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Transcript - Get Your Spirit in Shape: Singing Our Faith in Lent & Easter

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In the studio

Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

I had so much fun at Christmas talking with the Rev. Dr. Paul Chilcote about Charles Wesley’s Advent and Christmas hymns, that I decided to call him again to talk about Lent and Easter hymns that help us better understand the season.

Dr. Chilcote, you may remember, is a United Methodist Elder. He’s the Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He’s a prolific author on Methodist history, theology, and spirituality, and he’s also a great teacher, a wonderful pastor, and a good friend.

In this episode, we talk about some hymns I didn’t know, and some we know well, like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I hope you enjoy this conversation.

Paul Chilcote singing a hymn.

The hymns of Charles Wesley are to be sung, but they also have much to teach us during this season of Lent. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

On the phone

Joe: Welcome back Paul.

Paul: Hey, Joe and everyone.

Joe: I want to talk today… We’re entering into the seasons of Lent and Easter and one of your books is a devotional for that time of year called The Song Forever New: Lent and Easter with Charles Wesley. The book uses the hymns of Charles Wesley for daily devotions from Ash Wednesday through the Sunday after Easter.

But before we get into talking about Lent and Easter specifically, could you remind us a little bit about the importance of Charles Wesley to the church?

Paul: Absolutely. Well, I’m a great fan of Charles Wesley as I’m sure a lot of those who are listening are. The hymns of Charles Wesley are particularly spectacular when you begin to look at them as a whole body of material and you think of the hymns that have been sung literally all the way around the world for years and years. There’s 9,000 hymns. That’s pretty productive. So there’s a lot of material there. And some of that’s in our United Methodist Hymnal. And many of those hymns are used frequently and particularly, I would say, during the kind of festival times of the year, like Christmas and what we’re looking at now, Lent and Easter.

Take, for example, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” It’s probably the most used hymn on Easter Sunday around the world. Now that’s a Charles Wesley text.

As Methodists, we really learned our theology by singing it. And these hymns of Charles are packed with amazing themes from the Bible that really make our lives more rich in Christ.

Joe: How prolific was he writing around Lent and Easter?

Paul: Well, pretty prolific. He never produced a collection of hymns for the Lenten season—Lent during the 18th century, when he lived, was not observed, I would say, within the Church of England quite as much as it’s observed in some traditions today—but Easter was huge for him.

In this book, The Song Forever New, I draw particularly from two collections, what are called The Redemption Hymns—it’s a short title that he published in 1747—and a collection of Resurrection Hymns that he published the year before that. So most of the hymns, in effect, in this collection come from those selections. I thought maybe the listeners might be interested where the title of this book comes from. The Song Forever New.

Joe: That was my next question.

Paul: It actually comes from one of those redemption hymns. And it’s a hymn of great praise because of the redeeming work that we experience in Jesus Christ through the Spirit.

It opens with these powerful words:

Praise the Lord, you Blessed Ones;
praise your glorious Lord and ours.

And it goes on with several different stanzas about praise and then ends with, “filled with endless praise and joy in the song forever new.” So that’s where the title comes from. The very last line of that hymn.

I think this image of our life in Christ being a song, and this great song of love is always new. We never exhaust it. God is always pouring more love into our lives. God is always showing us other places, new places, to share that love with others. It really does have an infinite quality. This love never ends.

So I just love that phrase—the song forever new. And I like to think about that as my own life, that my life in Christ is a song, a song of praise that I sing, and that any Christian, any follower of Jesus, sings.

And people like songs. When they see life in Christ as a song I think that’s a pretty compelling theme of what it means to be a Christian.

Joe: You mentioned that one of the collections of hymns that these come from is the hymns of redemption. Can you talk a little bit about what Charles Wesley’s vision or idea of redemption or salvation? How he talked about that? How he wrote about that?

Paul: Some of the hymns in these collections that are in the volume just are so powerful in terms of illustrating these different themes. I might be able to pick some of that up from either my mind or a couple of things here in front of me. A couple of things.

When the Wesleys talked about redemption or salvation and what that means for us, oftentimes they summarized that in three particular words: First, repentance; secondly, faith; and then finally, holiness. And a way to kind of summarize this concept of salvation or redemption is to think of this as faith working by love leading to holiness of heart and life. And a lot of the hymns in that collection of redemption hymns deal with these kinds of themes.

