The Songs of Faith

by Jeff Ritchie

Singing has been an important part of my spiritual life since childhood. I often tell people that I can remember only one sermon I heard growing up, but I can still sing the words of the anthems our choirs sang. Those anthems, the hymns during worship, and the responsive readings of the Psalms which we did each Sunday – contributed immensely to my spiritual formation.
An eighteenth century Christian, William Cowper, knew from experience how important singing is for the believer. In a hymn he wrote in 1779 we find these inspirational words:

Sometimes a light surprises the child of God who sings;                  
It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings;                              
When comforts are declining, he grants the soul again                    
A season of clear shining to cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation we sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation and find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow, we cheerfully can say,
“Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.

Though vine nor fig tree neither their longed-for fruit shall bear,
Though all the fields should wither, nor flocks nor herds be there,
Yet God the same abiding, his praise shall tune my voice;
For while in him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.

(vs. 1-2, 4, alt. from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal, 2013)

Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, which we are exhorted to sing to one another in Holy Scripture (Ephesians 5:19) can help us affirm our faith boldly. They can help us hold on to God in the trials of life. They can also surprise us with a spiritual insight we were not expecting. We find all these elements of faith in the Cowper hymn, one which was not part of the hymnody of my home church, but which has blessed me in recent years.

What are the hymns that are holding you up, inspiring you, or giving you insight into the amazing grace of God? I would like to share a hymn that has blessed me and then invite you to respond by sharing the songs of faith that move you at this time.

Last Sunday at church the closing hymn was, “What Wondrous Love,” sung to an early American tune. The hymn has many memories for me. However, its meaning last week, the week where we remembered Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection for our sake and for the sake of the world, has been in the back of my mind, welling up in my soul throughout this week. 

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul, what wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, to bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing, to God and to the Lamb, I will sing; to God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing; while millions join the theme, I will sing!

(vs. 1,3 from Glory to God)

That God, the Lord of bliss, died for me is such good news that I cannot but share it with others. That’s why we engage in mission. That’s why the Church from Pentecost on has gone to the ends of the earth, so that now “millions join the theme” and sing praises to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

We sing hymns “to God and to the Lamb” in good times and in bad. As I write this blog, there has been a horrific bombing in Brussels, shocking the world. There is on-going civil war in South Sudan, five years of war in Syria and Iraq, and many, many other tragic events, both personal and public, that make our singing more like laments at times. But we sing to let the faith well up again. Let me close with a story from a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

I travel to South Sudan on behalf of The Outreach Foundation and feel deeply for those who have fled their war into the bush or to camps inside and outside their country. Peace, which seemed a strong possibility for South Sudan in August of last year, remains far off, with ever-new stories of violence against non-combatants being reported. Last year on a visit to South Sudanese in refugee camps in Ethiopia, the singing of the refugees really touched me. Both times when we met people from the camps, they sang. They were young adults longing for peace, lamenting their situation. They sang words which were translated for me as follows:  

Youth from camp in Gambella, Ethiopia

Youth from camp in Gambella, Ethiopia

“We are walking in a hard place, shedding our blood. Vultures surround us. Let it stop. We want to go back to the land flowing with milk and honey.”

When our team was preparing this trip to the camps, we asked the leaders of the church in exile what we could bring them. We expected material items for their physical well-being such as mosquito nets. We were surprised that the top two items on their list were Bibles and hymnals. Bibles we could understand, but hymnals as the second item on the list? 

The leaders explained, “We have left our country, but not our God. We need the Bible and the hymnbook to hold onto our faith in God.” They understood that in the singing, a light might surprise them and see, once again, “the Lord arising with healing in his wings.” 

Whatever your song of faith – of affirmation, of lament, of praise – sing it with all your might as we once again experience the great redemption won by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Let the light of God surprise you as you sing. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

Jeff Ritchie
Associate Director for Mission

The Outreach Foundation