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, October 30, 2016

*A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD

Oct. 31 is the beginning of what we generally refer to as the HOLIDAY SEASON and I am intrigued by how they line up on the calendar.
  
Halloween comes first and in actual dollars spent for decorations and entertainment, it has overcome Christmas as the biggest holiday of the year.  From a spiritual standpoint, the world is in darkness; that is our natural condition.  In fact, the Bible tells us that “men love the darkness because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19).  It also tells us that we are “dead in sin” (Eph. 2:1, Col. 2:13).  We are “of our father, the Devil” and have no knowledge of God so it is understandable that most people embrace or celebrate the holiday of darkness, superstition, and evil.   Unless and until the Spirit of God brings us light, we can’t know Him.
  
The next holiday on the calendar is Thanksgiving Day.  In 1621, the Pilgrims had just endured a terrible winter in which scores of children and adults had starved to death. They were discouraged and defeated and ready to return to England when God answered their prayers and another ship arrived with medical supplies, food, and just enough hope to encourage them to press on despite the adverse conditions.

Two years later William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, said, “Inasmuch as the Father has given us an abundant harvest and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish; and He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship Him according to the dictates of our own conscience; I now proclaim that on Thursday, Nov. 29, 1623, we will render thanksgiving to the Almighty God for all His blessings.”

Romans 2:4 says, “The goodness of God leads you to repentance.” We celebrate His goodness at Thanksgiving and the ultimate manifestation of God’s Goodness was the gift of His Son, the Light of the world, and we celebrate the birth of Jesus at the very next Holiday on our calendar.

St. Valentine was a priest near Rome during the rule of Claudius II.  A few years before Claudius began persecuting Christians for not worshiping the Roman gods, war broke out in the Roman Empire and Claudius began drafting all the able-bodied men to go into battle.  Many of the men were reluctant to leave their families or their sweethearts.  So, to remedy that, Claudius ordered that there be no marriages and that all engagements were to be broken off immediately.

In addition to helping many Christians escape persecution, Valentine earned the reputation of being a friend of lovers by secretly performing Christian marriages in defiance of the Emperor's ban.  Claudius imprisoned him on Feb. 14, 270 A.D., and later had him beheaded because he would not renounce his faith.

Romans 5:8 tells us that “God demonstrated His love for us (the bride of Christ) in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  And He did that on the cross at Calvary, which brings us right up to Resurrection Day.

Spring is the season of new life.  Statistically, there are more babies born in the Spring than any other season.  There came a time when each of us was physically born into this world.   And, for Christians, there was another time when God caused His light to “shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor 4:6 ).  He gave us new life and we were Born Again.

Next on our American calendar, is Independence Day when we celebrate our liberties which were secured by those who made great sacrifices for our political freedoms. Likewise, Christ sacrificed His life to free us from the bondage of sin and death. “If the Son, therefore, shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). That’s real freedom worth celebrating.

Finally, we come all the way back to Halloween, but we who are Christians, no longer lurk in that darkness.  “The Light of the world has shined in our hearts.”  We walk in the Light and have no fear of death because Christ has triumphed over sin, death, Satan.

Oct. 31 is one of the most important dates on the church calendar.  It is Reformation Day; the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Cathedral door.  After 600 years of worldwide spiritual darkness (the Dark Ages) when most men were illiterate and very few had access to the written Word of God, Martin Luther and a host of other reformers, ushered in the Renaissance by shining the Light of God’s Truth into a world of superstition and darkness.


Martin Luther wrote A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD, based on Psalm 46.  The hymn, sometimes called the Battle Hymn of the Reformation, is a celebration of the sovereign power of God over all the earthly and spiritual forces of darkness, and of the sure hope we have in Him because of our Savior, Jesus Christ who is the Light of the world. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Job Description for the Music Minister

I am a simple man.  I am not trained or experienced in leading my congregation in singing.  It is not my gift.  But I serve in the position of song leader because there is no one else to do it.

The position of song leader is mine, not to grasp firmly but to hold carefully in trust with open hands; any man whom God sends our way and is qualified, willing, and available, may assume this responsibility from me without objection.  In the meantime, I take this ministry seriously. 

I have assembled this job description to remind me of my ministry responsibilities according to my understanding of scripture.

MY JOB DESCRIPTION

• Sing songs people know.   The important thing is that people sing songs of praises and thanksgiving to God; that is a scriptural commandment.  It is hard to do when they don’t know the songs.  If you introduce new songs, do it sparingly and then repeat them several times over a few weeks until they become familiar.

