school teacher comforts him by taking him in his arms, rocking him, and making up a little song:

Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong.

Jesus loves me! He will stay close beside me on my way.
He’s prepared a home for me, and someday His face I’ll see.

The novel eventually became a bestseller, second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When William Bradbury, a famous hymn writer, read the words of this song, he composed a simple, child-like melody to go along with it. “Jesus Loves Me” quickly became the best-known children’s hymn.

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Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian author, once said, “A child can teach an adult three things: to be happy for no reason, to always be busy with something, and to know how to demand with all his might that which he desires.” I, too, think that children can teach adults three things: to be fearless, to love unconditionally, and to not worry about tomorrow. These same three lessons can be learned from Jesus Loves Me.

  1. To Be Fearless. Children have no fear when it comes to sticking their hand on a hot stove, and they certainly don’t fear saying something that you didn’t want repeated at an inappropriate time. Children fear nothing, unlike adults. We have so many fears that we have learned over the course of our lifetime, fears that are simply illusions like fear of the unknown, fear of being judged, fear of being alone, fear of rejection, fear of what the future might bring, etc.

Psalm 23: 4 (NIV) tells us “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” What is the most important word in that verse? Through. We aren’t walking into that valley to stay; we are simply passing through it. And because of that, we have no reason to be overcome with fear because God is on our side. In the first verse of Jesus Loves Me, we sing that He loves us even though we may be weak. We can come to Him broken down and helpless, but we have no need to be afraid of the outcome because “He is strong.”

  1. To Love Unconditionally. Children don’t love with an expectation of something in return, they just love. As adults, that is often times difficult concept to employ. Children have no biases when it comes to love. When you smile at a child, 9 times out of 10, he will smile back at you with a huge smile for no other reason than your mere presence.

Take the first line of this hymn, “Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It doesn’t say “Jesus loves me because I did x, y, and z.” In love, there are no exceptions. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” God didn’t send His son to die on a cross just so that we would do something for Him in return. He sent His son to die because He loved us with a love so deep that we could not even begin to grasp it. He loved us then as He loves us now, unconditionally.

  1. To Not Worry About Tomorrow. Every day a child wakes up, it’s a new day for him, a brand new world to explore. The have a curiosity to find out new things, they have enthusiasm, and they have energy with the start of each new day. As adults, we seem to have lost this energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm. We worry about how to makes ends meet, how to be at two places at the same time, how to get everything done before we have to fix dinner etc.

The final verse of Jesus Loves Me reminds us that God will stay with us no matter where we go in life. Ultimately, this world has nothing for us, and we shouldn’t worry about the future because God has it all in control. One day, we will be able to put the troubles of this world behind us and go home to heaven where He has prepared a place for us. Matthew 6:34 (NIV) tells us, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

I pray that no matter what trials you may be facing you will find comfort in knowing that Jesus loves you.

Abide With Me

In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes, Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Hymns are another way of teaching the Bible. Almost every hymn is directly tied to a specific Bible verse. When we sing hymns, we are actually reminding ourselves of God’s teachings and to know whether we have been walking on the correct path that God wants us to tread. Hymns, in a sense, are a sermon set to music. But in order to get anything out of them, we need to make sure that we understand the words that we are singing.

One of my favorite hymns of all time is Abide with Me.

Henry Francis Lyte was a minister that lived in Brixham, England with his wife, Anne. Dying from tuberculosis, he approached the pulpit for the last time at age 54 before leaving for Italy. That afternoon in 1847, after a long walk in prayer, he returned to his home and began to pack for his trip. He found in his desk drawer a poem he started years prior. Sitting down to finish the poem, he penned the words to “Abide with Me.” Three weeks later on their way to Italy, Henry’s lungs gave out in France. When the news of his death reached Brixham, England, Henry’s son-in-law was asked to hold the memorial service. It was then that “Abide with Me” was first sung.

Though there are eight verses to this great hymn, here is a look at the three most commonly sung:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

*Eventide literally means “evening.” In this instance, it is referring to the evening of life, which is death. People and things cannot always comfort us, but the God of all things can.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—                       
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

* Realizes the brevity of life and that earthly things fade away. We can’t take them with us in death. Nothing in life is constant. Everything changes except for the love, grace, and mercy of God.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;                
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;        
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;       
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.                               

*The words to this verse are incredibly powerful. Death is near and he can see nothing but Heaven. It is, again, a call for us to remember that in both life and death, the Lord is with us.

This hymn is a prayer for God to be with us in life, through every trial, and also in death. Each verse ends in the plea “abide with me,” making this hymn a sustained call for God’s personal presence in every stage and condition of life. It is a reassurance that God will never leave us. Throughout this year, I pray that you will remember this.

If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.
John 15:7 (NKJV)

Interesting facts about this hymn:

  1. For over a century, the bells at his church have rung out with “Abide with Me.”
  2. It was used in the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
  3. It was a popular hymn in the trenches of World War 1.