A Community Knit Through Song

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Eric Wall, assistant professor of sacred music and dean of chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, reflects on the role of music in church. What do you believe God is doing through song? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

Be Thou My Vision

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Jeff Falter

In 1994, I was getting ready to graduate from seminary and looking for my first church. My first interview was with a small rural church where I had preached once before, on a controversial subject. During the interview, the chair of the committee asked me, “What other controversial subjects might you preach on?” I was flustered, and didn’t know how to respond. The chair said, “Let me give you an example. Through those trees is a small black Presbyterian church, but if you or presbytery or anyone else tried to make us worship together, you would hardly see a white face in the crowd.” I was stunned.

I was a thirty year old white man, married, with my first child on the way. I had the privilege of being raised by parents, and in a community, that believed in meritocracy–that all people should have the opportunity to succeed in life, and participate in society, to the best of their ability. I had the privilege of growing up in a church that believed all people are beloved children of God, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. I had the privilege of believing that the racial issues that had confronted our society were a matter of history, not a present reality. That interview opened my eyes.

coneThis past year has awakened me even more. It started when I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. Then came the death of so many African-Americans in our society: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Charly Keunang, Sandra Bland, the Charleston 9, just to name a few. Some died at the hands of police; others at the hands of a white supremacist. Some were saints; some were sinners. All died unjustly. My heart breaks for the lives lost, and for so many lives dehumanized. I want to stand at the top of the world and shout to the four corners of the earth, “Black lives matter.” It is what my parents taught me. It is what the Declaration of Independence taught me. It is what Martin Luther King taught me. It is what my faith taught me.

In heart-rending times such as these, I find comfort in the promise of God proclaimed in baptism, “You have been … marked as Christ’s own forever” (G2G, page 18; Hymn 482). I find hope in the central proclamation of the Christian faith, “In life and in death we belong to God” (G2G, page 37; Hymn 326). I find joy in the claim of God in Isaiah 43: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You belong to me.” Hymn 76, 177, 463). But this is not enough. Discipleship demands more.

In baptism, “we choose whom we will serve by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ” (G2G, page 16). In baptism, we pray that the same God who claimed each of us as God’s own child, will also send each of us forth “in the power of [God’s] Spirit to love and serve [God] with joy, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth” (G2G, page 21). In other words, in our baptism we not only receive assurance of God’s amazing love for us, we also receive commissioning to do God’s work in the world.

As long as I can remember, I have cherished the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision” (Hymn 450).

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
thou my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

I pray that I will remain true to that vision of God as the ruler of all–black and white, Anglo and Hispanic, rich and poor. I pray that I will remain true to sharing that vision with others, so that they too may find their souls’ shelter in God. I pray that my own life will proclaim that “Black lives matter”— matter to God, matter to me, matter to our society. And I pray for God’s wisdom in making that vision a reality in our society.

Jeff Falter

Jeff Falter is a member-at-large of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley, having served congregations in Washington, West Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and New York. He is currently working for Community Computer Service in Auburn, New York as a computer programmer. Prior to attending seminary, he worked as a software and electronic engineer.

Help Us Accept Each Other

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Kay Michelinie

photo credit: Broken Heart via photopin (license)

photo credit: Broken Heart via photopin (license)

I met with a couple this week to talk about their marriage. As is so often the case, theirs has been through all sorts of ups and downs, sadly, mostly downs. Divorce had been mentioned on and off. Everyone in the family had suffered. Yet, as is not often the case, this couple has reached a new place of love. As I looked up after praying with them, they were sitting close together, hands tightly clasped. There was no space – literal or figurative – between them. When they left my office, I was completely energized. This had not been the conversation I had expected and it was a truly welcome surprise.

As God would have it, the next thing on my “to do” list that day was to pick hymns for the coming Sunday’s worship. I flipped through the pages of the hymnal with my theme in mind and came across a hymn I like very much but probably haven’t sung nearly enough. I like hymn tunes that have a little variety and interest and, for me, Baronita just doesn’t cut it. But the words, oh the words, what a message they convey! “Help us accept each other as Christ accepted us; teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace. Be present, Lord, among us and bring us to believe we are ourselves accepted and meant to love and live.” (Hymn 754)

I sent the words of the entire hymn off to the couple with whom I had met. And I guess if I could, I’d send the words of the entire hymn off to the whole church! The world is changing and evolving, for some in ways very welcome and for others not so much. And so it is in Christ’s church. We are not what we used to be. The changes have both their good and not so good attributes; we’d all like to be a little stronger in number. But it’s the really human things that have changed that set some folks on edge the most it seems, things like marriage and ordination equality. And, like the couple who were in my office, sometimes a kind of divorce is considered. And sometimes it is acted on.

