It is my great boast about Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church whenever anyone asks me why our church is so special. We sing! How often I have been encouraged from the piano bench as I hear the people of God sing His praises together. Singing has always characterized the people of God. Indeed, singing is one of God’s great gifts and is often used by Him in powerful ways. Singing is integral to corporate worship and can enhance our private times of worship as well.
Very soon our congregation will begin using the Trinity Hymnal. The Trinity Hymnal is published by Great Commission Publications, the joint publishing agency of the OPC and PCA denominations and is “rooted in the rich tradition of the Reformation – with a zeal for the gospel, a high regard for doctrinal purity, and a focus on worship as defined in Scripture.” (Trinity Hymnal preface, p.7)
One of the greatest strengths of the Trinity Hymnal is the number of psalms and psalm-based hymns it contains. It also includes The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Westminster Confession of Faith and The Shorter Catechism. With a topical index drawn from The Westminster Confession, the hymns are broken down by topic and by scripture reference.
For the past two years, I have been studying the Trinity Hymnal and have sung through every one of its 742 hymns. Through my research I have been struck by the faithfulness of God to His church evidenced by the Trinity Hymnal. There is such beauty in the texts from so many saints from different cultures, time periods and traditions. The list of authors of hymn texts reads like a hall of fame of men and women of faith. From twelfth century Bernard of Clairvaux, to St. Frances of Assisi, to Puritans Richard Baxter and John Bunyan, to the great hymn writers Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, to 20th century hymn writer Margaret Clarkson, the Trinity Hymnal is a treasure trove of rich, singable, theology. Each writer has a story, and so often the stories are filled with the sufficiency of God in suffering and trial.
I think of Martin Rinkart, a German Lutheran pastor who served in the German city of Eilenburg during the Thirty Years War from 1618-1648. The city became a refuge for those fleeing the horrors of war until the Black Death infected the city. Four ministers lived there at the time. One fled and Rinkart buried the other two. He often presided over forty to fifty funerals a day. In all 4500 people died. Surrounded by death, he nevertheless was filled with hope in the God who conquers death as he wrote these words:
Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms, hath led us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is our today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills in this world and the next.
(Trinity Hymnal p. 98)
And there is William Cowper, Scottish writer and poet, friend of John Newton, who wrote the much-loved hymns “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “There Is A Fountain filled with Blood.” It is well-known that Cowper struggled with severe depression, even attempting suicide on several occasions. Yet he wrote these words:
Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises with healing in his wings;
When comforts are declining, he grants the soul again
A season of clear shining to cheer it after rain.
(Trinity Hymnal p. 621)
Even the writer of our “The Star Spangled Banner”, The United States national anthem is represented. Francis Scott Key wrote the beautiful words for “Lord, With Glowing Heart I’d Praise Thee.”
Lord, with glowing heart I’d praise thee
for the bliss thy love bestows,
For the pard’ning grace that saves me,
and the peace that from it flows.
Help, O God, my weak endeavor;
this dull soul to rapture raise:
Thou must light the flame, or never
can my love be warmed to praise.
Praise thy Savior God that drew thee
to that cross, new life to give,
Held a blood-sealed pardon to thee,
bade thee look to him and live.
Praise the grace whose threats alarmed thee,
roused thee from thy fatal ease;
Praise the grace whose promise warmed thee,
praise the grace that whispered peace.
(Trinity Hymnal p. 80)
When you look at a hymn in the hymnal, you’ll notice there is information on the left and right side underneath the actual music. On the left is the information about the source and author of the words. On the right side is the information about the music. Below is the information printed below my favorite hymn, “Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners!”
J. Wilbur Chapman, 1910 HYFRYDOL 188.8.131.52. D
Each hymn tune has a name and beside it is a series of numbers or abbreviations. This list of numbers separated by periods is the meter of the hymn and indicate the number of syllables in each phrase. It is this feature that makes the hymnal such a versatile, useful tool for the church. Using the Meter index in the back of the hymnal, you can see that there are thirty-one more hymns that have that same meter. If you know the tune “HYFRYDOL”, you can also successfully sing thirty-one other hymn texts to that one tune. It is this interchangeability of hymn text and tune that enables us to more fully sing our complete theology while only being familiar with around two hundred hymn tunes.
For indeed, that is what corporate singing in worship does. It allows us to sing our theology, etching it deeply into our hearts and minds as we read the words and sing the melody. The Trinity Hymnalwill help us to continue to do that as we worship together. If the Trinity Hymnal were being compiled in 2016, no doubt it would include “In Christ Alone” and other hymns by Keith and Kristyn Getty. Our commitment to singing a blend of the great hymns of the faith as well as the best songs and hymns being written today remains. The goal for our congregational music is that it be content-rich and musically excellent, songs that come to mind in times of difficulty, sorrow and joy, songs that stand the test of time, songs that shape us more into the likeness of Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria