Were You There? — Lenten Hymns

Scripture Focus: John 19:16-18, 28-30
16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. 17 Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Reflection: Were You There? — Lenten Hymns
By Jon Polk

The hauntingly beautiful hymn, “Were You There?” poses profound imaginative and reflective questions. 

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

Each verse paints a bleak and dismal picture which, upon contemplation, can only cause us to shudder and tremble as we are confronted with these ugly realities.

One of the most recognizable African-American spirituals, “Were You There?” emerged from the slave experience in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. While outwardly the song asks us to imagine ourselves at the scene of the cross, when sung by slaves, it metaphorically connected Jesus’ suffering to their own.

Henry Proctor, minister at the First Congregational Church in Atlanta, referenced the hymn in The Southern Workman journal in 1907. Proctor, whose parents were both former slaves, described the work of Christ as found in slave spirituals,

They bore testimony to [Christ’s] divinity by their belief in his supernatural power, resurrection, royalty, regnancy, and atoning work. But to them he was also human. He was “a man of sorrows.” He could sympathize with those “acquainted with grief.” How solemnly and sweetly they sang of his crucifixion, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

Modern American theologian, James Cone, notes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, that the same is still true in African-American churches today,

During my childhood, I heard a lot about the cross at Macedonia A.M.E. Church, where faith in Jesus was defined and celebrated. We sang… and asked, “Were you there?” There were more songs, sermons, prayers, and testimonies about the cross than any other theme. The cross was the foundation on which their faith was built.

The season of Lent culminates in Passion Week, which does not allow us to arrive at the joy of the resurrection without passing through the pain and tragedy of the crucifixion. Lent gives us an opportunity to consider our response to the cross and, likewise, to injustices in our world.

“Were you there?” is a question that asks us to reconcile our present with the past. It calls us to measure what impact the events of the past have had on our lives in the present. It forces us to deal with the ugly realities of our personal and communal pasts.

Remembering the cross should be painful. Remembering the past may also be painful. Both encourage us to cling to the future hope we have in what Christ has accomplished for us through the cross.

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Music:Were You There?” by Mahalia Jackson
Lyrics:Were You There?” lyrics from Hymnary.com

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
For who is God, but the Lord? Who is the Rock, except our God? — Psalm 18.32

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Exodus 40 (Listen – 4:07) 
John 19 (Listen – 6:23)

Read more about Beneath the Cross of Jesus — Lenten Hymns
Not only do we find rest in the cruel cross of Jesus, but his sacrifice compels us to give our own lives away for others.

Read more about King on the Mountain, King on the Cross
The king on the mountain demanded righteousness. The king on the cross provided it.

What Wondrous Love Is This? — Lenten Hymns

Scripture Focus: John 12.12-13
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!”

Reflection: What Wondrous Love Is This? — Lenten Hymns
By Jon Polk

While the anonymous author of the hymn text “What Wondrous Love is This” may be lost to history, its lyrical beauty and simplicity are timeless.

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!

The hymn originates from the Appalachian region of the United States in the early 1800s. While hymnals were not commonplace at the time, the lyrics were first published in two different camp meeting songbooks in 1811, one in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the other in Lexington, Kentucky.

Because hymn books were rare, authors would often write lyrics that were simple and repetitive to aid congregations in learning the songs. This was not indicative of a poor writer, rather the repetition served to increase retention of the words and message.

The tune of the hymn was similar to a 1701 English song, “The Ballad of Captain Kidd,” which recounted the exploits of a sailor who had been executed for piracy. Many other popular songs had also been set to the same melody. In this way, the tune was memorable and easy to learn, much like singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” or the old Gilligan’s Island TV show theme.

Furthermore, the song was discovered by composer William Walker during his travels in Appalachia and published in 1835 in his collection of shape note hymns, The Southern Harmony. Shape note singing was a popular form of musical notation using shapes to denote different pitches. Since most people in that day could not read music, shape notes made it possible for everyone to sing.

The season of Lent provides an opportunity for us as Christians to consider what messages we repeat over and over with our voices, actions, and attitudes. Do we present the simple message, “When I was sinking down, Christ laid aside His crown,” clearly and accessibly to those who have ears to hear?

Does the world hear a Church that repeats a message of its own selfish needs and demands, or do they hear us proclaim, “To God and to the Lamb, I will sing”?

Ultimately, what is the deep song in our hearts that we will repeat, not only in this life but through all eternity?

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free
I’ll sing His love for me,
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.