I suppose sometimes a clean break needs to happen for the health of all involved. But to me, there’s always…always a sadness in it. It is not energizing or life-giving like forgiveness and reconciliation are. It puts us at different “tables” so that we no longer talk to one another. The remaining conversation becomes more monolithic, losing the depth brought by differing thoughts. But, sadly, sometimes it needs to happen. When the conversation gets too ugly for too long and the behavior around it is so damaging that it’s very hard to heal, when the space between participants has grown to enormous proportions sometimes immediate health has to take precedence. But I guess it’s precisely at this point that we need to sing the hymn most. “Let your acceptance change us, so that we may be moved in living situations to do the truth in love; to practice your acceptance until we know by heart the table of forgiveness and laughter’s healing art.”

Just as the couple in my office joyfully know renewed hope in their own marriage, that same hope can visit Christ’s church. It can come when we reach across the table, or out beyond the table to someone or some group with whom we’ve had differences and reconciliation becomes a possibility. It can come when we try, harder than we ever imagined we could, to forgive when we believe we have been wronged, even deeply so. Welcome surprises do happen, by the grace of God. And when they do, we too feel energized, filled with renewed hope and keenly aware that God’s Spirit is still at work in our midst.

kayKay Michelinie


Christ Clarion Presbyterian Church

Pittsford, New York

A New Hymnal and Change

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By James Renfrew

A discussion about a congregation’s hymnal becomes a good case study in openness to change vs. aversion to change.  When I arrived at my church in 2000 the book in the pew racks was Hymns for the Family of God, a very conservative Baptist-centered, and decidedly non-Presbyterian hymnal.  The hymnal was forty years old and had been in use at our church for at least thirty. There were no hymns relating to infant baptism, an unusually poor selection of Easter hymns, and only two Advent hymns.  The liturgical texts were also not very helpful in speaking to Presbyterian perspectives on scripture and faith.  And at least one third of the hymn selections used “washed in the blood” imagery.  While “washed in the blood” is authentic Biblical imagery, it is not an image that I generally choose to lift up Jesus Christ each Sunday in worship. So in choosing hymns for each Sunday I had to eliminate one third of the selections from consideration right off the bat.

Initially serving as a supply pastor at this church, I felt that recommending a hymnal change was probably not the best idea.  But after several years, through the wonders of modern polity, I became the called pastor.  Still, I hesitated to take the lead in suggesting a change.  I had heard many horror stories of pastors going down in flames for trying doing just that.  Yet I did make a decision to share – honestly – what I thought about our hymnal in a variety of one-on-one conversations with church leaders and members.  I did not advocate a new hymnal purchase, but simply pointed out the wide variety of limitations in the book we had.  Rarely did I say anything at a Session meeting about it.

When the new Glory to God hymnal was first publicized, not me but a member of Session brought it up for discussion.  It was very interesting to hear half of the elders raising some of the same points I had been raising about Hymns for the Family of God.  But, as expected, there were plenty of objections, mostly along the lines of “there’s nothing wrong with our hymnal”, “it’s what I’m used to,” and “we can’t afford a new one.”   These, of course, are the kinds of things said at nearly every discussion in a church that involves “change.”  The idea of acquiring a new hymnal raised a key question for us: “should we be looking backward or forward in our ministry?” A “next church” negotiates this kind of question by rephrasing the question to ask if our church is just for ourselves and people like ourselves, or is this Christ’s church for the people we haven’t met yet, like children, grand-children, new residents, or immigrants?  How can we embrace their stories, vocabularies, and needs in the songs that we sing?

Thankfully, elders were drawn to some new features in Glory to God:  lectionary-based hymn suggestions, worship rubrics that actually fit with our order of worship, brief historical notes about each hymn at the bottom of each page, chords for string accompaniment, a huge section of Advent hymns (separate from Christmas hymns), and even some hymns appropriate for infant baptism.  Fortunately, the groundwork had been laid in all of those one-on-one conversations, openness prevailed, and the decision was made to acquire 120 copies of the new hymnal, after making a special appeal to members and friends of the church to “buy a hymnal” at $15 each.  Glory to God!

A committee was formed to take the lead in the appeal (not the pastor!).  It was expected that there would be resistance, so each member of the committee addressed the congregation during worship in advance of the appeal letter.  Mary Ann, a musician, shared some of her excitement for an opportunity to learn new hymns.  Gwen outlined the practical aspects of how the appeal would be conducted.  Audrey began by saying, “I looked in the table of comments of the new hymnal and I didn’t see my favorite hymn.”  Then she said, “But I’m hoping I’ll find a new favorite hymn in the new hymnbook.”  Amen!  With that comment, I felt like our church got unstuck and was ready to move forward.  Sure enough, most of the funds came in.  When we were still about 15 books short, one elder pledged to put us over the top. Isn’t it amazing how one faithful insight can transform an entire congregation?  Glory to God!

