Saturday, January 31, 2015

Does it Build?

These could probably
go anytime too ...
Earlier this year I sat in a small local church full of nice, friendly people who had come to hear what turned out to be a pretty decent, relevant and biblical message from a visiting preacher. It was an inner-city congregation on a typical Sunday morning.

Prior to introducing the speaker, the man designated to open the meeting led the congregation in a hymn. We opened beat-up, dog-eared hardcover hymnals to the hymn number he gave us.

Together we sang the hymn that follows.

Lower Those Lights
“Brightly beams our Father’s mercy,
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.”
Say what? “Trim my feeble lamp”? Trim your own feeble lamp, pal! It was actually the second time we’d sung this hymn in the four weeks I’d been dropping in to that particular church.

Who Is Your Audience?

Across the aisle from me were two neighborhood kids: black, male, mid-teens in casual clothes. This type of meeting did not seem to me like anything that would hold their interest.

Full disclosure: Yes, I’m a pasty white guy and no, I’m not about to break into a racist rant here. I was happy to see them and mystified as to why they were there. I counted us lucky to have them. But I was waiting for them to sneak their Nintendo handhelds or iPods out of the pockets of their hoodies and drift off elsewhere as most kids these days are wont to do (if anyone is ever ‘wont’ anymore). Amazingly, when the speaker took the platform he held their attention for almost 45 minutes.

Still, I wondered what on earth they thought of the hymn, if they thought about it at all. Thankfully I’m pretty sure they wrote it off as part of the package that they could ignore and enjoy the rest. I never got up the courage to ask them.

It’s A Traditional Hymn: What’s the Problem?

Philip Bliss pounded out this gem in 1871 if the website I just visited is accurate. Let’s scrutinize it just for a second, not to be unkind:

In the very first line, we have a single, solitary mention of “the Father”. Other than the reference to “brother” in the last verse, that is about as edifying as the thing gets. It’s one extended, maudlin marine metaphor, from the lighthouse to the seaman, the billows, the shore, the lamp and the harbor. It is only scriptural in the most indirect, allusive way. Its references are to a mode of life so unfamiliar to most people as to be entirely alien. It’s an antiquated, sentimental piece, calculated, no doubt sincerely, to rally the troops to do the work of the Saviour — unfortunately in a way that has probably not been overly appealing (or anything other than inscrutable) in about 100 years.

If you lived on the coast in the 1800s this hymn may occasionally have elicited a sniff of appreciation from churchgoers of a certain sort. If you’re an inner-city kid in 2013, it’s bafflegab at best and an obstacle to your ongoing pursuit of the faith at worst.

What 13-year old kid can dissect phrases like “wandering seaman” and come away with anything that will produce fruit in his or her budding Christian life?

Is it not more likely that a number of encounters with such anachronistic hurdles will simply cause him to conclude that “I don’t understand this” or “this isn’t for me”?

Age and Value

There are other hymns of similar vintage that are hard to parse, true. But some of these are absolute gold: Thou Art the Everlasting Word, penned by Josiah Conder and Joseph Summers, is even more ancient than Mr. Bliss’s paean to the ocean, but it is exquisitely biblical and Christ-centred — well worth the effort of overcoming its anachronisms (which are merely linguistic, not cultural) to enjoy its brilliance. Its language is even surprisingly comprehensible once you get past the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. A good songleader could easily introduce it in such a way as to make it worth thinking about to any serious Christian of any age.

Or you could simply put the lyrics up on an overhead and sing some of the very decent things Stuart Townend and others have penned in the last 20 years. At least they can be understood without a reeducation program.

Let all things be done for building up,” Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth. What things? He was speaking of hymns, teaching, prophecy, tongues and their interpretation, which is a comprehensive description of pretty much everything going on in the local church in the first century, and by application, anything that needs to be going on in local churches today. A few verses prior, he speaks of praying “in a tongue”, so by extension prayer is included here too.

The Standard of Measurement

Isn’t it about time that we obey the teaching of Scripture in regularly and carefully setting out to measure our performance by this metric: Does it edify? Does it build?

That’s the standard. Not “does it make me feel good”, or “does it take me back to my childhood”.

Paul speaks of self-indulgently praying in a tongue in the same passage:
“For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.”
The test is whether it works, not for you or me, but for the guy across the aisle. I’m not saying we should abolish the Lower Lights and hymns like it, but maybe it’s time to think about using them where they are more appropriate, like maybe a Seniors Sing-Along Night a couple of times a month, if your church has folks who would enjoy that.

But it’s definitely time to retire some of these old chestnuts from the regular meetings of the local church — especially the ones to which the church is welcoming its surrounding community — and do some serious re-evaluating.


  1. Hmm, so it took quite a while. I was wondering how long it would take you to run out of material doing a leading blog a day. It seems the day has now come. Not a bad track record. When starting to get bored with a simple, but perfectly understandable and charming metaphor (even in our time) that point has obviously been reached :). Shakespeare called this Much Ado About Nothing, I believe? Even today, I wager, people of all stripes will still understand the similes contained in this little ditty since they, taken separately, are all pretty self explanatory. Anyone for some rap instead?

  2. Actually, Q, that's one of our very few "recycled" pieces, in this case from the first couple of weeks of the blog, so I guess one or two ideas have presented themselves since then. Or actually, over 250 in my case. But I agree, it's probably not in the Top 10 Important Issues we've addressed ...

  3. For me, though, the key principle the post directs us towards is actually very important...namely the criterion "does it edify." That's the Biblical criterion of what goes on in church -- not "do I like it," or "is it traditional," or "have we always done it that way," or "was it done at Aunt Mathilde's funeral."

    If we carry away that principle, I think the post does the right work.