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People of the Book

by Greg Asimakoupoulos

Q: When a new Christian asks you how you keep your daily quiet time fresh and meaningful, how do you respond? In addition to reading a section from the Scriptures and expressing yourself to the Lord in prayer, what do you do?

A: My mother-in-law includes a daily visit with Oswald Chambers through his classic volume, My Utmost For His Highest. My friend Pete wouldn't think of maneuvering through the corporate jungle without incorporating Our Daily Bread into his breakfast routine. The Covenant Home Altar is another popular companion to the Bible for morning devotions. But a less popular book has served me well. A hymnbook. My personal hymnal is a virtual devotional reservoir. I first discovered its artesian depth as a seminary student. A leather bound lyric-only hymnbook caught my attention in a second-hand bookstore. Because it was only 50 cents I couldn't resist. But only after searching its yellowed pages did I realize its value had very little to do with its price tag.

Most people I know either associate the hymnal with the sanctuary of their church or with a genre of worship embraced by another generation. But the hymnal is more than a book of congregational song; it is an entire library of personal faith. The dog-eared volume beside my bed is as much at home on my night stand as it is in the pew rack.

A Primer of Praise

My new-found old friend has taught me how to verbalize my love for God. I often struggle attempting to find words with which to express my worship. My hymnal increased my vocabulary of praise. Reading the composer's words is like learning a new language. Imagine my joy to find these words:

Immortal, invisible God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.

or then again,

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is they health and salvation!

It is a great relief to realize my feelings of awe and joy don't have to be sentenced to silence. They could be clothed with appropriate phrases, albeit another's. With Bernard of Clairvoix I am more apt to ask, "What language can I borrow to thank You dearest Friend?" And in Reginald Heber's hymn, he lends me:

Holy, holy holy! Though the darkness hides Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy-there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power in love and purity.

A Chronicle of Confession

When I meet with the Lord in quiet solitude I need to face myself before I face Him. My hymnal helps me. Within the covers of my hymnal I find me, sinful me in the inkings of another; page after page of eloquent imperfection. Robert Robinson's lyrics mirror my life.

May Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander Lord I feel it.
Prone to leave the God I love.
Here's my heart, Lord, take and seal it.
Seal it for Thy courts above.

A more contemporary hymnal I have subsequently purchased aids my honesty with daring candor:

Kind and merciful God, we have sinned in Your sight,
We have all wandered far from Your way;
We have followed desire, we have failed to aspire
To the virtue we ought to display.

Mouthing these words I find myself in the company of confessors making contact with God Himself. Henry Buchnoll's verses give me courage to be candid about desires I must flee:

Break temptations fatal power. Shielding all with Guardian care.
Safe in every careless hour. Safe from sloth from sensual snare.
Thou our Savior still our failing strength repair.

It's easier to come clean with God when you have words that put it out there, plain and simple. Admitting failure in sufficient detail invites closure. Abstract guilt, on the other hand, results in a fuzzy sense of forgiveness. Peter Aschan's "O Let Your Soul Now be Filled with Gladness" offers me the joy that accompanies the assurance of a pardoned heart.

O may this though banish all your sadness
That in His blood you have been freed.
That God's unfailing love is yours, that you the only Son were given
That by His death He has opened heaven
That you are ransomed as you are.

An Encyclopedia of Experience

Biographies have always been my favorite form of literature. Reading another's story gives me fresh perspective of my own story as well as windows through which to become part of theirs. My hymnal is a storybook containing countless individual's experiences of grace. Their measured descriptions encourage me as I piggyback on their words. Thanks to Charles Wesley, John Newton, Joseph Scriven, Fanny Crosby, Bryan Leech and others, I have a ready witness to God's faithfulness at arm's reach.

When tempted to doubt the freedom Christ has won for me, I hear the prison doors clank open as I read:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature's night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray.
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off. My heart was free.
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Wesley's graphic details detour my doubts. I visualize Christian's pack falling from his back in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. I rise from my devotions able to stand less stooped.

Or when at the close of the day I question God's ability to redeem the chaos of my efforts, I am warmed by another's faith in God's father-like love.

Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come.
'Tis grace that's brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.

The hymnwriter's admission of frustration can be just as encouraging to me as his experiences of faith. I find comfort in knowing I am not the only one who struggles with God's guidance in my life. Dora Greenwell seems guilty of reading my diary when she writes:

I am not skilled to understand
What God has willed, what God has planned.
I only know at His right hand is one Who is my Savior.

I, likewise, relate to the composer who chronicles his experience of discouragement as a Christian:

When I am sad at heart, teach me Thy way.
When earthly joys depart, teach me Thy way.
In hours of loneliness, in times of dire distress,
In failure or success, teach me Thy way

A Doctrinal Diary

It was said in the 16th century that Martin Luther's followers sang the Reformation into being. I guess if that was the case it was because many songs within my hymnbook preach from the page. My mind is bathed in biblical truth as I begin my day with Luther's "Ein Feste Burg". It reminds me of God's unequaled dominion and his loving disposition toward me as revealed in His Son and Spirit.

And tho' this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph thru us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him -
    his rage we can endure,
For lo, his doom is sure: one little word shall fell him.
That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours thru Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also -
    the body they may kill;
God's truth abideth still: His kingdom is forever.

The doctrine of sin and my inability to earn God's favor through human goodness is beautifully expressed by Nils Frykman, a turn of the century circuit riding preacher.

My former resolutions to lead a better life
Were only vain illusions, my soul was still at strife.
Now on the love of Jesus completely I rely.
For me He was willing to die.

According to the Bible, my ability to love the One Who loves me most is rooted in the Holy Spirit residing in me. George Croly's hymn describes this necessary empowerment:

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

More winsome than a theology text, more beautiful than a catechism, hymns are a helpful way to celebrate our beliefs as Christians. In singable sentences one after another the whole of redemption's story is told.

A Lexicon of Love

Several weeks ago a choir from Siberia performed in our church. The members of the group were not Christians. They simply wanted a place to perform while visiting America. We couldn't imagine not honoring their request. We wanted to hear their voices enunciate their new-found freedom. As part of their concert of Russian folk songs and classical pieces, they included a few hymns locked in vaults for over seventy years. They were awesome! Following the program, I invited the audience to stand and sing a hymn that originated in Sweden but which had passed into Russia before arriving in America. The choir, having never heard "How Great Thou Art," began to weep. Such a simple hymn replete with a theology of creation, redemption and heaven. The third verse contains the message of salvation in just 71 words.

Before the choir returned to their homeland, we presented their director with a Russian Bible and a hymnal. Nothing, in my mind, could be more appropriate to express our love and friendship. The tradition out of which I come prides itself in being people of the Book (namely the Bible). But my experience contends for a book in each hand that the truths they contain might live in each heart. As much as I love the refreshing informality of contemporary praise choruses, there is nothing quite like the great hymns of our faith.

Now where did you say the old family hymnal is?

Greg Asimakoupoulos is Senior Pastor of Naperville Evangelical Covenant Church in Naperville, IL.

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