NB: Sunday will be the last day of my hymnfortheday blog. I am planning on doing a hymnfortheweek that I will send out to those on my list every week. I am working with my tech assistant to see how to do that in the best way: Whether you should sign up for a different list or stay with this one is what we are talking about. Some have asked me to loop the old ones everyday as I have through the year. I am working on how that could be done. In addition, I am including a list of all the hymns with the links to them. Thanks for all your support over the past year! Amazing. GG
Text: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) Tune: William H. Havergal (1793-1870)
1. O that the Lord would guide my ways To keep his statutes still! O that my God would grant me grace To know and do his will! Send down your Spirit, God, to write your law upon my heart; Nor let my tongue indulge deceit, Nor act the liar's part.
2. No vanities should blind my eyes; Let no corrupt design, Nor covetous desires, arise Within this soul of mine. I’ll guide my footsteps by your word, And make my heart sincere; Let sin have no dominion, Lord, But keep my conscience clear.
3. My steps have gone too far astray, My feet too often slip; But I have not forgot your way; Restore your wandering sheep. Lord, help me walk in your commands; A most delightful road; Nor let my head, or heart, or hands, Offend against my God.
The other day I came across a remarkable essay by Theodore Dalrymple, an atheist, on a painting, “Gooseberries on a Table” by the Dutch still life painter, Adriaen Coorte. It was on gooseberries as he had experienced them over his lifetime. He concluded his piece by noting that the painting of Coorte and its pleasure in the things of this world--what has been created--is worthy of contemplation. Too many living in a world of abundance seem not to be stopped by these lovely images, nor contemplate them. Because, in our time of abundance, we “do not find anything remarkable or worthy of notice in the everyday,” we are driven to “brute sensation.”
The still-life painters were reverent toward the “everyday objects of sustenance,” he notes. And their works, at their best, make even the non-religious stop. Our abundance makes hedonist pagans out of us, not believers who are driven to thanksgiving for every good gift. And this abundance makes us transgressors as we keep looking for new sensations, jaded and sated by the simple things that make for a good life.
Thanksgiving is fundamental to the Christian life. To give thanks is to know there is a power to whom one owes thanks. We learn in scarcity that it is God who sustains us. In abundance, which also comes from God, we get to thinking it is all our own doing.
This hymn by Watts is his version of Thy Word is a Lamp unto my feet (Psalm 119). Written for his collection of hymns on the Psalms, it shows us how the Law is a guide for us to a good life, “a most delightful road.”
That delight comes from obedience and following the Law written on our hearts. While doing this does not save us, it makes life here on earth richer with what is best for us. There is an old Jewish concept and one also practiced by the pietists, The Fence Around the Law. In order to avoid breaking the big laws, such as taking the Name of the Lord in vain, the ineffable name was never to be uttered.
On a more trivial level, the strictures the pietists of my day observed—no drinking, dancing, gambling, cards, movies—were also like a fence around the Law. In the hundreds of arguments my dad had with Luther Leaguers about what was wrong with dancing, the discussion always ended with this: It is not the dance in itself, it is what it leads to. Add alcohol to that and bad things with lifelong consequences might result.
Now this is ancient history: pre-birth control pills, treatment centers, for addictions of many kinds. Now we think we know more about these behaviors than we did. But most of us had heard of or dealt with someone close to us with an addiction problem. It gave our parents reason to use the fence. Rather than risk a life of alcoholic dependence, don’t touch it at all. Rather than fall into a gambling addiction that could ruin everything, don’t even hold a deck of cards in your hands. Don’t go to movies where you will learn to imitate behaviors that are bad for your future life. I don’t think my parents ever said that dancing or movies or cards were sin, it was always what they led to. But there was wisdom in it even if it could be too strict.
So, because most of the people and kids in my group were raised with a deep sense of the fence around the law my teenage years were relatively safe, despite the turbulence of hormones. Now we let kids go into situations where they have to make huge decisions about behaviors that will have life long consequences that may not be salutary.
This has deprived them of boundaries. Facing boundaries is what helps people grow and flourish. The Law as Watts describes it in this hymn leads to the good life, “a delightful road.” Teaching the young to guide their footsteps by God’s word and giving them guideposts along the way, can be a gift that opens them up to the delightful road they can walk with God. And, along the way, they can delight in the sight of gooseberries ripening on their prickly stalks in the garden, pick one, crush its sour, tart, juicy flesh in their mouths and give thanks.
Watts wrote this for his 1719 collection of The Psalms of David. It has been, of all his nearly 700 texts, among the top twenty and few hymnals even today will leave it out. Watts was one of the great writers and thinkers of his day. A precocious child, but a non-conformist, he had no future in the educational institutions or ecclesiastical hierarchies of the Anglican church, nor did he want one. He wrote children’s books, a book of logic, along with his hymns. He served an Independent Church briefly as pastor. In 1712, after a struggle with a high fever, he was invited to stay with the Abney family on their estate. Abney and his wife, then his widow, gave Watts a good life there, tending to his needs and work. He stayed with them for thirty-six years until his death, during which time he continued writing and preaching. He is buried in Westminster Abbey along with the poets.
William Havergal was an Anglican clergyman who wrote the tune most associated with the text, wrote many texts and tunes. His daughter Frances Havergal followed in his footsteps as both poet and composer.
LINKS The Lutheran Quartet https://youtu.be/X--TqAFCDQ4
St. Paul Lutheran church, Austin https://youtu.be/qF4fXnrDiR0
Robert Way Orchestra https://youtu.be/oEN9EYghYuA
William Storm solo with guitar https://youtu.be/0gtYBTxT4XI
A rock version of the Havergal tune https://youtu.be/F94gZIHy4Jw
On April 6, my book of sonnets, Jesus The Harmony, will be released by Augsburg Fortress. One can pre-order it on Amazon now.