“My God, I Love Thee:” Why Are We Praising God?

I told myself I was going to spare you the perfunctory “these are all the reasons I haven’t blogged in a while” paragraph. I’ll keep it short: I’ve been not very busy–just been watering blueberries and writing letters, mainly. Watching stuff grow. It’s been a great time:)

Today at my church we sang a praise song that had as a bridge the following line:

I’ll praise You, not that I have to, not that I ought to, but that I may.

We must have sung this 8-9 times, and I still didn’t know how I felt about it by the song’s end. What does that mean? I am having a hard time figuring out what exactly the distinction is that the authors are trying to make.

My sister says what the intent must have been is something more like this: We praise God not only because we ought to, and we praise Him not because He forces us to, but because He lets us praise Him.

Okay, yes. That seems like a distinction I can get behind. But seriously? I have a hard time believing that any children in the congregation are going to make that connection from the way the bridge of the song was worded. In the distinction the authors made between reasons for praising God, it sure sounds like the emphasis is on the person offering praise.

It’s also just really unclear phrasing: I’m pretty sure the intention is not to say that we ought not praise God, but I would definitely understand someone younger or new to the faith hearing that as the song’s meaning.

Finally, when do we actually praise God in these songs? A big problem in some of the standard worship songs these days is that we do a lot of build-up with phrases like “we pour out our praise,” but never actually get to the praise part.

Is it a wonderful thing that God has drawn us to a place where we may praise Him? Yes.

Is it marvelous that God alone is worthy of worship? Yes, absolutely. Let’s rejoice that we get to worship our Creator.

But is there a way to then sing together of God’s character and attributes and actually ascribe Him that praise we say we’ve come to offer? Please?

Inner me: Jo, Jo, Jo. You are being too picky and critical and unhelpfully divisive. Don’t rag on your fellow brothers and sisters who are serving the Lord by writing today’s worship and praise anthems. They are doing the best they can and appealing to how people worship nowadays, rather than sticking to old language no one understands.

Well, dang it–they can do better. We need to be better, not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of being as clear as we can about why we worship God, and how we worship God, and for goodness’ sake, would it hurt us to look in a hymnal sometime?

As Christians, we don’t have to be afraid of old-fashioned phrases or difficult concepts–and goodness, wouldn’t it be better to tackle them head-on and early, so that our kids aren’t uninformed about their faith and blind-sided later on?

I get that it’s important to make the language we use as accessible as we can, but I also think that our worship is a key time to remind ourselves of what we know of God from Scripture. It’s a time to take the focus completely off ourselves, and confess together what we believe about our Savior.

It’s a time to instruct our children in the fundamentals of theology, so that hopefully later in the life they don’t think that theology and studying the Bible is only for pastors and teachers. Song in worship can serve all these purposes, and it seems insufficient to settle for an emotional, feel-good moment that may be due more to the repetition of words than to our true understanding of their meaning.

I’m going to end this post with a hymn from 1849 by Francis Xavier, which seems to be making a distinction about our motivation for loving God that’s similar to that of the modern song I quoted earlier.

I think it does the job better because the author takes the time and effort to develop his reasoning for claiming what he does. A child listening to this hymn would never have to sing the same line over and over, not understanding the full meaning.

And then just consider the emphasis of the hymn: where do we end? Who do we end up talking to, and about? Here is “My God, I Love Thee:”

My God, I love thee, not because I hope for heav’n thereby,
Nor yet for fear that loving not I might forever die;
But for that thou didst all mankind upon the cross embrace;
For us didst bear the nails and spear, and manifold disgrace.

And griefs and torments numberless, and sweat of agony;
E’en death itself, and all for man, who was thine enemy.
Then why, most loving Jesus Christ, should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heav’n, nor any fear of hell.

Not with the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward,
But as thyself hast loved me, O ever-loving Lord!
E’en so I love thee, and will love, and in thy praise will sing,
Solely because thou art my God and my eternal King!

Thank you for reading:) What I’d like to do is foster a conversation about what sorts of praise songs are helpful, rather than just getting mad about songs I don’t like so well. Not sure if I did so hot on that second goal.

So let me know your thoughts–is there a song or hymn that you find particularly helpful? I’d love to hear about it!

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“Sometimes a Light Surprises”

Today I ran as far as I could, trying to rid myself of how overwhelmed I was feeling.
I can’t run that far, friends.

