Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Morning Thanks--blushingly old hymns

It's not all that hard to miss Ascension Day, and, to be truthful, I didn't, because missing it would have been pretty much impossible with a roomful of preachers, several of whom had to get back home on Thursday for Ascension Day services yet that night. That's where I was on Thursday--in a room full of preachers.

But the little church we attended on Sunday didn't meet on Thursday night, so the heart of yesterday's liturgy was the holiday; and that meant singing some traditional Ascension Day hymns, like "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun."

Anybody who's been in church for any length of time can likely recite most of that old Isaac Watts favorite, or at least the verses people traditionally sing. But our hymnal yesterday included a verse I'd never sung before--or seen before for that matter, the second verse.

Here's the first, if you're drawing a blank:

Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Does his successive journey run.
His kingdoms stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Now the memory bank in my head insists that the next line is this:  "To him shall endless prayers be made/And praises throng to crown his head. . ."  That's not what followed.

Instead, we got this one:

From north to south the princes meet
To pay their homage at his feet.
While western empires own their Lord,
And savage tribes attend his Word.

I sang those words, I guess, but whatever came after got lost when I swallowed my tongue.  Just the day before, I'd held forth at Pipestone, Minnesota, on early 19th century missionary work among the Dakota, so "savage tribes" was language I understood all too blushingly.

Not long ago, in fact, I had recommended that a worship leader find an old missionary hymn I used to sing as a boy, a hymn titled "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," for a worship service I had to lead in which I wanted to talk about old mission efforts. The organist politely refused to play it because, he said--and he was right--the lyrics are embarrassingly colonialist, if not racist. However, that old hymn was a staple of missionary presentations when I was a kid, and I wanted to recreate that whole atmosphere a bit, embarrassing though it may have been.  

No go.

But back to yesterday.  The attendance was spotty, but we rather like the determined unpretentiousness of the people there--they're not salesmen or hipsters or holy rollers; and they obviously--convincingly--aren't subject to whatever's cool with the evangelical crowd.  They're a liberal church that worships in an immensely conservative style, something out of, say, the fifties.  They're mainline, and, you're right, they're not growing.

All of which, I think, makes understandable that odd stanza of "Jesus Shall Reign."

Right in front of us stood a Korean family, interestingly enough. I don't know what they thought about "western empires" and "heathen tribes," but they didn't slam the hymnal or walk out, even though I suppose they could have.

Maybe I was the only soul in that Ascension Day worship who gasped.  Who takes what they sing seriously, anyway?  You could make an argument that church music isn't really about words.  There are all kinds of reasons not to sing "Faith of Our Fathers," after all, but people love that old hymn anyway, even though "dungeons, fire, and sword" are so far behind any of us that an entire congregation would have loads of trouble remembering a single name from Foxe's Book of Martyrs.  And what about the faith of our mothers--yesterday especially?

Still, this morning, a day later, I'm thankful for the old hymns, even when they're embarrassing. They're as much about faith as they are about us, both who we were and who we are--"western" or "savage."    

Isaac Watts penned 14 verses of that old hymn, for worship that used to go longer than an hour, obviously.  That multitude of verses make for an interesting poem.  You can check it out here.


Anonymous said...

I reckon today the IRS would deem any "righty" program to be savage tribe. Oh how times have changed.

Anonymous said...

What I choose to say about "savage tribe" and the position of 'right" I would rather leave alone. It is written, "Don't bad-mouth". It has a way of coming back at you.

Anonymous said...

Out here in Navajo Land we pray for our "brothers and sisters in Christ" and share the scriptures that proclaim that Jesus died for all our sins and rose again to bring us new life in Him. Let's all accept His gift and Walk In Beauty. What would,or did,Jesus say?

Anonymous said...

Looking back gives us a window into the common thought line of that day. I wonder what our common thought line would be that reflects how we see things today and what will our grandchildren say about how we wrote songs and praised God.

Anonymous said...

What does "Badmouth" mean?

Anonymous said...

Bad mouth - "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor". "Judge not, lest you be judge". It is written

Anonymous said...

I Corinthians 6
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? 4 If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? 5 I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? 6 But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!

My Bible reads that we should judge other Christians.