Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


My Statement of Faith: Why Hymns and Songs?

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Part 3 of series: My Statement of Faith
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When Presbyterian pastors or candidates for ordained ministry are being “checked out” theologically, their statements of faith usually take the form of six or seven paragraphs of prose. Each paragraph includes carefully chosen, tightly-packed theological language. They are basically creedal in form, touching upon such key doctrines as the nature of God, the nature and mission of Christ, salvation, the church, the sacraments, Scripture, and Christian mission in the world.
If you look closely at what I submitted, you’ll see some of this familiar structure and content. I though upon the following themes in the following order:

God’s faithfulness
God as Father
God as Trinity
God as creator, lover, savior
Jesus as both divine and human
Jesus as savior
Jesus as sovereign
Jesus as friend and one to whom we pray
The Holy Spirit in us
Commitment of my whole self to God
Submission to God’s sovereignty
Desire for God’s deliverance
The trustworthiness of God’s Word
Trusting God’s Word
The church founded on Jesus
Baptism
The church as God’s elect
Communion
The church as unified yet diverse
The church as the temple of the Holy Spirit
The church’s mission as lifting up the cross of Christ
The church’s mission as multiplying God’s love, especially to the
poor
The promise of the new creation
God’s great faithfulness

You’ll see that the basic form and content of my statement is pretty much standard Christian orthodoxy of a Reformed, evangelical stripe. Nothing particularly surprising here.
What’s unusual about my statement of faith is the use of hymns and songs. Why did I opt for these poetic expressions of faith rather than more standard prose?
Before I answer this question, let me say that I am not opposed to prosaic, propositional statements of faith. I believe that genuine Christianity affirms certain core beliefs, and that these can and should be expressed in propositions. Human words can never fully capture God’s reality, of course. But the use of our limited words in sentences is an essential aspect of Christian faith. It’s not an accident that the church, throughout the centuries, has written creeds and confessions to express what it believes (and, at times, what it does not believe). In some quarters of the church today you’ll find postmodern people who are also post-creedal. They’re nervous about the limitations and demarcations that come from words and statements in theology. So they are apt not to express their faith in creedal forms, and to criticize the church for being overly doctrinal. Just for the record, though I have some sympathy for those in this quarter of Christendom, I don’t live there myself.
Yet Christian faith is not just a series of propositions. It includes sentences of belief and is in many ways based upon them, to be sure. But Christian faith transcends such statements. It is a living relationship with the living God. It is belief put into practice. It is conviction expressed through adoration. In this way Christian faith is rather like a marriage. I could say, truthfully, that I love my wife. But my marriage is not just an affirmation of this truth, but a daily experience of it as well. So with my faith in God.
Thus when I was asked to write a statement of faith, I interpreted this as more than a statement of my core beliefs. Yes, yes, I realize that what the committee needed to do its job was a statement of these beliefs. They needed to make sure I was orthodox in a Presbyterian sort of way. And I supplied this orthodox summary in a poetic way. But what I gave them was more than just my crucial beliefs. I shared in an open-hearted way my faith in God, my relationship with God, my love of God.
hollywood presbyterian churchFor me, nothing expresses this kind of faith better than hymns and songs. For one thing, I’ve been singing many of these lyrics for most of my life. Some of them I’ve sung at least several hundred times. I think, for example, that I sung “Trust and Obey” just about every week of Sunday school during my elementary years. And even though I don’t sing it much any more, it has been forever burned into my memory. Ironically, my journey of faith in the last year has been mostly a matter of trusting and obeying God. The old song sings anew in my heart. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I grew up singing “Trust and Obey.”)
Hymns and songs have a way of joining heart and mind like nothing else I know. If I say, “God has been very faithful to me,” I can mean it, but my heart remains unmoved. If, however, I’m singing “Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me” in a worship service, I am often moved to tears. Why? Partly it’s the power of poetry. Partly it’s the power of beautiful music. Partly it’s the memories I associated with this hymn. Add them up and you have a profound statement of truth, “Great is Thy faithfulness,” expressed with deep emotion. Plus, when I’m singing, my body is involved too. I’m loving the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Many of the hymns and songs I chose are prayers to God:

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Fairest Lord Jesus, . . . Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor.
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart.
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Let Thy grace, Lord, like a fetter, Bind my wand’ring heart to
Thee
Multiply Your love through us To the lost and the least.
Finish then Thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be.
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!

They are not only statements about God, but also statements addressed to God. Thus they represent communication that is intimate as well as truthful. My faith in God is not merely propositional. It is also worshipful, relational, and emotional. It touches everything that I am, not merely my intellect. Thus hymns and songs enable me to state my true faith in a more complete and, in some sense, more honest way. When you listen to what I sing to the Lord, you peer into the depth of my heart.



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robert austell

posted March 28, 2008 at 9:23 am


Mark, I loved it!
When I tranferred into the Presbytery of Charlotte six years ago, they gave me 3 min. to share a faith statement (and I was to be one of six).
I brought my guitar and sang “Come Thou Fount” and sat down. It wasn’t quite as thorough as yours, but was for some of the same reasons. :)
Robert Austell



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Mark Roberts

posted March 28, 2008 at 9:36 am


Robert: Great story. And great song, too. I used a verse from “Come Thou Fount,” as you probably noticed.



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Paul

posted March 28, 2008 at 10:57 am


Pastor Roberts,
Congratulations on your new appointment and on your articulate, creative and devout Statment of Faith. I’m Catholic, but must say that you’ve certainly found a way to articulate the basics that we hold in common in a way that’s profound, universal and welcoming. I can imagine that you will draw many of the unchurched, lukewarm, uncertain, and drifting back to the Gospel. We’ve long neglected the riches of our liturgies, music, art and other “sacramentals”(–if I may be allowed that term for a category of things–)that often have a real role in catching the eye and ear of the searcher.



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HenryH

posted March 28, 2008 at 11:22 am


Well, I thought this was just wonderful. Songs and poetry ARE powerful and can move us in ways that prose cannot. My first thought after reading your statement of faith was it would make a great worship service — sing each of those songs through.
I also know people who live in a world (or believe they do, anyway) without objective truth. My heart cries for them. What a dreadfully sad and lonely place to be. What a joy to know that there is truth. Not just “my truth” but truth that is objective applies in all times to all people from every culture.
Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay called “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” originally published in “Creed or Chaos” in 1949. She starts:
“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.” (from “The Whimsical Christian”, by Dorothy L. Sayers, Collier Books, 1987)
Not only is there objective truth, there is also, I believe, objective beauty. The reason we react as we do to great poetry or music is not some coincidence or the result of some chemical reaction in our brains or because we have been taught to react that way. It’s because beauty is real and has real power. John Mark Reynolds has a series of posts about beauty that you might enjoy called “What My Nana Taught Me” (the final post is here and has links to the first eight — http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/2008/01/29/what-my-nana-taught-me-part-viii-beauty-and-my-papaw/).



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rw

posted March 28, 2008 at 3:07 pm


Dr. R,
Great perspective on how music joined with words becomes greater than the sum of its parts. As part of a praise and worship band, I never cease to be amazed at the response from members of the congregation to the music we play and sing, and the depth to which they tell they’ve been moved by it. As part of group the does the ‘delivering’, I often get caught up in the mechanics required to actually do the song. Consequently, my feelings typically alternate from satisfaction in making it through a particularly difficult passage, to boredom involved with a monotonous refrain, to sheer terror at an impending train wreck because I’ve gotten lost somewhere in the middle of chorus two. The fact that all that multiplied by 5 or 6 other people becomes the spirit-filled mover of souls that it does can only be explained by God’s presence in and through it all. That’s especially the case if you could here how badly the same song sounded in rehearsal.
As a hearer of hymns and songs, I can recommend a version of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” by Fernando Ortega. Its a total re-write of the music, but it totally captures all the Attributes of God contained in the lyrics in a way that does totally move me. I’m sure my fellow commuters wonder what the heck is wrong with the guy in the next lane with tears streaming down his cheeks…perhaps I should mount speakers on the outside so they’ll know
rw



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robert austell

posted March 31, 2008 at 10:21 pm


Mark,
Thanks for the nice follow up comment in your conclusion. I also appreciate the boost I’m sure your mention will give to the readership of my beleaguered blog. :)
I actually use music frequently in worship – one sample is in last Sunday’s service… a “sermon-song” on the road to Emmaus text… if interested, you can scroll down and hear it here: http://gspcsermons.blogspot.com/2008/03/would-i-know-jesus-if-i-saw-him-luke.html



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