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, April 30, 2017

*JESUS CALLS US

Miss Cecil Humphreys was just 21 years old when she published her first book entitled "Verses for Holy Seasons." It was a children’s book that contained a hymn or poem for each Sunday of the year.

In her Sunday School classes, her students were often confused about the meaning of some of the statements in the Apostle’s Creed. So, she began to write easy to memorize verses in the children’s terminology.  Many of those verses were developed into hymns, some of which are familiar to us.

For example, the first phrase of the Apostle’s Creed is, "I believe in God the Father Almighty."  The song she wrote to explain that phrase was, All Things Bright and Beautiful. For "Born of the Virgin Mary" she wrote, Once in Royal David's City. And to explain the meaning of the death of Jesus who was crucified and buried, she wrote, There is a Green Hill far Away.

In 1848, she married the Rev. Mr. William Alexander and in that same year, she published her second book titled, "Hymns for Little Children," which included the songs that were inspired by the Creed. 

In total, she wrote over four hundred hymns and poems but, of all her works, JESUS CALLS US is the most often sung and best loved.  

It has been said that prayer is like having a direct telephone line to God.  We can call Him anytime.  But have you ever thought about the fact that the phone line goes in two directions? Do you realize that JESUS CALLS US

In our prayers, we tend to call out to God as if we think He should serve us or that He should do what we tell Him.  We expect Him to fix our messed up situations, patch up our bad relationships, bail us out of financial difficulties, or heal our diseases.  And sometimes maybe that is His will, but usually, that’s not the case.  Our place is not to make demands or impose our wills on Him but rather to yield to His will for us.

JESUS CALLS US to serve Him regardless of our circumstances.  Paul’s words, in his letter to the Church at Philippi, are helpful.  “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things, I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:11-13)

I think our best example, though, is Christ, Himself, when He was tempted in the wilderness.  He was weak, hungry, lonely, and despised.  Satan tempted Him with great promises of wealth, and political power, and physical comfort.

Yet Jesus didn’t grasp for those things.  He loved and trusted His Father more than His own life. And just as He had instructed His disciples when He taught them to pray, “Thy will be done,” He obediently did what He was sent to do.   It was His Father’s will that He should suffer and die for our sins.

And that’s the way God works in our lives too; He doesn’t normally just make us comfortable or give us lots of stuff.  He molds us in the presses and tests us in the fires because He wants to make us Holy.

The hymn starts with a note of encouragement; when our lives are full of hardship and turmoil, JESUS CALLS US, not to remove our difficulties but to follow Him in and through them.

Our God is a jealous god and He wants first place.  If people or hobbies or wealth or other vain idols dominate or control our lives, JESUS CALLS US to “dump the junk” and love Him more.

Whether we are happy or sad, whether life is easy or tough, whatever conditions or circumstances we are in, JESUS CALLS US to love Him more than anyone or anything else.

The final verse begins with a subtle reminder; the very fact that JESUS CALLS US is evidence of His love and mercy toward us.  The hymn concludes with a prayer, that, by His Spirit, we may hear Him, and that He would soften our hearts to serve Him and love Him best of all.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

*I'D RATHER HAVE JESUS

Martin was an alcoholic who hated God; he wanted nothing to do with church or any kind of religion.   But his wife, Bertha, was a Christian who faithfully prayed for her husband’s salvation, for years.
 
Eventually, the light of the Gospel penetrated Martin’s heart.  God saved him and then delivered him from the grip of alcoholism.  At the time of that event, he publicly declared, “I would rather have Jesus than all the gold and silver in the world, and all the houses and lands that money could buy.” 

Later, Martin became a pastor.

He and Bertha had a daughter, named Rhea, who married Howard Miller, one of the young men in his church.

Howard was studying for the ministry and eventually pastored until he was recruited to serve as Dean of Religion at Northwest Nazarene College in Idaho.  In 1940, he was elected a General Superintendent of the Nazarene denomination. 

