All the Stockings are hung by the Chimney with care….

Well the sermons are done, the programs are practiced, the booklets being printed. As the sticky post above says, everyone is invited to come and worship. Its good for your soul, even if you don’t know what that word means. At Christmas you find amazing things where you don’t think they belong.

There are several people my thoughts and prayers stray toward at this moment. Most of those prayers are for a measure of peace to be granted. Mixed in with those have been a couple of songs in my “Christmas Album” this year. (Here is the Album, by the Lower Lights – it really is gorgeous) In going through my brothers things I found a huge collection of Christmas albums. I converted most of them to MP3. It reminded me of just how big a softie he could be. Every year he would buy a few more, but they were never the big ones. Not a Mariah Carey to be found. He found singers instead of pop stars; instrumentalists and choirs instead of soloists. So I’ve kinda inherited the tradition. I’m sure sometime in early December to pick up a Christmas album. It doesn’t take but a couple of days of WARM 101.3 “Frosty Fest” after Thanksgiving to get my fill of secular tunes. (If I hear Rudolf or this years off-beat tale of grandma being run over again I’ll beat something.) To hear the sacred takes MP3s it seems.

One of the Songs is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Its taken from a Longfellow poem. And the third stanza seems very “unchristmas-y”.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Sorry for the downer, but I bring that up for two reasons. First, unlike this plastic season of manic Christmas we seem to get foisted with, the older Christmas was preceded by Advent and had the strength within it to contemplate such things. Look at all the good older Carols and Hymns of Christmas. Look past the first verse into verse 2 and 3. Take What Child is This – “Nails, Spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you”. Take We Three Kings – “Myrrh is mine, is bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing, breathing, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb”. Take Once in Royal David’s City – “For He is our childhood’s pattern, Day by day like us He grew; He was little, weak and helpless, Tears and smiles like us He knew, And He feels for all our sadness, And He shares in all our gladness.” Longfellow talked of all the bells of Christendom. The days of Christendom as Longfellow knew it are over, but that culture knew things that we forgot – or never bring to mind, until forced to.

That brings up the second song on this years album – Stars of Glory. The performance seems designed to break your heart just at the time the soprano’s folk-y voice breaks. The hymn must be a Roman Catholic favorite as it is older. I was not aware of it to my impoverishment. But verse one strikes just the right vein…

Stars of glory, shine more brightly,
Purer be the moon-light’s beam,
Glide ye hours and moments lightly,
Swiftly down times deepening stream,
Bring the hour that banished sadness,
Brought redemption down to earth,
When the shepherds heard with gladness
Tidings of a Saviour’s birth.

The hours and moments gather. Time’s stream deepens. Even in sadness all is not lost. It is brought to fulfillment. The angel’s tidings of peace and joy still ring, even though they are mocked from all corners, because the LORD upholds them. The LORD chose to be with all the moments: Gladness and sadness. Cross and manger; tomb and throne.

I have no interest in a plastic Christmas. But the LORD who can inspire such songs…be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.

Hymns We Sing – At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing

This coming weekend on the Church calendar and the secular calendar covers a bunch of ground. This is the last Sunday of the church year often called Christ the King Sunday. The Sunday is set to ponder the last judgement, the coming of Christ with full authority displayed before all. At St. Mark’s it is a communion Sunday. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper on 1st, 3rd and 5th Sundays. The following Sunday, being the start of Advent, starts a penitential season of the church year or a season of preparation. Taking on that more somber tone, the Alleluias are removed. And bleeding over from the secular calendar is Thanksgiving. We have a Thanksgiving service on Wednesday evening, but it usually gets at least a nod in the Sunday prior.

We won’t be singing this hymn (tune, text) – #633 in the Lutheran Service Book – as the Hymn of the Day. Instead it is going to be after the Supper. But it really brings together all three threads of the service.

