Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Jesus I My Cross Have Taken

By Bryan McKaig
Guest Blogger

The first time I heard the hymn “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” was at a Reformed University Fellowship service on the campus the University of Tennessee. I had been attending these week night meetings for several months, coming back every week for the unvarnished and practical Bible teaching and stripped-down, simple worship music. In a large college auditorium class room, I stood in front of a squeaky, wooden, fold-down seat and sang as I read these lyrics from an overhead transparency projector:

Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow thee. Destitute, despised, forsaken, thou from hence my all shalt be.

As the song went on, led by a young woman with an acoustic guitar and a fuzzy headed college guy with an upright bass, I began to be overwhelmed by the unyielding joy found in the lyrics. The song absolutely slayed me. It still does.

What moved me to tears about the hymn that night in college was the absolutely thorough way in which it expresses it’s central theme: that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Without directly quoting Paul’s famous line from Philippians 1:21, this song spends six glorious verses joyfully embracing Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him. 

Fast forward from sometime in 2002 to March, 2018. At Providence, we’re in the middle of a four-week deep dive into Jesus’ final day before his crucifixion. It’s Sunday, March 11, and Anthony Burton is preaching on Luke 23:26-31. Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross for him, presumably because Jesus was too badly injured from his previous beatings to haul a large wooden beam very far. And as a crowd follows them down a Jerusalem road, weeping for him, Jesus tells them that they really should be weeping for themselves, because there’s a worse day coming to the Jews of Jerusalem in a few decades.
All of this brought to mind one of Jesus' most shocking teachings: that if you want to be Jesus’ disciple, you have to deny yourself, take up your own cross daily, and follow him. 

Every week, as we plan our services at Providence, we consider what songs would best prepare people to receive what God has for us in the scripture we’ll be studying. We choose songs that we think will help tie together the themes from God’s word with the realities of our lives, and help us take his word into ourselves with the help of his Spirit. And in light of this part of Jesus’ story, this incredible hymn was one of the first things that entered my mind. We sang it Sunday, and revisited a couple of verses at the end of the service. I heard people singing loudly, which is always the sound I hope to hear in a worship service. A few folks asked me about the song afterward, and I heard through others that it really got some folks thinking. Still others said they wanted to understand the song better, becuase some parts had been a little tough to follow.

So I want to take a minute and walk you through these lyrics. There are a few things to keep in mind:

1. These words are old. Henry F. Lyte published them in 1824, and they sound like it. There are words like “thee” and “thou,” which people didn’t normally use, even back then. The rest of the language is pretty standard poetic stuff for the 19th century. Just for reference: thee/thou = you,  thy = your. And did you know that “thou," “thee," and “thy” were actually the more personal, intimate words to use. You would call a superior “you,” but your family member would be “thou.” Point is, old words can be confusing.

2. Old words are worth the work, in this case. You might ask why we should bother preserving old songs like this in worship. Aren’t there plenty of great worship songs being written today that you don’t need a degree to understand? Well, yes, there are. And no, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to dig into the old stuff. There’s a connection to the past in older music that can remind us that we are one with all the followers of Christ throughout history. They sang this song in church two hundred years ago! There are also sometimes old songs that just express something that nobody has quite managed to match since. I think this is one of those songs.

3. There’s a strong stream in early 21st century American culture that doesn’t like thinking, that encourages us to only process short sound bytes of information, in quick bursts. That influence can make it hard to focus on complex thoughts, like the ones in some old hymns, or even the ones in the Bible. It’s more valuable than ever to practice using the minds God gave us as a means of loving and worshiping him, when binge watching yet another season of some nostalgic 90’s show or soaking up sensational news headlines can be so appealing to our information-saturated brains.

That being said, here are a few key verses of this song, broken down and elaborated.

The first verse is a simple statement of commitment: 
Jesus, I my cross have taken
All to leave and follow thee
Destitute, despised, forsaken
Thou from hence my all shalt be.

Even through the syntax sounds like something Yoda might say to Luke, it’s really quite simple: 
  • Jesus, I’ve taken my cross, I’m leaving everything, I’m following you. Even if I end up poor, friendless, and alone, from now on, you will be everything to me.

Verse 3 has one of my favorite lines in the hymn:
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me
while thy love is left to me
Oh, ‘twere not in joy to charm me
were that joy unmixed with thee.

Did you get that? No? Here’s what it means:  
  • Sadness cannot hurt me while I have your love. Happiness cannot attract me if you’re not involved. 

Verse 4 contains maybe the hardest line in the song to say:
Go then, earthy fame and treasure
come, disaster, scorn, and pain.
In thy service pain is pleasure
with thy favor, loss is gain.

How difficult is that to say? It’s so difficult:
  • As far as the good life goes: it can leave me. As far as terrible experiences go: bring ‘em on. When I am serving you, Jesus, whatever hurts reminds me of your pleasure with me, and if you are pleased with me, I’m better off without the good things in life. 

Verse 5 does something that we see a lot in the Psalms; it addresses our own soul. This is a powerful poetic device for prayerful worship link this - you are speaking to your own soul within yourself, reminding yourself to remember what is true: 
Soul, then know thy full salvation
rise o’er sin or fear or care
Joy to find in every station
something still to do or bear
Think what Spirit dwells within thee! 
Think what Father’s smiles are thine!
Think that Jesus died to win thee!
Child of heaven, cans’t thou repine?

Ok, so: “station” means “stage or situation in life.” “Repine” means “mourn or be sad.”  So the verse says: 
  • Hey! Self! Get a grip on what your salvation really means! Rise above sin, fear, and worry, as you find joy in whatever situation you find yourself! There’s something in it for you to do, or some burden for you to bear. JUST THINK!!! God’s Spirit is in you! God is your Father, and his smiles are yours! Jesus died for you! Child of heaven, can you really mourn hopelessly?

The last verse takes us into eternity, when all of the suffering will give way to unmitigated joy and unpolluted fulfillment.
Haste thee on from grace to glory
armed by faith and winged by prayer!
Heaven’s eternal days before thee,
God’s own hand shall guide us there!
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Swift shall pass thy pilgrim days!
Hope shall change to glad fruition, 
faith to sight, and prayer to praise!

This is the good stuff! We finish the song with our eyes on the true motivation for enduring suffering in this life: There will be fruition. There will be fruit. There will be a brilliant, perfect, worth-it-all result. Here’s a paraphrase of this final verse: 
  • Go! Speed on through a life sustained by God’s grace to the presence of his glory! Your weapon is faith, and your wings are prayer, and God has his hand on you, guiding you into his presence. Your mission here will be over soon, and your days as a weary traveler will end. What you hoped for, you will have. What you prayed for, you will see. What you trusted God for, you will praise him for.

What’s the point then? Gain. Being a disciple is all about what you get: and what you get is not your best life now. What you get is God. And that will either seem like the greatest gift in the world to you, or it will seem like nothing. If you see God as the greatest thing you can ever have, then your suffering, what you give up to follow him, the pleasures you don’t take part in - those will seem like nothing, and he will be everything.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

WOW! What insights. I too love the old hymns. Thanks for sharing, B and C