So it all starts with our need for repentance, the need that we have in our lives to be honest about the brokenness we have, about the way in which sometimes our hearts can be like stone. And this is an image that Charles Wesley used a lot. He talked about the unrepentant sinner having a heart of stone and what we need is something that can soften or melt that heart of stone.

In one hymn, he uses a particular image that I love, but probably needs a little bit of explanation. It says,

I want a heart to love my God.
cannot bear this heart of stone.
Soften it, Savior, by thy blood,
and melt the nether millstone down.

People would pause to say, nether millstone? What in the world is that?

Well back in the time when they milled grain to make flour, you would take your wheat or your barley or your rye, whatever, to the miller to mill it. That milling process involved 2 large stones. And the bottom stone was called the nether millstone. And it had to be really, really hard because you put the grain between these two stones. And the upper stone would be lowered down onto the grain and then you’d turn that. And that’s what milled it, turned all that into flour. So that bottom nether stone had to be unbelievably hard because it had all the weight of that other stone on top of it. So, you’re saying that’s the way… sometimes that’s the way our hearts are. They’re that hard. They’re that calcified because of what we want, or the kind of inner desires that we have or basically just wanting to be god in our lives. That creates a hardness.

It’s a powerful image.

Or another hymn I love that just kind of pounds away at this in terms of the way in which our sin that we need to repent of, how it just burdens us. It’s a wearisome thing because it’s all against the stream of God’s universe. You know, the stream of God’s universe is love. And our sin gets in the way of our being the kind of loving people God’s called us to be.

Just listen to this:

Weary of this war within, weary of this endless strife,
weary of ourselves and sin, weary of a wretched life.
Burdened with a world of grief, burdened with our sinful ode,
burdened with this unbelief.

You know, you just sing through that and you’re just kind of undone. You’re pretty well just undone by all of it. And that’s a part of what happens in singing those hymns. It kind of drives those realities home. But then the whole purpose of it, of course, is liberation, being freed from that and the way in which through Christ we’re freed from the burden and the weariness of that sin. We have a new beginning in Christ. All that can be put behind us, and we can move forward into new, kind of, realms of love and new ways of being what God’s called us to be. Great stuff.

Joe: Great stuff, yeah. So we have where he talks about repentance and that feeling that we need to be repentant, to have our hearts softened, and then the faith that kind of moves in us. Where does the holiness piece come in?

Paul: Well, first of all, I didn’t say too much about faith, just say a word or two.

Faith for the Wesleys, John and Charles, really means trust. Faith is all about what I entrust my life to. It’s another way to put it, I suppose. What do I found my life upon, what do I really trust? The danger is that we trust ourselves, and the reality is that we let ourselves down and others let us down. The only one in the end that we can really trust is the God who loves us.

If we then entrust our lives into God’s care by putting that trust in Christ, then that opens a whole new world to us. And that world is a world of holiness and love. So for the Wesleys holiness really does equal love. It equals love of God and love of neighbor. You know, if you think of those great commandments that Jesus gave when he’s asked, What is the essence of it all? Or my paraphrase, What is life all about, Jesus?

He says, Well, if you really want to know, it’s about loving God. But the fullest possible way you can love God with your whole self is loving others in the same way that you love yourself. So that’s what holiness is all about. And that’s the goal toward which our lives move in Christ.

Joe: That’s really helpful. One of the things you talk about in the book pretty regularly is the Wesleyan ideas of grace and how that comes up over and over again. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. Grace is kind of like the cement of a Wesleyan understanding of redemption and salvation. It’s all about grace. It’s all about a God who loves us with a love that we can hardly even imagine in our own hearts, lives. And the way we experience that love according to Charles Wesley is through God’s grace. Grace is, in a sense, the way in which that love becomes real. That’s how we experience that love in our lives.

The Wesleys liked to distinguish between, not really different kinds of grace, but how that grace, that reach of God into our lives, functions depending upon where we are in the journey. So at the very beginning of life’s journey they’ll talk about prevenient grace. That word literally means whatever comes before. Preventing or prevenient grace is that grace which comes before anything else.

