Shaped Notes and Widescreens

college-photo_8440Last Thursday, I was blessed to be invited to present a lecture presentation sponsored by Abilene Christian University’s Charis Foundation ( This lecture focuses on just a smidge, an introduction, a snippet of my research into the hymnody, worship, and congregational song of Churches of Christ and in the Restoration Movement.

This presentation begins to pick up the timeline of our hymnological history over the last 30-50 years. It was impossible to say as much as I’d wanted to during this presentation…I was cutting things right and left, before and during the presentation because of my inability to keep good time (ironic, given that I’m a conductor… 🙂 ). So, I hope to follow this up with some blog posts and maybe some other exciting things I’ll share with you in the coming days that may be an extension of this blog. We’ll see…

I make reference also to some very preliminary survey numbers in this presentation 3ea7bf8where I’ve been able to survey almost 3,800 congregations of all flavors, shapes, and sizes. I hope to talk more about this and expand this in coming months as well. If for some reason, you or your church wasn’t a part of those but you’d like to be, please let me know!

Anyway, I’d love to dialogue with you about this presentation. Please leave a comment…email me using the link above on the menu. This is living, breathing, ongoing and expanding research. You can be a part of that.

Here’s that video for your enjoyment…or for your assistance in sleeping.

D.J. Bulls from AdamsCenter 4 Teaching&Learning on Vimeo.


“Law of Love and Gospel of Peace”

Last Christmas, I wrote this post amidst a sea of unrest, politically and otherwise.  In light of recent tragic events, especially in Orlando, I’m reposting it here today.

There has been a lot of swirling conversation going on around me, both physically and virtually, about what has gone on in the world around us these last few weeks…Syria, San Bernardino, Jerry Falwell…and on and on.  It was so much that today, I’d had enough and I needed a moment to just sit, be, listen and be quiet…in the quiet, I was overcome by the lyrics of one of the world’s most beloved Christmas Carols…and I had to write a bit about it.  I’ll come back to the other verses and the backstory of this wonderful Adolphe Adam carol, Cantique de Noel, on another day.

[And I will return to my series of posts on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” later this week.  But for a moment today, amidst the hatred, vitriolic speech, harsh judgment and language found in my Facebook feed and in other social and news media, I paused today just to breathe in and claim the lyrics of a Christmas Carol that so many love…but I’m afraid have sung too glibly over the years.]

The third verse of “Oh Holy Night” speaks of a world in which those who claim to follow Jesus are living out he calls all of his followers to in his subversive Gospel.

That Gospel is deeply rooted in Love of God and Love of Others…and so many claim the first part of that Call…the part about loving God.  But the back half…well, I’m afraid some have given Christ a bad name in how we’ve lived that out in recent days, weeks and months…that love of “others” is not one we can or should place provisions or privileges on…it’s an unconditional love for all of our brothers and sisters…Cantique-002


“Truly He taught us
to love one another;
His law is Love
and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break,
for the slave is our brother,
And in his name
all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy
in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise
his Holy name!”


Come, Lord Jesus!

Songs & Theology–Heaven Songs

This is a post that Corey Trevathan ( 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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

Come, Emmanuel #3

Christmas has turned into one of the busiest, most frantic times of year, hasn’t it?  How far this holiday has come from the most humble of origins.

Amidst concerts, travel, all of our planning, Christmas service preparations, parties  Christmas shopping, two broken cars, the last 2 weeks, at least for us have been filled with “strife!”  I know, that may be a stretch for such a definition…but it sure seems as if we’ve been immersed in anything but peace on earth…because we’re so consumed with ourselves, after all, we’re the consumer!

This November-December, I participated in several performances of Handel’s messiah…and each time, we sang those storied words that echo the voices of the prophets, anticipating the coming Messiah.

“And his name shall be called: Wonderful…Counselor…Mighty God…Everlasting Father…the Prince of Peace.”  Our world…We…I desperately need the Prince of Peace.  Because only that can bring us back to the true meaning of a baby, humbly born into a broken world that can change everything and spread the blessing of Emmanuel, God with us now,  “Far as the curse is found.”

I want to close 2015 with these closing words of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  These are a portion of my prayer as this year melds into a new one filled with new expectations and endless hope.

Oh come, desire of nations,

Bind all peoples in one heart and mind

Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease…

Fill the whole world with heavens peace

May God richly bless you in 2016!  Keep Reading…keep commenting…

We Gather Together…and other Pre-Meal Customs

Each of us have our own special family customs and traditions…be it when you have your thanksgiving meal, driving to see the lights on Christmas Eve, on and on the list could go…My hunch is that for every one of us, there are also different customs for how mealtime begins.


I’ve come to appreciate those occasions when I’ve been gathered with friends around the meal table to sing a blessing over our food and our fellowship.  Maybe you have a song or songs that you sing prior to your meal, but one that I’ve sung around the table on a few different occasions (and that was number 1a in the hymnal of my youth) was originally titled “Prayer of Thanksgiving.”  Though it’s largely fallen out of circulation in my hymnological experience, “We Gather Together” has long been considered a hymn invoking and celebrating the blessing of God.

0351=351“We Gather Together” [Find the rest of the story here]
Anonymous 17th-c
entury Dutch, translated by Theodore Baker

“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name; he forgets not his own.”

In many hymnals, “We gather together” appears as a Thanksgiving hymn. Perhaps this is because of the opening line and the idea that God is with us regardless of our circumstances. However, the hymn speaks more about God’s providence throughout life’s trial and experience.

This hymn is a late 16th-century expression of celebration of freedom by The Netherlands from Spanish oppression. Like many older hymns, it found its way to North American hymnody through a rather circuitous route.

“It was first published in Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck (1626), a collection by Adrianus Valerius in Haarlem. Austrian Edward Kremser (1838-1914) included it in Sechs Altniederländische Volkslieder (Six Old Netherlands Folksongs) in 1877 for his men’s chorus, all six anonymous songs taken from the Valerius collection 250 years earlier.

According to hymnal editor Carlton Young, the performance of these tunes led to their popularity and the inclusion in many hymnals.
The story extends to the U.S. through Theodore Baker (1851-1934), a New York-born musicologist who studied in Leipzig and authored the famous Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Baker translated the hymn from German for an anthem entitled “Prayer for Thanksgiving” published in 1894. It is from Baker that the hymn gets its traditional Thanksgiving connection.

Some of the political overtones in this hymn faithfully translated by Baker are apparent. Hymnologist Albert Bailey suggests that the phrase, “The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,” is an allusion to the persecution of the Catholic Church under the policies of Spain. Thousands had been massacred and hundreds of homes burned by the Spanish in 1576 during the siege of Antwerp.

In stanza two, the writer states, “so from the beginning the fight we were winning,” stressing that Protestants had always been assured of winning the cause. The truce of 1609 proved that the Lord “wast at our side.”

The final stanza is a series of petitions—

“ …pray that thou still our defender will be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!”

This is an eschatological stanza. The ultimate battle has not been won and will not be won until all battles cease.

An interesting sidebar was that Baker’s anthem inspired another hymn.

A young Julia Cady Cory (1882-1963) heard this text in 1902 at her church, Brick Presbyterian in New York City. Cory’s “We praise thee, O God, our Redeemer, Creator” is a more general hymn of praise and thanksgiving that also uses the Dutch tune KREMSER. Cory’s hymn did not include any reference to nationalism, making it a more general ecumenical hymn of thanksgiving.