My response to dealing with one hard thing is to become anxious about all the other potential hard things awaiting me. And I can pretend all I want that I’ve conquered worry and fear and anxiety. It’s just not true.

Today, as many times before, there came a point when I was exhausted from running. Exhausted from trying to stuff my fears back down into myself; trying to deal with everything quietly and on my own; trying to excuse my worrying as only an unfortunate habit.

Every time I reach this point, Phillipians 4:6-7 runs through my head, over and over. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

It sounds so easy. Just stop being anxious, Jo. Tomorrow will worry about itself. You know this.

Sometimes it seems like it’s the very things we know best with our heads that are hardest to keep solidly in our hearts.

Take a look at a hymn written by William Cowper (1731-1800), who also wrote “There Is a Fountain” and other great hymns:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
to cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing
But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people, too;
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

Isn’t it an encouraging hymn? Listen again to these words: “Set free from present sorrow, we cheerfully can say, ‘Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.'”

That Cowper guy, he must have really known about worrying and what the biblical response ought to be. Well, yes, you might say that, but let’s look closer.

William Cowper was friends with John Newton–even wrote hymns with him–and there are accounts of their interaction. Cowper struggled with depression for much of his adult life, at one point even attempting suicide. John Newton encouraged him through these times, but Cowper thought that he had committed an unforgivable sin in trying to take his own life.

Eventually, he stopped attending church, although he remained close friends with Newton until his death in 1800. Several hymns written in the latter part of his life attest that William Cowper still trusted in Christ, but did he ever get rid of his depression?

William Cowper, struggling with depression, penned these words: “Yet God the same abiding, his praise shall tune my voice, for while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.”

Was he relieved from all worries and cares in his life? Or did he just pretend he wasn’t struggling? Likely neither was the case. Not until William Cowper met his Savior face-to-face, was he relieved of his crippling depression. We can see from his hymns that he knew the right answer, and I think that he probably returned again and again to the comfort he found in Scripture.

What can we say about dealing with depression, or anxiety, or worry, plain-and-simple? Can we fix ourselves by somehow having enough faith, or by pasting on a smile and pretending we’re not anxious?

Here’s a better question: what are we to do with our anxiety and cares, when they come? We don’t ignore them, or think God won’t listen because well, here we are again, worrying about that same old thing, worrying about a new thing altogether, not having learned the lesson from last time.

God listens, friend. Go to Him. Tell Him. 

Do you know that He meets the poor in spirit right here, wherever they’ve stopped running because they’re exhausted from handling everything on their own? My weakness, your weakness, William Cowper’s weakness–all these are opportunities to learn more and more what God’s peace is like.

And no, in this life we may never stop dealing with worry or even depression–but the point is that God is able to draw us to Himself even through tough moments when we are vulnerable and overwhelmed.

He inspired William Cowper to write a powerfully encouraging hymn, all the more powerful because the author proved in his heart (again and again) what he knew with his head.

 

Thanks for reading! Reach out in the comments or through email if you’ve got thoughts on this topic and want to have a conversation. I’d like to be praying with you:)

To Tune a Heart

“Come, Thou Fount of ev’ry blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.”

We know this one, right? Written by Robert Robinson in the 1700s, tune by John Wyeth (as I literally just now learned)? What a hymn, friends–what a concept: that our hearts must be tuned like instruments to praise our Master Craftsman. The hymn goes on–

Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount–I’m fixed upon it–mount of Thy redeeming love.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer–hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wand’ring from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.
Prone to wander–Lord, I feel it–prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart–O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.

This is helpful stuff. But what on earth is an “Ebenezer?”

Other than a type of Scrooge, I mean.

I looked it up in our huge, Random House Dictionary of the English Language (because I’m stubborn and because I wrote this long paper once about posthumanism), and I didn’t learn the definition. [I did, however, learn what an ebeniste is: a French cabinetmaker, if you were wondering].

SO I caved and went to the online OED, which defined “Ebenezer” so:

1a. The name of the memorial stone set up by Samuel after the victory of Mizpeh: see 1 Sam. vii. 12. Used appellatively in religious literature in fig. phrases, alluding to the sentiment ‘Hitherto hath the Lord helped us’, associated with the origin of the name.

Okay cool–so I looked up 1 Samuel 12. It’s a great passage, all about Samuel giving the Israelites a reminder of what he’s been telling them all his life: Trust God. Serve the Lord. Fear Him.

