Posted by: rcottrill | April 30, 2018

Sometimes a Light Surprises

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Also see 30+ Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing in your church. As others have contributed ideas, this wonderful resource has grown to over 80 items now. And, for more than three dozen reasons why congregations should still use hymn books rather than merely projecting words on the wall, see The Value of Hymn Books.

Words: William Cowper (b. Nov. 15, 1731; d. Apr. 25, 1800)
Music: Bentley, by John Pyke Hullah (b. June 27, 1812; d. Feb. 21, 1884)

Wordwise Hymns (William Cooper)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Mr. Cowper (pronounced Cooper) is considered one of England’s greatest poets, but for years he struggled with emotional depression. Later he was kindly helped by his pastor, none other than John Newton, author of the hymn Amazing Grace. In 1779, the two of them together published a famous hymn book, Olney Hymns, for which they wrote all the hymns.

The Cyber Hymnal has a note on composer John Hullah, which says in part: “[He studied] at the Royal Academy of Music (1833-35). One of his fellow students was Fanny Dickens, eldest sister of Charles Dickens. Hullah met Charles through her, and in 1836, he wrote the music for Dickens’ comic opera The Village Coquettes. Hullah taught vocal music at Kings College in the Strand, Queen’s College, and Bedford College. Starting in 1841, he conducted vocal music classes for day and Sunday school teachers.” (That latter point interests me greatly. Do we think enough of music in our church programs to train workers to teach it well? Something to think about!)

A surprise is something that happens suddenly and unexpectedly. Centuries ago the word was used mainly in a military sense, of an unexpected attack or capture. But currently, though we can occasionally have unpleasant surprises, the word more often is used in a positive way.

There are surprise packages, gifts that arrive unexpectedly, and surprise parties–perhaps for the birthday of a family member, and surprise recipes too. Scanning the Net you’ll learn how to make Chicken Surprise, Chocolate Surprise, and more. One wonders what the “surprise” is. That it’s easier to prepare than you thought? Or contains ingredients that are unusual? Or maybe it tastes better than it looks?

The word surprise is not one found frequently in the Bible, but its use does represent both kinds of unexpected happenings. There is a frightening surprise by Joseph’s brothers of something that may incriminate them (Gen. 42:35), and the wonderful surprise of some men who find Israel’s enemies fled, with all their supplies abandoned (II Kgs. 7:1-11).

In his 1955 book Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes his journey, a quarter century earlier, from barren atheism to a living faith in Christ. From his perspective, finding the Saviour was a kind of accidental or unexpected discovery, a surprise. And Lewis says joy is like a signpost, pointing the way for those lost in the woods. It’s a marker, one of a series, showing we’re on the right path at last.

There are surprises in our spiritual lives too, unexpected blessings from the Lord. The gospel itself is one of these. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way.” That’s not surprising. We know how wayward we can be. But the next words are astonishing: “And the Lord has laid on Him [Christ] the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Those deserving of punishment became the objects of God’s grace. “When we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10). Amazing!

As Christians, we’re sometimes surprised by what we discover in Scripture day by day. The aptness of the passage in our morning devotions to our current needs. The practical answers to life’s problems that strike us at just the right time. In a sudden crisis, or a time of deep distress, even the simple assurances of Psalm 23 can strengthen our hearts in a surprising way.

There can be similar encouragements in our great hymns. I can remember my return to church after two surgeries and nearly a month in the hospital. How I enjoyed the congregation singing Katharina von Schlegel’s beautiful hymn, Be Still, My Soul. The words, “Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know / His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below” greatly blessed me. They meant something special to me that day.

That brings to mind the hymn by William Cowper–one of many he wrote. It begins:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings.

Think about that for a moment. It implies the singer is in some kind of darkness, but he or she is “surprised by joy,” to use Lewis’s phrase. When we are down and discouraged, we can be unexpectedly uplifted by the words of a hymn. So, the lesson is this:

Even when you don’t necessarily feel like singing, sing anyway!

Sing anyway! Sing because the Lord commands it. “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!” (Ps. 47:6). Or sing as a tonic–because maybe it will help. Or sing because you want to believe, even when you’re not feeling it’s so. And when you do, God will bless your soul with new light.

CH-1) 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.

I encourage you to check out the two middle stanzas on the Cyber Hymnal. They’re wonderful too. The final stanza alludes to the great statement of faith by the prophet Habakkuk which concludes his book (Hab. 3:17-18). (Note: the word “confiding” is used in the sense of trusting.)

CH-4) Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

1) Why do you think it is that singing hymns can restore peace and joy to a troubled heart?

2) What particular hymns have been most encouraging to you?

Wordwise Hymns (William Cooper)
The Cyber Hymnal


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