That kind of articulates a central theme in the Wesleys. God always comes before us. God is always prevenient. God is always ahead of us. So if we’re going into a difficult situation… (I’ll preach a little bit about this for just a second) if we’re going into a situation where we’re anxious or nervous, not quite knowing what it’s gonna be like, we can be comforted by the fact of knowing God is already there. God’s already ahead of us in whatever that situation is. God’s presence is there. It’s always been there. So we’re never entering a vacuum. We’re always entering into a space—and I’m thinking about our relationships with other people or events in our lives—we’re always entering into a space where God is already present, prevenient there.

Then there is convincing grace—grace that convicts us of that brokenness in our lives, of our rebellion against God, of our desire to do those things that we know are wrong, and not to do those things that we know are right and healthy and helpful to us. So the spirit through grace convicts of that. So a convincing grace.

Justifying grace which has to do with that gift of faith, that ability, that grace that enables us to entrust our lives, our hearts, all we are to God’s sanctifying grace—that grace that kind of pulls us forward, kind of magnetically draws us more and more and deeper into love, God’s love for us and our love for others.

Sacramental grace is another. The grace that we experience whenever we gather around the table and experience the presence of Jesus, of God, of the Spirit in a unique way as we join with others at a meal, as God feeds us with spiritual food. That’s a meeting of grace as the Wesleys would describe it, a place where that grace, that love of God becomes real.

So grace in our life in Christ is a life of grace upon grace. It never ends, Joe. It just keeps coming. God just continues to surround us and pour that grace into our lives.

Joe: There’s a phrase you use in the book that leapt off the page at me. It’s simply three words: “grace filled God.” I thought that was an amazing way to think about it. Everything that God is, is gracious. That move towards us. So often we think of it as all on us to move towards God and to be reminded that God is here moving toward us all the time as well.

Paul: That just made me think. There’s some hymns, and there’s one in this particular collection in this book, that I’d kind of describe as galloping hymn, partly because of the meter.

You know, all this is poetry. So Charles is using all different kinds of meters, different rhythms and patterns of words. And that idea that God is fully grace and drawing us and pulling us, and our sometimes even wanting to gallop toward him. There’s one hymn that just nails that down with this meter. It’s 10 syllables, 11 syllables, 10, 11. And it just gallops.

Come, Lord, from above. The mountain remove.
Overturn all that hinders the course of thy love.
My bosom inspire and kindle the fire
and wrap my whole soul in the flames of desire.

Isn’t that great? You have these powerful images, almost kind of a mystical image of “wrap my whole soul in the flames of desire.” That’s what God is expecting in us mutually because that’s how God feels about us.

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God is galloping toward us all the time and wants to wrap us in the flames of God’s love. And that’s the kind of love that God wants to stir up within us through the Spirit, that’s reciprocal, that’s mutual, that wants to love in that same kind of a way. I love that kind of galloping image. That hymn ends with

The gift I embrace, the giver I praise,
and ascribe myself and heed to Jesus’s grace.
It comes from above. The foretaste I prove,
and I soon shall receive all the fullness of love.

So that’s the goal. That’s holiness. That’s the …

Joe: That fullness of love.

Paul: …fullness of love, right.

Joe: There’s a lot of personal pronouns in that – me and I and that’s one of the things that I think of as we read Charles’ hymns. There’s this personalizing of faith. We talked about this at Christmas, too, how Christ is being born in us. In the Lent and Easter hymns it’s Jesus being resurrected in us.

Paul: My theological mentor when I studied theology at Duke Divinity School, was Robert Cushman. He used a phrase for this. He called this “the personalization of faith.” Faith for all of us is autobiographical. The abstract, maybe even ethereal aspects of Christianity and faith, all of that has to in some way in the end come down to me. It has to be mine. I have to have ownership over this relationship with God. So it has this amazing personal character to it.

So you do find this use of these personal pronouns throughout Charles Wesley’s hymns—the ‘me,’ ‘my,’ ‘mine’ that make it real for me, kind of bring it home, we might say. And that’s the way many of his hymns function even structurally.