After his death in 1948, Robert’s wife, Rhea, began teaching piano lessons to make ends meet.  But she had an unusual goal for her vocation; she taught, without charge, children of pastors because, by the time they reached maturity, she wanted them to have learned skills they could use to serve God in His church.

One day during her devotions, Rhea recalled those words her father had spoken at the time of his conversion, and she crafted them into a poem which is the song we have today.  Some sources indicate that she probably wrote a music score too, but her song remained unknown until a new score was composed years later.
 
George was born in 1909.  His father was a Wesleyan Methodist pastor in Canada and then later in New York.

As a young boy, George had a natural affinity for music and taught himself to play some chords on the piano.  He became a Christian at the age of 18 and, for a while, he attended Annesley College in Ottawa and later transferred to Houghton College in New York where he studied music until his funds were depleted.  He dropped out of school in 1929, the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, and landed a professional position as a medical clerk for the Mutual Insurance Company of New York. 

While working there, he met Fred Allen, the host of a national radio talent show.  Upon learning of George’s singing talent, Allen arranged for an audition.  A few weeks later George was singing on the National Broadcasting Company where he took second place and was offered a substantial salary to sing on the radio.

He was well on his way to fame in the broadcasting industry but shortly after that, something happened that changed the course of his life.  He tells about it in his book, How Sweet the Sound:

“At the age of twenty-three, I was living at home with my parents, continuing to work at Mutual Life Insurance and studying voice. Going to the piano one Sunday morning, I found a poem waiting for me there. I recognized my mother’s handwriting. She had copied the words of a poem by Mrs. Rhea F. Miller, knowing that I would read the beautiful message.  

"As I read these precious words:
‘I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause. I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause,’ “I found myself singing the words in a melody that expressed the deep feelings of my heart.”

So, right there, that morning, George worked out the melody and wrote the music score.  When his mother heard his singing, she encouraged him to sing the new song in church the following Sunday.


George turned from secular entertainment to using his voice for the gospel in Christian radio and television broadcasting and, from there, George Beverly Shea caught the attention of a young evangelist who recruited him as a gospel soloist for his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1947.  

I’D RATHER HAVE JESUS became George Beverly Shea’s testimony and signature song which he sang at the close of the Billy Graham crusade meetings for about fifty years.   

Sunday, April 16, 2017

*WERE YOU THERE?

“WERE YOU THERE?” is one of many American spirituals that were sung by plantation slaves in the early 1800s.   The words are based on the New Testament narratives of the trial, persecution, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  

There is no known author, but it is likely that the song just evolved.  It was customary for the slaves to sing together, for comfort and encouragement, while they labored.  And because they had no formally written songs or accompaniment, usually one person would sing out a line.  And then the rest would repeat the line in full harmony.  In that kind of setting, it was not unusual, for several people, to chime in with a new line or thought and so, the song would grow.   These songs were then memorized and passed down through several generations.

This “Negro spiritual” follows that traditional style.

Each verse starts with the same question, “Were you there?” I read a recent account about a tourist who was visiting Golgotha and the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. And while he was there, he fell on his knees and began to weep.  Someone saw him and asked, “Sir, have you ever been here before?”

“Yes!” he answered, “I was here 2000 years ago.”

How can that be?  Well, it is clear from scripture (Acts 4:27), the death of Jesus was a corporate act of all sinful humanity against God.  We are all together guilty.

That man’s answer is my answer, “I was there.” 

According to God’s Word, before my life began in 1948, I was in Adam, both positionally and spiritually. 

Just as through one man (Adam), sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to all men since everyone has sinned.  (Romans 5:12)

So, God's Word says, I am a condemned sinner by nature.  The judgment for Adam's sin is my judgment.

But the Good News of the Gospel is that God sent a Redeemer (Jesus Christ).  Just as I was condemned to eternal death by the sin of my natural father, Adam, now I am made alive by the death of Jesus Christ who took my death penalty on Himself.

"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"   

My answer is “Yes.  I was there.”  My sin nailed Him to the cross.  That’s why that tourist was weeping. 