Verse One picks up the Scriptural Theme of the day – Christ the King.
At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing
Praise to our victorious King
Who has washed us in the tide
Flowing from His pierced Side

This is not just a king or a pretender but the victorious king. The image of the final feast – the wedding feast of the bride (the church) and the bridegroom (Christ) – is put front and center. We have the foretaste of that feast in the Lord’s supper. The church has His presence flowing from His pierced side which verse two picks up on make explicit.

Praise we Him whose love divine
Gives His sacred blood for wine
Gives His body for the feast
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.

I hope you noticed the Alleluias at the end. As a congregation we celebrate the feast with Alleluia one last time before we put them away for a season. In the past I’ve tried to pack as many into a service as possible. This Sunday just these, but still for a purpose.

What about Thanksgiving? Two things. Isn’t a feast the central element of American Thanksgiving? The other part is acknowledging where our bounty comes from and asking for providence to continue the blessings. The last verse we will sing does that. The last verse is a doxology – a hymn of recognition and praise of the Trinity. And this doxology contains that sense of providence – Spirit guide us.

Father, who the crown shall give
Savior, by whose death we live
Spirit, guide us through all our days
Three in one, Your name we praise.

(Note, the pictures are some of the windows in our sanctuary)

Hymns We Sing – All Saints Edition

Tuesday was All Saints proper. We will celebrate it this Sunday. All Saints is the Christian feast day that originally inspired Halloween or All Hallows Eve. There are all kind of explanation stories about where this feast day came from. You can read some of them at the wikipedia page or is you want something more sanctified the Catholic Encyclopedia has some history. The church lives with a distinction of the Church Militant (those alive here and now) and the Church Triumphant (those already in glory). The Roman Catholic church would add the Church Suffering (those in purgatory) and also All Souls Day which is the day after All Saints. To me what all of this tries to capture is one line in the Apostle’s Creed and a general sense of connectedness. Though dead saints may have passed, we remaining still feel connected to them and not just in an emotional way. In the third article of the creed we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints. The entire church – militant and triumphant – is united in Christ. The church at all times and all places is united in Christ waiting for that final revelation and victory. That communion, because we know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, is what All Saint Celebrates. All Saints ends up being a celebration of the Church and a looking forward to our final unity.

One of the great Hymns that captures this sense is For All the Saints. The Text was written by William How and the tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams. IN the span of the church it is a relatively recent hymn written in the 19th century. But what I want to highlight about it is how it gets the end times sequence correct. Stanzas 5,6,7,8 capture the true confession about time.

5) And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long

Steals on the ear the distant triumph song

And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong


6) The Golden evening brightens in the west

Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest

Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest


7) But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day

The saints triumphant rise in bright array

The King of Glory passes on His way


8) From earth’s wide bounds, from oceans farthest coast

Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host

Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost


In verse 5 the Church militant – us here and now – is still struggling, but already we hear the music. The victory has been won. It might be far off, but we hear it – in word and sacrament. In verse 6 is the acknowledgement that eventually all the saints move from militant to a better term might be rest. It is not really the church Triumphant yet. Sweet is the calm of paradise, but things are not as they will be. In verse 7 a yet more glorious day breaks. The Great and Glorious Day of the Lord – resurrection day. The saints, now triumphant, rise is bright array. You see, before the resurrection, is not the end. Read Rev 6:10. The saints in Abraham’s bosom or calm paradise or heaven ask the same question we ask – How long? The Triumph waits until the resurrection of all flesh and the King of Glory passes on his way. Verse 8 captures the final situation. After the resurrection and judgement, from earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast – from every race, tribe, nation and tongue – the saints take up residence in the new Jerusalem. Rev 21:2-4, 21

For All the Saints captures in Word and Song the Hope, Struggle, Rest and Triumph of the Church and all her saints. For that reason is gets pride of place as a theme song on All Saints Day. You’ll hear it this weekend. Come and sing with us.

