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A Guest Post by Janell Wojtowicz: Hymns of wonder and grace through the ages

Please welcome Janell Wojtowicz to Faith in Writing. She has written a guest post for the Musical Wednesdays Feature. Janelle will be doing a giveaway of her ebook “Embracing Hope.” Leave a comment for a chance to win.

Hymns of wonder and grace through the ages
By Janell Butler Wojtowicz

As I attempted to focus on the words on the screen hanging behind the pulpit in my church, my eyes drifted to the thick black hard-cover hymnal in the rack attached to the pew ahead of me. We’ll use it once—maybe twice—during the service. The words will also be on the screen and lighting will be dimmed so those of us with aging eyes won’t bother opening the hymnal. At least our voices will be projected forward instead of down to the hymnal. Besides, I can’t read music anymore. While I took piano lessons and played saxophone in junior high and high school, the screen has eliminated my need to read music, thus I’ve lost the skill.

While writing this blog, I was drawn to Favorite Hymns of Praise, the old green hymnal from the small town Iowa church of my childhood. In a moment of sentimentality, I had asked my mom several years ago to rescue one before they were recycled. Paging through it I recognized many songs. I was surprised that I knew at least the first verse and chorus by heart even though I had sung them only during my brief pre-college years, at which time contemporary music took over. But when I consider my family was in church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Thursday night, and every special service in between—all of which included a lot of hymn singing—I shouldn’t be surprised the songs lodged in my memory.

After searching the index at the back of the hymnal, I flipped ahead a few pages and there it was! My favorite hymn as a child was “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” written in 1918 by Haldor Lillenas. It became my favorite, in part, thanks to the church pianist who interpreted the clause “deeper than the mighty rolling sea” with the rolling thunder of the piano. As thoroughly as I’ve perused YouTube, I haven’t found a version that comes close to the thunderous force (and speed!) of that pianist, but this comes close.

Back in the Olden Days of the 1960s and 70s, our church would occasionally have Request Nights on Sunday. I’d turn directly to page 470 of that green hymnal and gaze longingly at “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” Yet I was too shy to shout out the page number in front of 75 congregants. My mother would gently encourage me, I’d shake my head, and Dad would come to my rescue.

As an adult and professional writer I see the hymn in a different light. Beyond the energy of the music is the optimism of the words (below). Grace is described as greater, deeper, higher, broader, all-sufficient, matchless, sparkling, transforming. Other uplifting words are praise, free, precious, pardoned, liberty, saved, eternity.

Wonderful grace of Jesus,
Greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it,
Where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden,
Setting my spirit free;
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

Refrain:

Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus,
Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain,
All-sufficient grace for even me!
Broader than the scope of my transgressions,
Greater far than all my sin and shame;
Oh, magnify the precious Name of Jesus,
Praise His Name!

Wonderful grace of Jesus,
Reaching to all the lost,
By it I have been pardoned,
Saved to the uttermost;
Chains have been torn asunder,
Giving me liberty;
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

Wonderful grace of Jesus,
Reaching the most defiled,
By its transforming power,
Making him God’s dear child,
Purchasing peace and heaven
For all eternity—
And the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

Another hymn I stumbled upon brought my grandfather to mind: “Rock of Ages.” I compared the two hymns and noticed the thread of grace woven in both. Yet the generational and ecclesiastical differences of the songs were evident. “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” has straightforward language, and the tune is upbeat and melodic. “Rock of Ages” is filled with thys, thees, and thous—much like Grandpa’s prayers. The tune is reverent and respectful.

Written by Augustus Toplady in 1775 (composed by Thomas Hastings in 1830), “Rock of Ages” is termed a confessional hymn, which comes through in the words:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s demands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyes shall close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown,
see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.

I had sung the song for decades before the word “cleft” piqued my curiosity. It’s one of those olde-tyme words, like nigh (close) and betide (to happen), that I never gave it much thought as a child; it just seemed to fit the antiquity of the song. When I finally looked up “cleft” and learned its meaning—to split—the song made complete sense: Jesus splits the rock between sin and purity, between wrath and grace.

While I love the contemporary songs such as “Even So Come”, “The River”, and “Who am I?”, paging through the old hymnal was comforting. Melodies echoed in my ears; words emerged from my memory. I searched for many hymns on YouTube—what a nostalgic rush it was when I found them! It was reassuring that the songs of long ago in those tattered hymnals with fading embossed covers, broken spines, and torn pages will always occupy a place in my memory, heart, and even the internet.

Embracing Hope coverBook Blurb
University dean Drew McKinley mourns his dead wife with relentless grief. Even as grad student Allison Bennett deals with personal adversities, she recognizes Drew’s anguish from her own loss. Student senate president Chris Whitney bears the secret burden of a dysfunctional family and a just-below-the surface temper. The three cross paths rutted with career upheaval, a reawakening heart, substance and domestic abuse, and the struggle for forgiveness. Will Drew finish his journey to embrace the hope God offers, the love Allison shares, and the guidance Chris needs, or will he turn his back on all three with catastrophic consequences?

Janell Butler Wojtowicz headshotAuthor Bio
Janell Butler Wojtowicz, born and raised on an Iowa farm, was one of those kids who loved to write the dreaded “What I did on summer vacation” essay. She attended the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree in Written Communication/Journalism Emphasis. She has spent her entire 35-year career in writing, including newspaper journalism, Christian higher education and nonprofit public relations, and local government public information. Much of her writing has been the “people stories” of trial, tragedy and triumph, which are reflected in her debut novel, “Embracing Hope.” Janell is a freelance writer/editor, and a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and Romance Writers of America. She and her husband, Frank, live in New Brighton, Minnesota. She has two step-sons, a step-daughter-in-law and three step-granddaughters.

Links
Twitter – @janellwoj
Blog – http://janellwoj.wordpress.com
Author Facebook – www.Facebook.com/janellbwoj
Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16046310.Janell_Butler_Wojtowicz
Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/Embracing-Hope-Janell-Butler-Wojtowicz/dp/1988422043/

Don’t forget, leave a comment for a chance to win an ebook copy of “Embracing Hope.”

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14 comments on “A Guest Post by Janell Wojtowicz: Hymns of wonder and grace through the ages”

  1. Patti Shene Reply

    You have beautiful memories of hymns of your childhood, Janelle! I enjoyed your post. I am not familiar with “Wonderful Grace of Jesus”, but “Rock of Ages” is one of my all time favorites.

  2. melindaedina Reply

    Love this post Janelle. As i was reading I found myself singing along. One if the other songs I always sing is I come to the Garden Alone. Thank you so much.

  3. Elle E. Kay Reply

    Three of us sang this as a trio on Sunday. Inspired by it being the third time this song made an appearance on Faith in Writing. When we finished singing, the Pastor said “now there’s a whole lot of preaching in that song.”

  4. janellwoj Reply

    I almost hate to admit this, but I find much more spiritual meat in hymns than I do many of the contemporary songs and choruses. The strong gospel messages have a cohesiveness in all the verses and refrains; you don’t want to skip a verse or you’ll miss something.

  5. Elle E. Kay Reply

    I completely agree with that statement. It’s probably why I have a blog that is mostly devoted to hymns. 😀 <3 Some of the newer music can be nice, but I love the messages in the hymns.

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