Read an article in the JMU Breeze about Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley, with a spotlight on Zion Mennonite Church.
A highlight of my Thanksgiving season was an instrumental and vocal rendition of the nineteenth-century hymn of praise that acknowledges God’s sustaining grace that comes from the very earth itself. For the beauty of the earth begins with praise to God for sustenance that comes to us through nature.
A trio of stringed musicians began the worship service in a rural church with this lovely song on Thanksgiving morning. The chorus soars with an accolade of praise to God: “Lord of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.
For an hour, in spoken word, in a video feed from two speakers and congregational songs, we gave thanks to God for bringing us through the year. The writer of the lyrics, Pierpoint, acknowledges the joy of human love for friends on earth and friends above.
After I spoke briefly of my thankfulness for friends, the service ended with the same song we began with: “For the beauty of the earth.” The last verse praises God for the church that lifts holy hands above, offering up on every shore her pure sacrifice of love. A fitting end to a glorious Thanksgiving Day morning worship service.
The first song we sang in worship yesterday morning was “O Worship the King.” I traveled to a remote town on the western Virginia border, near West Virginia, to a small church to preach the morning sermon for them.
We began with the early nineteenth-century lyrics from Robert H. Grant, used countless times in opening worship. And rightly so. The lyrics soar and invite the singer and those in worship to enter into the very presence of God.
God is our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days, pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise. Some twenty folks in that small church yesterday morning lifted their voices in praise, surrounded by the hills of western Virginia, nestled back in a little-traveled region of the state.
In our singing, we told of God’s might, we sang of God’s grace, we celebrated God’s bountiful care. Finally, we proclaimed that in God we do trust, nor find Him to fail; God’s mercies how tender, how firm to the end, our Maker, Defender, Redeemer and Friend!
One of my favorite hymns comes from lyrics penned by Robert Robinson in 1758. A British songwriter, Robinson’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” became popularized by an American folk tune known as “Nettleton.”
A catchy and much-loved tune, the lyrics have survived for two-and-a-half centuries because they convey vibrant theological and Biblical themes and because they express a heart language of faith toward a merciful God who sustains, keeps, and protects those who trust in Him.
Just as a strong creek or river channels water for centuries and even millennia, so have God’s streams of mercy sustained and nurtured those who put their trust in God.
Joseph Funk included Come Thou Fount in his Mennonite Hymn Book of 1847, an English language songbook created in Singers Glen, Va. In the first edition of Genuine Church Music of 1832, later known as Harmonia Sacra, Funk included the much-loved hymn. Most hymnals today include the favorite gospel song. Our prayer should always be, “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune our hearts to sing thy grace.”
I heard a band recently sing “You Can’t Stand Up Alone,” which declares our dependence on others and God. Daybreak composed this song in the 1970s, and it first appeared on vinyl, though you can find it today on YouTube.
We can’t stand up alone. We can’t succeed in life at any stage by relying only on ourselves. From infancy to the grave, we need others. My two-week-old grandson is entirely dependent on his parents. This past week at a church memorial service for a man who lived ninety productive years, it was clear that he needed others throughout his life.
“You can’t stand up all by yourself; you can’t stand up alone. You need the touch of a mighty hand; you can’t stand up alone.” The band Daybreak included young men my age, some of whom attended the same college I did in the late 1970s. They did a fabulous job with the lyrics and arrangement of this song.
At each step of our lives, we need the touch of a mighty hand. That touch comes through the love, nurture, and support of others. God reaches into our lives with grace and Spirit-power as we acknowledge the simple reality that we can’t stand up alone.
A great opening hymn for worship expresses confidence that God is near. What is this place brings the reality of God into our midst and declares that God is among us and cares for us when we are gathered together.
Our church meets outside in the parking lot during the pandemic. We sing outside and conduct our worship services on the pavement next to the building. We’ve grown used to this pattern, and many of us like the outdoors for worship each week.
In one of these recent worship services, the phrase “…and know our God is near” impacted me in an assuring way. Despite a global struggle with a virus, conflicts in society and the world, and uncertainty about the future, we rest assured that “our God is near.”
We can be confident in God’s nearness and know that where we meet, whether in a church sanctuary or outside or online, that God is around us and supporting our lives. When we meet, we become a body that lives and breathes Holy Spirit power and courage, and we leave knowing that God is near.