Hymns We Sing – Reformation Day Edition

You all know the big Reformation Day Hymn – A Mighty Fortress is Our God. If you want to start a real fight, ask a Lutheran which tune is the better – the Bach setting or the original Luther. Parson and Parson’s mother disagree on this. It’s not a pretty fight.

But Ein Feste Burg is not what I want to talk about. Instead I want to talk about a more obscure yet more numerous genre of hymns that Luther loved to write. This Reformation Day the choir is going to sing a couple of verses from Lutheran Service Book #766 – Our Father, Who from Heaven Above during the offering. The congregation will echo the same hymn at the close of service with different verses. This is a great example of a catechetical hymn. By that I mean it is a hymn that is teaches to music. Like A Mighty Fortress, words and tune are by Luther.

The Small Catechism – the short basic teachings of the Christian Faith by Luther that he thought everyone should have memorized – contain the 10 Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. It was quickly expanded to include baptism and the Lord’s Supper and Confession (or the office of the Keys). It all fits in a few page or one “poster sized” wall hanging. Printing a catechism poster was one of the first uses of the printing press at the time. The head of every household for a couple of pennies could have the catechism in his home to teach both the basics of the faith and reading.

This hymn takes up the Lord’s Prayer.  The Choir is singing 1 & 5 over the offering.  The congregation will be singing 1 & 9 at the close of service.

1) Our Father who from heaven above

Bids all of us to live in love

As members of one family

And pray to you in unity

Teach us no thoughtless words to say

But from our inmost hearts to pray

5) Give us this day our daily bread

And lets us all be clothed and fed

Save us from hardship, war and strife

In plague and famine, spare our life

That we in honest peace may live

To care and greed no entrance give

9) Amen, that is, so shall it be

Make strong our faith in You, that we

May doubt not but with trust believe

That what we ask we shall receive

Thus in your name and at your word

We say, Amen, O hear us, Lord


Observe how each stanza begins with a petition from the Lord’s prayer, and the rest of the verse answers – “What does this mean?” Luther would follow a similar format with:
Baptism – #406, To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord
10 Commandments – #581, These Are the Holy Ten Commandments
Creed – #954, We All Believe in One True God
Confession – #607, From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee

We don’t do that much anymore. In fact you could say that catechism style teaching is out of vogue. Asking a question, writing or memorizing the answer and building upon it in another Q&A seems to break our post-modern sensibility. As Steve Jobs would say – don’t just accept the dogma which is accepting someone else’s thinking. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was conflicted about that. At some level a catechism is invaluable. It gives you a starting point. Bloom’s taxonomy and all knowledge starts somewhere. Even Steve Jobs didn’t question Wozniak’s circuit board layout. I guess the synthesis I’d come to is a combination. Instead of the endpoint it too often became, the catechism is a start. We used to accept the memorization of Luther’s answers as proper catechizing. Now, its a good start, but you need to make the answers your own. That is the task of the disciple and of the Christian life – that we can truly say: Amen, so shall it be to “Make strong our Faith in You”.

Hymns We Sing – Praise Be to Christ

When we tell the story of Jesus there really are two biblical starting points. You can start like the Gospel of John – ‘in the beginning was the word…”. Or you begin like Matthew & Luke with genealogies or human origin stories. One is called a Theology from Above. The eternal Word descends to earth for a time of humiliation and returns in exultation. The other is a Theology from below which essentially says its fine to talk about the pre-existent Christ and God and God, but we know Him revealed in human form as Jesus. This Jesus was actually born and lived among us. In his life, death and resurrection He revealed His deity. Take a quick look at the Nicene Creed 2nd article. Where does it start? “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds…” A pure theology from above, the pre-existant Christ. Then look at the apostle’s creed. “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by they Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary” A theology from below. It begins with the baby and Mary.

