Hymn of the Month: Hymns for June, July, and August
Protect Me, God, I Trust in You
How can the ancient psalms be sung in contemporary worship? About twenty-five years ago, a group of Anglican clergy and musicians began to search for ways to "lead people back to the original psalms in the Scriptures with fresh understanding and joy/' as one of them stated in the preface to Psalm Praise (1973). That influential collection of settings of psalms and other portions of Scripture used language that was fresh, followed new translations of the Bible, and contained varied musical styles, which were often folk-like and popular in character.
"Protect Me, God," a setting of Psalm 16, was prepared by two members of the Psalm Praise team. The text came from Michael Saward, active in radio and television communications with the Church of England, vicar of Ealing Church, London, since 1978, and author of several hymns. The music was composed by M. Christian Strover, the Director of Music at Emmanuel School and the organist and choir master at Christ Church in Beckneham, Kent, England.
Strover commented on his choice of the tune name MEPHIBOSHETH:
Mephibosheth, a son of Saul, was lame in both feet. He was welcomed by David and lived in his house and fed at his table. The prayer of the song is appropriately illustrated in David's care and provision.
Psalm 16 is both a short prayer for God's protection (v. 1) and an extended confession of faith (vv. 2-11), in which the psalmist expresses delight, trust, confidence, and security in the Lord. In this setting, the prayer for protection is set as a refrain, offering opportunity for singing in groups.
An ideal way to introduce this song would be in a service of Profession of Faith. Have a group of young people (or a unison choir), accompanied by guitars and/or piano, sing this song as a response to the confession or perhaps to the law. Use soloists on the verses with the choir on the refrains. In following weeks, have the same group sing the stanzas, with the congregation on the refrains. Since the melody of the stanzas is a bit challenging, the congregation should not attempt it until they have heard the choir sing it a few times.
This setting of Psalm 16 has already become a favorite in several congregations. The ancient prayer set to a contemporary text and tune helps us to bridge the gap in time from David's day to our own. The Psalms are never out of date!
Eat This Bread
This short refrain comes from the ecumenical community of Taize, in southern France. French composer Jacques Berthier developed a style of singing that would accommodate the thousands of visitors who flock to that community each year, especially in the summer. He recognized that simplicity was important in music that would enable people who spoke many different languages to sing together. So Berthier prepared short refrains and canons using Latin, a tongue that, while equally foreign to everyone, was also the base of several languages, including English. Donald Postema described worship and music at Taize in an article in RW 8 (pp. 26-31).
The first volume of Music from Taize contained almost all Latin texts. But as the music spread to North America, interest grew in preparing more English language songs in that same meditative style of singing. The new Presbyterian Hymnal includes two, the Psalter Hymnal four, and the United Methodist Hymnal five.
"Eat This Bread" seems so simple and short that it might fall into the category of a refrain. And so it is. Many congregations have been blessed singing this song repetitively with varied instrumental accompaniment. But some congregations have difficulty meditating on a text for more than two or three repetitions. While the hymnals contain just the refrain, there is more to the song, both textually and musically.
The text of the complete song is taken from Jesus' discourse on the "bread from heaven," found in John 6. This song, when sung with the complete text, offers a rich context for a communion liturgy. The verses are meant to be sung by a cantor, with the congregation singing the refrain.
The word "cantor" is richer than "soloist." A cantor is a worship leader, one whose function is to literally lead the people's song by offering these verses in alternation with the congregation.
The instrumental accompaniments are wonderfully varied. One of the challenges of trying Taize music the first time is to piece together all the parts of the instrumental mosaic on the page. The various accompaniments are all optional, and any number of combinations are possible. The best solution is to simply try different combinations in a rehearsal, and try to shape them with a plan for beginning, climax, and ending. Here is one possible arrangement, using several instruments:
R (pp) Organ (or piano or guitar) intro with choir (humming) and cello playing bass line of simple accompaniment to refrain
R (p) All singing, same accompaniment
1 (mp) soloist or choir men in unison, accompanied the same way each stanza, with choir humming, organ, and cello on bass line
R (mp) All, add treble instrument on "simple melody" (flute, violin, oboe, or pianist or second organist playing line on a solo stop)
R (mf) Organ, with flute duo and cello or bassoon part (again, any of these lines could be played on keyboard)
3 (mf, with a crescendo to f)
R (f) Oboe part, cello repeating solo part
R (mf) flute duo again
R (mp, with a ritard and decrescendo to p) simple melody again
Whereas the two previous hymns are rather new and not found in many hymnals, "Amazing Grace" is found in virtually every hymnal in the English language, and probably comes closer to being a national folk hymn than any other in North America. So while this hymn hardly needs learning, use August to enjoy this familiar and beloved song in new ways.
As you study the hymn during the coming weeks, take a look at the "shaped-notes" in Southern Harmony (1835), the first tune book to place this text and tune together. For years, Americans learned to read music by distinguishing four shapes that stood for different pitches: C is a triangle, D is round, E is square; F, G, and A repeat those shapes, and B, if present, is diamond-shaped. In the rural districts of the American South, some people still gather to sing from these old tune books. In Benton, Kentucky, for example, singers assemble at the Marshall County Courthouse on the first Sunday in May for "The Big Sing," joining together in their favorites from Southern Harmony. Usually women sing the upper part, both men and women sing the middle melody part, and men sing the bass.
