|Can we admit we are helpless prisoners?|
It was fifty-five years ago this month (September,1957), and the guest speaker who based his sermon on Romans 11:32 that day was the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, arguably one of the most important voices in theology since the Protestant Reformation. Barth was invited to speak at the prison in Basil, Switzerland from time to time, and 18 of his sermons were published in Deliverance to the Captives (1961, Harper & Brothers).
Admitting the verse is not easy to understand, Barth began by saying it is best understood when starting from the second phrase—with the affirmation ‘that he may have mercy upon all’. Barth said that those who know Jesus
“...know it is imperative to begin at all times in our thoughts and in our life with him....just as the alphabet has no other beginning than the letter A. We must start with the fact that God had mercy and will have mercy on all—that his will and work are determined and governed by his compassion. This he proved in Jesus Christ not only by words.... He gave himself for us in his dear Son and became man, our brother. This is the mighty deed and through it the word of God’s mercy on all has been spoken.”Barth described God’s mercy as almighty, saving, unlimited, and as mercy that brings light, peace and joy—without strings attached—and as the scripture emphasizes, is poured out on ALL men. Barth told the prisoners this includes the so-called pious and the so-called unbelievers, the so-called good and the so-called evil people, including our enemies. He warned it would be a terrible mistake to think “This is not meant for me. God does not have mercy on me and will not have mercy on me.’ Or even worse: ‘I do not need mercy. I do not want it!”
But that he may have mercy on all, God has made all men prisoners of disobedience. And the old theologian then described less obvious kinds of prisoners.
“Prisoner of a sorrow that once befell him and now poisons his heart and life: Prisoner of resentment, anger or hatred, perhaps rightfully directed against some people who gave him offence! Prisoner of a dismal tendency or habit which since his younger days he has been unable to shake off! Prisoner of a depressing illness... prisoners of mutual distrust... And all of us may feel like prisoners of anxiety... prisoners of the limitations of our one and only life, which is so short, prisoners of the limitations of our birth and our approaching death.”But what is meant that God has made all men prisoners of disobedience? The God who knows who and what we are, reveals in his word that our imprisonment is being fundamentally disobedient before him and to him.
“Disobeying God means, whether we believe in him or not, that we let him be the ‘man upstairs’ and reserve for ourselves, in our hearts and minds and lives, the right to go our own ways. Disobeying God means that we affirm in our innermost hearts and with our outward life that there is not God. It is....rebellion and revolt, the attempt at an impossible ascent in the mountains.... God knows that we attempt the impossible, that we are these foolish mountain-climbers... There is no denial of our ultimate disobedience...”Barth said that he himself, as well as all who have ever lived, and the best that have ever lived on earth, are each in his own way prisoners of disobedience. Will we admit it?
“Our peace and joy, our salvation in time and eternity are here determined. We are not to deny, but to acknowledge, not to mutiny against, but to confess: God has made me and you prisoners of disobedience.Barth concluded by saying that true courage is “courage to be humble and consciously participate in the divine mercy as a prisoner of disobedience.” Such a person will yearn to rise again after reaching a point of acknowledging that he can no longer help himself, that no one else can help him, and that there is no help save God’s mercy. Having reached that depth, “God’s mercy has already reached out for you, has already found you, and you will experience that it will lift you to the highest heights.” Which brings real, lasting joy!
“...He places us on the very spot where his mercy is operative and manifest, he gathers us as his people, transfers us into a community of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he has made Jesus Christ our Saviour by delivering his own beloved and obedient Son to disobedience and death in our place. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,’ says the apostle Paul elsewhere, in an equally difficult passage. And Jesus Christ was obedient to God by not rebelling against his will, but by submitting to it.”
“We are called to belong to him, to share in God’s eternal mercy poured out in him, to rejoice in our salvation through him, and to live in the power of this mercy and this salvation. Therefore, we have no other choice but to submit to God’s design to make us all prisoners of disobedience.”
