Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above

With Head and Heart

Until ten years ago, I scripted and helped lead worship services almost every week for more than thirty-eight years. That’s a lot of Sundays in a row, I’m telling you! These days I benefit from the careful planning and skilled leadership of others -- a weekly blessing and total delight.

From the other side of the pulpit, I’m noticing something first-hand I’ve known for years that the different perspective accentuates. Here it is -- worship is more meaningful when it touches/engages the emotions. My peers in music ministry probably considered me on the heady rather than emotional side of our fraternity, but I have always contended that both head and heart are needed for balance and strength.  

I go to church every Sunday -- it’s what I love to do. Not every worship service hooks either part of me, but clearly, I’m not the object of worship -- or as I used to remind myself and our congregation, “Worship is about God and about us, but it is mostly about God.” Worship is what we say -- and mean -- about God and unto God. God is the audience and receiver of our worship for His sake. But I’m sensing again and anew that my praise in the midst of worship is deeper and my resolve leaving worship is greater when the experience has included my emotions alongside my intellect.

Where people differ is what engages their emotions and intellect. Blessed, indeed, is the person who is able to be a part of a church that engages both in them most of the time. Not everyone has that advantage or opportunity.

The Edwards men in my lineage seem to express more emotion, to be more emotional as they/we become older. My grandfather PawPaw, a tough hard-working south Texas hombre, in his later years was pretty quick to have more than a little bitty tear in his eye. My 91-year-old father who never wept has been more prone to do so in recent years, although he still tries to squelch and hide it. I lean more toward PawPaw. 

Sunday was Father’s Day; I sniffed and wiped tears a good bit of the service. It wasn’t that I was thinking about my own father as much as the combined experience/theme of Fatherhood and fatherhood -- sitting among friends and next Weslee whom I fathered; singing the opening majestic, Fatherly hymn “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above” and the organ prelude/introduction leading us into it;  seeing three generations of one family’s fathers-sons reading the morning scripture; hearing the pastor’s sermon on patience including a sweet story about his own pastor father’s patience with an “outcast” parishioner; my son-in-law down the pew having to reimagine fatherhood; and thinking of son Nathan now crafting and helping lead worship services three hours away and in the likeness of his father -- it was touching, inspiring, convicting, worshipful. Head and heart, intellect and emotions worked in tandem so that departing the service, I felt refreshed with the Father -- blessed, loved, forgiven, and above all, thankful. 

We’ve given you this hymn before, but in case you missed it or love it as I do, here it is again. 

Sing praise to God who reigns above, the God of all creation,
     the God of power, the God of love, the God of our salvation;
     with healing balm my soul He fills, and every faithless murmur stills:
To God all praise and glory.

What God’s almighty power has made in mercy He is keeping;
     by morning glow or evening shade His eye is never sleeping;
     within the kingdom of His might, lo! all is just and all is right:
To God all praise and glory.

The Lord is never far away, but through all grief distressing,
     an ever-present help and stay, our peace and joy and blessing;
     as with a mother’s tender hand He leads His own, His chosen band:
To God all praise and glory.

Thus all my toilsome way along I sing aloud His praises,
     that all may hear the grateful song my voice unwearied raises;
     be joyful in the Lord , my heart! Both soul and body bear your part:
To God all praise and glory.

Let all who name Christ’s holy name give God all praise and glory;
     let all who know His power proclaim aloud the wondrous story.
     cast each false idol from its throne, for Christ is Lord, and Christ alone:
To God all praise and glory.

Words – Johann Jakob Schutz, 1675

Those words paired with that tune sung in that manner in nearly any setting resonate in every part of me. To God all praise and glory!

- Mark

Not to Sing, but to Say and Live

The Alleluias were plenteous Sunday – Easter and the first anniversary of Honey’s memorial service.  It seemed as though every other phrase was punctuated with a joyous “Alleluia” and rightly so.  Congregations at both Easter services I attended began by singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”  Toward the end of the third stanza of that hymn is the phrase “where’s thy victory, O grave?” It has appeared that way in every hymnal from which I have sung and led all my life.  But the Methodist Hymnal version is “where’s thy victory, boasting grave?”  I like that – an extra hint of resurrection trash talk!  And choirs in both churches ended the service singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  I could hardly contain myself when the Sanctuary Choir at First Baptist Church, Nashville sang it.  Wow – that majestic room, those wonderful singers, that magnificent organ!  Admittedly, the fact that I directed that choir thirty Easters in a row had something to do with how I heard it Sunday.

Christ is risen! 
He is risen, indeed! 
Alleluia!

In the past couple months, I have received calls from two other ministers of music whose wives have also died of cancer – Greg’s wife Gail died January 6 and Larry’s Sandy only a month ago.  With both I have been able to say with surety that I do know what they are going through.  Both asked some form of the same question – “how did you do it?”  Still stumbling around for answers, neither conversation went far until I mentioned to each the sustaining power that hymns provided for our journey during Honey’s illness and for me since her death about this time last year.  I had to admit to learning that knowing a hymn or being able to sing or lead it was not the same thing as living it, or better said, living into it. For too many of us, hymns have become so familiar that we don’t “hear” them anymore. But through Honey’s illness/death, the experience helping build a hymnal, and the undeniable grace of God, hymns have ministered to me as never before and I am grateful.  I pointed Greg and Larry to some of my favorites:

Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Sometimes a Light Surprises
All the Way My Savior Leads Me
Like a Mother with Her Children
O Worship the King
We Walk by Faith
Like a River Glorious
How Lovely, God, How Lovely
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
If You Will Only Let God Guide You
How Can I Keep from Singing
In Deepest Night

Spending time in a good hymnal is not unlike discovering a new Book of Psalms (the Hebrew hymnal). Hymns, like the psalms, have multi-stanzas, speak the many moods of Christian life, and are strong enough to be studied.  For almost a decade I have enjoyed memorizing hymns, not to sing, but to say and live.  I have discovered that in saying them, new riches reveal themselves in lines sung mostly mindlessly through the years.  They become good food for the soul and balm for the aching heart. 

If you have a hymnal I encourage you to spend some focused time in it.  If you don’t have hymnal or need a fresh version, I certainly recommend the Celebrating Grace Hymnal – www.celebrating-grace.com.   It has been interesting to see people order a Hymnal when they order a copy of the Notes From Susie book.  Most of the hymns quoted in the latter are included in the former.  Many of those hymns were in the “God, the Sustainer” section of the Hymnal, where Honey and I camped a good bit during our two-year journey.

Here is one of those stanzas I sang past countless times –

“Thy bountiful care what tongue can recite?

It breathes in the air, it shines in the light,

   it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,

 and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.” 

                        O Worship the King – Robert Grant, 1833

The mental image of God’s bountiful care washing over all His creation and individually over me calls forth yet another “Alleluia!”

Mark

P.S. You could never convince me that it was coincidental that Larry and I ran into one another at breakfast at a Collierville hotel the Sunday morning after Christmas 2015.  I hadn’t seen him in nearly ten years.