Thought for the Month (August 2015)
We all have our favourite hymns and there may be a number of reasons why they are special to us. It may be that we love the tune, or maybe we love the words, or it could be a combination of the two. Maybe when we sing them we feel that these special words help us express our faith better than we can ourselves; maybe we find them uplifting or maybe they mark a particular time in our spiritual journey – either difficult or joyous.
There are a lot of hymns to choose from – some old, some new, some glorious, some not so. My choices will be different from yours; you will hate some of mine and I may well hate some of yours.
My most favourite hymn will quite possibly turn some people off (although in national polls it does figure quite highly) because the language is a bit archaic – lots of Thou, Thy and Thee, but for me it is a prayer and when I sing it I feel I am communicating directly with God. It is "Be Thou my Vision" and is very old. Written in the 6th century by a blind Irish monk – Dallan Forgaill – it was used as a prayer and chanted in the old Irish language for centuries until it was translated in 1905 and put into verses in 1912. It has a Godward vision and I find the words incredibly uplifting.
Another favourite of mine is "Amazing Grace" and many of you will know the story behind the writing of this one. John Newton was a slave trader, a blasphemer, a rebel and a torturer – a man far from grace, a wretch in fact - until in 1748 his slave ship was nearly wrecked by a massive storm and he turned to God and prayed on his knees for mercy. The ship was saved and his life was changed forever. He wrote this song some years later when he was working as a Pastor in Olney, England and the lyrics are very well known – full of the truth of God's amazing grace.
There are so many more I could write about – Fanny Crosby, another blind hymn writer wrote over 8,000 hymns and gospel songs, amongst them two more that I love – "Blessed Assurance" and "To God be the Glory". Charles Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns, amongst them "And can it be that I should gain" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" two more I love. These gifted writers were able to put into song great spiritual truths and deep spiritual experiences. A hymn was a good way to get the gospel message into hearts and minds – we all know what it's like when a song gets 'stuck' in our memory. I am ashamed to admit that some weeks, by the time we get to Wednesday, the Sunday sermon has fled but an inspiring hymn will still be going round in my mind.
In Matthew chapter 26 Jesus shares His last meal with His disciples – they didn't know it was the last one but He did. It was a Passover meal – a very special meal full of meaning for all Jews, remembering as it did the last meal eaten by the children of Israel before they left Egypt. Then, a lamb was sacrificed, the blood was sprinkled on the doorposts and then the lamb was cooked and eaten along with unleavened bread so that the angel of death would pass over their houses. During that last Passover meal Jesus took all that symbolism and changed its focus so that the bread became the symbol for His body given for us and the wine became His blood, shed for us. From now on the meal was to be a remembrance of His death, His sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Then in verse 30 we are told 'when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives'. This is a verse I have read many times but not given a great deal of thought to – I had never really thought of Jesus singing but it was customary for Jews to include special hymns from Psalms during a Passover meal. These were Psalms 113 – 118 and are called "Hallel (praise) Psalms". They are just that – Psalms full of praise to God and how great he is and for His deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. However, within those Psalms there are also some verses which Jesus sang which pointed directly to Himself. In Psalm 116 we read, "The snares of death encompassed me, the pangs of hell laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord, 'O Lord, I beg you, save my life!'.... 'For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I walk before the Lord in the land of the living ...'. 'What shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord'...'O Lord, I am your servant, the son of your handmaid. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving...' Psalm 116:3-4, 8-9, 12-13 and 16-17.
These Psalms that Jesus and His disciples sang were full of deep significance, great spiritual truth and Jesus must have known He was singing about Himself. Our hymns are a rich treasure – they can teach as well as inspire us, lift us up when we feel down, give our worshipping hearts the words we need and become a prayer that will help us feel closer to God. They're not just for Sundays in church either – we can use them in our own quiet times with the Lord too. So, let's give thanks to God for gifted hymn-writers through the ages who have blessed us with amazing words and music which are such a big part of our Christian experience and let's make more use of them.
Jacqui Ferdinando (Rusthall URC Correspondent)
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