If you were asking me, the theology from below is the theology for times of philosophical materialism (like now). The theology from above is for times of philosophical idealism. Big words those, so give me a couple of sentences to explain. If you look at the world and say or even just act on a daily basis that ‘this is all there is’ or that ‘only what I can see, taste, touch, smell or manipulate is real’, congratulations you are a philosophical materialist. If on the other hand you look at a chair or lets say a room full of chairs and ask, “what really makes a chair or defines a chair, what is chair-ness?” then you are an philosophical idealist. Just the fact that “chair-ness” probably caused you to snicker, or if you break out into hives at the thought of someone “finding themselves”, you are at least a functional materialist. This split has been around a long time. A picture nearby is of the famous paint the school of Athens. In the middle are Plato and Aristotle. Plato points up saying –“the chair-ness is not in this world”. Aristotle points down – “it’s all here Plato, baby.”

Long lead up to the Hymn I want to look at. We will sing this hymn this week. It is Praise Be to Christ which is number 538 in the Lutheran Service Book. The words are written by the living writer Timothy Dudley-Smith whose inclusion in the Lutheran Service Book is one of the best things about the new Hymnal. He is a former Bishop in the Anglican Church. An evangelical within that tradition and a longtime friend of the recently deceased John Stott who himself was a leading smart voice in evangelicalism. The tune is a public domain repurposed German Tune from Stuttgart that has some drama. If you listen to it you can feel it build right up until the end.

Now for what hopefully is the payoff. The Lutheran tradition, largely German, loves its idealism. The tune to this hymn was originally paired with the text – O God, of God, or light of light. Idealistic theology from above all the way. This is my and any materialists problem with that – how do I know and talk about such lofty things? The pitfall of a theology from above is thinking that we know the mind of God. We only know about the God from above through revelation. And that is where Dudley-Smith is a great theologian. He thinks as a Trinitarian.
Look at the first line of the first stanza: Praise be to Christ in whom we see the image of the Father shown, the firstborn Son revealed and known…

We can’t know the Father or as even John would say no one has seen the Father (John 1:18). But the human Jesus Christ, the image or to use a more loaded term the icon of the Father shown, has revealed and made known to us God. If you have seen me you have seen the Father. (John 14:9) The Theology from above and the theology from below meet when you think the Trinity. They meet in the person of Jesus. Stanza three of this hymn: Praise be to Him who Lord Most High, the fullness of the Godhead shares, and yet our human nature bares, who came as man to bleed and die. Very God of very God was made man. This hymn holds those in tension. It speaks to the idealist who wants to hear of God above. It also speaks to the materialist who says give me something I can really see. You can have good theology in almost any philosophy. This is a great example of a hymn that stays true to theology.

Hymns We Sing #1, Cont.

I ran out of room yesterday, so I’ll continue this today. I want to talk about Lutheran Service Book #782 Gracious God, You Send Great Blessings. We have sung whole or parts of this hymn 9 times in the last three years. The text has a special connection to St. Mark. It was written by Gregory Wismar who is a former pastor of St. Mark many years ago. Pastor Wismar was born in 1946, but has apparently retired from active ministry at this time. The tune is Holy Manna or Columbian Harmony. It is one of the prettier tunes having a very American feel. Some may say Scottish, which gets you to Appalachia. You can hear the bagpipes, fiddles and fog off the mountains. The combination of text and tune have a more contemporary feel as it is a hymn that contains a chorus or refrain.

One of the reasons that this hymn has been used more often is because we have used it in a liturgical spot. There are these places in the service where people are walking or things need to be done.  For example after the offering is taken the ushers walk from back to front to bring it up.  The offertory is a musical piece that puts words and music to the action.  We are giving our offerings.  And that offertory is something we have used this hymn for.  Looking at verse 1 we acknowledge that we have received blessing each day and are offering our praise and thanks.  The refrain turns from that offering to our response to our neighbor – we share the blessings to bring glory to the name.

1)Gracious God, You send great blessings

New each morning all our days.

For Your mercies never ending,

For your love we offer praise.

