Tag Archives: Grace

Hymn #111: Rock of Ages

My great-grandmother passed away when I was nine. Hers was the first funeral I remember attending. Any sadness I felt was mostly borrowed; I was too young to really grasp the situation, and she had been old and sick as long as I could remember. My memories of that day are few: my mother comforting her mother, my dad’s hand sitting heavy on the nape of my neck, and everyone singing the unfamiliar hymn “Rock of Ages”.

It’s an appropriate piece for a funeral. In the final verse we contemplate our mortality, our “fleeting breath” and the inevitable closing of our eyes in death. Indeed, when we at last rise to worlds unknown and behold our Lord and Savior on His throne, our dearest hope is that He will not turn us away. It’s a song about human inadequacy and the hope that we’ll be saved in spite of it.

When my brother turned eight and chose to be baptized a year or so later, he asked that “Rock of Ages” be one of the songs on the program. We thought it was a bizarre request—why wouldn’t he want a Primary song instead?–but my parents didn’t argue. And so it came to pass that we sang what to my young mind was a funeral dirge at my brother’s baptism.

Looking at the lyrics now, I feel bad for ever having questioned his choice. Here is the first verse:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Is this not a song about baptism and repentance? Of seeking the cleansing power of the atonement and having faith that it will make us whole?

The footnotes for this hymn reference the book of Moses, where God Himself explains better than I ever could what is meant by a “double cure”:

…Ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye may be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; For by water ye keep the commandment; by Spirit ye are justified, and by blood ye are sanctified. (Moses 6: 59-60, emphasis added)

Baptism by immersion is necessary, and along with it, the Gift of the Holy Ghost. But it is the atoning blood of Jesus Christ is what sanctifies us and makes us worthy of eternal life and immortal glory.

The second verse is a simple sermon on this doctrine. We cannot be righteous enough; all are sinners no matter how hard we try. We cannot feel enough remorse for our sin; sorrow does not satisfy the demands of justice. Even participating in saving ordinances such as baptism is not enough to earn us exaltation. We freely acknowledge our deficiency and dependency on the Savior. We plead with Him to have mercy on us.

Thou, O Lord, art the rock upon which we try to build our lives, the rock cleft for us in Gethsemane and on the cross. Whether we are children just trying to do what is right, nearing the end of a long and full life, or muddling along somewhere in the middle, “thou must save, and thou alone.”

Hymn #187: God Loved Us, So He Sent His Son

Jesus Christ teaching

Today’s hymn, “God Loved Us, So He Sent His Son” is a commemoration of the great Atonement, when Jesus Christ offered his life as a sacrifice for sin. For all sin. It emphasizes the perfection of Christ, his role as our Savior and exemplar, and the covenant we make in partaking of the bread and water that we will always remember him.

This Atonement is the key part of God’s plan to save and exalt us, his children. It provides a way for us to learn from our mistakes instead of being condemned by them. It makes divine forgiveness possible. To the believing soul, it is easily identified as the most important event in the history of the world.

It’s critical, though, that while the Atonement itself is given to us freely, the greatest blessings it makes available to us are only available if we take action ourselves. Each of the following phrases reminds us of our own role in receiving this divine gift:

To show us by the path he trod
The one and only way to God. (verse 1)

That in his off’ring I have part (verse 3)

In word and deed he doth require
My will to his, like son to sire, (verse 4)

Learn conduct from the Holy One. (verse 4)

Partaking now is deed for word
That I remember him, my Lord. (verse 5)

To receive true forgiveness, we must enter into an agreement with Christ: He shows us the way and we follow him. We are trained by Christ—we enter into a sort of apprenticeship with him. Though we may be weak and imperfect, as we “learn conduct from the Holy One” we will find the “one and only way to God.”

This is a beautiful, contemplative hymn. If we ponder the lyrics as we sing, it will guide us toward a more sacred experience as we partake of the sacrament.

And yet, despite all this, the line that stands out to me the most is the very first one: “God loved us, so he sent his Son.” In October 2003, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a conference talk that I’ve never forgotten titled “The Grandeur of God.” He suggested that everything Christ did, up to and especially including the Atonement, was intended to demonstrate to us not just his own love, but the love of our Heavenly Father. Take a moment to read (slowly, please!) what Elder Holland said:

Jesus did not come to improve God’s view of man nearly so much as He came to improve man’s view of God and to plead with them to love their Heavenly Father as He has always and will always love them. The plan of God, the power of God, the holiness of God, yes, even the anger and the judgment of God they had occasion to understand. But the love of God, the profound depth of His devotion to His children, they still did not fully know—until Christ came.

So feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rebuking hypocrisy, pleading for faith—this was Christ showing us the way of the Father, He who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness.” In His life and especially in His death, Christ was declaring, “This is God’s compassion I am showing you, as well as that of my own.” In the perfect Son’s manifestation of the perfect Father’s care, in Their mutual suffering and shared sorrow for the sins and heartaches of the rest of us, we see ultimate meaning in the declaration: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

Indeed, God loved us, so he sent his Son. I hope we’ll follow him.

Hymn #87: God Is Love

bloom 3

It’s summer where I live. In many places around the world, summer is something to look forward to, with its promise of popsicles and fresh produce and beautiful weather. Here, however, summer just means hot. Sweating to death, celebrating when you find a parking spot in a tiny scrap of shade, cranking the air conditioning until October kind of hot.

Most summers I want to hide in a cool place with a tub of ice cream until temperatures outside become bearable again. This year, though, something is different. I’m seeing the desert in a new light.

Dozens of geckos congregate by our porch light to feast on bugs. A family of birds has made its nest in my neighbor’s cactus. Much to my husband’s chagrin, a persistent cricket sings lonely love songs outside our bedroom window every night. Our bottle tree is filled with busy bees and hummingbirds.

The saguaro are blooming.

You see, even here in this scorched desert there is life and hope and beauty and wonder. There are bougainvillea and kangaroo’s paw and oleander and desert honeysuckle. The century plants have sent up twenty-foot spires that will soon be topped with fiery orangey-yellow fluff like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

This hymn speaks of nature–earth and air and sea, hills and woods, breezes and birds–as a manifestation of God’s love for us. He created “Earth and her ten thousand flow’rs” specifically for mankind. Think about the magnitude of that undertaking for moment.

Sure, God gave us wood and stone with which to build, water to drink and to bathe in, and broccoli and berries and bacon to eat. But he also gave us mountains to climb and caves to explore. He gave us oceans to sail, rivers to cross, lakes to swim in. He gave us dogs and cats to domesticate and love, birds to mimic our own voices, horses and oxen to bear burdens we aren’t strong enough to bear.

And what of all the things in this world that don’t necessarily “serve” us? The fangly fish in the depths of the ocean? The tiny tree frogs in parts of the rainforest where no human has ever been? Hippos and javelinas, polar bears and penguins, obscure fungi and weird mosses and other innumerable, unfathomable flora and fauna?

Maybe He made them to give us something new to discover. Lightning storms to demonstrate the power of electricity. Stars for us to study and navigate and wish on. Ants to show us how to cooperate, and elephants to teach us about caring for our young, and butterflies to remind us that change can be beautiful.

Maybe He made them to make us laugh. Giraffes with their crazy long necks. Monkeys acting like funny little old men. The duck-billed platypus, for goodness’ sake.

And maybe He made them to remind us who He is: our Creator. He can make anything, has made all things. His might and power are boundless, and He uses them for our benefit. He made this world in all its wonderful weirdness because He loves us.

He loves even those of us who live in the burning desert. He loves us enough to make the saguaros bloom.

Hymn #85: How Firm a Foundation

How firm a foundation, ye Saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?

This is a hymn that gets a lot of play time, and rightfully so. It’s upbeat. It’s uplifting. It’s got a whole bunch of verses so a ward chorister can easily add or subtract them to fill the time as needed.

And since it is so familiar, I’m not sure what new light I can shed on it. Undoubtedly you’ve noticed that most (and arguably all) of the verses were written from the Lord’s point of view. “I am thy God,” we sing in verse three, reminding ourselves exactly who it is we worship and what He has taught us.

And really, “what more can he say than to you he hath said?” Nothing in this hymn is new information. It’s in every book of the scriptural canon, in every General Conference report, in everything we do, for this is His church. He is our foundation.

A good portion of the lyrics here are either paraphrased or almost directly quoted from Isaiah (see chapters 41 and 43), so we get a hint of the Old Testament fire-and-brimstone Jehovah. “Fear not,” He commands His people, “Be not dismayed.” He will call them through deep water, rivers of sorrow, and deepest distress. There will be foes to face and even “all hell [may] endeavor to shake” them.