• Sing them in comfortable keys.  Your job is not to show off your vocal range (or vocal gymnastics).  If it is too high, too low, or in challenging intervals, your congregation will not sing.

• Sing to celebrate the power, glory, and salvation of God.  There are good personal and relational songs of testimony or sentiments that may be appropriate in certain situations but, for the most part, worship is NOT about how warm and fuzzy you feel; it is about bowing down in humble awe of the power and glory of God.  Sing His praises, sing about His attributes and sing about His mercy and grace.

• Serve your people.  This might seem like a no-brainer but a legitimate worship service provides people with what they need; not what they want. 

• Saturate them with the Word of God.   Support your song choices with biblical references to God’s Word.   He has assembled your congregation in your presence for only a few minutes each week and they don’t need junk food.  They need spiritual meat and music can be a useful vehicle to deliver it to them.  Make sure that your song choices are substantive and rich in scripture.

• Don’t sing songs with humanistic philosophies or heretical theology.  I once read a comment that asked, “If your music doesn’t preach, why sing it?”  The fact of the matter is that ALL music preaches.  The problem is that so many Christians learn so much false doctrine from spiritually anemic, or downright stupid, popular contemporary music in church and on Christian radio.  It takes wisdom and discernment to examine all the lyrics in light of Scripture.  If necessary, you may have to make some corrective changes to the lyrics or throw them out entirely.  Just do it because you are no less accountable than is your pastor when it comes to preaching or teaching false doctrine.

• Don’t draw attention to yourself.  It’s not about you (or your “worship team”).   Someone has suggested that, if worship teams were required to sing from behind a curtain, there would be no more worship teams.    Entertainment is not an element of  worship and the musical portion of your ministry is not your turn to perform.  And no one wants to hear your overly dramatic, rehearsed praises and prayers.  Do not use your music ministry as your outlet for creativity at the expense of the centrality of the Gospel.  I once had a pastor who had a small plaque on his pulpit, engrave with these words, “Sirs, we would see Jesus.”  It was fixed there to remind him (and anyone else he allowed to share his pulpit) that his responsibility was always and only to point men to Jesus.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Ministry Description In One Alliterated Sentence


I Should Summarize in a Single, Succinct. and Superbly Stellar Sentence; the Substance of my Service conSiStS of Sitting through Several Serious Sessions Sifting through Scores of Sheets to Select Suitable pSalms, Sentimental Spiritual Songs, and aSSorted, Scripturally Sound Sacred Strains that are Supportive of the Shepherd’s Sunday Sermons and Solemn Soliloquies So the Saints may Sing to their Sovereign Savior.  Selah!

Monday, October 24, 2016

*WONDERFUL GRACE OF JESUS

Last week I was irritated by a post, on a Christian Internet site, from a guy who was arrogant and boastful in his sin.  I don’t have time to read it all but here are a few brief excerpts:

“I am a very unconventional, yet very classical and traditional, Christian. What I don't understand is how the Church can be so legalistic.  …The gospel is free grace, extended to sinners.  (Our) righteousness comes from Jesus… with (His) invitation to ‘Come as you are!’

“I do not live by a strict set of rules…and you may find me cussing, smoking cigarettes, and laughing at cruel (or dirty) jokes.  I live with my pregnant girlfriend, unmarried, and I stumble in how I walk with the Lord.  I also live by faith in Jesus Christ and trust that His promises will be fulfilled in my life.

“The Father loves us unconditionally; because Christ fulfilled all the requirements to be satisfied on my behalf.  His free grace covers and cleanses me from all unrighteousness.”

That young man is confused as to the nature of the Gospel.  He holds to a common and dangerous heresy called Free Grace.  He claims to have received the free, gift of God’s grace, yet he shows no remorse for his sin, nor a need to repent.  He acts like, just because he once “accepted Jesus,” God is okay with it. 

Well, guess what?   God is NOT okay with it.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul asked a rhetorical question, “Should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his WONDERFUL GRACE?"  

And then he answers with the obvious- "OF COURSE NOT!  Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?”
 
And later he leaves them with a command, “Do NOT let sin control the way you live; do NOT give in to sinful desires.”    (Rom. 6:1,2,12)

It is true that God’s grace is freely bestowed on all those He saves but grace isn’t something trivial.  In fact, in most of our hymns about God’s grace, it is almost always described with superlative adjectives like Amazing, Marvelous, Infinite, Matchless, Magnificent, and Wonderful.  That kind of grace is not cheap; it comes at a great cost.  If we’ve never been grieved or tormented by the magnitude and consequences of our sin against God, then we can’t understand just how great His grace really is.