2) By Your Word You formed creation

Filled with creatures large and small;

As we tend that endless treasure

May our care encircle all.


3)In His early life, our Savior

Knew the care of faithful friends;

May our deeds of dedication

Offer love that never ends.

4)Heav’n-ly Father, may our caring

Bear the imprint of Your grace;

With the Son and Holy Spirit,

Praise be Yours in ev’ry place!



Lord, we pray that we, Your people

Who Your gifts unnumbered claim,

Through the sharing of Your blessings

May bring glory to Your name.


But this hymn is not just an offertory.  It stands in its own right.  All the best hymns tell a story.  In the merging of melody and text they create a feeling and tell it out.  The first stanza combined with the music invokes the feeling.  And this hymn is aspirational.   We know we receive great blessings.  We pray here that we remain thankful at all times and learn to share them with our neighbor.

Why is that important?  Stanza 2 – God created all things and placed us in them to care for them.  The original intent of creation.  Stanza 3 – Jesus came to care for us, and while he was here he received the blessings God gave him with thanks: parents, friends, fish and loaves, even the bad stuff like when Lazarus died Jesus gave thanks for the blessings (John 11:41-42).  Our purpose and great example is to be thankful and share the blessings.

Stanza 4 closes with a doxology.  We know we cannot do that without God’s involvement in our lives.  So we ask that our lives bear the imprint of His grace – Father, Son and Spirit in every place.

This Sunday we use Stanza 1 for the offertory and stanza 4 for the post communion piece of music.  While the pastor is putting away one of the greatest gifts, the congregation asks for that gift of grace to continue in our lives.  We have claimed the body and blood.  Let us share that blessing to the glory of your name.

Hymns we Sing #1

I’m a numbers guy. I hold firmly to the truth that if it isn’t measured it isn’t done, or said another way, the things you really care about, you attempt to track. The big problem with being a numbers guy is that the numbers never tell a full story, and they are often tracking the wrong things. They might be tracking a nominal number when a percentage or an indexed number might be better. In light of the stewardship series running, an example of that is total offering to a congregation. That is a nominal number. It is important to the congregation, but it tells you little about what you really want to measure which is something of the spiritual health of the individual. A percentage or an index that most congregations have no way to track would be better – like percent of gross income given in charity or the percent contribution as an index of when the Christian life started (i.e. baptismal year = 1). The percent tells you something good and makes it more broadly understandable as there are widow’s mites that mean more than ruler’s talents. The index would tell you even more. It might tell you the heights from which you have fallen (Rev 2:5) or it might say to you that you have not just buried the mina given you (Luke 19:20).

One of the things that I track is the hymns that we sing together. Part of our vision as a congregation is that we teach the apostolic faith and that we encourage depth in that faith. The hymnody of the church is a big place where that happens. If our typical church service is 45 mins (and here it is), about 12 of those minutes are sermon, but about 20 of those minutes are singing. The hymns carry a larger burden of the word for that day than the pulpit. And while people might exit thinking about a line from the sermon if it is very good, more often they will exit humming a line of the last hymn. The music is sticky. It is very easy to fall into a pattern of singing the same hymns once a quarter or more often. That might be very comforting to a section of the congregation, but it is not a good signal of spiritual health or vitality. In fact it is probably the opposite. It is a statement that we as a people don’t want to engage the faith in any way deeper nor learn anything new. So that is one of the big reasons that I track and keep an eye on how many times we’ve sung any particular hymn. It would be rare to hear the same hymn in our congregation more than twice in a given year. God has more to say that that.

What I intend to do in this series to walk through some of the “new staples”. These are hymns that are newer in vintage that we have sung multiple times. I want to flesh out their teaching and give an explanation why they deserve their role in our congregational life. The first one that I will discuss in Lutheran Service Book #782 Gracious God, You Send Great Blessings. We will be singing this hymn this coming Sunday. Tomorrow I will walk through it as I’ve used up my words today for an introduction.