THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG

I am the song leader in my church. I am not very proficient as a musician or a choral director. I pray that, someday soon, God will send someone more capable, to take this ministry from me. But for the time being it is my responsibility to select the music and lead the congregation in the singing every week.

I take that responsibility seriously. The hymns and songs that I select must be doctrinally sound, they must be appropriate for worship with a God-centered worldview, and, withing those parameters, I try to select music that will reinforce and, support the text and subject of my pastor’s messages.

Some of us have been singing the hymns for years; the words roll off our lips but the messages often don't engage our minds or penetrate our hearts. With the apostle Paul, I want the congregation to "sing with understanding."

So for the past couple years, it has been my practice to select one hymn each week, research it, and then highlight it with a short introductory commentary so that the congregation will be more informed regarding the origin, the author's testimony, or the doctrinal significance of the hymns we sing.

It is my intention here with this blog, to archive these hymn commentaries for my reference and to make them freely available to other church song leaders. For ease of reference, all the hymn commentaries in this blog will be titled IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Other posts (which will be music ministry related opinion pieces) will be printed in lower case letters.

I know that some of the comments contain traces of my unique style, but please feel free to adapt them and use the content any way you can for the edification of your congregation and to the glory of God.

All I ask is that you leave a little comment should you find something helpful.


Ralph M. Petersen

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

STAND UP AND BLESS THE LORD

The reformation was responsible for many Christians fleeing Europe to relocate where they could exercise their faith without persecution.  And the result was the spreading of the Gospel throughout the world.

The Hussite movement that became the Moravian Church, was started by John Huss in the early 15th century in what is today, the Czech Republic.   Hus protested some of the unbiblical doctrines and the political persecutions executed by the Roman Catholic Church.  Since the movement predated the Protestant Reformation by a century, some historians claim the Moravian Church was the first Protestant church.

About 400 years later, James Montgomery, a Moravian orphan grew up to become a prominent British journalist and one of England’s greatest hymn writers.
   
As a newspaper editor in Sheffield, England, he developed a reputation for his radical editorials which he used to advocate for social reforms and humanitarian causes.  He was passionately critical of slavery, he promoted democracy in government, and the end of the exploitation of child chimney sweeps.  Other causes, he championed, included hymn singing in the Anglican church services, foreign missions, and the British Bible Society.

In Europe, in the late 18th century, Christians who spoke against governments or the Church, were often punished or persecuted.   And so was James Montgomery. He was imprisoned, twice, in the Castle of York, for his editorial activism. The first time was for printing a poem that celebrated the fall of the Bastille which, ironically, was a French prison for political critics who wrote things that displeased the royal government.

A year after his release, he was incarcerated, again, for criticizing a judge who forcefully dispersed a political protest in Sheffield.

So, from his cell, James used his writing ability to profit from his imprisonment.  In 1797, he published a pamphlet of poems written during his captivity, that he titled, Prison Amusements, with a subtitle, Words with Wagtails (wagtails are birds that would frequently visit him on his prison window sill).

In a long poem titled, The Pleasure of Imprisonment, An Epistle to A Friend, he details every moment of his daily routine as a prisoner.   I was amused at this verse where he figuratively thumbs his nose at his captors:
Fanatic dreams amuse my brain, 
And waft my spirit home again:
Though captive all day long, ‘tis true, 
At night, I am as free as you;
Not ramparts high, nor dungeons deep,
Can hold me – when I’m fast asleep!

James Montgomery wrote over 400 hymns including the Christmas carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and the communion hymn, “I Will Remember Thee.”   About him, the writer Alfred H. Miles wrote, “His Christian songs are vigorous in thought and feeling, simple and direct in action, broad in Christian charity, and lofty in spiritual aspiration.”

In 1824, he wrote a children’s hymn for the Red Hill Wesleyan Sunday School anniversary celebration in Sheffield.  The song began, “Stand up and bless the Lord, ye children of His choice.”  A short time later, the word “children” was changed to “people.” 

The text was based on Neh. 9:5: “Stand up and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.”

This hymn uses simple and clear language to proclaim the glory of God.  It’s a call for God’s people to stand up with courage and praise God and to boldly speak up and proclaim their faith regardless of the political climate.    


STAND UP AND BLESS THE LORD.  

Sunday, July 9, 2017

WHAT A DAY THAT WILL BE

I was nine years old in 1956 when I spent the summer on my uncle Anton's farm in South Dakota.
  
Early one morning my older cousin, Lloyd, hitched the horses to the wagon and we headed to the hay fields. The horses must have sensed, probably from past experiences, the hard day that was in front of them because, no matter how hard Lloyd tried to drive them, they only had one speed; SLOW.  We probably only drove two or three miles but it seemed to take forever.