“Joy is born when you renounce any attempt to be something more than one among all those whom God has made prisoners of disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Joy is born when you submit to both God’s mercy and God’s imprisoning, without resistance. Amen.”And with a final prayer, the prison chapel service was over. But you ask, “why choose the message of Romans 11:32—about mercy for prisoners of disobedience—for a blog about Trinitarian worship?” Because it leads us to verses 33-36, one of the wonderful doxologies of the New Testament, ending with “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”
We cannot free ourselves from our human desire to rule our own lives in resistance to God, but the Holy Spirit gifts us with eyes to see and a heart to throw ourselves on God's mercy and welcome the saving grace that is the person of Jesus, the living Son of God and Son of Man. As freed prisoners, our new lives are bound by the Spirit to the risen Jesus. It is in the Spirit and through Christ we worship the Father and give glory to God forever! May we all enjoy our freedom, and praise God for it!
|Swiss theologian Karl Barth|
What kind of a ‘thou’ is this? Is it a man? Yes, indeed someone with a human face, a human body, human hands and a human language. One whose heart bears sorrows—not simply his own, but the sorrows of the whole world. One who takes our sin and our misery upon himself and away from us. One who is able to do this because he is not only man, but also God, the almighty Creator and Lord who knows me and you much better than we know ourselves, who loves me and you much more than we love ourselves. He is our neighbor, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and we may call him by his first name.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou has given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all who thou has given him. And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus who thou has sent.” (John 17:1-3)
Glorified how? What came next was betrayal, arrest, suffering, crucifixion and death. There would be no resurrection, ascension or Pentecost without the cross. But we see in confidence that what Jesus began he completed, and He is the Author of our Salvation, and the Captain and Perfecter of faith.
Wise teachers remind us that Jesus is the reason humanity exists—not the other way around—and that we only find out who we ourselves are after first discovering who Jesus is, and how he glorified (and continues to glorify) the Father. His suffering and death is tied to ours, and his joy and new life becomes ours, as we too learn to glorify the Father by the power of the Spirit.
We are taught that this Son of Mary, this Jesus of Bethlehem, Calvary, Resurrection and Heaven will finally come again to end death and suffering—end all tears—and in being made free all people will finally know who they truly are, and know him and the Father who sent him.
Such things and the above scripture are the subject of a poem by theologian John Emory McKenna and his wife Nancy in The Burning Green (Wipf and Stock, 1996, pp 41-42).
One Tear Is Enough
One tear is enough.
A whole century of thought
Might worm a way to say
This is enough, my love,
The whole passion of an age
Roll into tears
All its dry years.
But we are cactus, my love,
Watered in a desert,
The nightly bloom in a sandy hour
When the quiet moon whispers
The secret among the stars,
A flower for morning dew,
When the great fashions of clocks,
Indifferent to our need,
Timed away on a roar
Far from the wasteland
Filling our season.
We should call ourselves rosebuds,
Snowflakes or molten things,
Were it not for his cross.
No one would call us Man.
The hour has come.
One tear is enough.
And our part? Wright says our Lord taught us this prayer because the Advent message is that the Father’s revolution comes through the Messiah and his followers “sharing and hearing the pain of the world, that the world may be healed” (p 19).
In John’s gospel Jesus uses the image of father and son to explain what he was himself doing. In that culture, the son is apprenticed to the father. He learns his trade by watching what the father is doing. When he runs into a problem, he checks back to see how his father tackles it. That’s what Jesus is doing in Gethsemane, when everything suddenly goes dark on him. Father, is this the way? Is this really the right path? Do I really have to drink this cup?
The letter to the Hebrews says, with considerable daring, that the Son ‘learned obedience by what he suffered’ (Hebrews 5:7-9; compare 2:10-18). What we see in Gethsemane is the apprentice son, checking back one more time to see how the Father is doing it …. The daring thing about that passage in Hebrews is this: Jesus too, like us, went on learning what it actually meant to call God ‘Father’. And the learning process was only complete when he said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (pp 18-19).Wright calls our attention to the end of John’s gospel in which Jesus says to his followers: As the Father sent me, so I send you (John 20:21), and then describes the tension and confusion of our living between the first Advent and the second Advent.
That apparent confusion, that overlap of the first and second Advents, is actually what Christianity is all about; celebrating the decisive victory of God, in Jesus Christ, over Pharaoh and the Red Sea, over sin and death—looking for, and working for, and longing for, and praying for, the full implementation of that decisive victory. Every Eucharist catches exactly this tension. ‘As often as you break the break and drink the cup, you proclaim, you announce the death of the Lord—until he comes’ (I Cor. 11:26). We come for our daily and heavenly bread; we come for our daily and final forgiveness; we come for our daily and ultimate deliverance; we come to celebrate God’s kingdom now, and to pray for it soon. That is what we mean when we call God ‘Father’ (Pp 20-21).
