Songs for Crisis

Here are the ten most popular songs among Christians during COVID-19:

It should come as no surprise that the classic hymn, written during a time of personal crisis, continues to encourage Christians to find comfort in Christ. Despite its enduring status, it grew even more popular, with a 68% jump in usage from February to the months of the coronavirus.

Another classic hymn became even more special to churches in recent months. Use of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” grew 64%.

The 2015 worship song grew in usage by 23% during the pandemic.

Released in 2019, “Raise a Hallelujah” brought comfort to churches and grew by 15%.

Another 2019 song that grew in 2020, “See a Victory” jumped 30%.

Many churches have been turning to old truths contained in timeless hymns like this one, which grew in usage by 49%.

Matt Redmon’s 2006 worship song saw a 102% jump in popularity during the pandemic.

The 2018 song from Vertical Worship grew in popularity by 21%.

Hillsong’s 2012 song builds on the classic hymn already on the list, “Solid Rock,” and grew 11% in popularity.

The modern hymn released by Keith and Kristyn Getty in 2016 saw a 46% jump in usage in recent months.

Here’s one that pairs well with both pandemic and protest, a metrical version of Psalm 17:

1Lord, hear my plea, attend my cry; unto my prayer give heed.
My righteous plea does not from false, deceitful lips proceed.

2Let vindication of my cause proceed, O Lord, from You;
Your eyes see what is right, so give my vindication due.

3Though You may probe my heart at night, or test me deep within;
You will find nothing, for I vowed my mouth would never sin.

4As for men’s deeds, I’ve kept myself from all their violent ways;
It’s by the word of Your own lips I’ve stayed within Your ways.

5My steps have held fast to Your path; I’ve walked within Your way;
And my feet have not slipped, for on Your path I vowed to stay.

6I call on You, and trust, O God, that You will answer me;
Give ear to me and hear my prayer, incline Your ear to me.

7Show me Your wondrous steadfast love: You save by Your right hand
all those who take refuge in You from foes that ’gainst them stand.

8Keep me as safe as You would keep the apple of Your eye;
And in the shadow of Your wings, allow me safe to hide,

9From wicked ones who trouble me, who do my soul surround,
From all my mortal enemies who compass me around.

10They close their callous hearts, and speak with arrogance profound;
11They track me down with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.

12They’re like a lion prowling ‘round, and hungry for his prey—
A lion who lies crouching under cover all the day.

13Rise up and come confront my foes, and bring them down, O Lord,
Come rescue me from wicked ones by power of Your sword.

14Stretch out Your hand to save me from such worldly ones, O Lord,
Who only in this present life do gather their reward.

You still the hunger of the ones You cherish, and provide
so they’ll not want; their children with great wealth will be supplied.

15But as for me, in righteousness, Your face I know I’ll see;
When I awake, Your likeness will be fullest joy to me.

Imagine that, a feisty song from the Bible, of all places.

How Far Is the Sidestream from the Main One?

Travels to Hungary earlier this week and a pleasant conversation with a young woman training to be a pastor in the Hungarian Reformed Church got me thinking about women, gender, and how important male clergy is to “the gospel.” This woman could not quite wrap her mind around the idea that a church still places restrictions on ordination. The argument that Paul taught that elders and pastors should be male, since they should be married to only one wife (and Paul wasn’t thinking of Ellen DeGeneres), didn’t seem to be sufficient.

So I started to think, thoughts that took me back to CRC days, what is such a big deal about ordaining women? It is an error and violates God’s word, which is synonymous with sin (“any want of conformity unto or transgression of”). But Covenanters can fellowship with hymn singers which for some exclusive psalm folks is a violation of God’s word. Which means we all look the other way at least ecumenically when it comes to interpreting God’s word.

The experience of conservative Reformed boomers, however, was that the hermeneutic that allowed the ordination of women was one that would lead to cutting and pasting the rest of God’s word and church order. As a boomer this argument — the slippery slope one that almost sent me to Vietnam — makes some sense. But what if a communion decided simply to draw the line at women’s ordination? We will go this far, the women’s ordinationists might say, but no farther. Isn’t that what some communions have done with hymns? We will sing them but not P&W Praise Songs? In which case, what is the threshold that women’s ordination crosses by itself? Or is it simply a case of knowing what history teaches — when women ascend the pulpit doctrine slips.

