Monday, August 29, 2010
The hymn is more than two hundred fifty years old. To this day, the lyrics remain alive in new melodies and arrangements that match contemporary style. The author, born to a modest family, lost his father at the tender age of eight. His widowed mother had high hopes but no means. She taught him to love books, but formal higher education was well out of reach. As a teenager, young Robert ran off with a pack of troublemakers about the same time Ben Franklin flew his kite in a thunderstorm across the Atlantic in the New World.
As the story goes, Robert and his pals found a feisty Fortune Teller in the countryside. Apparently, she took a liking to the pack of debauched ruffians. Late one night, together they consumed prodigious amounts of hard liquor and through a drunken stupor, the woman looked directly into Robert’s bloodshot eyes and slurred through a cloudy prediction. Unlike your own father, you, she said, will live long enough to see your own children grow up, and more, your grandchildren, too. Shaken, Robert Robinson the next day suggested that his pals go to an assembly hall in the city to hear the popular preacher, George Whitfield. Their stated purpose: make trouble. Robinson and his buddies expected to find opportunity for raucous ridicule. Instead, the evangelist imposed a heavy dose of reality on the rabble-rousers. That, combined with the Fortune Teller’s prophesy, drove the sensitive boy into a period of dark introspection, pondering the big questions: what kind of man will his children and grandchildren know and what if Whitfield is right about a holy God who may well visit justice on Robinson’s devil-may-care life? Young Robinson turned his considerable mind and wit to godliness. He spurned his rowdiness and became a lay preacher and writer of books and poetry.
“Come thou fount of every blessing,” he wrote. Remember, this is Shakespearian England, home of the King James Bible. “Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.” Then, “Streams of mercy, never ceasing.” As I listened to these lyrics recently, my thoughts went to Buckingham Fountain on the Lakeshore in Chicago. I remember going there as a boy with my mother and father and the joy it brought us to see the dancing waters and the blue expanse of the oceanic Lake Michigan as a backdrop; and the sound of the waterfall over the gray stone sculptures and the spray, jets spouting white plumes into the cloudless sky. I know now that Buckingham Fountain is, to this day, an exuberant celebration of fresh, clear water; the city’s bountiful supply one of its most basic needs.
And somehow, to this converted hooligan in 1750s England, the gift of mercy is expressed in a prayer, “Come thou fount,” as the picture of a flowing fountain, which is the first stanza of his most memorable hymn.
When the living waters flow as a fountain of blessing, Robinson asks that his heart be “tuned to sing thy praise.” These “steams of mercy,” that never cease, “call for songs of loudest praise.” But then a request, “teach me some melodious sonnet.” And right there in those words written more than two hundred years ago is a petition for a new song; new music and lyrics that express praise in a new way; a fresh reflection of the heavenly choir’s uninhibited outburst of exaltation and adoration… “Sung by flaming tongues above.”
Through the decades and centuries, that prayer has been answered. Every generation finds a way. I remember when my good friend and musician, Scott Last, journeyed to Australia to hear a new worship band: Hillsong. He needed to see it for himself. It changed his life. He returned with new energy to write and perform. Out of Australia, a new group started a new wave of creative energy that sparked a global phenomenon. It crossed over cultural, language and denominational boundaries. Today, mega-churches, urban churches, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, Reformed, Independents, Episcopalians, Congregational, all of them, all over the world, sing from the same playlist. “Come thou fount of every blessing…” It has.
I don’t expect it to end. Of course, among our doctrinal purists, there is always controversy: over style and theological implications and content. It is human to think we know better than everyone else.
But in the mid 1700s, as Robert Robinson stood in the front row of one of those great gothic Cathedrals filled with worshippers and the pipe organ opened up all the stops and the stained glass windows rattled and in full voice together they sang “Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, Mount of Thy redeeming love,” I don’t believe for a moment that he imagined the worship wars to come giving the faithful yet one more reason to live in isolation.
On the contrary, he reveled in the power of a melodious sonnet to draw a people into the presence of the Living One and lift us up.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010