Thus when we call God ‘Father’ we are children who are learning (like apprentices) how to discover a pattern of spirituality and a way of “penetrating into the mystery, of daring to enter the cloud of unknowing” in stepping out into a terrifying world of pain and darkness (including, Wright reminds us, the darkness inside our own selves), as sons and daughters called to “be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God” (p 21).
In the midst of such pain and suffering we pray not for the selfish pursuit of private spiritual advancement or to get in touch with our own feelings, but rather we discover the desire and necessity of praying,Father, Our Father; Our Father in heaven …. may your name he honored. That is, may you be worshiped by your whole creation; may the whole cosmos resound with your praise; may the whole world be freed from injustice, disfigurement, sin, and death, and may your name be hallowed. And as we stand in the presence of the living God, with the darkness and pain of the world on our hearts, praying that he will fulfill his ancient promises, and implement the victory of Calvary and Easter for the whole cosmos—then we may discover that our own pain, our own darkness, is somehow being dealt with as well….Blessings to you all during this Advent season!
It is the rhythm of standing in the presence of the pain of the world, and kneeling in the presence of the creator of the world, of bringing those two things together in the name of Jesus and by the victory of the cross; of living in the tension of the double Advent, and of calling God ‘Father’. Our task is to grow up into the ‘Our Father’, to dare to impersonate our older brother, seeking daily bread and daily forgiveness as we do so: to wear his clothes, to walk in his shoes, and to feast at his table, to weep with him in the garden, to share his suffering, and to know his victory (Pp 22-23).
However the author also encourages us to ask what was going on in Jesus’ life when he called God Abba, Father, and taught his followers to do so too? What can we learn about who Jesus was and is, as well as about the mission of Jesus and all who Jesus taught to share in this prayer to Abba? According to Wright, the word speaks to revolution and hope - the hope of Advent. True, the Lord’s use of the word Abba in the prayer reveals a new level of personal intimacy with God, but Wright also says the word drew into one point the vocation and salvation of Israel, noting
The first occurrence in the Hebrew Bible of the idea of God as the Father comes when Moses marches in boldly to stand before Pharaoh and says: Thus says YHVH: Israel is my son, my firstborn; let my people go, that they may serve me (Exodus 4:22-3). For Israel to call God ‘Father’, then, was to hold on to the hope of liberty. The slaves were called to be sons.
When Jesus tells his disciples to call God ‘Father’, then, those with ears to hear will understand. He wants them to get ready for the new Exodus. We are going to be free at last. This is the Advent hope, the hope of the coming Kingdom of God (Pp 14-15).According to Wright, this revolutionary, kingdom-bearing meaning is reinforced by another strong echo of the use of the word ‘Father’ to listeners in Jesus’ world - a promise to King David, and also to the whole people - Messiah would appear and bring liberty to an Israel that is in bondage.
God promised to King David that from his family there would come a child who would rule over God’s people and whose kingdom would never be shaken. Of this coming King, God said to David, ‘I will [be] his Father, and he shall be my Son’ (2 Samuel 7:14). The Messiah, the King that would come, would focus in himself God’s promise to the whole people. And in Isaiah this promise, though still affirmed, is thrown open to all God’s people. ‘If anyone is thirsty, let them come and drink….and I will make with them an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David’ (Isaiah 55:1,3)… The two pictures go together. Freedom for Israel in bondage will come about through the liberating work of the Messiah. And Jesus….is saying to his followers: this is your prayer. You are the Messianic people (Pp 15-16).Wright reminds us that though the Jews had still clung to that Exodus-hope through the centuries, they had also grown weary and longed to see the promises fulfilled.
‘Surely you are our Father’, says one of the later prophecies, ‘though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us’ (Isaiah 63:16)….in other words….the things we thought were so secure have turned to dust and ashes; yet we cling on to the fact that you are our Father, and that fact gives us hope where humanly there is no hope…. Most Jews knew in their bones, because they celebrated it at Passover and sang about it in the Psalms, that freedom would come when God gave them the new, final Exodus. Many believed that this would happen when the Messiah came. The very first word of the Lord’s Prayer says: Let it be now, and let it be us. Father….Our Father…. (Pp 16-17).Spiritual depth and renewal do come to the followers of Jesus, but Wright reminds us that that it come as part of a larger package -the Advent-package - which itself is about deliverance from evil, return from exile, having enough bread, and about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven, and this package was arriving through his own work.
