Hymns can unexpectedly lead us into the presence of God

A few weeks ago I wrote about how singing the hymn ‘O Jesus I have promised to serve thee to the end’ had proved to be a deeply moving experience, so much so that to my great embarrassment tears began to run down my face. To my surprise, this blog resonated with many of my ‘followers’. In the words of a respondent who at one stage had been deeply involved in ‘Hillsong’ worship, “It did make me nostalgic for a good old-fashioned hymn like this one, that reminds us memorably of precious truths and commitments”.

I had another similar experience recently. The worship up until that point had left me somewhat cold – apart from the opening ‘collect’ of the day which I found quite inspirational. In the sermon the preacher was wrestling with a theological conundrum, but for all the preacher’s efforts unfortunately neither Caroline nor I could make much sense of what was being said, with the result that we both felt somewhat frustrated. But then after the saying of the creed, the prayers of intercession, and the giving of the peace, came a hymn, the first verse of which reads:

How shall I sing that majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise, but who am I?

Written by John Mason, a 17th century Calvinistic Anglican minister, it is not the easiest of hymns to understand (hence, no doubt, it never appeared in the 1968  Baptist Hymnbook, let alone the 1991 Baptist Praise and Worship), yet by the final verse I felt swept up into heaven itself:

How great a being, Lord, is thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore
Thy place is everywhere

I was overwhelmed as I sang this hymn, even although there was no modern worship band ‘up front’’ – instead, there was an organ and a choir. True, I appreciated the relatively modern (20th century!) tune, Coe Fen, but in no way was it ‘upbeat’. What is more, it was not the music but the words which got to me. That morning it was neither the sermon nor the celebration of the Lord’s Supper which was for me the primary ‘means of grace’, but an old hymn, which I would never have dreamt of choosing myself had I been responsible for the service. It was – and still is – mystifying to me.

This caused me to reflect on how contemporary charismatic worship has developed in some churches. As my earlier ‘Hillsong’ respondent commented, “music is often used to lead the worshipper to worship rather than worship being a response to the truths heard and the experience of the Holy Spirit”. Indeed, this was confirmed just today by a fellow British Baptist minister, who had just returned from the USA where he had attended one of the services of a well-known mega church. He told me how when the ‘worship’ began, as in a concert, the main auditorium lights were dimmed and all the focus was on the ‘stage’ where the worship leaders and the band were – with the main worship leader constantly exhorting the ’audience’ to engage – interestingly, my friend told me that no more than 20% actually joined in the singing. What a contrast to my recent experience of worship – where the focus was on the Lord’s Table, with the choir at the back of the church; and where neither the writer of the hymn that so moved me, nor indeed the composer of the tune, set out to arouse my feelings. Significantly, in no way did the hymn boost my sense of worth, but rather it made me feel very small – not least as I sang the third verse:

Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite

And yet that hymn proved to be the means of God invading my life that morning. Don’t get me wrong, God does not limit himself to the singing of old hymns – he can use contemporary songs too! My concern, however, is that in many Evangelical churches it is as if God can only use modern ‘songs’, with the result that hymns of any kind have been kicked into touch. In my experience the other Sunday, even an old 17th century hymn could unexpectedly lead me into the presence of God.

3 comments

  1. Thanks Paul, that hymn is in BBC Songs of Praise which I introduced to Eltham College about 25 years ago. The new HM in 2000 introduced it as he had been taught by Ken Naylor who wrote Coe Fen . It caught on and it is a great hymn.
    As for many worship songs, I wonder if you have read ‘And now for a time of nonsense’ which is hilarious.
    I think most old hymns are tired- especially the chosen few that worship bands use . But there is such a wealth of stuff from the mid century onwards with such gifted writers as C Idle (O E) T Dudley -Smith, John Bell, etc . Have you seen Hymns of Glory Songs of Praise? My last two churches both have it. Marty Haugen , what a pity our churches don’t know Let us build a house….. but sadly many couldn’t sing it with any honesty……. Best wishes Robert

  2. Thanks again for another very engaging blog. Since I’ve been receiving your blog by email I cannot remember a single time where I have been able to pass over it quickly (except maybe the book reviews), you engage me every time although I have a busy life!

    I too am a worship leader at Romford Baptist Church and I share your belief, as I always have done actually, that we should not ‘kick into touch’ any worship hymns etc written before the charismatic movement started. I think this is in line with my Spring Harvest experiences from early adult life, whose leaders share the same philosophy.

    With blessings,
    Martin

  3. Paul once again an engaging post.
    I am fed up when many judge a hymn by the century written!
    Not the way to do it
    I love to sing Be gone unbelief by John Newton
    And recent Glorious things of thee are spoken really resounded .
    However a service led by Jeff Lucas in Westminster central chapel sone years ago was so enhanced by the choice of – Teach me to dance -after the sermon which was newish at the time but spoke of intimacy and commitment better than the sermon had been able to and he preached welll!
    So thanks Paul again
    I too inhabit an Anglican Sunday service these days and can appreciate where you coming from.
    But today going to celebrate 300 years of Baptist witness at Park Road Rushden
    God bless you
    Peter

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