Liturgy Lesson: April 25, 2021
Call to Worship: Psalm 105:1-6; Psalm 43:3-4
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: To God Be the Glory (#55)
Confession: 1 John 1:5-10 and Shine on Us
Words of Assurance: from 1 John 2 and 2 Cor. 4
Hymn of Assurance: Arise, My Soul, Arise
Reading of the Word: Luke 24:13-27 (Road to Emmaus)
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Come, Behold the Wondrous Mystery; Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah (#598)
“As long as we live, there is never enough singing.”
7.9 billion. That’s how many people there are on the planet. It’s also the exact number of views for the most popular YouTube music clip of all time. Can you guess which song that might be? It’s pretty simple (basically three notes). The kids (especially the young ones) know it by heart. Why don’t you sing it with me?
“Baby Shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo”
I’m fairly confident that the bulk of these nearly 8 billion views are from the toddlers of tired parents playing the thing on a loop. Is this simply harmless screen-sitting entertainment? Probably. But let’s continue down the list of “most-watched” music clips. Making the top-ten and coming in at around 4 billion views are “Uptown Funk” (Bruno Mars) and “Gangnam Style” (Psy). More mindless pop? Pretty much. But the further we go down the list, the more we find vulgar titles and questionable content. In fact, the song that broke the record for the most views in the first 24 hours (and which now sits at almost 400 million after just a few months) is perhaps the most obscene and pornographic mainstream song ever released. The “artists” who wrote it were then rewarded with a mainstage performance at the Grammys. Parental Warning: This is no longer just a baby shark smiling at your toddlers. There are vast open waters on the internet where it’s not safe to swim.
Perhaps this is all just an indictment against YouTube, and nothing more. But the sheer volume of views suggests that the soundtrack of today’s youth is a symptom of a deeper decay. That low percussive thud you hear may not be just the bass drum. It could be the fracking and cracking of our artistic culture as it sinks slowly into the abyss.
In his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman says this:
“Once aesthetics is detached from some universal understanding of what it means to be human, from some universally authoritative moral metanarrative, from some solid ground in a larger metaphysical reality, then aesthetics is king. Taste can drive what we think to be right and wrong. Ethically speaking, taste becomes truth.”
Put in today’s soundbite terms: If it feels good, it must be good.
Trueman goes on:
“When the sacred order collapses, morality is simply a matter of taste, not truth. And in a world in which the idea of universal human nature has been abandoned or attenuated to the point of being meaningless, it also means that those who shape popular taste become those who exert the most moral power and set society’s moral standards.”
The arts are powerfully formative. They shape our palates and steer our affections. When we develop our own leisure-time diets, we are feeding our hungers and creating habits that form our hearts. This is why the Bible exhorts us to do the following:
“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
– Phil. 4:8
Recent neuroscience has proven that the music of our youth is embedded in our memory for a lifetime. It seems that during the adolescent years, while the brain is mapping and molding, music seeps deep into those fissures and cracks, and firmly plants itself into our psyche in intractable ways. Of course, we don’t need science to tell us this when experience confirms it. I’m sure we could all rattle off the entirety of some insipid chart-topping hit from the soundtrack of our teenage years. My cheap party trick? I can roll out every lyric in perfect rhythm of “U Can’t Touch This” (MC Hammer). That’s right, home skillet, watch me bust the funky lyrics. “Stop! Hammer Time!”. I can’t stop. I keep hearin’ the hook in my head and feelin’ the beat in my bones. “Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know!” It’s hardwired in homeboy!
The serious upside to all this is the way a good song sticks. A person with advanced dementia who has lost all basic faculties can still sing or hum some beloved and familiar old songs. For a brief moment, their brain activates, their face lights up, and they are young again. Music—especially a familiar song—has the mental and emotional impact equivalent to returning home after a long trip. This phenomenon is part of God’s design and it explains our strong connection to the songs we love. It also strongly suggests that the stuff we sing is not neutral.
One of my desires for our singing in worship is to curate a living memory of excellent God-honoring hymns and songs, especially for our young people. I want the truth and beauty of the gospel to resonate and radiate in their minds and hearts. I hope that some of the great hymns we sing on Sunday can be mental and emotional places that my children can “come home to” later in life. This is one of the main reasons why I believe children and youth should be in the sanctuary. Worship is caught more than taught.
Colossians 3:16 commands us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Music tills the soil of the heart and helps implant the word of truth. And a true heart of worship is a continuous outpouring of song, not just short cadences on Sunday mornings. So, let’s aim for a little less baby shark, and a bit more baby Jesus. The Rolling Stones are great, but a great song about the Stone that Rolled away on Easter is even better! If the stuff we sing really sticks for life, then let’s make sure it is solid and substantial. Then when trials come, persecution threatens, or the Enemy encroaches, we can answer all of them by saying, “this is the hope we sing, and YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS!”