Such was the significance of using the word ‘Father’ as Jesus did in his prayer—that the Father and Son were engaged in a project that was, “Nothing less than the new Exodus, rescuing Israel and whole world from evil, injustice, fear and sin.” But look around. We too live in a world of injustice, hunger, malice and evil, and the people cry out for deliverance, justice, bread, and forgiveness.
To be continued….
As we stared in disbelief, the kids asked questions for which we had no answers. Actually, words were failing everyone—reporters, commentators, people on the streets—as events quickly unfolded to snuff out the lives of nearly 3000 souls from 90 countries, as suicide hijackers piloted four passenger airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia, and a fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania as passengers fought against the hijackers.
This weekend in sermons, testimonies and prayers at church services and public events, we look back ten years and still ponder those tragic events, and to some extent words still fail, and there will need to be moments for complete silence. We might also ask, what can we sing at times like these?
Songwriter and worship leader Matt Redman writes as part of "How Evangelical Leaders Have Changed Since 9/11" in the recent ChristianityToday forum,
My wife and I were due to fly from England to the United States of September 12, 2001 for a few months of sabbatical… But the horrific events unfolded, and of course our plans shifted. Later in the week, international flights resumed, and we managed to get on one of the first flights out….Agreed. As Matt’s song says, we can still bless the Name of the Lord even when we are in the “desert place” and walk “through the wilderness,” and also on “the road marked with suffering” where there’s “pain in the offering.” The good news we discuss on this worship blog is that the Suffering Servant became the Perfect Offering we could never be. Bodily risen and ascended, He lives and as the Spirit reminds us, is still with us and for us, in spite of appearances to the contrary—even during the times for which we have no words, no answers.
[But] what could we sing to God at a time like this? It was as if our worship songs were missing some important vocabulary—the language of tragedy and struggle, of the valley at the bottom of the mountain—which I found surprising, as the Psalms are full of lament. Soon after the tragedy, my wife and I wrote Blessed Be Your Name. It is a simple worship offering about choosing to worship and trust God no matter what the season.
September 11 taught me that when it comes to worshiping God, we must trust, of course. But we can also be real, raw, and honest. We can lay our frustration and confusion before God and still rejoice. Doing so tells God we know he is bigger than all of our issues—and also provides a window of hope to a watching world.
While not designed for congregational singing, millions have been touched by the ballad Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning, penned by Country Music entertainer Alan Jackson soon after the events of 9/11, and performed in early November 2001 at the CMA Awards telecast, where the song was widely considered the highlight of the show, and was soon released as a single.
In later interviews Jackson said, “I’ve always been careful to try not to get too preachy,” but as to how the song has deeply touched listeners, “it’s about what’s important to people.” Absolutely. There is nothing more important than the love of God revealed in person and work of Jesus, even in—no, especially in—the midst of unspeakable loss.
In trauma and tragedy we face our limitations. Life is fragile and short. But in grieving and turning to God, we have faith and hope that is not simply ours alone. It is perfect faith and hope that belongs to the living Son of God, who has ever trusted the Father on our behalf. It’s the unfathomable simplicity of Christ that the ‘everyman’ Jackson points to in the song’s simple but profound chorus.
I'm just a singer of simple songsOur words may fail. But because of Divine love, the Word became flesh (John 1:14), and by the Spirit the Living Word in heaven tells the Father all the things that weigh on our hearts. That love, and that Living Word, never fails. As the singer of simple songs would say, it’s the story of those good things He gave us.
I'm not a real political man
I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you
The difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love.
Last time we began exploring the concept of God’s singing in the new life of believers as the ‘sound of the spiritual harvest’ (as described in The Sound of the Harvest, by J. Nathan Corbitt) and the need for a gathered group of such people to find their own ‘worship voice.’
But many observe there seems to be two completely different church ‘worlds’—there’s ‘big church’ and ‘little church’—and when it comes to music resources, they’re worlds apart. Mega churches have choirs, praise teams, bands, worship directors, staff, and celebrity worship leaders. But for small congregations with quite limited resources, it often means singing along to CDs or videos.
So after some years of singing along to CD’s, here’s the story of how one little church prayerfully reevaluated their situation and decided to move in a different direction.
