Songs & Theology–Heaven Songs

This is a post that Corey Trevathan (Coreytrevathan.com) shared over at his blog last week…I thought I’d share it here for your reading pleasure.

PREFACE: This is a post I began to write over a year ago…the subject matter of songs and theology is one that has long weighed heavily on my mind and heart.  But particularly the subject of heaven-songs…these songs are very dear to all of us.  We’ve grown up singing them, we associate family and other memories with their melodies…they are a part of who we are.  So, I offer this preface before I get into what is sure to make us all think and perhaps, make us a little uncomfortable.

My friend and colleague Corey Trevathan says something that has really resonated with me over the last year.  “If we believe what we say we believe, it changes everything.”  What a powerful thought.  I’d like to take that a step further… “If we believe what we sing we believe, then it changes everything.”  Our faith is one we’ve sung for years.  While we might not immediately think about it, many of us have learned what we believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and other core beliefs because we’ve sung them in church all of our lives.  Unfortunately, that’s not always a healthy thing.  In fact, when it comes to the subject of Heaven, a very delicate subject indeed, we’ve done ourselves, God and Heaven a great disservice with the theology we’ve been singing for a number of years.  Now I know that few subjects within the theological realm are so sentimental, so deep, and yet contain, or may even be founded on what some might consider to be faulty or pre-conceived notions.  Tie such a subject as heaven with the emotionalism and sentimentality of music, the universal language, and you have quite a combination.  But it is just this combination, heaven and songs about heaven that has been bouncing around in my head for quite some time.

While I remember a number of songs from my childhood, one particularly goofy one comes to mind on this very topic. It’s one of those songs where each voice part had their own independent line.  We all loved it because it was entertaining, had a fun bass part (after all, songs with fun bass lines need not worry about bad theology, right?), and it was “difficult,” different…unlike what we sang “in big church.” The lyrics were:

“Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.  I wanna see my savior’s face, heaven is a wonderful place-wanna go there…” (O.A. Lambert, © 1958 Word Music, LLC (a div. of Word Music Group, Inc.)

I want to key in on that word “place.” When we think of heaven, we often tend to think of it as a noun; a place… a destination to which the “saved” can go after death… the target destination and goal of our lives. The more I think about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven as presented in scripture, I’m not sure that’s the best definition.  Consider a couple of scriptures…

The kingdom has come near to you…
Matthew 3:2 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Luke 17:21  Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Revelation 21:1-4 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

The way these scriptures present the Kingdom– the rule and reign of God, to use a fancy “-ology” word, eschatology, is quite a departure from the way it’s been presented in a portion of this vast tradition of hymns and gospel music over the last 125 years, especially within those songs written in the shadow of the great depression and our formerly, primarily agrarian society. These songs have shaped generations of thinking a certain way about heaven being a place.  And I understand why they wrote them that way. Many of those songs were written during a time when the only hope people had was to tie their hope to a place other than earth. All they wanted to think about (imagine Grapes of Wrath) was another place that was different from where they found themselves in that particular moment in time.  So heaven, in the way songwriters painted it based on proof-texting scripture, became a place to long for as opposed to God’s reign and an in-breaking, already present, but not yet fully realized, kingdom.

Over the last year, two colleagues have taken a helpful and thoughtful approach to thinking about heaven as a place in their teaching series; Corey Trevathan and Dusty Rush at Campus Church in Atlanta.  Recently at Riverside, where I’m blessed to be serving currently, Corey began leading us through a series called “The Kingdom of Heaven is Like…”   In it, we will think, study, and pray through the Kingdom of Heaven Parables, and will be challenged to think through the reality of the Kingdom of God as already present, but not yet fully realized.  (That last phrase is a nod to my dear friend Doug Peters, with whom I worked for 10 years in Arlington…so much of my theology was formed by our friendship, and his preaching…)

To help illustrate, I want to think through some of our older hymns. Who knows, this may be the beginning of a series of posts where we’ll work through these and a few more hymns exploring the “good, bad and ugly” theology we sometimes sing, often unknowingly.  If we sing what we believe, and what we sing helps form what we believe, than this is critically important.

When We All Get to Heaven
This hymn by Eliza Hewitt is much loved well beyond Churches of Christ.  The first half is pretty poor theologically…the second half shows signs of improvement, though, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of practicing our singing and shouting here on Earth.

Sing the wondrous love of Jesus,
Sing His mercy and His grace.
In the mansions bright and blessed
He’ll prepare for us a place.

Refrain:
When we all get to Heaven,
What a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
We’ll sing and shout the victory!

While we walk the pilgrim pathway,
Clouds will overspread the sky;
But when traveling days are over,
Not a shadow, not a sigh.

Let us then be true and faithful,
Trusting, serving every day;
Just one glimpse of Him in glory
Will the toils of life repay.

And here’s a verse we don’t typically see in restoration hymnals…
Onward to the prize before us!
Soon His beauty we’ll behold;
Soon the pearly gates will open;
We shall tread the streets of gold

This World is Not My Home
This song has received a lot of “play” beyond Churches of Christ. However, it should be noted that while there is some ambiguity on its authorship, the words and music are attributed to arguably one the most popular writers to come out of Churches of Christ, Albert E. Brumley.  He also authored “I’ll Fly Away” and many other songs about heaven.