WONDERFUL GRACE OF JESUS might seem like a fun, frolicking little praise song but the author, Haldor Lillenas, captured the awesome greatness of God’s grace with phrases like "broader than the scope of my transgressions,” and "greater far than all my sin and shame."

That’s the kind of Grace we need; not just some flippant sort of favor from a warm and fluffy god who, with a wink and a nod, accepts us the way we are.  God’s grace is effective; when He saves us, He begins to clean us up.

That kind of grace is inexhaustible; it reaches to “all the lost.”  And it’s “all-sufficient;” it’s enough for all our needs.  By His grace, all who believe are “saved to the uttermost.”  It is even sufficient for “the most defiled,” and, in the words of the songwriter, it is sufficient for even me, and believe me, I am especially thankful for that because my sin was so great that the Son of God suffered and died on the cross so that I could be pardoned.   He took the burden and the penalty of my sin on Himself and He covered me in His righteousness.  That is the WONDERFUL GRACE OF JESUS.         

Monday, October 17, 2016

*ONLY TRUST HIM

A long time ago, there was a man in the city of Philippi who asked: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). That question has been answered in many different ways throughout the centuries – most of them are not helpful.

I have a new friend who has recently become fearful of his eternal destination and it’s all my fault.  Several months ago he developed some serious health concerns so he is trying to make things right with God.  Okay, that’s good, but then he began telling me how good he is.  
 
Well, I could see where he was going with that; he thought his goodness would have some merit in God’s eyes.  I looked at him and asked, “You do know you’re a sinner, don’t you?”

That startled him.  He had never heard anyone tell him that before and it was a hard pill to swallow.  His religious background is a mixture of various, aberrant Christian sects and cults.  He believes so much that just isn’t true. 

So now he seems to be sincerely interested; he comes around frequently to talk about God and he says he wants to know Him better but he is still confused and in the dark.  He keeps holding on to religious works.

He has another friend who also has his ear; a man who teaches a different, false gospel of salvation by works that will lead him to certain destruction. That man has him convinced that salvation comes by joining the church and being baptized and then he should look for signs, and feel the power, and experience miracles from the Spirit of God as the evidence of saving faith.

But salvation is not obtained by joining a church, repeating a prayer, being baptized, experiencing miracles, or doing good works.  The ONLY effective and truly powerful resource we have, to offer someone who is lost, is the Gospel, and we have the promise from God that He will accomplish His work of saving sinners through His Word.
     
The straight, simple answer from Paul and Silas, to that Philippian jail guard, was the ONLY thing he needed to do: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

And THEN, the text says, “…they spoke unto him the Word of the Lord,” (Acts 16:31).

So I simply and consistently urge my friend to just trust in Christ alone and then I always go back to God’s Word and rehearse the Gospel.

That biblical formula is set to music here in this, three-stanza, hymn, ONLY TRUST HIM.  It is usually sung as a general invitation hymn.  But that invitation, “Come, every soul,” is offered to those who are oppressed by sin.  That’s called conviction.  Those who are being saved by God are grieved by their sin and they can do nothing but call out to Him for mercy.

Verse two abbreviates the Gospel -- Jesus shed His blood which cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

And then verse three alludes to the work of God in our lives through the Word of God.  Jesus is the Truth and His Word is the Truth.  When Jesus saves us, we can rest in Him.  His Word gives us full assurance that we are truly saved to the uttermost.

ONLY TRUST HIM.  He is the Only way to salvation.

Come every soul by sin oppressed,
There’s mercy with the Lord,
And He will surely give you rest,
By trusting in His Word.

For Jesus shed His precious blood,
Rich blessings to bestow;
Plunge now into the crimson flood’
That washes white as snow.

Yes, Jesus is the Truth, the Way,
That leads you into rest,
Believe in Him without delay,
And you are fully blest.

(refrain)

Only trust Him; only trust Him.
Only trust Him now.
He will save you; He will save you.
He will save you now.


Monday, October 10, 2016

*BREAK THOU THE BREAD OF LIFE (1)

Mary Lathbury often visited Lake Chautauqua (shuh-TAW-kwuh) in New York during the summers.  In 1877, she was asked to write a hymn to be sung at Chautauqua Bible studies.   
 BREAK THOU THE BREAD OF LIFE is often used as a communion hymn but the “bread of life” in the song should NOT be equated to the symbol we use at the Lord’s table.

