There is a hope

I’m fond of many old hymns in the numerous hymnbooks sitting on top of our piano.  In some cases, the words don’t amount to very much.  The appeal then is often about memories of childhood as much as anything else, including singing after church on Sunday night with congregants  clustered round the piano in the manse , often with my mother playing.  Decades on I can still go straight to the page in the hymn book put together for the 1965 Trans-Pacific Crusade where I find the song we sang so often

Jesus my Lord will love me forever
From him no pow’r of evil can sever;
He gave his life to ransom my soul,
Now I belong to him

Now I belong to Jesus,
Jesus belongs to me,
Not for the years of time alone,
But for eternity

or, a couple of pages over (and words I’m less sure I’d sing quite that way today)

Like a river glorious
Is God’s perfect peace,
Over all victorious
In its bright increase;
Perfect yet it floweth
Fuller every day;
Perfect yet it growth
Deeper all the way.

Stayed upon Jehovah,
Hearts are fully blest
Finding as he promised,
Perfect peace and rest

I suspect we lose something important when churches (a) dispense with hymnbooks (established collection of songs of whatever vintage), and (b) move on to new generations of songs every few months or years (I recently heard one song leader introduce a song written 15 years ago as an “old song”).

I was raised Baptist, and my heart always skipped a beat slightly when we sang no 362 in the Baptist Hymn Book “Our Father God, Thy name we praise” – not only was it from a 16th century Anabaptist collection, but the translation had been done by the General Secretary of the Baptist Union in the UK. To this day, my heart skips a beat when we sing John Bunyan’s “Who would true valour see, Let him come hither” in an Anglican church, recalling the persecution Bunyan endured in his pilgrimage of faith. The very next hymn in the same hymn book is Luther’s Ein’ Feste Burg – “A safe stronghold our Gold is still”

“And though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vainsih all,
The city of God remaineth.”

Sadly I haven’t yet sung it in a month in which we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.

As an adult I’ve come to appreciate deeply some of the very old songs in our hymnbooks. One attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux

Be near me when I’m dying,
O show Thy cross to me,
And, for my succour flying,
Come Lord, and set me free!
These eyes new faith receiving,
From Jesus shall not move;
For he who dies believing,
Dies safely through his love

or back another 500 years

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
Sing the ending of the fray;
Now above the cross the trophy,
Sound the loud triumphant lay;
Tell how Christ the world’s redeemer,
As a victim won the day.

or pre-Reformation Catholic spirituality

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shodtcomings weeps with loathing.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with many of the new songs we’ve sung in the past few decades (although if I ever sing “This is the day, this is the day, that the Lord has made” it will be several decades too soon, true as the words are). But there is – as there ever was – a winnowing process: time sorts out which of the new songs become part of the canon. It was part of why C S Lewis counselled readers to prefer old books.

But the emphases often differ. Ours is an age seemingly little focused on the fundamental aspect of religion – the block put between man and God by our sin, overcome solely by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the reality of own coming death and God’s judgement. It was only this month that I sat down and read all of Luther’s 95 Theses. The very first of them reads

Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, “Repent ye, etc.,” intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a constant penance.

Not often a theme prominent in modern worship – especially perhaps in non-liturgical churches (the liturgical ones at least preserve something like the General Confession). The gospel isn’t about therapy, it isn’t about political reform – though each of those may flow from a life of faith (and penitence), it isn’t about fellowship.  It is about that recognition of our own fallenness (as individuals and as societies), and our hope that at the last we will be found in Christ. It was – I think – Luther who penned a line that I found powerful some years ago: the most faithful disciple grows daily more conscious of the hold sin still has on his or her life and behaviour. Growing in holiness, such people become still more intensely aware of their dependence on God’s mercy and grace.  Christian worship –  song, Scripture, sacraments –  helps nurture that growth.

But sometimes even modern songs capture the profound truths. Who knows if it will last: whatever the merits of the words, perhaps the musical rhythms won’t appeal 50 years hence. But for me at present Stuart Townsend’s “There is a hope” speaks very deeply.   From the first verse, drawing on St Paul’s observation that now we see through a glass darkly

A glimpse of glory now revealed in meagre part

But in time, face to face.

I can’t reproduce it all here (the words are at the link) but here is his final verse

There is a hope that stands the test of time,
That lifts my eyes beyond the beckoning grave,
To see the matchless beauty of a day divine
When I behold His face!
When sufferings cease and sorrows die,
And every longing satisfied.
Then joy unspeakable will flood my soul,
For I am truly home

The deep realism (“the beckoning grave”), the profound hope, the confident hope of a world renewed and a Kingdom established as our Lord intended. It does what a good hymn should – taking us to our knees in penitence, offering succour for the journey (especially when sung congregationally), and the confident hope of the Saviour in whom we put out trust.

I thank God for hymn writers willing and able to articulate the “old, old story” in ways that draw us more deeply into an awareness of God, his mercy and hope, and our call to discipleship, step by (often) painful and halting step.

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