To God be the Glory
Tune: William Doane(Songs of Devotion, 1870)
Text: Fanny J. Crosby(1875)
I remember the first time I heard this hymn. I must have been 4 or 5 years old. The new Superman movies (with Christopher Reeve) were all the rage, and I had a giant coloring book with outlined sketches of Superman that seemed almost life-size. I took the red crayon all the way down to the nub just to fill in his boots and cape. During those early years in Oklahoma, my mom played the organ at the local Wesleyan church. The sanctuary was decked out with red carpet, just like Superman’s shorts (not quite as bright, but close). Sitting there in the pew, I remember hearing the exuberant melody to this hymn, especially the refrain. With its memorable echoes, dotted rhythm, and trumpet-like fanfare, this tune instantly became my childhood superhero theme song for Jesus. I didn’t understand the full gospel then, but through the spirit of this hymn (and my coloring book) I caught the gist. Jesus was a son who descended to our planet to save us from evil.
Throughout church history there have been many heroes of the faith. In the canon of hymnody, there are a few authors that feel like superheroes to me. I marvel at their work. I’m inspired by early Avengers of the Faith, like Ambrose of Milan and John of Damascus. There are, of course, the Reformation-era Guardians of the Gospel led by Luther (Martin that is, not Lex); a few centuries later we encounter Watts, Wesley, Cowper, and Newton, who make a pretty Fantastic Four. But the story of our hymns is not exclusively about a league of extraordinary gentlemen. Female voices have always been significant contributors to the praise of God’s people. Some of the most beautiful canticles in history are sung by women. Miriam led a victory chorus after the Red Sea crossing (Ex. 15:20-21), Hannah unleashed a beautiful song at the birth of her son (1 Sam. 2:1-10), and of course Mary’s Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55) is the most stunning scriptural song outside the Psalms. Moving forward a millennium in the DC (Devotional Creatives) chronicles we encounter the legend of Hildegard von Bingen (12th cent.), who was pretty much a Wonder woman. Other heroines include Anne Steele (17th c.) and Frances Havergal (18th c.), who would have been Super Friends if they had been contemporaries. And finally, after all these opening credits, we arrive in the middle of the 19th century at a headquarters in New York where we meet a woman who is an unlikely hero with an indestructible faith. Her name is Francis, but those who know her call her Fanny.
Fanny Crosby is the most prolific female hymnwriter in history. She wrote more than 9,000 hymns, some of which are among the most popular in every Christian denomination. A supremely gifted poet and songwriter, she would often write six or seven hymns a day (for which she was paid a dollar each). She played harp, piano, guitar, and a few other instruments, but she was mostly known for her lyrics. In her songwriting she preferred simplicity over complexity, and the testimonial over the theological. She became a favorite hymnwriter of evangelists Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey. Throughout her lifetime she befriended presidents and members of congress. But it was not her creative talents or popular success that determined her legacy. Her superpower was something far more hidden.
At the age of 3, Francis was diagnosed with an inoperable and progressive condition leaving her blind. One of her first poems, written when she was 8, gives us a glimpse at the resolve in this woman of steel. She refused to give in to pity.
Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t,
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t!
Young Francis was not about to let blindness be her kryptonite! She would choose the attitude of gratitude. Where would a young girl find this superhuman strength, this ability to soar above pity and grumbling? Turns out that Fanny had a fortress of solitude where she went often to pray to her Heavenly Father and hide His word in her heart. As a child she committed large portions of the Bible to memory. Her mother made her memorize five chapters a week. Even at a young age she could recite the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and many psalms, chapter and verse. This helped build in Fanny an unwavering love for Jesus and a spirit of thankfulness in all circumstances. Later in life she remarked:
“It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would NOT accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”
Fanny Crosby’s superpower was her faith. Her blindness forced her to walk by faith and not by sight. She saw Jesus with the eyes of her heart and knew the full meaning of what John Newton intended when he said, “I once was blind but now I see.” Her vision of the incomparable beauty of Christ and her desire to see Him with “unveiled face” (2 Cor. 3:18) is a theme throughout all her hymn texts. We see this in the final verse of “To God Be the Glory,” where Fanny expresses a profound hope. She says, “but purer and higher, and greater will be our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.” This sentiment is even more touching when we consider she lived over nine decades without sight. Fanny Crosby died in 1915 at the age of 94.
Brothers and Sisters, as we sing this superhero theme song for Jesus on Sunday, may each verse and vocal line lift us “Up, up, and away” from ourselves into the true hall of justice, where every soul can “come to the Father through Jesus the Son, and give Him the glory, great things He has done”.