When acquiring a new hymnal conciliatory people will often try to split the difference.  For example, in a previous church I served a 1970’s Reformed Church hymnal was acquired by donation from another church to replace the 1930’s Presbyterian Hymnal.  But several elders suggested that we keep the peace by putting the new and old hymnals in the pew racks side-by-side.  It sounded like a great idea because everybody gets to be happy.  However, this served to immediately undermine the new hymnal in that church from the start.  It gave those afraid of change a place to retreat to.  Sort of like trying to cross the Red Sea while keeping one foot firmly planted on shore!   When I left that church a few years later those new hymnals were all removed from the pews within a week and they went back to the 1930’s edition, even as the congregation continued in sharp decline.  That a more modern hymnal might better connect with an increasingly diverse neighborhood was not considered.  So when we purchased the Glory to God hymnals last year we made every effort to get the old hymnals out the door as soon as possible.  It was suggested that we give them as appreciative gifts to the families named in each book’s dedication plate, but it turned out that they were all the gift of only two families, and one had no immediate descendants in the area, so that only took care of six of the books!  Then I stood at the door at the end of each service and handed a copy to each departing worshiper. Finally, on Christmas Eve, I made an even more concerted effort to put one of the old hymnals in the hands of every guest.  No turning back now!  Glory to God!

Introducing a new hymnal requires careful planning.  First, we dedicated the new hymnal by praising the bold commitment of our members to the future. Second, I acknowledged that someday in the future this new hymnal, too, will become an old hymnal and be in need of replacement, and that it is good to see a church anticipating the future rather than hiding from it. Third, from the start we selected lots of familiar hymns from the new book to show that it wasn’t the “alien” that many thought it was.  Fourth, Glory to God has lots of familiar tunes with new words, so those became the easiest new songs to introduce.  Fifth, although our choir is only gathered for certain church seasons, we have made an effort to present new hymns through introits, string instrument solos, and anthems until they become more familiar for congregational singing.  Congregations with a more active choir can introduce new songs more easily than we have done.

Here’s one of the new songs we have discovered:  Hymn 292, “As the Wind Song.”  Mary Ann tried it at home on her hammered dulcimer and suggested it to me as a duet with my mandolin for a church service.  As I recall, it was our first deliberate choice of a new hymn from the new hymnal to share with the congregation.  The note at the bottom of the page gives a fascinating description of the song’s Chinese and Maori origin.  “As the wind song through the trees … making worlds that are new, making peace come true, bringing gifts, bringing love to the world, as the rising of the yeast, as the wine at the feast, so it is with the Spirit of God”.  The hymn uses beautiful words and phrases, draws in Biblical images, embodies our desire to be a fresh and new, and invites all who hear it to be that “next church,” not just for ourselves but for many more.  Glory to God!

renfrewJames R. Renfrew, Teaching Elder

Pastor, Byron Presbyterian Church,

Byron NY



What Is This Place: Visions of the Church in Glory to God

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter! Read more

In Christ Alone, but Not in the Hymnal: A Theological Reflection Case Study

“Fans of a beloved contemporary Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction” in the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal, Glory to God, according to USA Today. When the hymn’s authors refused to change their lyrics the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song voted to drop it. Some say it’s about the “wrath of God.” Others that it’s the word “satisfied” and the theology that goes along with it. When Stuart Townend and Keith Getty wrote their 2001 hymn one stanza went like this:

In Christ alone, who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe! This gift of love and righteousness, Scorned by the ones He came to save: Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied – For every sin on Him was laid; Here in the death of Christ I live.

The new hymnal committee, though, had found the song in a recently printed hymnal by a group of Baptists where the words were different: “Till on that cross as Jesus died The love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights the committee discovered that the authors had not approved and would not approve the change. The altered words went too far. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history. This was the view of Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim.

While this might not be one’s personal view it is nonetheless a view held by some members of the Presbyterian family of faith. In addition, the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body. Others pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations. They said it would be a disservice to this educational mission to perpetuate by way of a new text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need (via Jesus’ death) to assuage God’s anger. Rather, Jesus’ death on the cross is the supreme example of God’s suffering love and that love changes our lives entirely.

As you reflect on the “work of Jesus on the cross” remember that the “Confession of 1967” says that “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work.” (Book of Confessions, 9.09) Questions for Discussion What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Is the cross necessary because of God’s wrath toward human beings because of our sin? Does “satisfied” mean that Jesus paid the whole price for sins, the price necessary to overcome God’s wrath? Or is the focus on the love of God thus “magnified”? What do you think? And why?

Sources: a USA Today article printed in the Charlotte Observer (August 10, 2013, p. 2E); an article by Mary Louise Bringle in the Christian Century (May 2013); Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers; a blog by Adam Coleman.