Once we arrived, Lloyd hitched the horses to the hay rake. The team sluggishly dragged the rake over forty acres of freshly mowed hay and we pitched it into huge haystacks.

It was a long, hot, and humid Summer day.  The insects were annoying and the work was hard for all of us, especially the horses.  By the end of the day, we were all parched and weary but our work was done and we were going home.  We hitched the horses to the wagon, loaded our gear, and headed for the barn.

The return trip was different.  Lloyd didn’t have to drive the team home.  Instead, he wrapped the reins tightly around his powerful hands and stood with both feet firmly braced against the wagon’s bulkhead. With all his massive weight and strength, he struggled to maintain some control over the powerful force of those horses thundering down the road at breakneck speeds.  But as hard as he pulled, and as loud as he yelled, he couldn’t slow them down.

We all hung on tightly as the wagon jumped and bounced over the rutted dirt road.  It was a rough and thrilling ride.   

But it was short.  Those horses knew their work was done and they were going home.  They knew the way and they were anxious to get there.

Matt. 5:12 says, “Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven.”

Sometimes life is hard and our difficulties seem unbearable. It seemed that way for Jim Hill.  When he was a new Christian, his 50-year-old mother-in-law suddenly suffered a severe, debilitating stroke.  She was a fine, godly woman and Jim had a difficult time understanding why God would allow that kind of hardship to come on her.

As he was driving home one afternoon he recalled these words from Rev. 21:4, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

He thought, “WHAT A DAY THAT WILL BE,” and the idea for this song began to form in his mind.  As soon as he got out of his car, he found a piece of cardboard on the ground and began to scrawl out the lyrics.
 

As Christians, we labor and suffer in this life, more joyously than others, knowing that our way leads to heaven.  We are on the trip home and we anxiously anticipate our rest in our Father's house.  

Can you imagine?  “There’ll be no sorrow there, no more burdens to bear, No more sickness, no pain, no more parting over there.  And forever I will be with the One who died for me.  What a day, glorious day that will be.”  

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Man-Centered or God-Centered Worship


"I've come up with a 'drive by' litmus test to get an initial take on whether a church's worship is man-driven rather than God-centered. If the sign in front of the church offers different styles of worship at different times or days (Traditional at 8:00, Contemporary at 10:00, Extreme at 6:00 PM, etc.), the worship at that church is almost certainly far more about pleasing man than about pleasing God.  This isn't to say that a church is wrong to have (multiple) services, but if they do..., accommodating differing personal tastes in music, etc., ought not to be the reason."


Dave Ulrick

BREAK THOU, THE BREAD OF LIFE (2)

Sally was a resident in our assisted living home.  She wasn’t a Christian but she had a curiosity about God and she had a bizarre story.

She claimed that she had died and was carried by angels to heaven.  Her story had all the familiar parts; the white light, the image of “Jesus” waiting at the gate as she was approaching, the sense of peace and overwhelming love, and so on.

But her story had a new twist that I had not heard before. Sally claimed that God stopped her at the gate and said, “You think you know me but you really don’t.”  

So, He turned her around and sent her back until she learned who He is.

OK, so I was (and still am) skeptical about her experiences.  But ever since that alleged event, Sally was on a quest to “know God.”  She spent lots of time in her room reading her Bible.  And when she came out, she often claimed to have some special new insights or revelations from God.

I found myself wanting to refute the inaccurate or nonsensical ideas that she was forming about God but, because she was attending all our Sunday services and listening intently to all our sermons, I decided to hold my tongue.  I knew that arguing would not be productive.   I just listened politely, smiled, and encouraged her to keep reading the Bible.

I take a great deal of consolation in God’s promise in Isaiah 55:11, regarding His Word.  “So shall My Word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

The Bread of Life is an allegory; it is a picture of Jesus Christ.  We see that in several places in Scripture where the Word of God is described as bread that is to be eaten for our Spiritual sustenance.

The Hymn, BREAK THOU, THE BREAD OF LIFE, is a prayer petitioning God to feed us with His Word.   It was written by Mary Lathbury and there is no question about her intended use of this allegory; This Bread of Life can be found “within the sacred page.” 

That’s where we all start.  Do you want to find God?  He is revealed in His Word.  Do you want to know Him?  Know His Word.
 
And the last stanza tells us how God accomplishes His work of salvation in the lives of sinners and His work of sanctification in the lives of those He has saved.  It is by the ministry of the Spirit of God who opens our eyes to see Him and leads us into all Truth through the pages of His revealed Word.

 Sally needed what we all need; the life-giving Bread from heaven that nourishes us and keeps us spiritually healthy.   So, we just continued to do for her, what we did for all our residents; we answered their questions from the Scriptures, we preached the Gospel, and we prayed that God would reveal Himself to them.