But I don’t see any mention of a memorial stone. It’s kind of a sad passage–the people have demanded a king, even though God was their king–and God has given them Saul, and Samuel says that if the people and their king will continue to follow God, all will be well. But the people have a habit of forgetting, and it’s pretty clear Samuel knows this.

He ends with something that’s a cross between a blessing and a warning:

“Do not be afraid,” Samuel replied. “You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless. For the sake of his great name the Lord will not reject his people, because the Lord was pleased to make you his own. As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right.

But be sure to fear the Lord and serve hm faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away.” (1 Samuel 12: 20-25)

Wherever that memorial stone is in the passage–that same idea pervades Robinson’s hymn: that God tunes our hearts by reminding us what He has done.

Fount of blessing. Streams of mercy. Redeeming love. Let these reminders bind our hearts to our Savior, who rescued us before we knew how lost we were, back when we were wandering aimlessly and serving useless idols.

What’s reminded me of this is a poem by George Herbert (my favorite poet) called Denial. I’ll give the whole thing, but especially note the rhyme and meter and how they change:

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears,
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse;
My breast was full of fears
And disorder.

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come!
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! All day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untuned, unstrung;
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast;
Defer no time,
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

Do you see how crazy the meter is in here? And the rhymes go back and forth in each stanza until the last line, when there’s an effect of brokenness: Disorder. Alarms. Discontented. Untuned. Unstrung. 

And then. The speaker’s prayer is that God will “cheer and tune [his] heartless breast,” and that, being in tune with the will of His Father, his offering will be acceptable.

Teach us some melodious sonnet, God–and let us remember what You’ve done throughout history to glorify how good and great You are. Mend our feeble spirits, and let our hearts be satisfied with Your mercy.

Lies I’ve Told

I’ve mentioned before what a liar I used to be. You may or may not be interested in knowing that I haven’t really changed.

As a kid, some of the phrases I used the most included:

I didn’t do it.

She [insert sibling’s name] did it.

He [insert another sibling’s name] made me do it.

I don’t know what happened.

Most of them were a panicked response to the trouble I’d found myself in. Motivated by the desire to avoid detection of whatever-it-happened-to-be-that-I’d-done-wrong, and resulting punishment. I tend to think I’ve grown past these kinds of lies (aka Garden of Eden Lies), moving on to less harmful ones, such as:

No, it’s fine.

I don’t care one way or the other.

I’m sure whatever you decide will be fine.

Feel free to correct my mistakes.

That [insert anything here] was very interesting!

I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular.

Yes, I’m sure.

My middle name is Frances.

I have a twin sister.

I really don’t have an opinion either way.

I’m completely content with what’s been decided.

I completely understand.

 

I classify most of these as the Polite Lies, the ones that almost no one calls me out on. Social niceties, I guess, dictate that, if someone wants to withhold her opinion, she’s allowed to lie and say she had no opinion to begin with. It’s okay to say something you don’t mean, sometimes. When the situation calls for it. And they aren’t always lies, just sometimes.

There’re other categories of lies, I think–Pointless Lies is one, of which “My middle name is Frances,” would be an example. I tell these mostly out of curiosity, just to see if people will believe me. If I think about it too hard, it sounds kind of sinister–almost as if I’m trading on a reputation as a generally honest person.

I suppose I could classify any sort of fiction or stories I write as lies–seeing as they don’t match up with reality, strictly speaking. But that’s not really what I’m getting at. The strangest thing for me is this idea that we say things we don’t mean. That I say things I absolutely do not mean.

Sometimes, I think, my motivation is pure–that I really am trying to be “completely content with whatever’s been decided.” So, rather than keep saying what I really think, I give that opinion up. So then I guess I really don’t have an opinion. But I did have an opinion at one point.

I don’t know. This is a ramble and I have no answers to the questions I haven’t even asked yet. What got me thinking about it in the first place was a quotation I read by A.W. Tozer, in which he claimed that the Christian is prone to lying whenever he sings certain hymns. Hymns such as “I Surrender All,” I mean, where it’s easy to just start singing the chorus over and over without getting into your heart and mind what the words mean.

I know what he meant, I think. Growing up, my church would sing this one song in particular that bothered me to sing. It’s called “Are Ye Able, Said the Master,” and I think you can find the text here:

Are Ye Able, Said the Master (hymnary.org)

If you’re reading this, and it happens to be your favorite hymn, please comment and share with me why it’s so good. I’d genuinely like to know.