The expression, "the bread of life" is from Jesus' teaching, in John 6, where He calls Himself the "bread of life" and the "living bread".  You may recall that just prior to that event, He had fed thousands of people with just five loaves and two fish.  So, in that context, just like God had provided bread in the wilderness for Israel, Jesus had miraculously provided food for the hungry crowd.

Jesus was teaching His disciples that He, "the Living Bread," was superior to the manna because the manna only satisfied their physical hunger; He, “the Bread of Life,” provided for the spiritual and eternal needs of their souls. 

Apparently, not all His listeners understood because Jesus got even more emphatic: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you." (John 6:53)

Jesus may have intentionally alluded to the communion ordinance that He would later institute in the upper room because He used the same figurative language at the Last Supper when He said, "Take, eat; this is My body... Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood..."  (Matthew 26:26-28).   

There is confusion about what Mary Lathbury intended when, in verse one, she wrote of seeking Christ "beyond the sacred page."  There are some doubts that she literally intended to suggest that we can have revelation beyond the written Scriptures.  Our knowledge of Christ is revealed in His Word.    But just for the sake of clarification and doctrinal accuracy, Ellis Crum, the editor of Sacred Selections, changed one word; he changed this line from “beyond the sacred page” to "within the sacred page."   

Probably a clearer explanation of Mary’s intended meaning is that our souls have a hunger for God.  The psalmist equates it to a spiritual thirst.  Psalm 42:1 says, "As a deer pants for water, so my soul pants for You, O God."  We need to know Christ intimately, on a personal level, beyond just knowing the stories and the facts about Him.  As we "drink" the Water of His Word, the Words of Scripture will change us.   

The song then moves from the importance of knowing the Bread of Life to the importance of the Truth of the Word of God.   Real freedom and peace with God come only through obedience to the Truth of His Word.  Jesus said, "If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)

In 1913, Alexander Groves added a final verse.  This last one moves the subject to the importance of the ministry of the Holy Spirit of God in our lives.  It is He who gives us spiritual understanding.  He opens our spiritual eyes and ears, and He applies the Words of Scripture to our hearts. 

I really like the last line – “And, in Thy Book revealed, I see the Lord.”


Are you looking for God?  Do you really want to see Him?  Stop looking for miracles, signs, and wonders.  Open His Book!  That's where you'll find Him.


(Another illustrative commentary on this hymn can be found here.)

Monday, October 3, 2016

*GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS

Thomas Obadiah Chisholm was a poor, simple man of who experienced God’s faithfulness throughout his whole life.  He was born in a log cabin in Franklin, Kentucky in 1866.  He was educated in a little, one-room country schoolhouse, and at the age of 16, he began teaching there.  Later, he worked as an associate editor of the Franklin Advocate, his hometown weekly newspaper.

After God saved him at the age of 27, Thomas learned to find comfort and strength in the faithfulness of God to provide for all his needs in difficult times of illness.

With no formal college education or seminary training, he was ordained to the Methodist ministry at age 36.  He served as a pastor for only one year because of his fragile health. There were many periods of time when he was confined to his bed and unable to work.

Between his bouts of illnesses, he would push himself to work extra, long hours at various odd jobs just to make ends meet.
 
Thomas loved to write and during his lifetime, he wrote hundreds of poems.  One of them was GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS, which was inspired by Lamentations 3:22-23, “It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness.”

This hymn has three verses that demonstrate God’s great faithfulness. 

Verse 1 declares His faithfulness as He has revealed Himself in His Word.  It is adapted from James 1:17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”  

God is faithful because of His unchanging nature.  He is always the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

In verse 2, the writer points to the witness of nature as evidence of God’s faithfulness. The courses of the Sun, the moon, and the stars; the seasons, and even the ebbs and flows of the tides are all ordered and regulated by Him.  

If you are fearful about global warming and rising seas, you can rest assured that God has it all under control.  It is He who, said, “For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree, so it cannot cross over it. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; Though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it.” (Jer. 5:22)

He has orchestrated all of creation and He holds it all together according to His purposes and for His glory.

Verse 3 then assures us of God’s faithfulness in our lives.  He saves us, forgives us of all our sins, gives us His peace, empowers us for His service, and assures us of our eternal hope. And so we can trust Him for all His benefits, not because of anything we have done, but because of what Jesus Christ has done.  “The Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one.”  (2 Thess. 3:3)

He is faithful to deliver us.


About his simple, ordinary life, Thomas Chisholm said, “God has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care which have filled me with astonishing gratefulness.”

Whatever difficulties or trials we might face in our lives, this hymn reminds us that God’s promises are true, that He never changes, and that His compassions never fail.