The Importance of Lyrics for Hymnody

Let me begin this post with two assertions:

  1. The lyrics of church music are important
  2. Picking the music sung in congregational worship is not a task to be taken lightly

I begin with those points because any discussion of church music is likely to be emotionally charged and painstakingly scrutinized, at best. My point here, which may be a disappointment to those looking for a heated argument, is not to rail against any particular style of congregational music and suggest that any one style is better or worse than any other. While I certainly think some styles are better than others for consideration in worship, I am aware of my biases and try to be more concerned with content over style. Perhaps, I’ll open that can of worms on another day…(grin)

As a pastor, I get a kick out of the things people remember from the sermons preached in our church, by the senior pastor or me. Occasionally, someone will directly ask me about one of the points of the sermon…most often if they have a theological bone to pick with something I said. Quite often, folks will remember an illustration, especially if they find it humorous. Most of the time, however, I think hearers walk away from sermons without being able to even summarize the thesis or any main ideas presented.

At first, that was a hard pill for me to swallow…think of the fallenness of these hearers who cannot even recall any of the points of a sermon I labored so many hours to prepare! While I’m certainly not closed to the possibility that I am simply a poor communicator, I find that I am often unable after a couple of days to recount the argument presented in even the best sermons…and yet they sustain my soul. Beyond realizing I was guilty of the same mental lapses, I also realized the quasi-related point that I ordinarily can’t recall most of the best meals my wife has prepared after they fade a day or two into the past…and yet they sustain my body.

What does this have to do with music and the importance of good lyrics? A lot! While I do not think hymnody is a means of grace, like preaching, it certainly is a valuable teaching and catechetical tool. Even though none of us can ordinarily rattle off even one of the main teaching points of most sermons, how many of us can finish at a verse from a hymn (maybe more!) just from hearing someone mention the title or hum a few bars? With that in mind, how important does hymn selection seem now? As a Christian facing hardship, uncertainty, suffering, etc., which lyrics would better serve to strengthen one’s faith in the midst of crisis:

“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing;
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.”

OR

“Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away.
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, O Glory, I’ll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye, I’ll fly away.”

(Aside: Lest someone accuse me of creating some sort of ridiculous straw man argument to try to prove my point wrongly, these are two songs that have been sung in our congregation within the last quarter.)

Now seriously, is there really any doubt as to which is the more edifying hymn? Is there really any contest as to which is more likely to remind us both the power and grace of our glorious God in whatever situation we find ourselves?  I didn’t think so.

So, having established the importance of sound lyrics in our hymnody, how do we do on to choose our music? Is any song mentioning God or the Lord good enough? I don’t think so…and maybe we’ll take a look at that sometime via the “Gospel According to Bob Marley.”

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Fulfilling the Law through love…

This morning I was reading in Romans 13 and was struck hard by verses 8-10 and Paul’s connection between love and the Law:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13.8-10, ESV)

If we read this passage (and its context) quickly or casually, as we tend to do, it is easy to let ourselves off the hook, gloss over the hard teaching of this passage, or even give ourselves a spiritual pat on the back and think, “Easy enough. I can do that.” As is often the case, however, if we stop and think for a few moments about the significance of what Paul is saying here, we can’t help but be driven to Christ for hope in recognition of our utter inability and sinfulness.

When reading this passage quickly, it almost seems as though Paul is lessening the demand or sting of the Law by reducing or distilling it to something more palatable. To quote another Paul, “All you need is love.” That condensation sounds great to our ears because it sounds easy, but even in its most basic form I can’t help but recognize that the Law is still something utterly beyond my ability to keep. As I read this passage today, I kept reading the first half of verse ten over and over, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Though it sounds so simple in this passage, I can’t escape the fact that the Law (even in its most elementary form) is something I cannot fulfill. Again and again, I fail at doing no wrong to my neighbors for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes I am ignorant of what the loving response should be, doing wrong inadvertently. Sometimes I am complacent or lazy concerning a loving response, doing wrong selfishly. Sometimes I even deliberately choose a reponse I know will cause harm (for whatever sinful reason), doing wrong in total rebellion to God’s revealed will in the Law. For whatever reason, I cannot even live up to this most basic expression of the Law.

At these times, I most need to hear Jesus’ gracious absolution and be reminded of the forgiveness to be had in him. Despite the objective reality of my sinfulness, I have the objective reality of forgiveness in Christ. Despite the temptation to gloss over this passage and walk away feeling smug, I am stripped of my self-assurance and driven again to the cross to find my hope

“Love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Great, even a small child can understand its simplicity. At the same time, even a small child can understand his inability to keep the Law and the necessity of relying on the grace of Christ, revealed perfectly on Calvary. Praise be to God for his great mercy toward us in Christ Jesus!