One of the greatest treasures I’ve inherited from my ancestors is the 1878 Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church. It belonged to my great-grandfather, a circuit rider in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In it, there are 1,117 hymns (not counting doxologies, responses, and all varieties of “amens”). Nearly 300 of them were written by Charles Wesley. By contrast, today’s United Methodist Hymnal has just over 700 hymns, only 51 of which are by Charles Wesley. To be fair, Wesley wasn’t the only one whose hymns were edited. About one-half of the hymns in the 1878 hymnal are no longer found in the current one.
However, this isn’t a short-course in hymnody. What led me to pull down the 133 year-old hymnal was this recurring nudge I’ve been receiving a lot recently. The nudge comes in the form of a question that roughly goes like this: “Do we, the United Methodist Church (and, one could include nearly any mainline denomination here) really believe it is of any eternal consequence that we “confess Jesus Christ as [our] Savior, put [our] whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as [our] Lord…”?** OK, the question may be more of a push than a nudge, but there it is.
So, I was curious and opened up the 1878 hymnal to a section of hymns labeled, “The Sinner – Warning and Inviting.” Hmm…now, I haven’t attended all of the ReThink Church workshops on the latest welcoming strategies for churches, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t one using both “warning” and “inviting” in the same title. Within that section is a hymn by Charles Wesley that does not appear in the 1932 hymnal nor its successors. Its superscription reads, “The voice that wakes the dead,” and its text reads:
Thou Son of God, whose flaming eyes, our inmost thoughts perceive,Accept the grateful sacrifice which now to thee we give.
We bow before thy gracious throne, and think ourselves sincere:But show us Lord, is every one thy real worshiper?
Is here a soul that knows thee not, nor feels his need of thee, --A stranger to the blood which bought his pardon on the tree?
Convince him now of unbelief; his desperate state explain;And fill his heart with sacred grief, and penitential pain.
Speak with that voice that wakes the dead, and bid the sleeper rise;And bid his guilty conscience dread the death that never dies.[this can be sung to “Amazing Grace” or “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” among others]
Wow, no slack being cut there! No wonder we got rid of it! If we ever do think or talk about those who don’t know Christ as Savior, we nearly always aim our thoughts and speech out there somewhere…outside the church building. But, in this hymn, Brother Charles isn’t looking out the church window with concern for all those who aren’t in here with us. He’s looking up and down each pew and asking us to sing an admission that 1) not all in this service may be Christian; 2) not knowing Christ is a “desperate state;” 3) “grief” and “pain” are part and parcel of coming to Christ; and (here we go) 4) there are eternal consequences in the form of a “death that never dies.”
Granted, most mainline Christians hope #1 above is true. We need a steady supply of non-Christians willing to become Christians because as the average member age of the mainlines nears 60, Lord knows we’ll be doing fewer infant baptisms.
It’s what follows that tends to put us on the defensive. We avoid talking about the “desperate state” of not being in relationship with Christ because we’re not sure what it is. As for “grief” and “pain,” judging by the way clergy and laity talk about church life, there seems to be more of that after joining the church than before; think committees, stewardship campaigns, sign-up sheets, charge conferences, etc.
And then comes #4: Are there eternal consequences to our choices and, if so, what are they? Time was, my fellow members in the United Methodist tribe, we sang about it. Judging by the other hymns in the “Warning and Inviting” section of my old hymnal, we did it on a fairly regular basis. At what point did we get uncomfortable with this?
I’m still in my Lenten mode of self-examination and so I think it’s fair to remind ourselves that Someone actually died for us and for our salvation. That same Someone rose from the grave a few days later. Perhaps before we fall headlong into Holy Week, warning and inviting are appropriate actions. May we warn ourselves that to dismiss or gloss over consequences of desperation, pain and grief attended with a life-changing encounter with Christ is to dismiss and gloss over the life, death and Resurrection of Christ himself. May we invite ourselves to be shaped by the profound grace of the table, the deep love of the cross and the immeasurable hope of the empty tomb.
**The quote is from the baptismal/membership vows of the United Methodist Church.