They oftentimes begin with maybe broad generalizations about God, or just kind of broad statements about who God is and who Jesus is, and how the Spirit works, and how all of that works together. But then almost always toward the end of the hymn, the final stanzas, he’ll make it personal. He’ll move more into those personal pronouns. What really kind of amazes me, Joe, in Charles Wesley’s hymns is the sense of balance in it all. You know, we can, in fact, in our faith become a bit narcissistic in the sense that it’s only me. It’s all about me. And that’s kind of dangerous terrain as well.

So in terms of this broad concept of redemption and salvation and its climax at Easter, as we think about this Lenten and Easter journey. There’s this amazing balance of the personal and the social, or I might even say the cosmic, because for Charles salvation isn’t about me only. It’s also about this universe in which we live and God’s efforts day after day to restore the fullness of love in this entire universe.

There’s one hymn that stands out. I’ll see if can kind of quote it by memory. …really emphasizes this cosmic dimension. One of the verses begins,

The gift unspeakable impart:
Command the light of faith to shine—
to shine in my dark, drooping heart
and fill me with the life divine.
Now bid the new creation be.
O God, let there be faith in me!

Now there’s a profound balance of cosmic and personal.

You might not immediately notice he’s quoting Paul here. Probably most of those listening might hear echoes of, “In Christ”—and the typical translation of what follows is—“In Christ you are a new creature.” But that’s not the actual original Greek.

The original Greek has no verb. So it’s actually, “whoever is in Christ, new creation!”

It’s almost like The Andy Griffith Show – Shazam! “If anyone is in Christ,” Shazam! “new creation.” New creation.

That’s cosmic. Whenever we experience that new birth, that freshness of God’s reality in our lives, it has a cosmic as well as a personal dimension to it. I love that. Charles basically gives us a different translation, you see, of Paul here by saying, “Now bid this new creation be,” not just making me a new creature, but make everything new. That’s amazing, in my mind.

Joe: Exactly.

I would be remiss—and it flows a little bit into this—if we didn’t talk about “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” the Easter hymn written by Charles Wesley.

It begins with that cosmic reality, “earth and heaven in chorus say.” The whole world has experienced resurrection. What can you say about that hymn?

Paul: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” is one of the most well known hymns of Easter. It came from John and Charles Wesley’s joint publication of the very first Hymns and Sacred Poems collection in 1739. This came really early.

If you think, John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience was in 1738. So this is the next year. And it’s the year, in fact, in which I would date the birth of Methodism as a movement. It’s in 1739 that this New Room in built as a Methodist chapel in Bristol—the first Methodist building ever built by the Wesleys. So this is very early in the movement.

“Christ the Lord is Risen Today” is early and written for Easter, written for the season. And it has so many powerful images in it.

It’s really looking at the resurrection from multiple angles—both kind of objectively, what does this mean cosmically, going back to that idea. But also, what does this mean for me. If Jesus is victorious over death, what does that mean for me as I live in Christ and participate in Christ’s life?

So you have some of those powerful phrases about the resurrection: “loves redeeming work is done.” That’s where it all comes to fruition, but it all culminates in this amazing event of Jesus coming back to life, and being seen by those he loved.

“Fought the fight, the battle won,” “death in vain forbids him rise.” God conquers death. Jesus conquers death. So that means all the death in my life God has already conquered.

We experience so many little deaths, don’t we, in our lives? Every one of those little deaths, whether it’s a child losing a pet or whether it’s not succeeding in school, or whether it’s literally death, the death of a parent or the death or a sibling or a grandparent. All of these point us toward our own mortality, are reminders to us.

Death seems to be a final word in the life of every human being. Seems to be, I say, a final word because it isn’t. It isn’t the final word. The final word is life, not death. The final word is resurrection. The final word is eternal life with God who loves us.

So Charles can say, “Where, O death, is now thy sting?” “Dying once he all doth save. Where thy victory, O grave?” The grave is not the victor. Life eternal with the God of love, that’s the victory.

Charles goes on: “Soar we now”—we soar with Christ because life is victorious. We soar “where Christ has led, following our exalted head.”

“Made like him, like him we rise. Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.” Oh my goodness. The central message of our faith is the cross and the resurrection. Its earliest proclamation of a God who is in the business of raising us from the dead. Oh, if that isn’t good news, I don’t know what good news is.