(Further commentary on this hymn can be found here.)


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Let There Be Peace On Earth

There are some songs that I hate to love.

What do I mean by that?  They are songs I love.  I grew up with them.  I memorized them I sang them with passion.   The people in my church love them.   They are songs that raise the human spirit.  They touch our hearts.  They make us feel warm and fuzzy.  They inspire us.  The music is pleasant and dynamic.

But I HATE THEM.  They are egocentric.  They are theologically anemic at best and downright errant, heretical, or blasphemous at worst.  Yet, because they are ingrained in our church culture, undiscerning people are filled with false doctrines.

So I hate them; I hate it that I love them.  
This song should not be sung in church.


*****

Here’s one that rears its ugly head every few years.  It was performed at the 9-11 memorial service a few years ago and this year the world thrilled over it once again at the ungodly display of a man in Washington who thinks He is god, hosting another man (the Pope) from South America who thinks He is god, to bring about worldwide peace and love among heathens who don’t care about God.


Let There Be Peace On Earth is a BAD hymn.  It is liberation theology.  It anticipates the glorious end of the earth when all people will live in love and drink Coca-Cola while they "teach the world to sing in perfect harmony."

It deifies mankind.  The premise of the song doesn’t begin with God; it begins with me.  This heavenly peace on earth is achievable because, if every one of us will just dedicate ourselves to the goal, we can make it happen. 

It smacks of universalism.  I hate to break this to you but, God is NOT the father of all men and we are NOT all brothers.  God is the Father of His elect and Satan is the father and god of everyone else.  So, as a Christian, as much as I might try, I cannot walk together in perfect harmony with unbelievers.

And what about this peace?  Is this peace really meant to be?  What does that even mean?  Who meant it to be?  Was it God?  If so, then why don’t we have it?  Maybe God is impotent and we have to do His work for Him.  If we don’t do it, it won’t be done.

This song is classified as a Christmas song, perhaps because of the phrase “peace on earth.”  But when the angel appeared to the Shepherds and declared “peace on earth; goodwill toward men,” he wasn’t just mouthing a mushy Hallmark sentiment.  He was declaring that, with the advent of the Messiah (God’s goodwill toward men),  we can now be at peace with God.  That peace was achieved at Calvary; it is a done deal and that is evidenced by the fact that God doesn't just kill us all but, instead, has provided a way for some to be reconciled to Him.  And someday, Jesus Christ will return, take his throne, and rule over all the earth for 1000 years of peace.  He will do it; we cannot.  And, no matter how hard He tries, neither can King Obama.

This is a lousy Christmas Carol and a terrible, unbiblical Christian hymn but, other than that, it is a really great song.  Please, can somebody write some better lyrics?  Until then, let's keep it out of our churches.






A Tribute to the Music and Faith of John W. Peterson



JESUS IS COMING AGAIN

One of John W. Peterson’s earliest songs was inspired by a promise made at the beginning of World War Two.  When General Douglas MacArthur was forced by Japanese soldiers, to retreat and leave the Philippine Islands, he made a promise to the American troops; he said, “I’ll be back!”

(No, wait, that was Arnold Schwarzenegger.)

Gen. MacArthur said, “I will return!”

For a time, it looked like the General would not be able to keep that promise but he did.  He returned just as he said he would.  That incident reminded Petersen of the promise Jesus made to His disciples; ”I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”

It is popular, today, among many Christians, to doubt Him but Jesus’ promise holds much more assurance and certainty than MacArthur’s ever could.  JESUS IS COMING AGAIN!
 *****


IT TOOK A MIRACLE
 
John W. Peterson was a fighter pilot who made night time flights over the Burma “Hump” to deliver supplies into China during the war. 
 
About those long, dangerous flights, he said, “It always seemed that the Lord was very near. Often, while observing the rugged terrain below and the glories of the heavens above, I was overwhelmed by the power of God and the glory of His creation.  Then the thought gripped me that the same God who created this universe with its never-ending wonders was the God who loved me and sent His only begotten Son to take my place on the cross.  I was overwhelmed by His power and love, and the words of a new song (IT TOOK A MIRACLE) began to form in my heart."
 *****


HEAVEN CAME DOWN
In 1961, while leading the singing at a Bible conference, John made opportunities for some of the people to share their testimonies.  One feeble, elderly gentleman slowly rose to speak. 

According to John, the man’s countenance had a warm pleasant glow.  When he told the people about how he came to faith in Jesus Christ, he said, “…it was like HEAVEN CAME DOWN and glory filled my soul.”

John made a quick note of his comment and, by the end of the week, he had written the words and music to the song, HEAVEN CAME DOWN.

*****

SO SEND I YOU

Shortly after His resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were hiding together in fear of the Jews.  Jesus appeared to them and showed them His wounds as reminders of the terrible persecution He had just suffered.