Along with this set of thoughts went the one about women and head coverings. Should a communion like the OPC be consistent and encourage (maybe discipline) women to cover their heads in worship, with some preference given to those with long hair? Is this another one of those hermeneutical instances where we look the other way? At the same time, doesn’t the reality of women not wearing scarves in OPC churches, along with our hip and up-to-date revision of the Confession of Faith on the civil magistrate — doesn’t this make the OPC mainstream?

Oh yeah. What Christian women today would wear a head scarf? That’s Islam.

When Praise Songs Defeated Psalms

1789 in Philadelphia (all about me, I was there this week):

For many years, only Psalms were sung throughout the Presbyterian Churches and the old “Rouse” versions were the standard. The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States convened at the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1789. One of the Presbyterian ministers of the time, a man by the name of Rev. Adam Rankin, rode horseback from his Kentucky parish to Philadelphia to plead with his fellow Presbyterians to reject the use of Watts ‘ hymns. He cautioned the Assembly Commissioners “to refuse to allow the great and pernicious error of adoption of the use of Watt’s hymns in public worship in preference to Rouse’s versifications of the Psalms of David.”

Rankin’s protests have fallen to the wayside, and Watts ‘ famous tunes live on.

(By the way, the image here includes the house — far right — where Charles Hodge lived as a boy.)

The Appeal of Otherworldliness

I have often wondered whether neo-Calvinists have a difficult time singing hymns that put singers in the passive position of waiting for the triumph over sin and death in the world to come. I mean, constantly looking for signs of Christ’s victory in the affairs of this world has to be depressing, unless you avoid the news or are remarkably naive. The analogy might be something like a Chicago Cubs fan who every season and off-season believes the franchise is proving itself the best in Major League Baseball.

One hymn I’ve had in mind that would not make a neo-Calvinist editorial cut is #444 (original Trinity Hymnal), “Father I Know that All My Life” (exclusive psalmodists, avert your eyes):

Father, I know that all my life
Is portioned out for me;
The changes that are sure to come,
I do not fear to see:
I ask thee for a present mind,
Intent on pleasing thee.

I would not have the restless will
That hurries to and fro,
Seeking for some great thing to do,
Or secret thing to know;
I would be treated as a child,
And guided where I go.

I ask thee for the daily strength,
To none that ask denied,
A mind to blend with outward life,
While keeping at thy side,
Content to fill a little space,
If thou be glorified.

In service which thy will appoints
There are no bonds for me;
My secret heart is taught the truth
That makes thy children free;
A life of self-renouncing love
Is one of liberty.

The stanza about not having a restless will must especially give those who would go out and transform the world pause.

But then it turns out that sometimes a little quiet time this side of the new heavens and new earth is just what the physician of souls ordered. Jim Bratt, at The12, anyway, gives reasons (in connection with Harold Camping’s death) for thinking otherworldly thoughts:

Now the coincidence. That same day I read the gloomiest forecast I’ve seen to date about global warming. (“Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” by Dahr Jamail.) Melting Arctic shelf, disappearing glaciers, warming and acidifying oceans, all the old familiars strains, but then the big one—the likely release of unfathomable amounts of methane from the Arctic permafrost, spiking the mean global temperature by at least 4 degrees C—and ending life on earth as we know it. The sixth mass extinction in planetary history is underway, and our species is part of it. Their food sources and fresh water supplies wiped out, the human race will be reduced to slight remnants huddled around the two poles, trying to keep cool. It all makes Camping’s prediction of seven billion people dying in his end-time disaster sound quite plausible. Who knows, maybe 2011 will turn out to have been the tipping point, the year the books were closed on human folly. Funny, the Christian fundamentalists who tuned into Camping revile the global-warming scenarios spun by eco-radicals, and the eco-radicals, secular to a fault, have not the slightest use, not even ridicule, for the likes of Camping. But they come out at the same place.

So Advent? Christmas? Not on the tip of my singing tongue. Today being the deepest midwinter, the pit of darkness, my mind and my mood go instead to an old Dutch hymn that we used to sing on New Year’s Eve when I was a boy. Right after the congregation’s necrology was read, and after a sermon heavy with the specter of judgment and finality and aspersions upon “the world’s” way of spending the evening in frivolity and laughter. Set against that background, the hymn ain’t bad. Not bad at all. A sense of an ending is there, but so—even more—is God’s “right hand [that] will take us/to our everlasting peace.” For a fidgety boy dying to get out of church those nights, knowing that yet another service faced us the next morning, the lyrics felt solid and honest, and the tune sounded somehow noble and assuring in its steady march up and down the scale.