Listen: What Wondrous Love is This? by Fernando Ortega
Lyrics: What Wondrous Love is This?, anonymous  — Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Bless the Lord, you angels of his, you mighty ones who do his bidding, and hearken to the voice of his word.
Bless the Lord, all you, his hosts, you ministers of his who do his will.
Bless the Lord, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion… — Psalm 103.20-22

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Exodus 33 (Listen – 3:49) 
John 12 (Listen – 6:26)

Read more about Bearing Reproach
By these things, we are the Lord’s messengers, preparing the way, carrying the gospel to all around us.

Read more about Justice to Wormwood
It will not do for us to sing about justice without bringing it to pass.

The Church’s One Foundation — Lenten Hymns

Scripture Focus: John 5:24-27
24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. 25 Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.

1 Corinthians 3:11
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Reflection: The Church’s One Foundation — Lenten Hymns
By Jon Polk

Controversy! Accusations! Divisive leaders!

No, not a reference to today’s headlines, but to a schism in the Church of England in the 1860s. Popular Bishop John William Colenso of Natal, South Africa raised the ire of many of his colleagues with controversial theological stances.

Colenso faced criticism shortly after his appointment, when he allowed polygamists to be baptized by the church without requiring them to divorce their multiple wives. Later, his writings and views on the authorship and historicity of some Old Testament books elicited protest from his more orthodox contemporaries.

The most vocal opposition came from another South African Bishop, Robert Gray of Cape Town. Gray went so far as to appeal to have Colenso removed from his post and even excommunicated. Colenso was removed but later reinstated by a judicial committee, which lead to a split in the South African church.

Meanwhile, in Oxford, England, Samuel John Stone was a young minister serving in a poor parish. Concerned by the division in the church in South Africa, Stone also recognized that his own congregants did not possess a full understanding of the basic tenets of their faith.

Inspired by a desire to bring clarity and unity, Stone wrote Lyra Fidelium: Twelve Hymns on the Twelve Articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Included in this collection was the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” which references the church in South Africa.

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed.

“The Church’s One Foundation” is Stone’s attempt to expound upon article nine of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the Holy Catholic (i.e. universal) Church, the communion of saints.” 

As the hymn proclaims, the Church is founded upon Jesus Christ and him alone. The Church was inaugurated by the blood sacrifice and ultimate resurrection of Jesus. The Church is of Christ, for Christ, and belongs to Christ.

The season of Lent is an opportunity for the Church and for all Christians to examine our allegiances. To whom do we owe our existence? To whom do we give our loyalty?

The Church’s witness has been compromised by our misguided devotion to personalities, politics, and pariahs. To be a faithful voice of truth and love in the world, we must recover our singular dedication to Jesus Christ. We must return to our one true foundation.

The church’s one Foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord.
She is His new creation,
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride.
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.


Music: The Church’s One Foundation by Indelible Grace Music
Lyrics: “The Church’s One Foundation” lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Love the Lord, all you who worship him; the Lord protects the faithful, but repays to the full those who act haughtily. — Psalm 31.23

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Exodus 26 (Listen – 4:18)
John 5 (Listen – 5:42)

Read more about Solus Christus
For nothing can ever replace Jesus, nothing can ever exceed Jesus, and nothing is ever needed in addition to Jesus.

Read more about There is a Fountain Filled with Blood
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though as vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.

Beneath the Cross of Jesus — Lenten Hymns

Scripture Focus: Luke 15:3-6
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”

Reflection: Beneath the Cross of Jesus — Lenten Hymns
By Jon Polk

In her childhood, Elizabeth Clephane took a keen interest in poetry. As a teenager, she first revealed some of her own compositions to her sister. She drew from a vivid imagination, utilizing imagery, both biblical and natural, as displayed by one of her familiar compositions, the hymn “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.”

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock
Within a weary land

A home within the wilderness,
A rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat
And the burden of the day.

Using beautiful, comforting images of home and rest to describe the cruel, brutal cross reveals the compassionate heart of this lovely servant of God.

Elizabeth Clephane was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1830, daughter of the county sheriff. She was frail and in poor health for most of her life and died at the young age of 38 in the nearby town of Melrose.

Even though frail, she was known to have a cheerful outlook on life and spent most of her short years helping the poor and ailing. Elizabeth and her sister contributed much toward charitable causes to benefit the poor, even going so far as to sell their own carriage and horses to give the proceeds away.

She found meaning in life by giving herself for the sake of others in need, reflecting the light of Christ’s love.

Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss
My sinful self, my only shame,
My glory all the cross.

In Clephane’s famous narrative poem, “The Ninety and Nine” (later set to music by evangelist Ira Sankey), the compelling reason for her compassion is clear in the retelling of Christ the Shepherd pursuing the one lost sheep. “Lord, whence are those blood drops all the way? They were shed for one who had gone astray.”

