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Posts Tagged ‘hymns’

church candlelight vienna

Come ye sinners, poor and needy, bruised and broken by the fall
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pardoning love for all
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more

I had grand plans for Lent this year: perhaps giving up Facebook, or even all social media as my friend Laura did for the month of March. I heard about friends giving up cheese, ice cream, alcohol. I finally decided to give up hitting the candy jar at work, because it seemed like a challenge I could handle.

I pulled out a book of Lenten readings, intending to read one piece each morning as I often do during Advent. Eight days in, I closed the book and never reopened it. The readings did not speak to my tired soul.

Come ye weary, heavy laden, weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more
He is able, He is able – He is willing, doubt no more

Every Thursday night, my husband and I sit down after dinner to plan Sunday’s worship service. We are half of a part-time ministry team that keeps things running for our small, scattered church body of 50 or so people. We organize potlucks, wash dishes and communion trays, send out weekly email messages, print service bulletins. It is important work, but it is also deeply mundane. By Thursday night we are often tired, frustrated, not particularly excited about shaping a coherent service out of this week’s lectionary readings or the emphasis of the current church season.

This Lent has reminded me of my own brokenness, not in dramatic fashion but in the small trials of each day. I hit the snooze button almost every morning, despite my attempts to kick the habit. I snap at my husband when he gets home late yet again, after another evening of the therapy work he loves. I sleep in and skip yoga; I neglect my long-distance friends. I resent being asked to do the same humdrum tasks, at home and at work, over and over again. I fail. I am weak and wounded, sick and sore.

We are still nearly two weeks away from Easter, and while joy is on the horizon, it hasn’t quite arrived yet. Even after Easter, the petty frustrations and the larger hurts will remain. We live in a flawed and beautiful world, caught between blessed assurance and the stark reality of a creation that groans. But we still sing the words of salvation and new life, not because they always reflect our present reality but because they embody the hope we are holding onto.

Saints and angels join in concert, sing the praises of the Lamb
While the blissful courts of heaven sweetly echo with His Name
Hallelujah, hallelujah – here we now His love proclaim
Hallelujah, hallelujah – here we now His love proclaim

We include different words in our order of service every week: Bible readings, poems, always the Lord’s Prayer. We do our best to vary the hymns, so people don’t get bored. But during this Lent, this song – especially the second verse – is the only song I have wanted to sing.

“Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” arranged by the ZOE Group, after Joseph Hart’s original hymn

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glen east books

These are the books I bought at Glen East. (This pile represents impressive self-restraint on my part. I could have bought dozens more.)

Most of them came from the Eighth Day Books room, a Glen tradition. Warren, the owner, drives a big blue van full of books all the way from Kansas. (The bottom book was a just-for-fun purchase at the Odyssey Bookshop, across the street from Mt. Holyoke College, where we were staying.)

eighth day books glen workshop east

Eighth Day Books at Glen East

More than simply acquiring good words at the Glen, though, I spent the week listening, absorbing, soaking them in. I listened to Kathleen Norris read poetry during our worship services every night, from Philip Levine to Christina Rossetti, from Mark Van Doren to (Kathleen’s late husband) David Dwyer. (So many people asked for the titles and poets that one of the Glen staffers, the inimitable Anna, typed them all up for us at the end of the week.)

I also relished the words of old, beloved hymns, including “Be Thou My Vision” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” I listened to Lauren Winner’s sermon on the Hebrew letter aleph, and to Kathleen’s nightly meditations on words related to gratitude, including “gifts” and “trust” and “hospitality.”

We writers also spent hours poring over each other’s words, in print and in conversation, scribbling notes and ideas on our manuscripts and in notebooks. We analyzed what the characters say in a scene, how the narrator shows us a place or describes her own feelings, what it means to speak about your past self with the wisdom of your present self. We even studied a graphic memoir and discussed the interplay of words and images. And we listened – though sometimes we interrupted one another in our eagerness to affirm or exclaim or tell our own stories. So many hours of words.

I’ve been reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (the top book in the stack up there) since I came home. And while Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes with grace and wit and urgency about many facets of language, what she does on every page is remind me to pay attention. To cherish good words, and sift out the lazy or weak or damaging ones. To sit in silence and allow space for good words to well up, to resonate, to take root and blossom into something rich and wholesome.

I acquired a long list of book suggestions that week (the pile above is only the beginning). But I also gained something deeper, more precious, more elusive, more vital. A reminder to pay attention, to hone the precision of the words I put together, to ask why certain words and phrases and stories move me, to read with a discerning eye instead of skimming mindlessly. A reminder that words are valuable, and that it is our deep and human responsibility to use them well.

