Last Monday I had not one idea about what to explore in this blog this week.
After Tuesday afternoon service leaflet editing, and after Wednesday evening choir rehearsals, I now know exactly what is on my mind this week.
Last Sunday morning's 10:30 service music was our normal fare of the grand Anglican via media mixture of music: a Hispanic carol, a contemporary American psalm, Bach and Buxtehude at the organ, Rutter’s arrangement of “Lord of the Dance,” five hymns, and a Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.
This Sunday is much the same: my own little arrangement of a Swedish folk tune, another psalm setting, a 16th century English verse anthem, Flor Peeters and Mendelssohn at the organ, and another five hymns and a Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.
However, one of this Sunday’s hymns is different. It leaps off the page directly into your mind and heart – the text if not the music as well.
Through the years when I have guest lectured on John Donne and George Herbert hymn texts for Dr. Mary Cargill’s poetry classes at Christian Brothers University, she and her professor colleagues were intrigued that I talked so more about the poems themselves. They expected to sing much more than we did.
At some point along the road, I learned to pay attention to the texts we sing in hymns and anthems equally as much as I practice my legato hymn-playing and listen to the choir’s intonation.
(Thank you, graduate school professors. A young undergraduate organ performance major entered graduate school and emerged as a sacred musician.)
In these confused, trying times, this Sunday’s Sequence hymn is a message that we all need to hear. God knows all, God sees all, and God has our back, as the young people say today.
I have known this hymn text since my childhood and have quoted it to myself and others many times, especially in times of despair or uncertainty.
The English poet and hymnist William Cowper (1731-1800) is said to have changed the direction of 18th century poetry by writing about everyday life. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) called Cowper “the best modern poet,” and Cowper's close association with John Newton (1725-1807), author of “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” led him to write the religious poetry for which he is best remembered.
Newton first published Cowper’s hymn text in Twenty-six Letters on Religious Subjects To Which Are Added Hymns (1774). The hymn was later published in the one of the most significant 18th century hymnals, Olney Hymns (1779), which Newton and Cowper co-authored.
In that hymnal, Cowper titled this hymn "Light Shining Out of the Darkness" and attached John 13:7 to it: "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.”
The tune to which we sing this text, London New, is from The Psalmes of David in Prose and Meeter (1635). With its strict rhythms, it is a textbook example of a metrical psalm tune.
Read this hymn text and believe its message and imagery. And sing heartily on Sunday!
God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform:
he plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines,
with never-failing skill,
he treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour:
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.
William Cowper (1773)