The little flock had come to a crossroads of sorts, and needed to address a number of challenges. In sitting down on several occasions to pray and share their feelings, one thing became clear—the congregational singing portion of the church service just didn’t feel right anymore. Oh, the songs were just fine, but after years of pumping slick recordings of voices and instruments through a sound system, they finally decided it wasn’t really them—wasn’t the sound of God’s spiritual harvest in that setting—wasn’t their own ‘worship voice’ and they yearned for a warmer touch of humanity.
No, they weren’t self-centered and stuck on the sound of their own voices, which were clearly nothing to brag about, but it seemed to them more important to more clearly hear the sound of their voices thanking and praising God than to be drowned out by voices and instruments that weren’t even present, and were merely recorded. Even if it meant singing without accompaniment, they decided it was more about the presence of people, and the actual humanity shared in Spirit with the risen, ascended Jesus, than it was about music.
So they identified someone with a strong voice who agreed to lead worship. Unexpectedly, a relative of that person soon began attending, and that person played an instrument and offered to play along. Soon a member who hadn’t picked up his instrument in decades decided to knock off the rust and join in. Soon each were comparing notes to see what songs would sound best given their particular involvement. Interest and attendance began increasing and the congregation began feeling more engaged.
They discovered it was a relational thing. Instead of pumping the sound of a mega-church worship service into their own small gathering, they found they were perhaps better able to appreciate what the Spirit was doing in and among them as they cherished the actual living presence and interaction of each participant.
Admittedly, every situation is different, but I’m glad my friend shared his story. If your small congregation is looking for ideas that go beyond CDs, here are a few suggestions.
· Contact the music department of a college or high school, or music school, to see if students might be available to help with church music. Offer a small stipend for their honorable work of assisting you with six or seven songs each weekend.
· Such a musician might appreciate the opportunity and welcome the experience. It is likely you have someone in-house who can sing well enough to lead, and only needs an accompanist to round things out.
· Some songs sound great on acoustic guitar. Sure, you’ve heard big arrangements of the Revelation Song, but the author wrote it on guitar, and sang it often in her small congregation and in other small settings before it ever hit the big venues with full bands and praise teams (click here to see an earlier post about song writer Jennie Lee Riddle and the Revelation Song).
· Live accompaniment can bring life to an old hymn. Besides, you can actually fellowship with an accompanist and go out for dinner!
· Small churches are intimate, but if you occasionally yearn for a bigger event, why not arrange to combine with several other small congregations for larger celebrations several times each year.
Your comments and ideas are most welcome! What does the spiritual harvest sound like in your congregation? Has it found its own worship voice?
Through Christ and the Spirit, the Triune God has entered into creation and the life story and relationships of each individual and group. So, yes, there is unity in Christ. But because of unique individual, family, cultural and congregational relationships and histories, each collective ‘worship voice’ will not sound identical to a ‘worship voice’ in another setting, though each sings the common, yet ever-new song of redeeming love, an echo of the New Song of the Lamb in the heavenly realm.
This ‘worship voice’ of gathered humanity is not static, but lives, breathes, and goes through changes in seasons of celebration and suffering, as people age and die, and as babes and newcomers arrive to add their own unique relational experiences to the mix—and as the times and cultures around us change.
Reminds me of an insightful book by Dr. Nathan Corbitt, The Sound of the Harvest: Music’s Mission in Church and Culture (1999 Baker Books). It’s been years since I first read the book, but I especially appreciate the way Corbitt explores the elements that make up what he calls the ‘sound of the harvest’.
As diverse as God’s fearfully and wonderfully made creation (Ps 139:14), music is always cross-cultural. Its meanings are so bound to the people and cultures who make it, we often fail to see our commonness because of our strangeness. God’s song of redemptive call and purpose are found in every place.
Some of us choose to live in terrariums and never know this beauty because we sing with ethnocentric tongues as opposed to those of celestial angels. Dominant cultures spread their music like the pervasive kudzu vine. Carried on the floods of digital technology, the gentle songs of remote cultures and ancient hymns are washed away to the gutters of history like musical deadwood because we perceive them to be irrelevant to our experience or too difficult to learn.
Yet as a plant is born, bears fruit and dies, music also exhibits a life cycle. Bound to the context of its original cultural garden, which is ever changing and dynamic, music finds not an immediate death, but a fading relevance to the people who call it their own. New music is born with a cross-pollinated and grafted heritage from tradition and eventually finds its way into the marketplace of the city street. It is from the streets of our lives that we both share and borrow our musical experience. (pp. 7-8)
Surrounded as we are in almost every culture by music, Corbitt ponders what might be unique or even holy about the music and songs of Christians, and describes meeting a woman who caused him to reevaluate his views of music ministry.
