Our Great God | He Will Hold Me Fast

Our Great God | He Will Hold Me Fast

Liturgy Lessons: March 18, 2018 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)
Call to Worship: Psalm 33:6-9, 18-19; Psalm 27:1-6
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Our Great God (Ortega)
Call to Confession: Isaiah 55:6-7
Kyrie Eleison – “Lord, Have Mercy”
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 91:14-15; Psalm 116:1-7
Hymn of Assurance: He Will Hold Me Fast
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Luke 4:38-44
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Jesus, Lover of My Soul (#508); Be Unto Your Name
Closing Hymn: Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

The Christian church should always be encouraging the composition of new music. The Spirit of God is the one that hovered over the waters before creation sprang forth, and we have that same indwelling spirit within us. He is the great composer that turns cacophony into cosmos, and every Sunday, I see how He crafts a congregational chorus out of every chatter, chirp, croon, and chant at church!

There are three Psalms that begin with the same line. Psalms 96, 98, and 149 all begin by bidding us to “sing to the Lord a new song.” This is also echoed in Isaiah 42:10 (“sing to the Lord a new song”), Psalm 33:3 (“sing to him a new song”), and Psalm 144:9 (“I will sing a new song to you, O God.”). And of all the exhortations for singing that new song, my personal favorite comes from Psalm 40.

“I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.”

Seems as if God spoon-feeds songs to those he saves. He puts a new hymn in the mouth, and then draws forth the breath to give it life. He is the great composer, and we cooperate not out of compulsion or coercion, but sheer gratitude and grace. The sense here in Psalm 40 is not of a believer venturing out of his comfort zone timidly to sing that unfamiliar tune, or reluctantly stumbling through it just to placate some out-of-touch music director. No, it is the enthusiastic exhale of a soul that has been set free and can’t help but soar spontaneously into spirit-gifted song.

It is in that spirit of encouragement that I invite you to learn about and listen to the hymns highlighted below, particularly “He Will Hold Me Fast,” which may be unfamiliar to most of you (we have done “Our Great God” several times already). I invite you to listen to the recordings several times. I think that these are some of the best new hymns out there, and that the Spirit is in them. Let them get in you first by way of the ear, then through the mind, then deep into the heart, and finally out the mouth again on Sunday. I look forward to singing these together with you at our service. What a joy that always is!

Our Great God
Words and Music by Fernando Ortega (2002)

This excerpt is copied from the Liturgy Lessons of November 12, 2017. I am repeating it here in case some of you missed it last fall, but mostly in anticipation of Fernando’s concert at CPC coming up on April 28th.

Fernando Ortega is a gifted musician, songwriter, and pianist who grew up in New Mexico. His Father worked for the US State department, so during his youth Fernando spent time in Ecuador and Barbados. Eight generations of his family hail from Chimayo, New Mexico. Fernando’s music is a distinctive stew of classical, folk, world music, and hymnody. There are also Celtic and Latin American flavors mixed in. His artistic recipe is a unique one, and he has often stated how uncomfortable he is being associated with the fast food culture of the CCM industry (Contemporary Christian Music). In a recent 2015 interview he said:
“I’m surprised to hear that people might lump me into CCM. Most CCM seems escapist to me. CCM just seems to try to be constantly happy or positive. You hear that still on CCM radio. Radio spots will say, “Positive music” or “Life-assuring music.” Rather than music that’s really about life. Overall, I just don’t believe that coming to Christ in any way makes you free from the pain of life. I imagine that a Christian might feel the pain more deeply because of the constant conflict with hope in God’s goodness. We did a song in church recently where I changed the words dramatically. My friend wanted to do it and I said I was only willing if we changed the words. The chorus said, “Come down to the river, Come and let yourself in. Make good on a promise to never hurt again.” I said, “That’s just totally untrue. God does not promise us that we’ll never hurt again.” So I changed it. I’m always doing stuff like that to songs before we do them in church.”

This Sunday’s worship opens with an Ortega song that thankfully does not need any lyric changes. It is very much in the pattern of the Psalms, and it is full of truth. The second verse is particularly poignant:
Lord, we are weak and frail, and helpless in the storm.
Surround us with your angels, and hold us in your arms.
Our cold and ruthless enemy, his pleasure is our harm.
Rise up, O Lord, and he will flee before your sovereign God.

The musical verses to the hymn transition seamlessly from major to minor, and they are full of a rhythmic lilt that makes me feel as if I am cradled in the strong arms of the sovereign God, being rocked back and forth as I look up at the splendor and serenity of His gaze (Zeph. 3:17). Each verse gives way to a syncopated chorus of “Alleluia, Glory be to our great God”. Fernando achieves what all composers try to accomplish: maximum effect with minimum means. With just the piano part, he somehow creates the same energy and drive that lesser-skilled songwriters might manufacture with an entire rhythm section. Thank you, Fernando, for your gift to the church. We are encouraged by it, and we are excited to host you later this spring.


He Will Hold Me Fast
Text: Ada Habershon (vs. 1-2), Matt Merker (vs. 3)
Music: Matt Merker (2013)

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him.”
Psalm 91:14-15

Ada Habershon lived from 1861-1918, and was a British contemporary of Fanny Crosby. She was part of the inner circle for Charles Spurgeon, and wrote over 200 hymns for evangelistic tours of the UK by the likes of Ira Sankey, Dwight Moody, and Charles Alexander. To date, she has been best known for her text to the Charles Gabriel gospel tune “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” However, in the coming decades I think it is the text to the first two verses of “He will Hold Me Fast” that may make her name more familiar with those who love to sing about Jesus.

This simple and confident hymn text, which up until 2013 languished in a crummy marriage with an ill-tempered tune, has been revised a bit and augmented by Matt Merker, who serves as music pastor at a Baptist Church in Washington D.C. Matt added a third verse and a refrain, and then managed to find just the right music to match. His setting is pitch perfect, almost as if he had sat down with Ada herself and discussed the collaboration.

His melody, in particular the refrain, moves forward with great hope, rising gently before settling down to rest at the end of each phrase. The music is simple and repetitive. Matt intuitively shifts meter to accommodate the continued declarations of “He Will Hold Me Fast,” a line that is sung at least six or seven times in every verse. I find this repetition necessary for my doubting soul, and also true to the spirit of Psalm 136, which reminds us that “His love endures forever” by stating it a total of 26 times!

If the new hymns that have been written in the last decade were to have a bracket challenge like the NCAA basketball tournament, then Matt’s version of “He Will Hold Me Fast” would be a favorite to reach the final for, where he would probably face off against the Gettys for the championship. In fact, it was the Gettys who helped launch this song into the public awareness by including it on their album “Facing a Task Unfinished” from 2016. But it is not their version of the hymn that I like best. That title alone belongs to the robust singing of Matt’s home church congregation, for whom he originally wrote this piece. Listen the recording link below. You can tell that they love to sing it; and, listen especially for the little kid at the very end who holds his note just a hair longer than anyone else. It’s so sweet to hear!

Suggested recording