Nov 1, 2023

William How

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Hymns can trigger powerful emotions in me. “O Church, Arise,” a contemporary hymn written by Keith and Kristyn Getty, is one of those reach-into-my-heart songs. When I sing the final stanza, “As saints of old still line the way, recounting triumphs of the day,” I am transported to the memory of believers gone before us. Saints are not men who play for a professional football team in New Orleans or merely a classification of super-Christians the church has “canonized.” Paul’s New Testament letters are addressed to saints, an equivalent term for believers. Saints are identified not so much for what they do for God, but what God in Christ has done for them. We are saints on account of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, not for any meritorious service on our side. Today is called All Saints Day in the Christian church. The 4th century church set aside a day to honor martyrs and believers persecuted for their faith. By the 8th century, the day was expanded to include believers who had “fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith” (2 Timothy. 4.7). Given all the Halloween hype on skeletons and tombstones, All Saints Day offers a refreshing contrast in honoring believers gone before us. While this sacred day is most often associated with Catholics, Protestants observe it also. Methodist John Wesley called it in his 1767 journal, “A festival I truly love.” He drew strength from meditating on the witness of faithful Christians, past and present. Anglican bishop William How wrote the hymn, “For All the Saints” in 1864 in observance of All Saints Day. When the song first appeared in English hymnals, its heading was “A Cloud of Witnesses,” an obvious reference to Hebrews 12.1. While the hymn originally had 11 stanzas (one for apostles, evangelists, martyrs, etc.), four verses follow here to draw us into thanksgiving for the “communion of the saints.”

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might,
thou Lord, their captain, in the well-fought fight,
thou in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine,
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.