By many human standards her music wasn’t beautiful, but it was God’s singing in the new life of a believer—the sound of a spiritual harvest...
Born in the garden of the heart, harvested in the spirit of the soul, and manifested in the beat of the street, music is the expressive voice of the Christian faith.
Christians of every gifting, social class, race, and ethnicity are called to be faithful to God; and communicate, by expressing their own spiritual harvest in the beats of the streets, expanding and growing in the fullness of a kingdom still yet to come. (p. 30)Note that Corbitt does not limit the discussion to music within the walls of a church meeting, but thoughtfully explores and expands into a more holistic view.
Christians must embrace a holistic ministry that includes music making at every level of life experience, including places outside the church sanctuary. Music making is not a secondary activity and ministry for Christians. Nor does a holistic music ministry make music making a utilitarian tool for manipulating people into conforming to our purposes. While I have focused on the functions of music within a few recognizable categories…. God is not bound by our categories. The Spirit of God can lift the human spirit, convict of transgression, or heal the grieving soul through any music, in any context. (p. 341)Corbitt tells fascinating stories of people making use of music for creating unity, proclaiming, preaching, teaching and healing, and he fully discusses the use of voice, song, instruments and musicians.
How about you? When it comes to congregational singing, has your congregation come to fully recognize and utilize its collective God-given ‘worship voice’? What does the ‘sound of the spiritual harvest’ sound like in your church?
Your comments and participation are most welcome.
However, creative writers and musicians sometimes go beyond just sprinkling hymns and choruses throughout the worship list for the day and take the extra step of creating one piece of music that is more a “fusion” of something old and familiar with something fresh and new.
Using symbols to describe the process—just placing two different worship styles one after another (for example, a contemporary chorus after a traditional hymn) can be represented as A + B = AB. Whereas creatively fusing these elements together in such a way that both are mutually transformed into a new third thing can be seen as A + B = C.
A great example of this is the song Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone), a fusion of the John Newton poem, “Amazing Grace,” and a new chorus, "My Chains Are Gone," co-written by Chris Tomlin (pictured left) and Louie Giglio, published in 2006. The result is a centuries-old hymn contextualized with modern music and with an additional chorus that uses common contemporary language to help us as we respond to the Father through Christ and by the Spirit in thanks and praise. (Click here to see a video of Tomlin discussing and demonstrating the song on the newsongcafe program.)
ChristianityToday has referred to the poem by Newton—former slave trader turned pastor—as “probably the most famous hymn in history.” The article Whatever Happened to Amazing Grace, from the March 2011 edition, traces the song’s origins as well as major differences in the circumstances and timing of its publication, acceptance and popularity on each side of the Atlantic.
As pastor of a mostly uneducated Anglican congregation in the lace-making town of Olney, just northwest of London, Newton often wrote poems, including one titled “Amazing Grace,” and wedded them to familiar tunes in an effort to reinforce the point of his sermons. In 1799 the Olney Hymns were published, containing 280 poems from Newton, along with 68 from poet William Cowper, a layperson helper in the congregation. (Pictured left is a page from the Olney Hymns. Near the bottom are the first few lines of the Newton's poem that eventually became the famous hymn "Amazing Grace.")
In many non-Anglican, independent churches, parishioners sang the hymns of Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watt’s hymns were also sung in Baptist churches, such as the one in London pastored by John Rippon (1751-1836) [who] wished to expand hymn-singing options and bound many of Netwon’s poems with Watt’s hymns, titling the volume A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors…..Rippon’s collection became quite popular, with more than 200,000 copies in circulation. But though containing many of Netwon’s works, “Amazing Grace” was not among them. Was it perhaps the lack of mention of Jesus or God (the final verse—“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,” includes the word God, but was added later), or low-brow plebeian language? (Only 11 words from the four of the original verses that are commonly printed contain more than one syllable.) Late-19th century hymnologist John Julian simply said of the omission that “Amazing Grace” was “far from being a good example of Newton’s work.”