But, as a counterpoint to all these daunting demands, we are reminded that He is not only a just God who demands sacrifice and strict obedience. He is also a merciful and loving Savior–the Good Shepherd–who will succor, uphold, and sanctify His children. “In ev’ry condition,” He reminds us, “I am with thee…and will still give thee aid.”

Which isn’t to say things won’t be tremendously difficult. When Joseph Smith was confined for months in Liberty Jail with no reprieve in sight,  he begged in prayer to know why God seemed to have forgotten his people in their suffering. The reply, found in section 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants, shares the same message of this hymn in its entirety:

“And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7)

He freely admits there will be “fiery trials.” In fact, He knows exactly what they will be for each one of us. But, He instructs us, if we put our trust in Him, “The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design / Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”

And that’s really the crux of it all. The last verse tells us with repetitive finality that if we build our lives with Jesus Christ as our foundation, we will never be alone and we will never fall. (see Helaman 5:12)

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, I’ll never, no never,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!

reverentlyandmeeklynow

Hymn #185: Reverently and Meekly Now

reverentlyandmeeklynow

The lyrics were written by Joseph Townsend, but this is the first of the hymns we’ll cover this year whose tune was written by our site’s namesake, Ebenezer Beesley. The tune, fittingly named “Meekness,” adds an extra layer to the hymn that isn’t present in the lyrics. The lyrics, as are common with sacramental hymns, are about the Savior’s atoning sacrifice, the emblems of the sacrament itself, forgiveness, and redemption, and the tune, as is also common with sacramental hymns, lingers in a minor key through much of the hymn, providing a discordant, unsettling feeling, which reminds us of the Lord’s suffering in Gethsemane.

The tune doesn’t stay in a minor key forever, though. Phrases like “sweat in agony of pain” and “oh, remember what was done” are in a minor key to highlight that suffering, but the phrase that follows each of them resolves to a major key, and fittingly, each of those final phrases is about us. The Savior suffered all those things that we might not suffer, provided we repent and turn our hearts to him. Those four phrases (“I have ransomed even thee,” “I have suffered death for thee,” “like a fountain unto thee,” and “that thy Savior I may be”) give us hope and remind us that His suffering was not for nothing, and the peace they bring is only amplified by the resolution of the key on those closing chords.

But take a closer look at those phrases.”I have ransomed even thee.” “That thy Savior I may be.” In this hymn, it is not we who sing to or about our Savior, but our Savior who sings to us. He tells us all that He has done for us, reminds us of the significance of the bread and water to be presented to us after the song concludes, and very gently asks us to “let [our] head most humbly bow” in reverence of the magnitude of His sacrifice. It’s not often that we’re permitted to put ourselves in the Savior’s place when we sing. We get the chance to see ourselves as He sees us. We realize that each of us can be addressed as “thou ransomed one.” We learn that He has no greater desire for us than we should “with [our] brethren be at peace.” And in the fourth verse, we get a sense of the depth of His love for us:

At the throne I intercede;
For thee ever do I plead.
I have loved thee as thy friend,
With a love that cannot end.
Be obedient, I implore,
Prayerful, watchful evermore,
And be constant unto me,
That thy Savior I may be.

We know that He loves us. We learn it from the time we are very small, and we are reminded, at the very least, every Sunday as we sing to Him. But His description of us as His friends is awe-inspiring to me. We are not projects to Him, nor are we inconveniences He is forced to endure. We are dear to Him. The word “friend,” to me, implies not only love, but genuine interest in our lives. He redeemed us because He wants to be with us, and wants us to be able to return to where He is. It is His life’s sole mission to bring us home, and so He ever pleads before the Father’s throne for us. We fall short time and time again, and each time He makes the intercession for us. He stays the hand of justice, promising that we’ll do better this time. And He does it because we are His friends.

He asks nothing more than that we be obedient, prayerful, watchful, and constant, and we promise as much to Him as we take the sacrament of which we sing. We renew the covenant we made at baptism to do those things, and we resolve to try a little harder in the coming week. And as we do those things, we allow Him to become our Savior. We accept His sacrifice for us. We allow Him to take our hands in His and heal us. We allow, as we sing in the second verse, His Spirit to be a fountain to us, cleansing and purifying us.

And we fall short, again and again. But we remember He is our friend, and that His hand is always outstretched to us to help us up so that we can try again.