Then He said to them, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

That passage in chapter 20 of John’s gospel is the context for the song, SO SEND I YOU.  It has been called the finest missionary hymn of the twentieth century.  It vividly describes the kinds of sacrifices made and persecutions suffered by multitudes of Christ’s servants at home and on the mission fields throughout Church history.

The lyrics were written by Margaret Clarkson, but the music was composed by her friend, John W. Petersen.
 *****


O GLORIOUS LOVE

If you ever sang in a church choir during the latter part of the 20th century, you are probably familiar with the works of John W. Peterson.

As the president of Singspiration Music Company, he compiled several hymnals, he composed the words and music for over 1,000 gospel songs, and he wrote over 30, easy to sing, Christmas and Easter cantatas.  Of all John W. Peterson’s songs, O GLORIOUS LOVE is my favorite.  It is a simple worship song with a majestic feel that reminds us of God’s great love for us. 

In my darkness Jesus found me;
Touched my eyes and made me see;
Broke sin’s chains that long had bound me;
Gave me life and liberty!

(Refrain)
Oh, glorious love of Christ my Lord divine,
That made Him stoop to save a soul like mine.
Through all my days, and then in heaven above,
My song will silence never, I'll worship Him forever,
And praise Him for His glorious love.

Oh, amazing truth to ponder;
He whom angel hosts attend,
Lord of Heaven, God’s Son, what wonder;
He became the sinner’s friend!

“…God commendeth His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Rom. 5:8

*****


SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY

John Petersen collaborated with a friend, Alfred Smith, to write a song which has a humorous origin.  Smith was sharing a letter he had received from a descendant of the hymn writer, Philip Bliss.

When Phillip was a very young boy, he had a crush on his young teacher, Miss Murphy.  The children were memorizing the 23rd Psalm.  Phillip hadn’t yet learned to read, so he memorized it by rote but he got some of the words confused.  

Children sometimes do that.  For example, I have a friend who grew up thinking the congregation in his church were always singing, “Lead On, O Kinky Turtle.”

Well, when it came Phillip’s turn to recite the Psalm, he ended it with the line, “Surely good Miss Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life!”

After they finished laughing about that story, they sat down to work and in just one day, they wrote SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY SHALL FOLLOW ME.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

*PRAISE, MY SOUL, THE KING OF HEAVEN

One of the things I have noticed is that many of the greatest hymns of our faith have been authored by godly men and women who have been tested through extreme sufferings, losses, and persecutions.  And yet God has used them as testimonies to His goodness.
 
The Reverend, Mr. Henry Lyte, was one of them.   He was a frail, and sickly man who suffered most of his life with chronic asthma and tuberculosis.  Yet his friends described him as “strong in faith and spirit.” 

At the age of twenty-five years, he had just entered the ministry when a close friend and fellow clergyman died because of a serious illness.  That experience changed Henry.  He said, “the death of my friend, who died happy in the thought that there was One who would atone for his delinquencies” made me study my Bible and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”

In 1834 Henry published an obscure collection of 280 hymns that he had written called, The Spirit of the Psalms.  They were not strict paraphrases but they were all loosely inspired by the Psalms.
 
His classic hymn, "Abide With Me," was the best known of his works for over 100 years, until Queen Elizabeth married the Duke of Edinburgh.
  
The Queen had chosen one of Henry’s obscure Psalms to be sung at her wedding ceremony.  That single event on November 20, 1947 (which was also the 100th anniversary of Henry Lyte’s death) caught the attention of the whole world and Henry’s hymn was instantly popularized for use at weddings and funerals for decades.  PRAISE, MY SOUL, THE KING OF HEAVEN has probably begun more ceremonies than any other hymn in the English language.

The hymn is a free paraphrase of Psalm 103.  It is a declaration of the Goodness of God.   The author mentions several benefits of God’s grace but I think the most stunning line in the entire hymn, is in the first stanza.  It summarizes God’s goodness in just four amazing words: 
“Ransomed, Healed, Restored, Forgiven.”
 
And therein is the Gospel; God’s Good News.  

As sinners, we owed a debt that we could not pay.   The payment for our redemption was made by the Son of Man who "gave His life a ransom for many."  

Jesus paid a debt He did not owe.  And for all who have been ransomed, the disease of sin that results in spiritual death has been cured.  We have been made whole.  All our sins have been forgiven.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul;
And all that is within me, bless His Holy Name!
“Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget not all His benefits:
“Who forgives all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases,
“Who redeems your life from destruction,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
“Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”  (Psa. 103:1-5)


God is Good and this Hymn urges us to do now, what we will be doing in eternity; “PRAISE, MY SOUL, THE KING OF HEAVEN.”