Here’s the hymn:

1 Hours and days and years and ages
swift as moving shadows flee;
as we scan life’s fleeting pages,
nothing lasting do we see.
On the paths our feet are walking,
footprints all will fade away;
each today as we enjoy it
soon becomes a yesterday.

2 But from sin your mercy drew us,
would not leave our souls alone.
Gracious Lord, you did renew us;
in Christ’s death we are your own.
Through the mercy of your leading,
each short step along our way
now becomes a path to guide us
to the land of endless day.

3 Though swift time keeps marching onward,
it will not decide our end.
You will always be our Father,
loving God, eternal Friend.
When life’s dangers overwhelm us,
you will ever be our stay;
through your Son you are our Father,
always changeless, come what may.

4 Speed along, then, years and ages,
with your gladness and your pain;
when our deepest sorrow rages,
God our Father will remain.
Though all friends on earth forsake us
and our troubles shall increase,
God with his right hand will take us
to our everlasting peace.

What do you know, it’s only a digit removed in the CRC’s Psalter Hymnal from “Father I Know that All My Life”‘s number in the Trinity Hymnal.

Where to Put What We Sing

Hymnals are something that Presbyterians take for granted. Rare is the lay person who picks up the book to examine it like any other, looking say at the table of contents, then at some of the indexes, and then at one or two hymns to see which tune the compilers used for a certain text. Instead, most church members look at the bulletin at the specific time for singing in the service, find the number in the hymnal, stand, and sing the chosen hymn.

Perhaps just as rare is a church member who reflects on a hymn in relation to what goes before and after it in the service. Does it follow a prayer, a Bible reading, the sermon? Did the pastor choose the hymn for a specific reason? Was it to reinforce the theme of the biblical passage, to resonate with the sermon topic, or as is often the case for hymns before the sermon, just a way to let people stand and stretch?

And most important, did the pastor choose the hymn to function as a prayer in response to what just transpired in divine worship?

This is the most important question if the dialogical principle guides the way that we order a service. If God speaks and we respond, then the way God speaks is through word (read and preached) and sacraments, and we respond by prayer (and offering). This means that congregational singing needs to fit the category of prayer, which is exactly what Calvin considered worship songs to be, and which is also why he only sang psalms. The psalter is the Bible’s prayer book.

So what then should we do with hymns like “How Firm a Foundation”? Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful hymn and testifies to God’s faithfulness. And as the years pass it is very hard not to be moved by the line, “And when hoary hairs shall their temple to adorn, Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.” It is a great hymn but it is not much of a prayer since almost all of the stanzas are in quotation marks, indicating that God is speaking to those who are supposed to be lifting up their voices to him. In which case, if we are responding to God in song, and if our response is actually words that God speaks to his people, then we are singing in a manner so that God is speaking to himself.

This dilemma may explain why Presbyterians are prone to regard hymns not according to their type of prayer – praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition – but according to the doctrine they teach. The Trinity Hymnal of the OPC puts “How Firm a Foundation” in the section dealing with “The Glory of God: His Faithfulness.” The old PCUS hymnal from 1955 put this hymn in the section, “Life in Christ, Faith and Assurance.” Neither are bad calls. But both hymnals are arranged, as reflected in their table of contents, according to doctrinal categories rather than forms of prayer for different parts of the service as part of the congregation’s response to God. In fact, the Trinity Hymnal goes so far in the direction of doctrine that it arranges the hymnal according to the chapters of the Westminster Confession.

This decision to arrange hymns according to doctrine makes sense if you buy the adage that more people learn their theology from hymns than from systematic theology. I for one do not buy this adage because of the way that most people use hymnals (mentioned above) they sing on command with little attention to the point of the song. I am also suspicious of the assumption contained in the adage because I am not convinced that the theology contained in hymns is all that clear. Granted, the answer from the catechism about saving faith may not rhyme, but it is clear.

But this begs the question of what songs are supposed to do in worship. If they are a form of prayer, then why do we have so many songs that are mini-sermons?