But the death and burial of Jesus is not the end of story.  Christ arose; He is alive.  And so, the somber mood of this hymn changes to joy in this last stanza:

“Were you there when He rose up from the dead?
Sometimes I feel like shouting, Glory, glory, glory!"

I was there when Christ suffered and bled and died for my sin and now I am made alive and free.


Monday, April 10, 2017

*HYMN TO A GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN (O GOD, THE DEEP IMMUTABLE)

How big is your God?  I noticed last week, in our Bible study (Behold Your God), one commentator made this statement: “(Our) great goal…is to be amazed with the bigness of God and to allow that to infiltrate and affect our lives in every arena of our lives.”

It seems like our culture, our country, and the whole world is rushing headlong into destruction.   Immorality, lawlessness, and godlessness is all around us and every day seems worse than the one before.  Consequently, many people, including Christians, are insecure, worried, and fearful.

It's NOT sufficient to simply acknowledge that God can or may use bad situations for our good.  We need to understand that God is much bigger than all our problems.  So, I continually remind myself; God is Sovereign.  But is He sovereign in ALL THINGS?  Do we really believe that?  Are we sure?

I know that most Christians will admit that God is in control but I wonder if we really believe that He controls ALL THINGS.   I sometimes ask that question of my Christian friends and almost every one of them answers "Yes, God is sovereign." 

But then, when I dig a little deeper and ask more specific questions about things like His control over our health, our environment, our finances, or even our salvation, the answers I get are often surprising.  One person answered, "Well, He is sovereign to a certain extent."

NO!  God is not sovereign to an extent.  There is no extent to God; He is immeasurable and infinite.  He is not limited in any of His attributes.  If your god’s sovereignty is limited, then your god is not the true God as revealed in His Word.

A God who is truly Sovereign is NOT reactive; it's not simply that, because He knows the future, He manipulates circumstances and works to change the outcomes of bad things.  He is not on the defensive.  The truth is that He is proactive.  He has ORDAINED ALL THINGS for His Glory.

HYMN TO A GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN (sometimes called, O God, The Deep Immutable), is a hymn about the “bigness” of God.  It focusses our attention to the mighty power of a sovereign God who rules over ALL His creation.

The first stanza begins with one of His attributes; God is immutable; He NEVER changes.  He doesn’t change His mind or His plans.  And He is not changed by His creation.  He doesn’t learn anything; nothing has ever occurred to Him so He is not caught off guard by anything men do.

God is not changed by time either.  He doesn’t grow older, He doesn’t forget, and He isn’t uncertain or surprised about the future.

The second stanza assures us that He is not caught off guard by nature.   All creation, the entire universe, changes at His command.  (Are you worried about global climate change and the threat of rising sea levels?)  Well, Proverbs 8:29 informs us that, even the boundaries of the seas are set by God’s spoken Word.  He is the Sovereign ruler over ALL things.

He is not only a SOVEREIGN ruler; He is also a GRACIOUS ruler. After the song proclaims the vast, immeasurable wonder of His power and glory, the hymn writer uses the final two stanzas to reveal His grace, love, and mercy. Because He is immutable, His care for us never diminishes; “He who began a good work in us will complete it.” (Phil. 1:6)


God is in control and He, intricately, works all things together for the good of those He is saving.  And that is why, as Christians, we can find peace and great comfort even during times of hardship, persecution, or tribulation.  

But, as the songwriter indicates, the greatest evidence of God’s graciousness is that “(He) demonstrated His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)


HYMN TO A GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN
 (O GOD, THE DEEP IMMUTABLE)
Sing to the tune of, "O Sing a Song of Bethlehem"  KINGSFOLD c.m.d.
  
O God, the deep immutable,
The changeless, wise and still;
The absolute, eternal One;
You wield the sov’reign will.
Deep Heav’n itself and even time,
Must bend beneath Your sway.
With whispered thought You banish night,
With flash of blinding day.
  
The seas are bounded by Your Word;
Great mountains heed Your call.
Majestic swirls of galaxies,
Adorn Your royal hall.
The centuries are lumps of clay,
Shaped by Your strength and skill.
You mold the long millennia,
To the dictates of Your will.
  