Where do you go to find good words?

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When writers and artists come together, there is music. And when the people of God come together, there is music. So at the Glen, as you might expect, we played and we listened and we sang.

mount holyoke college chapel

The chapel at Mt. Holyoke

Jan Krist ably led us in worship during the brief, nightly services, which felt like a semicolon, like a welcome pause after each long, full day of what Lauren Winner admitted, one morning as we wrapped up our workshop, is “hard and holy work.”

Talking and listening and thinking about craft and purpose, and holding each other’s stories, on and off the page, is both difficult and sacred. So I found it fitting that Lauren began each class session with the same words that opened each worship service: “The Lord be with you.” Each time, sitting around a large wooden table with pens in hand or shifting in our chairs in the high-ceilinged music hall, we responded: “And also with you.”

I wasn’t sure what hymns we’d be singing together. This was a wildly diverse, ecumenical group, and I was prepared to hear (and try to sing along with) songs I didn’t know. But on the first night, Jan’s gentle chords led us into a hymn I’ve been singing all my life, one I haven’t heard much in the last few years:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above
Of Jesus and His glory
Of Jesus and His love…

With Kristin singing alto on my left, and Kari and Stephanie on my other side, I closed my eyes and thought back to my dad singing scraps of this song around the house, while he took out the trash or unloaded the dishwasher or puttered around on a lazy Saturday. I thought of singing each verse in the small brown sanctuary of the little Baptist church in Coppell, where I learned the words to so many hymns that still live deep in my bones.

And then I opened my eyes and looked around at the room of novelists and artists and poets and songwriters, memoirists and sculpture artists and people who make all kinds of art, every day. I had barely met most of them, but I knew: this is one thing we’re all trying to do.

I love to tell the story
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest…

We spent the week telling each other our stories – over breakfast, lunch and dinner in the spacious dorm dining hall, over glasses of wine at the bar across the street, over a wide assortment of beverages in the lounge, until the wee hours, every night. We began to explain who we are, where we come from, what we write or paint or sing about that won’t let us go. But we also spent the week reminding each other of the story we’re all telling, the one we sometimes wrestle with and question and even throw off for a while, but always come back to in the end.

I love to tell the story
‘Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and His love.

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bleak midwinter

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him? Give my heart.

This carol has been on my mind for the past two days. We sang it last December in our Christmas concert, and its quiet, haunting melody has stayed with me. The words were written by Christina Rossetti, one of my favourite poets, in 1872 as a response to a Scribner’s Magazine request for a Christmas poem. They were later set to the tune “Cranham” by Gustav Holst, whose “First Suite in E Flat” was one of my favourite pieces from my high school band days. (We played it in London when we went for the millenium, and there are some beautiful, soaring flute parts.) So even its origins have special meaning for me.

It is bleak midwinter today in Abilene – and about to get bleaker, when a frosty cold front blows through tonight. But it’s also coming on Christmas – December starts Friday, Advent begins Sunday, and the Christmas shopping season has already begun. I love, love, love popular Christmas music – both church songs and fun holiday ditties like Rudolph and Frosty and “Winter Wonderland.” But there are also a few obscure songs that have worked their way into my heart over the years, and this is one of them. You can hear an instrumental recording on its Cyberhymnal page here. Enjoy, and merry pre-Christmas.

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Hymn for Hurricane Rita

O God, our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure
Sufficient is Thine arm alone
And our defense is sure…

There’s a Level 5 hurricane headed straight for Houston, where a couple million people, including my best friend, live and work. Somehow these words from an old Isaac Watts hymn seem appropriate today.

Pray. And if you can’t pray, cry out. And if something chokes your throat and you can do neither, lift your eyes to the heavens…because He is still up there, despite all seeming evidence to the contrary. And He still cares about what happens on this miserable little planet. Yes, He does.

For God so loved the world…

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I’ve just been reading on NYTimes.com and CNN.com about the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. Conditions in New Orleans continue to get worse. Thousands are being evacuated to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and other locations because the Superdome can’t hold them all. Armed thugs are running loose in the streets. What was a natural disaster is quickly becoming out-of-control chaos.

Contrast that with the words of a song that just came up on my iTunes (I’m at work, so have the pleasure of listening to other people’s purchased music):

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ Name

On Christ, the Solid Rock, I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood
When all around my soul gives way
He then is all my hope and stay

On Christ, the Solid Rock, I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

How to reconcile these words with what is going on along the Gulf Coast? Yet I know these words are a bigger truth than the devastation. May they, and the God who is their subject and Author, bring peace to those who are beleaguered, despairing, starving and without hope.

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