The season of Lent reminds us that not only do we find rest in the cruel cross of Jesus, but his sacrifice compels us to give our own lives away for others. The “ninety-nine” may not need our care as much as “the one.”

Elizabeth Clephane made a difference with her brief life by giving it away. Her hymns were mostly published posthumously, with the editor describing them, “Written on the very edge of life, with the better land fully in view of faith, they seem to us footsteps printed on the sands of time, where these sands touch the ocean of eternity.”

Elizabeth was so beloved by the people of her community, the townsfolk gave her the nickname, “the Sunbeam.”

I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of his face.

Music: Beneath the Cross of Jesus by Indelible Grace Music
Lyrics: Beneath the Cross of Jesus from Hymnary.org.
Poem: “The Ninety and Nine”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. — Psalm 25.3-4

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle


Today’s Readings
Exodus 12:22-51 (Listen – 7:31)
Luke 15 (Listen – 4:19)

Read more from Jon Polk: Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched
Lent purposefully reminds us that we are mere dust, that without the work of Christ and the grace of God, we are all sinners, poor and wretched.

Read more about Involving Christ
Christ is lovingly interested in helping, lovingly interested in knowing, lovingly interested in being involved in our embarrassments, difficulties, and failures.

Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched — Lenten Hymns

Scripture Focus: Luke 8:43-48
43 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. 44 She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. 
45 “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. 
When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” 
46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” 
47 Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. 48 Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” 

From John: Each Monday of Lent, Jon Polk will be bringing us a devotional highlighting a hymn appropriate to the Lenten season. For many of us, 2020-2021, with all that Covid has cost us, seems like one long year of Lent with no Easter in sight. We’ve had to give up so much and miss so much and suffer so long. And in the United States, especially, the season of Covid that we thought would be a few weeks has now stretched an entire year and is not ending anytime soon. I pray that in this season, these hymns and God’s Holy Spirit will bring each of you comfort, peace, and resurrection of what has been lost. Easter is coming.

Reflection: Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched — Lenten Hymns
By Jon Polk

In the introduction to his collection of hymns published in 1759, Joseph Hart honestly describes his experience of spiritual emptiness.

“I hastened to make myself a Christian by mere doctrine, disregarding the internal work of grace begun in my soul by the Holy Ghost. I ran such dangerous lengths both of carnal and spiritual wickedness, that I even outwent professed infidels, and shocked the irreligious and profane with my horrid blasphemies and monstrous impieties. For having obtained by Christ a liberty of sinning, I was resolved to make use of it; and thought the more I could sin without remorse, the greater hero I was in faith.”

Born in London in 1712 to particularly pious parents, Hart was raised, as he described, with “the sound doctrines of the Gospel from infancy.” However, upon reaching his twenties, he began to struggle with the destiny of his soul.

Hart forced himself deep into religious practices, such as fasting, prayer and virtue, only to encounter vain superficiality. He then turned headlong to selfish pursuits and vices, taverns and drinking companions, describing himself as a “loose backslider, an audacious apostate, a boldfaced rebel.”

The first verse of his most famous hymn, “Come Ye Sinners,” reads like his own autobiography.

Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you
Full of pity joined with power

What prompted Hart’s change of heart and recovery of the faith that had been nurtured in his childhood?

The power of Easter.

In his own words, “The week before Easter, 1757, I had such an amazing view of the agony of Christ in the garden, as I know not well how to describe. I was lost in wonder and adoration, and the impression it made was too deep.”

It is exceedingly easy for those of us who have been faithful Christians for a long while to experience spiritual amnesia, forgetting what it was like to identify with sinners and outcasts. We can develop a callous piety, a “holier-than-thou” attitude that prevents us from embracing our own continual need for a Savior, shielding us from the necessity of repentance.

The season of Lent purposefully reminds us that we are mere dust, that without the work of Christ and the grace of God, we are all sinners, poor and wretched.

In one of the original verses of the hymn not often found in modern hymnals, Hart beautifully sums up the significance of Christ’s sacrifice.

View him groveling in the Garden
Lo! your Maker prostrate lies
On the bloody tree behold him
Hear him cry, before he dies
“It is finished, it is finished, it is finished.”
Sinner, will not this suffice?

Music: Come Ye Sinners by Indelible Grace Music 
Lyrics: Lyrics from Hymnary.org 

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. — Psalm 80.3

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Exodus 5 (Listen – 3:15) 
Luke 8 (Listen – 8:09)

Read more from Jon Polk: The Slavery of Plenty
Although we may not recognize it, we are far too easily enslaved by our possessions, our comfortable way of life, or our status and authority.

Read more about Rumors or Repentance
The Jordan, where John baptized, is a river of decision. Will you cross over or not?  Will you repent? Will you enter the Kingdom of Heaven or not?

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