The boundless, black-robed skies proclaim,
Your vast, astonishing might;
Their flaming jewels rejoice for You,
In silent shouts of light.
With sure and sovereign strokes, Your hands,
Finger the cosmic strings,
And play celestial symphonies.
As all creation sings.
  
And silent now, the angels stare;
Stunned seraphs blush, amazed;
Great Michael sheaths the sword that, at,
The Gate of Eden, blazed.
And Gabriel sets his trump aside,
And listens to his Lord,
As Love, incomprehensible,
Becomes the Living Word.
  
Now, space and time have cracked before,
The size of this event:
The glorious Godhead shudders as,   
The Son, to Hell, is sent.
Though Very God of Very God,
He counts it all but loss,
And comes and suffers as a man,
From manger to the Cross.

Words by Neil Barham (used by permission)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

*OH SPIRIT, NOW WE THANK YOU

Our hymn book contains about 800 songs and hymns.  Many of them are rich with sound teachings about our God, Jesus Christ, Truth, salvation, Christian living, the Word of God, praise, worship, and the Church. 

But, when it comes to the subject of the Holy Spirit, so much of the available music borders on blasphemy or, at least, heresy, which is defined as “an unbiblical doctrine or belief; a teaching that does not come from God or His Word.”   

We often find phrases like “Come Holy Spirit, fill this place, fall afresh on me, or, I want to feel your presence or your power or your joy.”

The problem with lyrics like those is that they teach us very little, or no truth.  And a lot of them appeal to our physical senses rather than our minds.  Feelings and emotions are not evidence of the Spirit’s presence or His work. 
 
Paul instructed the Church at Ephesus to “speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:19)

His letter to the Colossians was a little more intentional.  He said, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16)

Those instructions define our purpose for corporate singing in the Church; it is to teach and reinforce biblical truth for our edification and for God’s glory.  So, what SHOULD appropriate lyrics look like when we sing about the Holy Spirit?

I think Jesus answered that before He left, when He said to His disciples, “I tell you the truth; It is necessary for you that I go away: for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.  I have many things, yet, to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now.  However, when He, the Spirit of Truth, comes, He will guide you into all Truth: for He will not speak of Himself.  He will glorify Me.” (John 16)

The Spirit uses the Word of God to accomplish the Work of God.  If we are going to celebrate and honor the Holy Spirit in our singing, we need the Truth of God’s Word to fill our minds and to permeate our worship. 

O SPIRIT, NOW WE THANK YOU is a contemporary hymn written and arranged by Ken Puls. In my opinion, this one of the most doctrinally correct hymns ever written about the Holy Spirit. In every phrase, it teaches several, biblically accurate aspects of the Spirit’s work.  It is by Him, that we have the written Word of God.  With the Word of God, He convicts us of sin.   He conforms us to righteousness by the application of His Word.  And with the Word of God, He equips and empowers us for service.  He illumines the Word of God so that we can understand it, and by His Word, He guides us and teaches us all Truth. 

And, just like Jesus told His disciples, The Holy Spirit never brings attention to Himself.  With the written Word of God, He always and only glorifies Jesus Christ, who is the Living Word of God.


O SPIRIT, NOW WE THANK YOU

1.   O Spirit, now we thank You,
For giving us Your Word.
Please bless its proclamation,
The truths that we have heard.
Indwell us and empow'r us,
And cause us to obey;
Shine now the light of Scripture,
On all we do and say.

2.   Great Artist of the Scriptures,
In beauty, You have made,
God's Word to shine in glory,
That cannot fail or fade.
In poetry and proverbs,
Through narrative and line;
In prophecy and hist'ry,
God's truth in splendor shines.

3.   You, down through many ages,
Inspired men to write,
Progressively revealing,
You brought God's truth to light.
O Spirit, come illumine,
This truth for us today;
And guide us in sound doctrine,
The straight and narrow way.

