Today there is sunshine and the promise of slightly warmer temperatures, but I think we would all agree that we are ready for spring. I, in particular am ready for spring as it feels to me like my winter began last June when I began the journey to have the unknown congenital defect repaired. It has been a very long winter indeed, with only a few glimpses of sunlight along the way.
One little ray of sunshine has come this last week, however, as I have prepared to work with the Chapel Team at VTS next week and as I have, of all things, worked on Church History paper. The first offers hope because the team asked me to serve as cantor all week (we will be doing services in the Lutheran tradition…it is a long explanation as to why). If I am not serving the Lord through music, I am more than a little lost and I am grateful for the opportunity to exercise this expression of my faithful self with my formation community.
The second ray of sunshine has come through my work on my project for Church History — a paper on the hymns of Isaac Watts and the role of congregational singing in the Dissent movement in England. Before you think I have gone off the musical geek cliff, I will point out that the hymns of Isaac Watts are still loved and sung by people of faith all over the world: can you imagine Christmas without “Joy to the World”, or Holy Week without “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” And what good Baptist, Southern or otherwise, doesn’t enjoy a good round of “Marching to Zion.” See, you know what I mean.
Doing research for this topic is a lot like discovering the roots of your faith, my roots that are so firmly set in the songs that we sing. So, I thought I would pause for just a moment to share with you all something I came across during my research, something that reminded me more than almost anything who I am, how I worship, and a big part of my connection with God that I have been denying. I hope you enjoy this little bit of history.
Isaac Watts was what we today would call a Congregationalist, but he wrote and preached alongside those involved in the early development of the evangelical movement, particularly the brothers Wesley (John and Charles) who gathered the faithful into the movement within the Anglican church known as Methodism, and now known to us as the Methodist Church. You may also recognize the Wesley brothers (particularly Charles) as hymn writers. Like Watts, we still sing many of their hymns today.
What stirred me to remember and what I want to leave with you today is these words of John Wesley, who considered that the hymn portion of divine worship be acceptable to God and profitable to the congregation. He urged his fellow worshippers to observe these directions when singing:
SING ALL. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find a blessing.
SING LUSTILY, and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voices with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.
Above all, SING SPIRITUALLY. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing; and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward when He cometh in the clouds of Heaven.
Words to live and sing by, if ever such words were written.