Anyway, I understand it’s important to be conscious of what we sing in worship to God. Sometimes I can’t sing hymns, because I’m all too conscious of something in my life I haven’t surrendered to Him yet. Generally when that happens I read the words, still, and pray that I would be able to sing them earnestly.

That only brings me to the other category of Lies, which is Lies I Tell to God. Which is ridiculous that that’s even a category, because the God I believe in is omniscient and already knows the truth about whatever-it-is-I’m-attempting-to-disguise. Ridiculous.

These lies include but are by no means limited to:

I want you to humble me, God.

I desire Your will to be done above all else, even if it’s uncomfortable for me. Even if it’s not what I wanted or had planned.

Guide me even when I can’t see the end clearly.

Teach me patience.

I am content with where You have me, in the situation in which You’ve placed me, and with the gifts You’ve given me, and I need nothing else except you.

 

Okay, okay, now. Are they always lies? No. Sometimes, I mean it when I pray for patience and humility. Then I remember that He answers those prayers and, I further remember, the process by which He teaches those particular lessons is not exactly my favorite. Being taught patience requires practicing patience. Ditto for humility.

So sometimes I think it’s possible to pray nice, lovely things and not mean a word of it. Because I’ve done it myself. And what I’m wondering is this: isn’t it a sin to lie to God? So I would think someone like Tozer would advise not praying if I’m not gonna mean it.

Okay. But what if it’s more that I don’t mean it, but I want very much to mean what I say. When I say, “I am content with what You’ve given me,” maybe what I really mean to say is, “I want to be content with what You’ve given me.” I just don’t see how I can mean any of the things I pray if God doesn’t help me to mean them.

If He does not answer that very first prayer–“Change my heart, God”– before we’ve prayed it, I don’t understand how on earth our hearts are ever changed.

Thanks for reading. Comment if you’d like!

Hymns and Knitting and Fanny Crosby

Here’s a simile that has almost nothing to do with the actual content of this post: I think like I knit. Very Slowly. I connect things that maybe shouldn’t be connected yet, and sometimes skip a couple of steps out of carelessness, until my mind is just a little bit gnarled up in knots. At that point, just like in knitting, I slowly unravel what’s been accomplished, to see where I went wrong. And boy, is it painful to take out all that work I did. It’s worth it, though, because, often, going back is the only way I can move forward.

So this is me, unraveling the knots my brain is currently in, all because I read some article by a guy named Russell Moore about social media and hymns and envy. If you have the time, please read it—it’s good, and it probably won’t do bad things to your mind:

Why Social Media (and the Church) is Making You Sad

It references things that’ve been on my mind anyway, and those things made me think of other things, which made me think of other things, and, well, this is shaping up to be quite rambly. Sorry about that.

For those of you who didn’t read the article, it’s about social media envy; how, with everyone posting the cleverest, beautifullest, loveliest bits of their lives on Facebook and such things, all of the normal people (which turns out to be all of us) are feeling kinda blue. Even if we recognize that Instagram isn’t the whole story, people are still prone to envy. Lots of people have studied this, and lots of people see it without having to study it scientifically. Why is this worth getting your proverbial knickers in a twist, Jo?

The author claims that we in the church are guilty of the same, white-washing tactics within our worship services:

“Our worship songs are typically celebrative, in both lyrical content and musical expression. In the last generation, a mournful song about crucifixion was pepped up with a jingly-sounding chorus, “It was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day!” This isn’t just a Greatest Generation revivalist problem either. Even those ubiquitous contemporary worship songs that come straight out of the Psalms tend to focus on psalms of ascent or psalms of joyful exuberance, not psalms of lament (and certainly not imprecatory psalms!).”

[I looked up “imprecatory,” to see if it means what I thought it might mean. It’s an adjective derived from the verb ‘imprecate,’ which means “to invoke or call down (evil or curses,) as upon a person.” Ohhhhhh.]

That makes sense. This seems true. I’ve wondered myself what to do with those psalms asking God to curse the speaker’s enemies through those colorful and vengeful means. I mean, do I pray this? Or is it in here in case I ever become king and have enemies plotting to kill me all the time? Generally, I go Frank Perretti and classify my enemies as the sins I struggle with; as the aspects of my human nature that truly are wretched. I don’t want those parts of the old Jo anymore.

I don’t know what else to do with those psalms, except to appreciate that, if I were in that extreme situation, there would be plenty in the Bible that would apply and be able to comfort me. It’s that idea that there’s something in God’s Word to speak to anyone; it’s relevant in all situations.

