I was recently asked about special songs or hymns I would like sung at my Oct. 24 Retirement Celebration at Arborlawn UMC in Fort Worth. My first thought was that this was an especially gracious invitation on the part of the organizers of that event. My next (and longer) thought was an extended wrestling over just which songs to pick. There are so many great hymns of the Christian faith. I am one of those who loves both the great classic hymns like “O For a Thousand Tongues” and “A Mighty Fortress” along with newer (so called contemporary Christian music) songs like “No Longer Slaves” and “Do It Again.”
I found myself grappling long and hard with what response to offer. I have always said that I want Isaac Watts’ “I’ll Praise My Maker” sung at my funeral.
I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath;
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne’er be past,
While life, and thought, and being last,
Or immortality endures.
- Isaac Watts
Add to “I’ll praise My Maker,” the American Folk song “How Can I Keep from Singing” by American Baptist minister Robert Lowry. (No relation)
“My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?”
I must confess that I also made Rev. Louis Carr promise to make sure that they (whoever “they” are) would NOT sing “The Hymn of Promise” (“in the blub there is a flower, in the tree …. Ugh”) at my funeral. Louis assured me that he has my back (even if my back will be six feet under at the time!).
Charles Wesley’s great hymns of the faith are also stirring. It is hard to surpass the theological depth and breadth of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “And Can It Be,” “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and the like. I am always moved by the ‘Spirituals;’ – “Wade in the Water,” “Deep River,” and many others. There are so many other hymns that reverberate in soul. And, I am quite conscious that I have not even mentioned “Amazing Grace,” or “Silent Night." The list could go on and on. However, for my retirement celebration, I have chosen three special pieces of Christian music.
“Be Thou My Vision” was sung at my ordination as a Deacon at First UMC, Ardmore, Oklahoma in 1974. To this day it is a hymn that I often use in prayer.
- “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
- Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.
- Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.”
The great newer hymn “In Christ Alone” reverberates in the heart of my soul. I have made no secret of my conviction that much of contemporary United Methodism has drifted into a vaguely deist version of the Christian faith. Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, our Conference teacher of almost a decade ago and the author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church [if you haven’t read it, run don’t walk to get a copy and read it!] with others calls this watered-down imitation of the real thing “moralistic therapeutic deism.” “In Christ Alone” is a powerful antidote to the theological sickness of our present age. Christ at the Center has been, with deep commitment, the very first of our driving values as a Conference. Let the opening words settle again in our hearts and minds…
“In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.”
The final hymn I suggested is one that never fails to inspire me. I was introduced to it first as a student at Perkins School of Theology on All Saints Day (November 1). The opening line tells the story of the song, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 711) These days it is the fourth verse in particular that speaks to our life and times.
“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and
Hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
In a distinct way, I believe this verse speaks to the early 21st century United Methodist Church. “The strife is fierce.” The waning of the Christian witness is disappearing in the angst, agony, and anger of our time. “The warfare” is “long. We are awash in idols of our own making which include the classic seven deadly sins decked out in political struggles, hedonistic consumption, and the lavish idolatrous pursuit of power and greed. Now is the time to pause again, bend low in listening prayer, and hear the witness of the martyrs and saints down through the centuries – “steals on the ear the distant triumph song.” May our “hearts” be “brave again, and” our “arms” be strong.” In my better moments I think I can hear the distant triumph song.
I wonder…What songs or hymns would you pick?