Even the most casual fan of the wildly popular PBS series Downton Abbey could tell you that if you began your viewing experience with Season Three rather than Season One, you’d miss a lot. While you could certainly enjoy the costumes, the set, and much of the dialogue, understanding the complexities of the characters and their relationships would be frustrating, if not impossible. I suppose a compassionate friend who had seen Seasons One and Two could whisper breathless explanations throughout Season Three (“Yes, Lady Sybil’s husband, Branson, used to be the chauffeur . . .”), but most people would probably prefer to watch the first two seasons for themselves.
One wonders, then, why so many Christians are content to tune in to the Bible at what is arguably “Season Three”: the New Testament. Thank goodness for those compassionate friends we call preachers and teachers who fill us in on what we’ve missed. And if we’re very fortunate—or blessed—their breathless explanations may even induce us to read the Old Testament for ourselves, savoring every plot twist and getting to know the God who cared enough about creation to become incarnate in Jesus Christ.
The Reformed faith has always laid firm claim to the Old Testament as an essential part of our identity as a people of God. So it’s appropriate that a new Reformed hymnal reflect this legacy and heritage. Perhaps the hymnal will serve as a further invitation to explore this rich and rewarding part of our faith story.
Lift Up Your Hearts (LUYH), the new hymnal that is a joint project of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America, begins with a section called “Old Testament Life and Witness.” I’d like to highlight just a few of the hymns found there, and to offer some suggestions on how they might be used in worship.
Most people associate the Law with ten commandments etched on stone tablets at Mt. Sinai. And if questioned further, they might also assume that law is the polar opposite of grace. But the hymn “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea” by Tom Troeger (p. 38) nudges us to think both earlier and better of this thing called “law.” Troeger traces law back to creation, when God set limits on the sea and boundaries in the garden. Eden’s one limit, after all, had to do with not eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16-17). That first limit, Troeger reminds us, “stands behind the limits that the law defined.” But the gracious dimensions of those limits are brought home in the hymn’s last stanza.
The truth of Troeger’s text is obvious, especially to those of us who have found out the hard way that what we want isn’t necessarily good for us. Such insights make this a wonderful hymn to pair not only with the creation stories but with any passage or part of the worship service that invites us to reflect on obedience as a response to God’s grace. Troeger’s text also helps us make sense of Jesus’ own assertion that he came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17).
This hymn is part of a subsection called “Creation and Providence.” Close on its heels are hymns that reflect “The Fall and the Human Condition.” Perhaps the premier example in this section is a poem by another contemporary hymn writer, Fred Pratt Green. Set to a lilting early American folk tune, it invites us to consider “What Adam’s Disobedience Cost.” Woven together with the implications of that early act of rebellion are references to God’s gracious response. In the space of just a few verses the Bible’s entire “plot” is summarized—from Noah’s ark, to the birth of Jesus Christ (the “new Adam”), and finally in a new verse that looks ahead “to glimpse that glorious day when in the new Jerusalem all griefs will pass away.”
Christians aren’t the only ones waiting for this “glorious day.” Romans 8:19 reminds us that the whole of creation “waits with eager longing.” With the song “Toda la Tierra/All Earth Is Waiting” by Alberto Taulé, LUYH reflects the fact that the Bible’s plot is really about the renewal of all creation. With words in both Spanish and English, this song reminds us that “all the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty; it cries out for justice and searches for the truth.” While it’s placed in the Advent section, this text draws heavily on Psalms 96 and 98, as well as on words of the prophet Isaiah, and its emphasis on God’s justice suggests uses beyond Advent.
If God so loved the world, then we should, too! We were, after all, created to be “caretakers” (Gen. 2:15). And so there is a hymn in LUYH that reminds us of both this responsibility and this vocation. “Touch the Earth Lightly” pairs words by Shirley Erena Murray of New Zealand with a tune by Swee Hong Lim, a hymn writer from Singapore who is currently teaching in Toronto. It invites us to
"nourish the life of the world in our care:"
The hymn’s potential as a prayer of confession and/or intercession is evident in stanza two.
One of the most important things we learn from the Old Testament is that we should trust in God’s providence. This isn’t always easy, especially when disaster strikes or death stalks the innocent. The hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father” (p. 27) is a “heart song” for one congregation I know who sang it at the funeral of a child. While we never want to need a hymn like this, in the midst of our anguish it’s important to be able to sing stanza three.
As if that text by Carolina Sandell Berg (1832-1903) weren’t enough, the hymn is followed by a brief responsive reading from the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 26-27), which underscores God’s role both as faithful Father and as all-powerful Creator. When we are standing beside the grave of someone we love, those are words to cling to and live by.
This, of course, is but a small sampling of the hymns and songs based on Old Testament texts in Lift Up Your Hearts (rest assured, all 150 psalms are well represented). But I hope this has given you at least a glimpse into the riches that await you and your congregation in this section of the new hymnal. And who knows, maybe you will be inspired to take a closer look at the Bible’s first two “seasons.” If you do, you’ll find that it explains a lot about the God whom Abraham praised—and whom we praise as well!