In any case, “Amazing Grace” went missing from English hymnbooks from the early 1800s, and did not appear in England, with the familiar “New Britain” tune, until 1964.To provide the beloved old hymn with new life and a fresh voice for today’s worshipers, Tomlin and Louie Giglio added the powerful chorus, "My chains are gone / I've been set free / My God, my Savior has ransomed me / And like a flood His mercy reigns / Unending love, Amazing grace!"
Across the Atlantic the situation was quite different. Some historians think Olney Hymns came to the United States with Scottish immigrants who settled in Kentucky and Tennessee…[and became] particularly popular in Methodist camp meetings in the first decades of the 19th century. In 1835 it appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, wedded to the now-standard New Britain tune… [and reaching] a circulation of 600,000—about one copy for every 40 people in the country. However “Amazing Grace” remained absent in many of the major Protestant denominational hymnals in the North.
From 1947 on, “Amazing Grace” began to migrate from its stronghold in the southern states into the secular mainstream. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performed it that year on the radio and subsequently included it in one of her releases. [The video here is of Mahalia's 1971 appearance on the Johnny Cash TV program.] Other singers who made it well known included Judy Collins (who sang it as an anti-Vietnam War protest) [Collins video here is from 1976 concert with Boston Pops], Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Willie Nelson. Arlo Guthrie sang it at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. [Guthrie video here is from 70's, in concert with Pete Seeger.]
A less obvious but important part of this “worship fusion” creation is that the entire piece is now sung in the 4/4 time signature, whereas “Amazing Grace” is more traditionally played with a waltz feel. As evidence of its popularity, for the past several years Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) has consistently been listed in the CCLI’s top ten worship songs, as reported by churches in their copy activity reports.
Traditional versions of “Amazing Grace” will no doubt continue to be sung for many generations to come. But this new version with the inclusion of “My Chains Are Gone” is one more way the Spirit has inspired current generations to tell the story of the Eternal Father’s unending love for each person and all creation—the amazing redeeming grace and freedom found in Jesus.
Please share what other “worship fusion” songs are being sung in your congregations.
(Confession time here. In leading worship through the years, I’ve seen more than a few photos of myself looking more serious than a solemn judge, and not so much like a joyful worshiper. Though none of us will do it perfectly, those who serve in visible roles should be aware of the impressions given.)
And if we take ourselves too seriously, we might also think too highly of ourselves and our work—especially if folks regularly offer thanks and appreciation for our work.
Remedy arrives in the wisdom and humor of Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Barth was perhaps the most highly acclaimed theologian of the 20th century, and no one had written more about the seriously deep, weighty matters of God, creation, humanity, revelation, response, freedom, responsibility, and so on, than Karl Barth in his 13 volume Church Dogmatics, written over the span of 35 years. (Click here for the link to Boiling down a bazillion words – a previous post referring to Barth’s work and to 'theological belonging' -- that both by creation and redemption, humanity belongs to Jesus.)
Yet for all the acclaim heaped on Barth, the theologian maintained a joyful servant’s heart and a self-deprecating sense of humor, as was described in an address given by Martin Rumscheidt at a Memorial Service at the University of Toronto in the chapel of Knox College in December 1968, following Barth’s death at age 82.
He was a joyful man, a man of humour…. You can see Barth turning the laugh on himself when he says: “The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at his trying to capture the truth about God in a book on dogmatics. They laugh, because volume follows volume, each thicker than the last, and as they laugh they say to each other: “Look! There he goes with his [wheel]barrow full of volumes on dogmatics.” …..Recently, in fact four days before his death, he told two friends that he had at last discovered the explanation of the size and number of his books. ‘My doctors discovered that my colon was much too long’, he said. ‘Now at last I know why there is no end to my volumes on dogmatics.’Rumscheidt showed that same humor was already evident in a much younger Barth.
In 1922 he [Barth] addressed to himself these words by Luther: ‘If you think and are of the opinion that you really stand secure and you please yourself with your own books, your teaching and your writings, [if you think] that you have done splendidly and have preached magnificently, and if it then pleases you to be praised before others….then my friend, if you are man enough, put your hands to your ears, and if you do so rightly, you will find a lovely pair of big, long, rough donkey’s ears. Do not spare the cost of decorating them with golden bells so that you can be heard wherever you go and the people can point to you and say; “Behold, behold! There goes that splendid creature that writes such wonderful books and preaches such wonderful sermons.”Speaking further of Barth’s humor, Rumscheidt said,
Barth’s humour is humour out of faith. A very appropriate academic and ecclesiastical honour to bestow upon him would have been a doctorate humoris causa…. It is here, in the knowledge of faith in the power and finality of redemption, that man can laugh, laugh at himself, laugh in the happy expectation that the word of him who speaks the last word will most assuredly be a good word, a word infinitely better than all those muttered or spoken by man. Barth’s humour is of the ‘nevertheless’ kind, like Mozart’s music, in which the shadows of death and the dark hues of pain and suffering are not absent, but are nevertheless bathed in the radiance and harmony that sings praises to the goodness of God’s creation.As to continual praises for Barth’s work, Rumscheidt quoted from a speech Barth gave on the occasion of his eightieth birthday celebration.
