Tag Archives: hymns

Hymn-tinkering. Just Say No.

It was none other than the venerable Charles Wesley, writer of hundreds of grand hymns, who in the preface (1779) to one of his hymnals pronounced a word of stern warning against anyone who would mess with the words—and thus the theology, not to mention the beauty—of one of his hymns. He had little use for “hymn-tinkerers.”

During most of my growing up years, my home church, and most others of our brand, used a hymnal that contained 665 songs, or 666 in one edition if you counted “1-a” printed inside the front cover. (Cue scary music here or not, depending upon your eschatological views.)

I later learned that 130 or of those songs had been tinkered with by the compiler. I also learned why my Uncle Kline (not really my uncle but whose name was given to me as my middle moniker and whom I am proud to claim) referred to the hymnal as Sacrilegious Selections. Uncle Kline was an English professor and much of the tinkering grated on his ears; more than that, he also loved the gospel and hated to see it gutted.

It’s rather amazing that while Christ’s people have so often made a real mess of recognizing the unity for which the Lord prayed so poignantly just before he died (John 17), at least we’ve all sung an incredible number of the same hymns. Most of us don’t know or care about the “religious preference” (as in Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, etc.) of the hymn-writers; we just know that their Lord was Jesus Christ, and, as hard-headed as we may have been in lots of areas, music did what it so often does— tore down walls, lifted hearts, and united us in praise.

I’ve got the words in my head, verse upon verse of many of those hymns of my childhood (most of which included a bit richer vocabulary than the presently popular variations of “Father, I love you—Jesus, I love you—Holy Spirit, I love you—repeated thirty-nine times).  But I still sadly discover on occasion that the words in my brain are a few words or phrases off of what the writer originally wrote.

Some of them don’t surprise me much. References to harps, lyres, zithers, stringed, or other instruments might be all over the Psalms, but you can bet your pitch pipe they’d not make it into that hymnal. Sad, but much worse was some of the theological tinkering. Done with pure motive, I don’t doubt, some of the tinkering nonetheless cut at the very heart of Christ’s cross. (It was, thus, more serious than some of the modern linguistic atrocities perpetrated by politically correct hymn-tinkerers who failed to learn in, oh, about third grade or so, that “-man” is a suffix for “human” and that words like “mankind” are no assault at all on “womankind.”)

Fanny Crosby could write beautifully, “Pass me not, O gentle Savior / Hear my humble cry.” And then in Verse 3, “Trusting only in Thy merit, / Would I seek Thy face.” But the hymn-tinkerer in his version changed “only” to “always.” Why? Because he wasn’t sure that “only” Christ’s merit, his sacrifice, is enough—which, whatever the tinkerer’s intent—makes his “cry” a lot less humble and effectively undercuts the cross.

“When We All Get to Heaven” became “When the Saved Get to Heaven.” As if someone unsaved might somehow sneak in?

But the absolute worst example comes in, of all places, “Amazing Grace” where Verse 2 was tinkered with, and Christ’s cross violated, when “How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed” was changed to “When I His Word obeyed.”

So wazzamattuh? We want to obey Christ, right? Yes! But if for salvation I trust in my power to obey, that is not at all the same thing as trusting completely and only in Christ and his blood. That hymn-tinkered “grace” suddenly becomes not very amazing at all. The world didn’t and doesn’t need yet another “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” self-help program or do-it-yourself religion. God’s Son did exactly what we needed. He did it once. He did it all. He did it forever. On a cross. Amazing!


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Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

Crowing Roosters, Chiming Bells, and Change

crowing roosterI woke up in my Key grandparents’ old house in Robert Lee, Texas, this morning. My maternal grandparents had the good sense to live here all of their lives. A couple of times a year, for over thirty years, my brothers and I have gathered here, a gaggle of pastoral Shelburnes somewhat off-duty.

I like to wake up here, even though the rooster who lives across the “patch” could use a short “For Dummies” course on “Ways and Means of Knowing When the Sun Actually Rises.” His vocal apparatus could do with a little lubrication, too. But I’ve grown fond of him. Roosters crow in all sorts of places, but whenever I hear one announcing a new day, I think of Robert Lee.

I like that, too, by the way. The name itself and the venerable general. You don’t have to learn much about General Lee to figure out that he was one of the finest men this land of ours ever produced (ironically, I’d argue that Lincoln and Lee were very close together up near the top of that list).

I stopped for just a moment here to listen to church chimes. So far, I’ve only heard the hour, which is chime enough this early. I hope that later they also launch into some beautiful hymns, as they’ve done for decades. There’s been a “changing of the chime guard” church-wise. We’ll see if the new chimers have the great taste in hymns the old ones did.

I’m not interested in providing ammo for any “worship wars.” There’s plenty of room in worship for high quality hymns and high quality “praise songs,” and followers of a crucified Lord should be thankful for an opportunity to crucify their own desires occasionally by singing a song that blesses someone else.

But wisdom is called for. There’s a right time and place for a variety of songs to be sung or played. Maybe in a difficult time even “You’re the Hang-nail of My Life” or “Thank God and Greyhound She’s Gone” might be sung with deep feeling, but not at church, please.

Seriously, it’s not just a taste thing. One of Charles Wesley’s or Fanny Crosby’s songs is truly more spiritually valuable than, say, one of the “poor pitiful me” Depression-era tunes. One verse of “Crown Him With Many Crowns” or “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” is salve to a soul rendered anorexic by a diet of camp songs of 27 verses (Trinitarian though they may be with the words “love,” “joy,” and “adore” shifted in and out.) Ah, but don’t forget the beautifully meaningful modern stuff like “How Deep the Father’s Love” and “As the Deer.” They’ll stand the test of time and enrich our souls when the thin stuff has long since faded away. Sometime we need a swim in deep water and shallow just won’t do. Sometimes we need to praise God and not just praise praise.

Uh oh. That’s a fine Christmas hymn the bells are chiming. But it’s April. Some fine-tuning may be needed.

One great old hymn reminds us, “Change and decay all around we see,” but then points us to the One who does not change. I see plenty of evidence of change and decay around me this morning, but some combination of good memories, crowing roosters, and chiming bells, and the fact that I don’t wake up here every day seems to help me focus here in a special way on the One who does not change.


Copyright 2013 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.

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