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 30, 2017

A tribute to The Music and Faith of MAJOR DANIEL WEBSTER WHITTLE

The Banner Of The Cross

Historically, flags or banners have been raised up as symbols of identification and loyalty to a person or a cause and that is the sense of this song.   This classic, gospel rally song, THE BANNER OF THE CROSS, was written by Major Daniel Webster Whittle.

As Christians, our banner is not the Christian flag.  We rally to the Person who was crucified on the cross.

One of the great Old Testament names of God is Jehovah Nissi, which means the Lord is My Banner.

In (Isa. 11:10) the word “banner” is applied to the Messiah; “…In that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, who shall stand AS A BANNER to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious”

Jesus, alluding to His crucifixion, said, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw all peoples to Myself.” (Jn. 12:32).

We follow Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross for our sins.   He is our banner.

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Showers of Blessing

Ezek. 34:26 says, “…I will make them and the places round about My hill a blessing; and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing.”

Daniel Whittle must have been inspired by that passage when he wrote, SHOWERS OF BLESSING.

I remember a scene in an old movie about a long drought.  The land was parched, the crops had failed and people and animals were dying.  They desperately needed a revival of life-giving rain.  When the rain finally came, the people ran outside and soaked in the downpour.  They laughed, they hugged, they shouted and danced, and everyone rejoiced for the rain. 

Some people think that, if we gather together and pray long and hard enough, God will send a wide revival across the land.  But that usually doesn’t happen.  Widespread revivals are the sovereign work of God; not something we can accomplish with programming or planning.  This song is a plea for personal spiritual revival.
 
This last stanza, which is often omitted from most hymn books, makes the important and practical, personal application; we need personal revival; we need to confess our sins and ask the Lord to change our hearts: 

There shall be showers of blessing,
If we but trust and obey;
There shall be seasons refreshing,
If we let God have His way.

During those times of spiritual dryness, the first and best place to turn is the Word of God.  "For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 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."  I. 55:10-11

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Moment by Moment

While visiting the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Henry Varley, an English pastor, struck up a conversation with Daniel Whittle and his friend, Ira Sankey.   In their discussion, Varley said, “I don’t particularly care for the song, 'I Need Thee Every Hour,' because I need the Lord every moment!”

Ira Sankey turned to Whittle and said, “There’s an idea for a new song.”
That was the inspiration for, MOMENT BY MOMENT.   Shortly afterward, Daniel Whittle had written the words. His daughter, May (who married Dwight Moody’s son) supplied the tune.  
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I Know Whom I Have Believed

Lieutenant Daniel Whittle married Miss Abbie Hanson, the night before his unit was called to battle at the outset of the Civil War.  It was one year before they were reunited.

Whittle rose to the rank of Major while leading a charge.  During the battle, he was severely wounded and his sword arm had to be amputated.  He was confined to a POW camp hospital for recovery.

Out of boredom, he looked for something to read and he found a copy of the New Testament that his mother had placed in his gear.  He read through it several times.  One night a nurse came to him and asked him to go pray for one of his men.  The man was dying and had been begging for someone to come and pray for him.
 
Major Whittle objected that he was too wicked and sinful to pray with the soldier. The nurse begged him and said, “We all thought that you, Major Whittle, were a Christian because we have seen you constantly reading the Scriptures.”

Major Whittle reluctantly agreed to go see the boy.  He recorded the event of that night: "I dropped on my knees and held the boy's hand in mine. In a few broken words, I confessed my sins and asked Christ to forgive me.  I believed, right there, that He did forgive me. I then prayed earnestly for the boy. He became quiet and pressed my hand as I prayed and pleaded God's promises. When I arose from my knees, he was dead.  A look of peace had come over his troubled face, and I cannot but believe that God who used him to bring me to the Savior, used me to lead him to trust Christ's precious blood and find pardon. I hope to meet him in heaven."

Ten years later, his close friend D.L. Moody, encouraged him to join with the evangelism ministries.

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Have You Any Room For Jesus? 

In “The Romance of Sacred Song,” David Beattie recorded an incident related to the hymn, HAVE YOU ANY ROOM FOR JESUS?”