So why, the author asks, why do we ignore all that range of emotions and hard situations the Psalmists, and Job, and other writers decidedly confront head-on? Everything has to be happy, and the author isn’t a fan of what he calls “this sense of forced cheeriness…seen in the ad hoc “liturgy” of most evangelical churches in the greeting and the dismissal. As the service begins a grinning pastor or worship leader chirps, “It’s great to see you today!” or “We’re glad you’re here!” As the service closes the same toothy visage says, “See you next Sunday! Have a great week!”

Well, ouch. What do you want us to do, mister? Frown at each other and say “have a wretched week”—the author does consider it—? [Honestly, you should just go back up and read the article—it’s worth your time.] No, but rather than try to rephrase what he says, I’m just going to quote the article for you.

 I suspect many people in our pews look around them and think the others have the kind of happiness we keep promising, and wonder why it’s passed them by.

By not speaking, where the Bible speaks, to the full range of human emotion—including loneliness, guilt, desolation, anger, fear, desperation—we only leave our people there, wondering why they just can’t be “Christian” enough to smile through it all.

The gospel speaks a different word though. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). In the kingdom, we receive comfort in a very different way than we’re taught to in American culture. We receive comfort not by, on the one hand, whining in our sense of entitlement or, on the other hand, pretending as though we’re happy. We are comforted when we see our sin, our brokenness, our desperate circumstances, and we grieve, we weep, we cry out for deliverance.

Yes.

The knitting was going along splendidly, and I was nodding along and slowly but surely making good connections with my thoughts, when suddenly something I had read jerked me forward, and then I was skipping steps all over the place and getting really, really confused.

The Gospel is glad, Good news, isn’t it? So why shouldn’t we rejoice when we gather? I thought of the biography of Fanny Crosby I’d started reading, in which her differing experiences with worship services are contrasted:

In the first, “there were no organ and no hymns, as such, in the ‘Southeast Church.’ Like the early Puritans, the theologians of the era did not believe in hymns of human composition; they would use only the Psalms, which were “dictated” to David directly from God. Most of the music consisted of Psalms chanted in plainsong with, now and then, their metrical paraphrase by Isaac Watts, who lived and wrote a century earlier.”

In the second, “North Salem, as in Southeast, a great emphasis was placed on an emotional conversion experience, without which one should dread to die. There was a great emphasis on mortality and the certainty of hell for the unrepentant. Numerous hymns told of careless sinners, who were overtaken by sudden death and were lost.”

I’m somehow doubtful that this is what the article is advocating. At any rate, Fanny Crosby wasn’t impressed, preferring “the Methodists’ warm and lively services and their fervent and comparatively cheerful hymn singing.” She was shaped by her later experiences within charismatic revivals, which the biographer describes as being full of “frenzied worshipers” and “frenzied elders…laying hands upon her hand and roaring prayers for her conversion…”

Now, if Fanny Crosby and I were having tea, I don’t know how much we would have agreed on, in discussions about Christian denominations—I imagine we’d probably avoid the subject. But I love her hymns, and I love hymns written by Isaac Watts. But both extremes—the purely somber, sober services and the “frenzied” services centered around the experience of “getting happy,” both of those sound remarkably unattractive to me. They sound, well, like extremes.

Ok, so maybe there’s a balance. Maybe the confessional times of repentance are more for private devotion, while the joyful encouragement is for times of fellowship.

Maybe not. Maybe I just said that without believing it. I need confession, and I think maybe there’s not enough of it in the church. Like the author of the initial article says,

“Maybe what we need in our churches is more tears, more failure, more confession of sin, more prayers of desperation that are too deep for words.Maybe then the lonely and the guilty and the desperate among us will see that the gospel has come not for the happy, but for the brokenhearted; not for the well, but for the sick; not for the found, but for the lost.”

I’m rapidly getting to the point where I’ve forgotten what I was going to say, and I’m only talking until I can remember it. Maybe I better close it out for now. I’m thinking of my tendency to separate things out into extremes and go to one or the other. I’m thinking that a certain kind of sorrow doesn’t really conflict with a certain kind of joy; that maybe sobriety is inextricably bound to the deep gladness that comes with remembering who we are and who God is. If you made it through this headache of a post, I’d love to hear your thoughts—they may be as rambly as you like. I won’t mind:)