Joe: Right.

Paul: And the great thing about our tradition is we can sing it. We’ve got these hymns that proclaim it in song.

Joe: This is so much fun to get to talk about these very big concepts of our faith in a way that’s so accessible because Charles has written these great words that we can sing, and some that we know even by heart.

Paul: I enjoy this with you, Joe, and just hope that it’s helpful to those who are listening and helps them to maybe rediscover, or discover for the first time, some of these great hymns. And you know the hymns of Charles Wesley are not only good for singing. They are; that is why they were written.

But they’re also great for devotion, just reading them and pondering some of these amazing ideas that are so central to our faith and so real in our lives.

Joe: Can we talk about that for a second? Because one of the things we like to do on Get Your Spirit in Shape is to give spiritual nutrition, which are the things you think about, but also spiritual exercises, which are the things that we can do. And I like to offer things that people can do.

I’ve actually heard you mention one that you just led into, this practice of applying the principles of lectio divina to the music.

Paul: Absolutely. Lectio divina simply means Latin for divine reading. It’s a particular way, in general, of engaging Scripture. And Lectio divina classically has 4 movements. I like to simplify them into 4 words that all start with the letter ‘p.’ We proclaim the word. We pray the word, ponder the word, and then practice.

That same thing can be done with the hymns of Charles Wesley or any other hymns, for that matter. In the same way that you would proclaim, pray, ponder and put into practice whatever the word might be from Scripture, you could simply take a stanza of a Charles Wesley hymn, read that through one time, and then just linger in those words. Get a sense of what is a word that is just leaping out at me or just really kind of stays fixed in my mind, my heart. Is there one word?

Just take the first stanza of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”

Christ the Lord is risen today,
earth and heaven in chorus say,
raise your joys and triumphs high.
Sing you heavens and earth reply.

After having read that, what stands out? Maybe it’s the word ‘joys.’ Maybe it’s ‘triumphs,’ or simply ‘the Lord is risen,’ or ‘sing.’

Then as you pray that, kind of in a second phase just ask yourself, What is the Lord saying to me? What am I hearing? What am I sensing from this?

Then re-read that stanza a third time and ask yourself, What is God inviting me to do?, as you ponder that. What’s the invitation that I’m hearing?

Then in a final reading, a 4th reading, ask yourself, How can I put this into practice, this invitation that I’ve heard through these words?

That’s a very simple meditative or contemplative technique, that’s been used for centuries in the life of the church to make those words of Scripture, or in this case, the words of these hymns come to life.

Joe: Well, I have been recommending your book to people who want to have a deeper Lent season. And you don’t have to be a musician.

We think musicians are gonna like this, but it’s really just about these lyrics that talk about these things in such powerful, powerful ways. And you give us great things to think about along the way. So it’s a wonderful, wonderful tool.

It’s great to think about these hymns that we—some we’ve sung forever, and it’s easy to just kind of let the words go by—and begin to hear them anew.

Paul: It gives me great joy, Joe, to talk with you about these things again. And I just wish you and everyone listening a blessed Lent and Easter.

Joe: Thanks, Paul

Paul: You’re most welcome. Thank you.

Back in the studio

Joe: That was the Rev. Dr. Paul Chilcote, United Methodist scholar and teacher.

Go to UMC.org/podcasts for resources to learn more about the hymns of Charles Wesley. There’s a link to Paul’s book The Song Forever New: Lent and Easter with Charles Wesley. It is a wonderful devotional for the season that I highly recommend.

There is also a link to a series of devotions that I’m writing for Lent based on the hymns of Charles Wesley and another link to a website from Duke Divinity School where all of the published hymns of Charles Wesley are available. Every. Single. One.

If you are looking for more podcasts to follow, go to UMC.org/podcasts. We have assembled a list of other podcasts by United Methodists that you might enjoy.

Well… that’s gonna do it for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. We'll be back in April with a United Methodist pastor who built a tiny house, and in May with another United Methodist pastor who has authored a new book about being a mom. Be sure to subscribe so you won’t miss any of these conversations that help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies.

Thanks for listening. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.