In the early part of the twentieth century, a group of Christians was holding an open-air meeting in the city of London.  During their presentation, they sang Major Whittle’s song.  During the second stanza, two men, who were engaged in their hobby of flying homing pigeons, walked by.

One of them was suddenly struck by the words of the second verse.

“That’s me,” he said to his friend, “Room for pleasure, room for business, but no room for Christ. You can go on if you like, but I’m going to the street meeting.”

He returned home with his pigeons and then went back to the meeting.

His wife, followed him to see what had affected him. The couple came to a little chapel, where the team had gone to continue their gospel meeting, and they sat down to listen. That night, both he and his wife trusted Christ as Savior.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

I CANNOT TELL

Londonderry Air is the name of the musical composition that is the melody for an old Irish hymn of the same name.  There’s not much redeeming value in the lyrics of the hymn but musically, it is an excellent composition that most people would recognize as the melody of the famous Irish song, Danny Boy.

A variation of that tune is used in the popular, contemporary secular song, You Raise Me Up.

There are at least 11 Christian songs that have been written for that melody including, He Looked Beyond My Fault and Saw My Need, by Dottie Rambo; What Grace Is Mine, by Kristyn Getty; and Lord Of The Church, We Pray For Our Renewing, by Timothy Dudley-Smith.  

One artist has skillfully adapted the text of the 23rd Psalm to the melody and another singer used it in a public performance of the hymn, Amazing Grace.

One of the better songs set to Londonderry Air is I CANNOT TELL, written by an Irishman, William Young Fullerton.  As a young man, William heard the Gospel preaching of Charles Spurgeon and he was saved.  Spurgeon became his close friend and mentor. 

William Fullerton was a Baptist preacher, administrator, and writer.  He served as President of the Baptist Union and as Home Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society.  He was a frequent speaker at Keswick Conventions. His published works include biographies of John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, James William Condell Fegan, and Frederick Brotherton Meyer; and other missionary histories and devotional writings.  He also compiled several hymnals.

In 1966, Ken Bible made some careful alterations to the hymn while respecting William Fullerton's original work.  The result was the amazing song as it is written in our hymnbook.  Although it has become a popular and appropriate song for the Christmas season, it is a great hymn of affirmation about the saving work of our Savior.

Philippians 2:7-8 may have provided some inspiration for this hymn;  “He (Christ Jesus) made Himself of no reputation taking the form of a bond servant and coming in the likeness of men…… He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on the Cross.”

The songwriter poses a number of unanswerable questions; why would He do that for us?  What would compel Him to leave His Father, lay aside His splendor, and be born in a dirty feeding trough?  Why would He choose to suffer the humiliation and the agony of the cross?

There is so much we cannot know and may never fully understand about our Great God and Savior. But, there is plenty that we can know from His revealed Word.  So, after the questions, come the great declarations of our faith;  BUT THIS, I KNOW, that Christ, the Lord is risen and because He lives I’ll rise to life eternal.  He took my guilty heart and I’m forever free.  The Savior of the World is Lord and King!


I CANNOT TELL

I cannot tell why He, the King of Heaven,
Should leave the peace of all eternity,
Why God, Himself, should lay aside His splendor,
To leave the Father's side and come to me.
But this I know:  Our silence filled with singing,
And all our darkness fled from heaven's light,
When Christ the Lord, so human, yet so holy,
In love was born a child for me that holy night.

I cannot tell why He, the Joy of Heaven,
Should give Himself to suffer for my sin,
Why Holy God should love me in my shamefulness,
Why He should die to draw my soul to Him.
But this I know:  That Christ the Lord is risen,
And praise His Name, He's risen now in me!
Because He lives, I'll rise to life eternal!
He took my guilty heart, and I'm forever free!

I cannot tell when He will rule the nations,
How He will claim His loved ones as His own;
And who can tell the holy jubilation,
When all His children gather round His throne?
But this I know:  All flesh will see His glory,
And skies will burst as all creation sings.
The Son will rise on one eternal morning,
When Christ, the Savior of the world, is Lord and King!

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.)