1. This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

2. They’re all expecting me, and that’s one thing I know,
My Savior pardoned me and now I onward go;
I know He’ll take me thro’ tho’ I am and weak and poor,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

3. I have a loving Savior up in gloryland,
I don’t expect to stop until I with Him stand,
He’s waiting now for me in heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

4. Just up in gloryland, we’ll live eternally,
The saints on every hand are shouting victory,
Their songs of sweetest praise drift back from heaven’s shore,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Chorus
O Lord, You know I have no friend like You,
If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Home of the Soul
This song is written by James Rowe with music by famous hymn writer, Samuel Beazley, who touched a number of other Heaven Songs such as (Jesus Paid It All-the one with the awkward, fast, peppy tune, The Beckoning Lights of Home, Crossing the Bar, After the Midnight…).  The place of heaven as the ultimate trophy at the end of life’s participation?  I think that’s a little different from the picture Jesus describes…

If for the prize we have striven,
After our labors are o’er,
Rest to our souls will be given,
On the eternal shore.

Refrain

Home of the soul, beautiful home,
There we shall rest, never to roam;
Free from all care, happy and bright,
Jesus is there, He is the light!
Oft, in the storm, lonely are we,
Sighing for home, longing for Thee,
Beautiful home of the ransomed,
Beside the crystal sea.

Yes, a sweet rest is remaining
For the true children of God,
Where there will be no complaining,
Never a chastening rod.

Soon, the bright homeland adorning,
We shall behold the glad dawn;
Lean on the Lord till the morning,
Trust till the night is gone.

When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder
Words and Music by James M. Black…this song has an interesting back story.  Mr. Black, a Methodist Sunday School teacher in Pennsylvania, was calling roll one day for a meeting of the youth.  When a particular child supposedly named Bessie, who was the daughter of a local famous town drunk didn’t show up, he was disappointed.  He’s believed to have made a comment to the effect of Well, I trust when the roll is called up yonder, she’ll be there.”  It was sung in the Grammy winning movie of 1941, Sergeant York.

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Refrain

When the roll, is called up yon-der,
When the roll, is called up yon-der,
When the roll, is called up yon-der,
When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.

On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,
And the glory of His resurrection share;
When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Refrain

Let us labor for the Master from the dawn till setting sun,
Let us talk of all His wondrous love and care;
Then when all of life is over, and our work on earth is done,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Mansion Over the Hilltop
This is perhaps my least favorite song of all time.  How presumptive and arrogant of us to “demand” our mansions while talking about what we’re merely satisfied with on earth.  There’s a LOT wrong with this song…but hey, even Elvis recorded it…so it must be ok, right?  Still under copyright, but written by Ira Stanphill in 1949, this song sits at the top of many lists of “favorites” (and I’ve got some interesting data about people’s favorites that I’ll share later.)

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold

Don’t think me poor or deserted or lonely
I’m not discouraged I’m heaven bound
I’m but a pilgrim in search of the city
I want a mansion, a harp and a crown

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold

The bottom line for me is this: While many of these songs hold near and dear places in our minds and hearts, we live in a different time and place.  For many, the imagery of these songs is no longer relevant.  More than that, the theology is poor.  We must sing songs that foster a theologically informed perspective on the kingdom of God that’s more aligned with scripture and echoes the call of Jesus that we be on the “front lines” of his in-breaking kingdom on this earth.  We are the Body of Christ; called to make life on earth more like it is in heaven.

Thankfully, there is musical and hymnological help on the way.  Today, we find ourselves in the middle of a pendulum swing in the church’s music.  I’m increasingly thankful that we’re recovering the meaning and image of kingdom in the songs of the church.  I’m thankful for writers like Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Bob Kauflin, Randy Gill, Keith & Kristyn Getty, Stuart Townsend, Rend Collective, Steve Fee, Brett & Kristian Stanfill, Kevin Twit, Sandra McCracken and many more who are helping shift our focus from thinking about heaven as a “Wonderful place” to which we someday might go, to being about the business of bringing about heaven on earth in the present.  There are any number of these wonderful new pieces being written with a more theologically-informed perspective on the kingdom, but I want to share with you a personal favorite written by my friend Randy Gill.  The imagery, the melody, everything about this song is right.  It’s the kind of Kingdom I want my daughter singing about when God’s people gather to worship.

My hope and prayer is that songs like this one will fill our hearts and fill our churches…and that we’ll be a part of a kingdom that sings about bringing about life on earth as it is in heaven.  My prayer is that we’ll believe what we sing…and that we’ll all be changed.  “Thy Kingdom Come…”

We will see the holy city come descending like a Bride
With the Lamb of glory seated on his throne
A new earth and a new heaven with its gates thrown open wide
When the King of Zion comes to claim his own.

Refrain:
Till your kingdom comes in power
Saints and angels shout amen
Father, we will be your kingdom, be your kingdom until then

Then the son will raise a scepter filled with righteousness sand peace,
Saying there is no more sorrow no more night.
And the chains will all be broken no more hunger, no disease.
Only when the darkness turns to light.

Let us be a holy nation known for Justice and for grace.
Let our love and mercy testify for you
We will share the hope of Jesus until all will see his face
When the perfect comes and all will be made new

Till your kingdom comes in power
Saints and angels shout amen
Father, we will be your kingdom, be your kingdom until then
Till you gather all your children in the New Jerusalem
Father we will be your kingdom, be your kingdom until then.

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