A Prayer for Thankfulness

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! One of my favorite musicians today who is taking old hymns of the faith and making them new and fresh for today is Sandra McCracken. On her album In Feast or Fallow she has a beautiful prayer for thankfulness as the opening song. The song is called “Petition.” You can listen to it here for free. Here is the background to the song and the lyrics taken from her web-site New Old Hymns.

Petition

Gratitude is a shield against fear and self-absorption. It makes the heart quiet and poised to listen. This album, as a faith statement, opens with a prayer for thankfulness. Anne Steele wrote these words in 1738, at the age of 21, after her fiancée drowned in the river the day before their wedding. Her life had much sorrow, and her hymns display beauty that triumphs over grief. (She also wrote “Dear Refuge” and others from the Indelible Grace projects.) Her hymns read like Psalms, timeless and resonant, as the poet preaches truth to her soul and mine.

Lyrics

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sovereign will denies
Accepted at thy throne of grace
Let this petition rise

Let the sweet hope that thou art mine
My life and death attend
Thy presence through my journey shine
And crown my journey’s end

Give me a calm, a thankful heart
From every murmur free
The blessings of thy grace impart
And make me live to thee

You raise your hand to still the storms
that rage inside my head
revive my heart with gratitude
Love, quell my doubt and dread

Give me a sure and rested soul
From every fear relieved
Thy spirit’s pow’r and presence mine
To ever comfort me

Great Hymn, Great Tune: How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place

Last week I featured a “Great Hymn, Not So Great Tune.”  This week I want to feature a “Great Hymn, Great Tune.”  I have discovered several gems in the Trinity Hymnal this year and one of my favorites of these gems is “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” Not only do I love the words, I believe that the tune is great as well. It really does reinforce the words that we are singing. The tune has a sense of awe and wonder and evokes a sense of God’s faithfulness and mercy to an undeserving people. The midi file here doesn’t do the tune justice, but here are the words for you to meditate on:

How Sweet and Awesome is the Place

How sweet and awesome is the place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores!

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”

’Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice, and heart and soul,
Sing Thy redeeming grace.

Great Hymn, Not So Great Tune: A Debtor to Mercy Alone

One of my pet peeves as a pastor is finding the perfect words for a song of application after the sermon and the tune is terrible. As I am preaching on Philippians 1:6 this Sunday, I once again came across this problem. I just discovered the hymn “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” and I love the words. They are so comforting and uplifting, but the tune seems so dark and sorrowful. In my opinion the tune would have been better suited to a hymn/psalm of lament or contrition.

There are at least two reasons why it is a bummer when good words are set to poor music. One reason is that the psalm/hymn might not ever be used in worship and God’s people will miss out on some of the rich words of our psalms and hymns. This is why I have highlighted one of these hymns below.

A second reason, which I want to focus on, is that if the song is used in worship, the music can create a sort of barrier to the words being sung. Having just preached on the 3rd commandment I can’t help but think that this in some way aids people in taking the Lord’s name in vain. It causes them to be emotionally detached from praising God’s name. This doesn’t excuse the worshipers who are detached, it just means that they have to work harder to focus on what they are singing. And it makes it hard to exhort people to heartfelt worship when the musicality of a psalm/hymn is conflicting with the words in some way.

The music should reinforce the words being sung and press them home to the heart of the worshiper. I liken this to a preacher whose sermon content might be great but his delivery style makes the sermon hard to listen to (I’m sure I am guilty of this at times). Perhaps he always shouts and emphasizes everything or perhaps he is too quiet and doesn’t seem moved at all by what he is saying.  Or perhaps he is too fast or too slow. Either way, there should be a connection between the pitch, the volume, the speed, even the facial expressions and body language of the preacher and his sermon content. When it comes to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” we too need tunes that reinforce the words that we are singing so that our hearts and minds will sink deep into the truth of God’s Word and our faith will grow. We will not only be aided in worshiping God with all of our heart and mind, we will also have an easier time memorizing the words that we are singing and hiding God’s word in our heart.

That said, I do believe that there are many psalms and hymns set to great tunes in our various songbooks, but I am looking forward to improvement from the work of at least two Psalter Hymnal Committees that I am aware of (both in the URCNA and OPC). I hope that we will find great musicality in these songbooks that really support the words we are singing. In the meantime I’d like to highlight a great hymn, not so great tune:

A Debtor to Mercy Alone

by Augustus Toplady

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo, or sever my soul from His love.

My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heav’n.