Our heritage in song

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

September 24 is “Heritage Day” when the various communities in our rainbow nation consciously remember and value their roots in the past, roots that give them identity and value in the present. As is the custom in our democratic dispensation, the name of that one-day holiday is extended to name the whole month. We’ve just ended Women’s Month. We now enter Heritage Month.

So let’s take time in our Sunday Worship Services to draw from the Church’s rich Heritage in Song. Because we tend to be infatuated with the newest and the latest song-trends, it is easy for these to squeeze out yesterday’s songs, last century’s songs, songs from the Evangelical Revival of the 19th century, songs from the pioneers of English hymnody (Watts, Wesley, Cowper, Montgomery, etc), songs from the Reformation era, songs from the early Church, and songs which the Church inherited from the Jewish song-book ~ known as the Psalms.

The apostle Paul categorised the Heritage of the New Testament Church as “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16) ~ and this categorisation applies today.

Every believer in your congregation will benefit from the re-discovery of the Church’s rich heritage of Song. So, how do we sing PSALMS in the 21st Century? The ancient plain-song versions are foreign to our culture. But there are many metrical arrangements of the psalms that go to well-known tunes. (‘Metrical’ means they are rewritten in a rhythm that fits a regular number of syllables per line.) Psalm 90 in Song of Fellowship (415) Psalm 23 (533, 537, 1030), Psalm 24 (1054), Psalm 119:105 (1066) are good for starters.

Check out Methodist, Presbyterian and Anglican hymn-books for ideas and tunes. The perennial themes of the Psalms meet the needs of 21st Century Christians: God’s glory in His Creation, Why good people suffer and bad people don’t, Repentance and Forgiveness of sin, The relevance of God’s Word, What we wish would happen to our enemies, Loneliness, Depression, Hope, Time-management, Mercy, Good Governance, etc.

And even more varied in the range of life-themes are the HYMNS. Those that are sourced in Scripture sing God’s relevant Word into the core of our congregational consciousness. Use the well-worn treasures of ‘Amazing Grace’ (19), ‘How Great Thou art’ (425), ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ (442) and ‘Great is Thy faithfulness’ (147). [The numbers in brackets refer to “Songs of Fellowship”.] But don’t stop there – be adventuresome.

Explore the rich heritage of hymns like , ‘Hail to the Lord’s anointed’ (150), ‘Here is love’ (168), ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty’ (183), ‘I cannot tell’ (205), ‘I will sing the wondrous story’ (278), ‘Jesus stand among us’ (304), ‘Join all the glorious names’ (313), ‘Just as I am’ (316), ‘Look ye saints, the sight is glorious’ (349), ‘Love Divine, all loves excelling’ (377), ‘Low in the grave He lay’ (378), ‘O Breath of Life come sweeping through us’ (407), ‘O sacred head, once wounded’ (446), ‘Rock of Ages’ (488), ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ (493), ‘Tell out, my soul’ (520), ‘The Church’s one foundation’ (525), ‘Thine be the glory’ (551), ‘We rest on Thee, our shield and our defender’ (587), ‘When we walk with the Lord’ (599), ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’ (607), ‘Wind, wind, blow on me’ (609), ‘Fill your hearts with joy and gladness’ (717), ‘God sent His son’ (736), ‘How deep the Father’s love for us’ (780), ‘I stand amazed in the presence’ (829), ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’ (830), ‘Name of all Majesty’ (939), ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ (940), ‘O God of burning, cleansing flame’ (955), ‘Sing to God new songs of worship’ (1002), ‘At this table we remember’ (1181) ‘Before the throne of God above’ (1187) ‘Come see the Lord’ (1207).

Carry on exploring one of the richest gold-mines of Christian song – Hymns! Don’t go on strike – your reward is in the treasures mined. Read Hymn-lyrics in your private devotions. Work through Hymns in your next musical jam-session.

Of a narrower theme-range, but with a strong emphasis on personal desires and praising God in worship, are the more recent SPIRITUAL SONGS of Contemporary Christian Music. Graham Kendrik was a ground-breaker in this genre in the 1970s and 80s. Any congregation will be blessed by re-discovering the Heritage he has given the Church. Look up ‘From heaven you came’ (120), ‘Meekness and Majesty’ (390), ‘Who can sound the depths of sorrow?’ (604), ‘Beauty for brokenness’ (664), ‘Look to the skies’ (1422).

Seeking wider themes among the non-hymny ‘Spiritual Songs’ with worthy lyrics from the last 20 years we find ‘Son of Man and Man from heaven’ (1006), ‘The earth resounds in songs of praise’ (1022), ‘The heavens they preach’ (1024), ‘These are the days of Elijah’ (1047), We believe in Hebrews 13:8 (1083), ‘We confess the sins of our nation’ (1085), ‘We’re standing here with open hearts’ (1102), ‘When the music fades’ (1113), ‘Who paints the skies?’ (1118), ‘And I’m forgiven’ (1170), ‘As for me and my house’ (1175), ‘As sure as gold is precious’ (1176), ‘Blessed be Your name’ (1193), ‘Come to the table’ (1209), ‘Father, we have sinned against You’ (1232), ‘From the squalor of a borrowed stable’ (1239), ‘Have I not been faithful?’ (1256), ‘I believe in God the Father’ (1299), ‘I see you hanging there’ (1360), ‘See how the Father opens the heavens’ (1511), ‘Soldiers of our God arise’ (1517), ‘The birds don’t worry’ (1532), ‘The people who walk in darkness’ (1536).

Here is an ancient-contemporary song that fits Heritage Month like a Christian glove: “Your hand, O God, has guided Your church from age to age …” (1670) (Plumptre-Getty). There are many other ‘ancient’ songs have been given contemporary life by song-writers who have re-worked them. (Google ‘Indelible Music’ to explore a group of college students in the USA who are reviving old hymns in a contemporary music style.)

To ignore our Heritage of Christian Song is to arrogantly assume that the Church began with our current generation, and that previous generations had no contribution to make to the foundation we are building on. Remember how our Lord Jesus would have described what we should be doing with our Heritage ~ and this applies to Songs as well as Scripture: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out his treasure what is old and what is new” (Matthew 13:52).

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