I grew up in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. Although as conservative as all-get-out, they were not Bible Belt. Beer flowed free, the psalms were chanted and Fanny Crosby's fundamentalist, merry-go-round music did not make the set list. Neither did "Rock of Ages." In fact, I never heard the hymn until the 1974 release of "An Evening with John Denver," where John did a cover of Tom Paxton's satrical "Forest Lawn." A bridge in that song uses the traditional tune, but gives it a capitalist tweak:
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me, for a slightly higher fee..."
That one bar was enough, the hymn sounded sappy to me. It dropped another notch when I heard it was written by Augustus Montague Toplady. What kind of a man has a name like that? Somehow I managed to avoid any further exposure to this ubiqutious piece until around 1999, when now one morning in our Presbyterian church, it jumped from the bulletin. How did that song, make it into this church? Never matter, I would have to sing it. But, when I opened the blue, Trinity Hymnal to #500, it read "Tune: James Ward." Now, wasn't he the curly-mopped, piano & horns rocker who played Pittsburgh in the '70's? What's with that? The plodding, slow, chords opened and two minutes later I couldn't see the page, my eyes flooded with tears.
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in Thee.
Let the water and the blood, from thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin, the double cure.
Cleanse me from its guilt and power."
Who would'a thought, but hymns are making a big come back over the last decade. In a kind of Darwinian struggle meets sweet providence, the strongest have survived three centuries, been resurrected from near death and married to modern, singable tunes by the likes of Matthew Smith & friends at Indelible Grace. Given its fame in the history of hymnody, it's not suprising that James Ward wasn't the only one to take a stab at new melodies for Toplady's lyrics. Colorado Springs' own Danny Oertli does the song honor with his own creation.
Not the labor 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.
You can smile and relax in your parenting when your children start to bring home the good, the true and the beautiful. And so it was when my daughter recommended I check out "Rock of Ages" by a band called Page Cxvi. We're back to the question, "What kind of a name is that?" Turns out it's kind of quirky - the page number from who knows what edition of C.S. Lewis' "The Magician's Nephew," where Aslan sings the universe in to existence. Anyway, Latifah, the vocalist with thick, black, hipster glasses, uses the original Thomas Hastings tune. She leads off with the customary plodding piano but by the time she hits "Wash me!", the song's soaring so high even Christopher Hitchens would have lifted his hands in praise.
I'm looking forward to the concert-of-all-eternity at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Maybe Bono will lead us in a New Song, but when it's time to spin the oldies, right before we stand for Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," I'm hoping to kneel down and sing with Mr. Ward, "Rock of Ages."
Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, 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 judgement throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.