4.   Wield now Your Sword, O Spirit,
The quick and living Word,
And rend our hearts asunder,
With truths that we have heard.
O search us now and know us,
Expose iniquity;
Conform us to our Savior,
And holy we shall be.


(Final notes) 

This is an excellent hymn of thanksgiving to the Holy Spirit, that shines the Light of Truth on our Savior. 

The musical score flows nicely with the lyrics and is simple enough for most congregational singing.

The hymn is metrically adaptable to the music of several other familiar hymns including, “The Church’s One Foundation,” “O Jesus, I Have Promised,” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and “Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus.”








Sunday, April 2, 2017

*PRAISE THE LORD! YE HEAVENS ADORE HIM

In 1739, Thomas Coram founded an orphanage in London.  By the early 1800s, it had become well-known for its music programs and it was a popular attraction for Londoners to attend Sunday services just to hear the children’s choir sing.   George Frederick Handel donated an organ for the chapel and he often presented benefit performances of the “Messiah,” to raise funds for The Foundling Hospital of London. 
 
That archaic word, “foundling,” is defined as “an abandoned infant who has been found.  A young child with no known parents or guardians.

John Keble used the word, foundling, in a verse of his poem, “The Second Sunday After Epiphany:” 

Fathers may hate us or forsake,
God's foundlings then are we;
Mother, on child, no pity take,
But we shall still have Thee.

And the phrase in Amazing Grace, “I once was lost, but now am found,” is an allusion to Luke 15:24, where that imagery was used by Jesus.  In His parable of the prodigal son, the father said, “…my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and now is found.”

The Foundling Hospital is remembered today, mainly because of a hymnbook compiled in 1796, by Coram titled, Psalms, Hymns, and Anthems of the Foundling Hospital, London.  Inside the jacket of that book, was an anonymous poem inspired by Psalm 148.  It became the lyrics of the first two stanzas of the hymn, PRAISE THE LORD!  YE HEAVENS ADORE HIM.

Psalm 148 begins and ends with the same command; “Praise the Lord.”

“Praise the Lord! 

Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise Him in the heights.  Praise Him, all His angels; praise Him, all His heavenly hosts.  Praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him, all you stars of light.  Praise Him, you highest of heavens, and you waters that are above the skies. 

“Let them praise the Name of the Lord, for He commanded, and they were created.  He has also established them forever and ever; He has made a decree that shall not pass away.

“Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures, and all you depths, fire and hail, snow and mist, storming wind fulfilling His Word, mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars; animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds; kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth; both young men and maidens, old men and children. 

“Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is excellent; His glory is above the earth and heaven.  He has raised up a victory horn for His people, praise for all His saints, even for the people of Israel near Him. 

“Praise the Lord!”

The Psalm can be divided into three parts:
Part 1 commands the heavens and everything in them, to Praise the Lord.
And Part 2 commands the earth and everything in it, to Praise the Lord.

It may seem odd that God would command all His creation (the sun, moon and stars; the waters, the elements, and all plant and animal life) to praise Him.  The word, Praise, means to recite or reflect God’s attributes back to Him.  How can those things do that?  Well, obviously, not with spoken words or human languages but, in all of nature, His design, purpose, and handiwork are clearly seen.  So, all creation is a continuous testimony to His greatness, and His power, and His Majesty. 

This idea is reminiscent of the opening verses of Psalm 19 where we see a similar testimony of God’s creation. Notice the allusions to speech; “Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming His handiwork.  One day gushes the news to the next, and one night informs another, what needs to be known.  Of course, there is no speech, no words— their voices can’t be heard—but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.”

Part 3, is a general command for ALL people, everywhere, to Praise the Lord.  And whether or not they willingly do that now, we know that one day, “Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  (Rom. 14:11, Phil. 2:9-11, Is. 45:23)

Verse 14 ends the Psalm with a personal reminder to God’s foundling children.  We have greater reasons to praise Him.  We were once lost and now are found; we have been redeemed and adopted.  We have been shown mercy and grace.  And we can praise Him for Jesus Christ who suffered and bled and died for our sins that we might be saved.

So, we are ALL commanded to Praise the Lord.