A hymnody of honesty

by Greg Asimakoupoulos

It was at Seattle Pacific University, while pursuing my undergraduate degree in biblical literature, that my call to full time ministry was affirmed. It was during those college years that I met the woman who would become my wife, as well. My Seattle Pacific years also introduced me to theological freedom.

Having been raised in a very conservative denomination that prided itself on having a corner on doctrinal truth, Seattle Pacific provided me a refreshing exposure to the diversity of the body of Christ. My horizons were expanded. Professors, staff, and classmates helped me find the courage to break free from a prison-like mindset that had confined my creativity and curiosity. I was invited to candidly explore the world around me in order to articulate my faith and extend what I had understood to be the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom. One of the slogans that SPU has chosen in recent years to articulate this vision has been, “Engaging the Culture, Changing the World,” which resonates well with my experience.

It was also as a student at Seattle Pacific University that I visited my first Covenant congregation. When I found the Covenant denomination, I celebrated the freedom to candidly articulate one’s perspective as well as to engage secular culture and experience. I discovered honesty and candor were values that were inherent in the way the Mission Friends wrote openly about conflicts in their past. I took note of how Covenant historians bemoaned the fact that the first denominational annual meeting had refused to give one delegate (J. G. Princell) the floor because he would have been too disruptive. Should they have included him?

I also noted that early Covenant hymn writers openly acknowledged pain, suffering, disappointment, and doubt as welcomed companions on the faith journey. There was a willingness to pen lyrics that mirrored the reality of the world rather than simply singing about the joys that awaited us someday “beyond the blue.”

It was the willingness of hymn-writing folks like Nils Frykman and Peter Jonsson Aschan to engage the culture by providing their congregations with what I will call a hymnody of honesty. This got me thinking. When I couldn’t find just the right hymn with which to conclude my Sunday sermon, I decided to write my own lyrics to familiar hymn tunes. Taking my cues from the Mission Friend songwriters, I wanted my lyrics to relate to real life. I wanted the person in the pew who would be singing my words to understand what they were singing, to have hymn texts that related to contemporary life in the here and now.

As the Covenant denomination prepared to celebrate its centennial in 1985, I attempted to synthesize the values that defined our history as a movement in a hymn text. Because freedom had been one of the touchstones to which I had responded as one raised in a narrow fundamentalist tradition, I chose to call the hymn, “People of Freedom.” It was written to be sung to the tune, “Thine Be the Glory.”

People of freedom, bonded by a common Lord,
joined as members to one Body, guided by the Word.
Covenanted to each other, let us live in love.
Celebrating truth in oneness as with those above.

Refrain: With joy and singing gratefully we join in praise,
celebrating faith together, unified in grace.

Joined as a family, not by any man-made creed.
But through Christ we claim adoption and from systems freed.
There is nothing to divide us, if in Christ we stand.
Consecration to the Savior is all grace demands. (Refrain)

All those who fear God are companions of our faith,
seeking to obey and honor Him Whom we embrace.
Letting nothing breach our oneness is our firm resolve,
still allowing room for freedom as wholeness evolves. (Refrain)

People of freedom, freed from everything but love,
freed to be emancipators and toward strangers moved.
Captivated by another and their binding need,
covenanted as a family may our love so free. (Refrain)

In the early nineties, the Covenant’s Department of Church Growth and Evangelism introduced a lifestyle evangelism initiative they called Bringing My World to Christ. That gave me an opportunity to write a hymn for our congregation in Northern California to sing as we brought forward lists of names for whom we would be praying and befriending in the coming year. “We Bring Our World to Christ” was written to be sung to the tune for “Be Still My Soul.” It was later incorporated into the consecration service at subsequent annual meetings.

We bring our world to Christ because he loves it.
A world for which he suffered, bled, and died.
A world of pain known by first names and faces
with fragile egos, anxious hopes and pride.
A world unreached with knowledge of salvation.
A generation we’ve been called to serve.

We bring our world to Christ through acts of friendship.
A listening ear, a hand that reaches out.
Making the time to get to know our neighbors.
Discovering their passions, fears and doubts.
Extending mercy when their hearts are broken.
Transparently, acknowledging our pain.

We bring our world to Christ convinced he’ll use us.
Just as we are, we’re partners in his plan.
We choose to be the salt and light he called us,
creating thirst for God in this dark land.
We bring our world to Christ anticipating
the varied ways he’ll choose to answer prayer.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, I went to my keyboard to find words that would provide a vocabulary of trust and affirmation for my flock. The result was a hymn text titled, “God Remains Our Source of Courage.” It can be sung to the tune normally associated with “Come All Christians Be Committed.”

God remains our source of courage when we’re traumatized by terror.

When we’re haunted by the headlines and the violence everywhere.

Hear God whisper in the silence, “Don’t despair, I’m in control.

Hurting hearts and broken cities will at last one day be whole.”

God recalls that tragic Tuesday when twin towers disappeared,

when three thousand people perished and our hearts were numbed by fear.

Yet God whispers these years later, “Justice will in time be done.

I will stand with those who need me ‘till my Kingdom fully comes.”

God invites us to be trusting when we find that faith is hard.

When we’re fearful for our safety and our nerves are frayed or jarred.

Still God whispers in the silence, “Even when your faith is weak,

I will keep your feet from stumbling when your way is dark and bleak.”

Two decades later, against the backdrop of the death of George Floyd and the January 6 attack on the Capitol, I recognized the need for lyrics to verbalize our longing for justice in a country blind to racial equality and morality in government. For our congregation, I wrote “We Cry for Justice.” The tune I had in mind was the one ordinarily used with “Be Thou My Vision.”

We cry for justice when truth is ignored.

We advocate for the innocent poor.

We pray for mercy and model God’s grace.

We are God’s arms and God’s hands and God’s face.

We cry for justice when it’s been denied.

We stand with victims when they’ve been deprived.

We voice our protest when children are harmed.

We feel God’s anger and sound the alarm.

We cry for justice when crime seems to pay.

We resist leaders who lead us astray.

We fight for answers for those without homes.

We base our values in Scripture alone.

We cry for justice and make it our cause.

We work to override ungodly laws.

We ask each other “What would Jesus do?”

We won’t give up ‘til our mission is through.

In the case of this last hymn, after having our congregation sing it, I shared it with a worship leader at Good Shepherd New York, an Episcopalian church in the heart of Manhattan whose online services I’d discovered during the pandemic. I was delighted to tune in one Sunday to see “We Cry for Justice” incorporated into their service.

My initial inspiration to write original lyrics for Sunday use was encouraged first by historic Mission Friends I had never met. My creativity has also been prompted by later Covenant hymn writers who I’ve known and with whom I’ve served. These include lyricists like Bryan Jeffrey Leech, Roland Tabell, Rick Carlson, Bob Stromberg, and Rick Lindholtz.

With all that is going on in the world around us, the church of the 21st century needs pastor-poets who will compose words to sing on Sundays that acknowledge suffering, injustice, war, as well as our ongoing call to change the world for Christ’s sake.