Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of Matthew Smith. Matthew is a singer-songwriter from Nashville who takes old hymn lyrics and sets them to new music. He is a founding member of the Indelible Grace community, and tours full time, playing concerts of hymns at churches. I blogged here last week about his new song “Goodnight,” from his forthcoming album Watch The Rising Day. For this article I simply asked Matthew to writes about how he came to find such joy in setting old hymns to new music.
When I was in high school, I loved to sing. I sang in the shower. I sang in my room. I sang while walking down the hallways at school. I sang until people told me to shut up. (They seemed rude at the time, but in retrospect, they had a point. It was pretty annoying.) By the time I was sixteen, I figured out a way to sing in a more socially acceptable way. I learned how to play guitar.
Like many high school kids before and since who’ve learned to string together three guitar chords, I was soon recruited to lead the worship singing for my youth group’s weekly meetings. (Or forced myself upon the position– my memory fails me at this point.) After leading the music, I would sit down and hear a message, whose point was often that I needed to try harder. Try harder to be a “good witness” at school. Try harder to avoid temptation. Try harder to obey God.
Somehow, the idea of trying harder carried over to worship. My repertoire consisted of praise and worship songs (none of which had an F chord– I didn’t know how to play that one), mainly ones that talked about how much I wanted to worship God. I thought that if I tried harder, was sincere enough, and really meant it enough, that I would enter into a state of capital-w Worship. The world around me would fade away, I would lose my inhibitions, and I would achieve a spiritual state of being lost in worship.
But this state of spiritual ecstasy never arrived. And, in my mind, there was only one person to blame—me. I was a failed worshiper.
When I arrived at Belmont University in Nashville, I found myself at a Bible study called Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). The guy leading the singing had an acoustic guitar, and I was instantly captivated by the music he was playing (and by how unreasonably often he broke a string). I had never heard any of these songs before, but was drawn in by the words. They were beautiful–artful even–and though I didn’t understand the meaning of every line the first time through, each song captivated my imagination.
I soon found out that these songs were old hymn lyrics set to new music. That certainly explained the Thees and Thous.
Over the following weeks, as I stood and sung these hymns and sat and heard the Word preached, I found myself intrigued, fascinated, and even offended. For the first time I heard clearly that life was not about me and how hard I tried. Every way that I had tried and failed to please God, Jesus tried and succeeded. And he didn’t do it in order to put me in His debt, or just be a good example for me to follow, or show me how easy life would be if I came up with the right strategy. He did it while I was dead in my sins. Everything that needed to be done was already accomplished at the cross, and the empty tomb meant true, lasting freedom for me.
The lyrics I was singing were not about my desires and how much I wanted to worship God, they were about Jesus and His desires, and they gave specific and beautiful reasons why He was worthy of worship.
Arise, my soul, arise! Shake off your guilty fears–the bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears.
Before the throne my surety stands…my name is written on His hands.
The hymns also invited me to be honest. Rather than demanding that I leave the hardships of life at the door to lose myself in a “worship experience” (which had never panned out anyway, and upon reflection, seemed more of a Buddhist ideal than a Christian one), they spoke frankly about how weariness, sorrow, and pain are a part of the normal Christian life—not a sign of personal spiritual failure.
Dear refuge of my weary soul, on Thee, when sorrows rise
On Thee, when waves of trouble roll, my fainting hope relies
To Thee I tell each rising grief, for Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word can bring a sweet relief for every pain I feel
These lyrics went deep into my heart, and the way I thought about worship began to change. I was no longer examining myself to see if I was trying hard enough to worship. For a few minutes every week, my eyes were briefly turned away from measuring my own performance (spiritual or otherwise), and I was invited to measure Jesus’ performance on my behalf. And He never came up short.
A couple of years into college, Kevin Twit (the RUF minister who led the music and broke all those strings) decided to record a CD of some of the hymns we were singing, primarily to get the music out to other RUF chapters. One week he had handed out the lyrics to a hymn called “Come Ye Sinners” and told us that someone needed to write music to it. That night, I sat down with a guitar in my dorm room with those words.
Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched, weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus, ready, stands to save you, full of pity joined with power.
He is able, He is able; He is willing; doubt no more
Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requires is to feel your need of Him.
This He gives you, this He gives you, ‘tis the Spirit’s rising beam
It’s hard to imagine words that could more perfectly capture what I had been experiencing. My dreams of “fitness” (being good enough for God) had been dashed, replaced by a vision of a Savior who was able, full of pity joined with power, to stand and save me.
By the end of the evening, I had finished the music. It even had an F chord.
That first CD, Indelible Grace, spread by word of mouth. We began receiving orders from all around the country (and soon after, the world), and it became clear that these hymns were not resonating only with college students. I soon began to travel and play concerts of hymns, and was encouraged to see young and old respond to what they were hearing. The first time a lady in her eighties came up to me after a concert and thanked me for singing these hymns, I did some mental math—I’m pretty sure she didn’t listen to U2, or Wilco, or The Beatles, or any other music I liked. But she got it. In that moment, we connected over the beauty of the Gospel, no matter what music it was sung to.
I recorded “Come Ye Sinners” again for my first solo CD, Even When My Heart Is Breaking, and have continued touring and recording ever since. At every concert, I hope to give others a taste of the freedom I first experienced in college. As I grow older, these hymns have woven themselves into the fabric of my life. With every hurt, every failure, these words go deeper and resonate more, as they gently but firmly lift my head to my sure Hope, the ascended Savior who earned a righteousness for me, and whose perfect life of worship makes this failed worshiper forever accepted by God.
Lo! The Incarnate God, ascended pleads the merit of His blood
Venture on Him; venture wholly, let no other trust intrude
None but Jesus, none but Jesus, can do helpless sinners good
Blog readers can buy a download of Matthew’s first record, Even When My Heart Is Breaking for only $2.97 with the coupon code CHALLIES at http://matthewsmith.bandcamp.com. The code expires on 7/19/10. His album All I Owe is also on sale for $7.99 for a limited time.