This tune is sturdy enough to be sung in many different ways. In fact, like many folk tunes, the melody only has five pitches and can easily be sung as a round (when unaccompanied). Enjoy this powerful hymn which has been a source of comfort and strength to many who were or perhaps still are lost and are seeking God's amazing grace.
Your congregation may be especially interested in the vivid background of this hymn—the story of John Newton. Henry Admiraal, pastor of Seymour Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was so moved by the PBS television documentary on "Amazing Grace," produced last year by Bill Moyers, that he wrote the article in the box on these pages (which you may want to read to the congregation as they sing though this hymn, stanza by stanza).
Amazing Grace: John Newton's Autobiography
John Newton (b. 1725, d. 1807) is best known to us as a hymn writer. Actually, however, he didn't start writing hymns until he was ordained as a minister in the church of Olney, England, at the age of forty. During his fifteen-year ministry there Newton met another hymn writer, William Cowper. The two encouraged each other in the writing of hymns. As a matter of fact, Newton tried to write a new hymn every week to be sung during the congregation's midweek meeting. Among the hymns that he wrote are "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," "May the Grace of Christ Our Savior," "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds," and the well-known "Amazing Grace."
As a closer look at John Newton's life makes clear, "Amazing Grace" is in many ways an autobiographical hymn. Newton's father was a ship captain, and as such was at sea during most of Newton's earlier years. His mother, who did her best to give her young son a godly upbringing, died when he was only six years old.
When Newton was eleven, his father took him aboard ship for his first voyage. It was the beginning of many sea voyages for Newton, most of them involving the slave trade that flourished at that time.
Some years later Newton was impressed by the English navy, During that period he threw his own faith overboard, ridiculing then Christian religion and morals that his mother had so carefully taught him. He also delighted in destroying the faith of other crew members. John Newton, so religious as a boy, began to live a life of vice, shame, disgrace, and profanity.
On his deathbed, decades later—at the age of eighty-two—Newton said, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior." A great sinner he was indeed. He had made a mess of his life. Spiritually he was a wretch.
But Jesus Christ proved to be a great Savior. In his amazing grace, the Lord had mercy on John Newton. The turning point in Newton's life came during a violent storm in the North Atlantic in March of 1748. The twenty-two-year-old Newton had already lived—as the words on his gravestone indicate—the life of "an infidel and libertine." The wind and waves battered the ship so badly that Newton thought for sure it would sink and he would drown. Suddenly he said, quite unthinkingly, "The Lord have mercy on us." When he realized that he had just breathed a prayer, he began to ask himself, "What mercy can there be for me, for me?" In his journal he wrote, "There never was, nor could there be, such a sinner as myself. If the Christian religion is true, I could not be forgiven."
Miraculously, the ship stayed afloat and Newton's life was spared. More importantly, God saved him not only physically but also spiritually, though Newton didn't understand why. "I can see no reason," he wrote, "why the Lord singled me out for mercy…unless it was to show, by one astonishing instance, that with him 'nothing is impossible.'" On the brink of death, he was delivered. Like the prodigal son, his Father received him. He who once was lost was found again. Amazing grace!
Amazing grace—how sweet the sound—
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
Yes, it was all grace, the grace of God. In the next stanza Newton wrote about that grace, what it does for a person and to a person. "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear," he wrote, meaning that it taught him a new respect for God. It filled him with fear in the sense of awe and reverence. But God's grace, ironically, also relieves us of our fears—the fear of death, of eternal punishment, of un-forgiven sins. Grace both instills fear— a healthy respect for God—and relieves our fears. How precious it is, especially at the time of our conversion.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.
God is not one to go back on his word. His promises are sure. We can always depend on him, no matter what happens.
The Lord has promised good to me,
his word my hope secures;
he will my shield and portion be
as long as life endures.
But God's grace does not mean the end of trials and hardships. These continue to be the lot of God's children. John Newton knew about these "dangers, toils, and snares." After he was saved, his fellow crew members ridiculed him and tried to discredit his beliefs as he earlier had done to them. Their scorn and contempt were a snare for him. In addition, his physical life was endangered on numerous occasions. Several times he nearly drowned. At other times he became deathly sick. Once he just barely avoided being kidnapped and at another time was in danger of his crew killing and eating him. But God spared his life again and again, often in the most providential ways. And that grace, Newton realized—that grace that had guided him in the past—would preserve him to the very end. God's grace that had kept him safe thus far would also lead him home.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
'tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
With these words, "tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home," Newton ended his song, his testimony to God's amazing grace in his life. A few years later, someone added the last stanza of another well-known hymn to Newton's text. "When we've been there ten thousand years" has since been included as a part of "Amazing Grace." That stanza reminds us that the Christian life does not end at death, and that because of God's amazing grace, we will sing to the Lord throughout eternity. His grace will be the theme of our endless praise.
Wlien we've been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun,
we've no less days to sing God's praise
than when we'd first begun.
John Newton's testimony is autobiographical. But his testimony in song can become ours too. Though the particulars of our lives may differ greatly from Newton's, we too are undeserving of God's grace. We, too, through faith in Jesus Christ, have become recipients of God's mercy. May his love inspire our praise, now and throughout eternity.