‘Let me again remind you of the donkey… A real donkey is mentioned in the Bible, or more specifically an ass. But let us call it a donkey. It was permitted to carry Jesus to Jerusalem. If I have done anything in this life of mine, I have done it as a relative of the donkey that then went to its way carrying an important burden. The disciples had said to its owner: “The Lord has need of it”. And so it seems to have pleased God to use me at this time, just as I was…. I just happened to be on the spot. A theology somewhat different from the current theology was apparently needed in our time, and I was permitted to be the donkey that carried this better theology for part of the way, or tried to carry as best I could.’Seriously, anybody feeling a bit like a donkey?
Scrolling down the right hand of this page in the quote section you will find this quote:
"Christ receives all that we offer God, in thanksgiving, in worship, and in service, converts it in himself, and presents it as something prefect and wholly acceptable to his Father, who is our Father...The theology of incarnation reminds us that all humanity has been caught up in Christ's ascended and glorified humanity, so making it possible for us to participate by the Spirit in the Son's perfect communion with his Father" (Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark, The Privilege of Participating In the Ministry of Christ, pp. 117-118).And that’s incredibly big! For those having answered a call to lead worship, the above perspective offers a sense of thankful joy, peace, and also liberation from endless striving for the unattainable perfect worship service. At the same time, whether we are new to the task, or have been doing it for many years, we see the importance of sharing in what Christ is doing, and we want to do everything we can to serve our congregations to the best of our abilities as we worship.
Here is a helpful summary of five practical steps for worship leaders, adapted from Worship Team Handbook, and an article by Matt Frazier from BuildingChurchLeaders and Christianity Today International.
1. Use your eyes and your body to lead – Eye contact is a great way to connect and communicate with those you lead. Your eyes should say, “Isn’t it great to worship God together?” As for your body, try to relax, be comfortable and work toward losing any distracting physical habits (most people have some) that would draw attention to you rather than the worship.
2. Use your voice – It’s the best tool of all for leading worship. A voice that sounds pleasant and excited works best in a worship setting. If you need to call out a verse or chorus in giving directions during the song, use the same pleasant tone, so you don’t break the mood by switching to an ‘information’ voice that has a completely different tone.
3. Be aware of the people you’re leading – Don’t just focus on your own experience and thereby forget about the congregation. It is true that even if others don’t follow is in worshiping God, that shouldn’t keep is from worshiping. But we can’t be in our own world, ignoring all others around us.
4. Tune into your congregation’s current needs – If the congregation is not yet familiar with a song, you’ll need to lead more strongly until they become more comfortable with it. If it is unclear what verse comes next, help them with it. From beginning to end of every worship time, try to be aware of what the congregation is experiencing, so you are prepared to help at any given moment. What cultural, social, or holiday events are in play that might affect the day? What is useful to help people respond after one message may not be useful after other messages. In order to guide people to a new destination, you need to know something about their point of departure.
5. Plan in specific ways how you will lead each worship time – If for example, you want participants to reflect on a particular attribute of God, give them a Scripture, a story, or an illustration to get them thinking. Don’t just say, “Reflect for a moment on how holy God is.” Explain what holiness is about. Give an analogy or metaphor they can relate to. Read Scripture that illustrates God’s holiness in fresh ways (it doesn’t even have to use the word holy as long as that’s what it’s about). Plan to ask people to move physically—to stand, if you want them to respond in excitement, or to sit if you want them to experience God’s rest.
Finally the article reminds us of the important fact that the worship leader is not only a leader, but is also a worshiper.
To lead worship, we must worship—we can’t take others where we’re not going. It is crucial however, that we learn how to focus on God while also being aware of what the people we lead are experiencing. With that awareness, we can create situations that help others worship.