Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thanksgiving Hymns

I’m struck with how many of our familiar and loved Thanksgiving hymns come out of particular events in the life of a church or community. How hymn writers conveyed their specific thanksgiving in a way that speaks across time, culture, and experience.

Examples include “All good gifts around us” –
We plow the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand …

The hymn was written in English, extracted from a translation of a poem by Matthias Claudius (Germany) recounting a bounteous feast put on by Paul Erdmann. How’s that for a specific event turned into a classic hymn? (And how’s that, too, for the journey from a man’s dinner into English hymnody?)

Perhaps the most well-known Thanksgiving hymn, from the most amazing circumstances, is Martin Rinkart’s “Now thank we all our God.” Rinkart was a pastor in Eilenberg, Germany, in the midst of the Thirty Years War, a city under siege and decimated by the plague. At the height of the plague, he conducted up to 50 funerals per day. This hymn (especially when seen in the context of its creation) stands as a powerful example of Christian thanksgiving: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. The creation of this hymn shames my thanklessness. And I am reminded of the prayer of George Herbert:
Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.

Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom His world rejoices;
Who, from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace and guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
The Son, and Him who reigns with them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

Monday, November 19, 2007

On making a hymnal, 2

Some more thoughts on why to create a hymnal for a local church:

Theological unity As we are not a denominational church, there is not an official hymnal with distinctly theological, liturgical, historical and practical decisions already worked out. Sure, we could buy into a denomination’s hymnal, but then we would be in the same place as we are with generic hymnals – choosing or ignoring hymns based on their theological appropriateness for our particular setting.

Open the book and sing What if we had a hymnal that you just knew any item in it was apt for this congregation’s history and theology, useful in its regular and seasonal services, and worked in our liturgical structure? Further, what if you could be confident that a person using the hymnal devotionally would not be confused or led astray theologically? Wouldn’t that be great?

A mix of old and new Respecting the old in its given form (I wrote about this previously), without the kind of changes that come from the impatience or arrogance of the present. Embracing the new, especially those hymns that speak freshly in language not likely to be quickly dated. It is amazing to me how many of the old hymn writers (from the work of Newton, Watts, and Wesley, for example) still “speak” today, because their language was fairly simple and straight-forward. Living hymn writers who do the same, and who do not spend a lot of energy bringing contemporary “issues” into their work, will likewise last. Oh, for a book that brings the generations together!

There is of course room for adjustment in regard to the older hymns:

  • Some archaisms might well be changed without harming the poetry or changing the meaning. Why lose an otherwise perfectly good hymn because one word (let’s say it is “fain”) is simply no longer in use, even among English literature scholars?
  • Some – perhaps many – of the 19th century translations into English from German, Latin, even Greek hymns, can stand to be re-done. Isn’t it time for poets and linguists to re-visit powerful non-English texts, and to rescue them for today’s English-speaking congregation.

And there is a risk worth taking on newer hymns. We simply do not know which hymns we could be disappointed with, tired of, or even embarrassed by in a decade. We can make some very well informed judgments. But we cannot know if a new hymn will stand the test of time. It is, after all, “the test of time.” But the risk is worth taking. The beauty of making a local hymnal is that it can be edited, changed, enlarged or abridged in subsequent printings.

Finally, a word about why a hymnal and not a worship book or Psalter:

  • As for a “worship book” – by which I mean a book guiding the congregation through the liturgy of the church especially as expressed musically … well, we’re just not that kind of liturgy here. The book will include Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, a couple of the documents of the church, and Doxologies.
  • In my dreams (well, now my nightmares) there will be a 2nd edition, and it will include a full Psalter. But at present this congregation does not sing the Psalms with any consistent intentionality. (As the music pastor, I acknowledge that this is a self-condemnatory statement.) Better for now to keep this more limited and direct (and get it done), to lead the congregation to become a Psalm-singing community, and to add the Psalms to our next edition.

"Our next edition." Well, let’s get this one done first …

Monday, November 5, 2007

How reading shaped my ministry

Evangelicals began writing about worship at about the time I was in graduate school. That’s a rough generalization and a reckless simplification. Of course it ignores generations of theological and practical reflection on the nature and content of public worship.

So, to re-phrase that: Around 1980 books began to appear encouraging a fresh appraisal of the evangelical indifference to matters of public worship. This was just as I had left graduate school and begun to work as assistant to my church’s music director. Very timely for me. All of a sudden – or so it seemed – evangelicals were taking Sunday morning seriously. We were directed to o the Bible itself to define worship (radical!). We had permission to dip into the history of the Church for forms, materials, and approaches to services. (Being a “free church” came to mean that we were free to pick and choose from anyone anytime anywhere.) Whether historical, creative, or alternative (there was not yet “contemporary”), our services gained from this influx of reflection on divine worship. (Most of us free church evangelicals did not know that phrase in 1980.)

I enjoyed several years of this reading, not knowing that I was being prepared for a vocation in church music. Naturally, I thought I knew what I was in for when I took my first full-time church music gig. Imagine my surprise. Reading prepared me, and then it rescued me. And still it inspires and sustains me. Here then the top of my ministry life reading list, annotated:

Getting started before I knew it:

Worship: Rediscovering the missing jewel, Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror (Multnomah, 1982). Bona fide conservative Baptists, the authors opened the window to my life. “The missing jewel” refers to my next selection. So much has been written on the subject in the past 25 years, but this book holds a special place on my shelf. And just this past week I again found myself looking up something in it – that provided clarity for an issue I was working out.

Worship: The missing jewel of the evangelical church, A. W. Tozer (Christian Publications, n.d.) Sermons preached in 1961. Tozer was a fundamentalist prophet and mystic, if such a thing is possible. He took the Bible seriously and pointed out the myriad ways conservative Christians of his generation did not. He is especially good on the glory of God and the pathetic ways entertainment-oriented “worship” is a travesty. (Yes, ours is not the first generation to suffer from that distraction.) He reads as potently in 2007 as he must have in 1955.

Whatever Happened to Christian Worship? A. W. Tozer, compiled and edited Gerald B. Smith (Christian Publications, 1985) Though I did not get this book until much later, it belongs here for obvious reasons. It needs to be read. I need to re-read it. Again.

Worship is a Verb, Robert Webber (Word, 1985) Yes, without a doubt Robert Webber must be included, in the big story of evangelicals and worship, and in my own story. Though not his first book on the subject, it is probably the first Webber widely read by my generation. This was a fireworks book for me – practical, insightful, inspiring. It began to shape my theology of public worship. I suppose there are many who have read more of Webber’s work, who have not read this. It is one of his oeuvre that I can and do go back to.

Worship: Old and New Robert Webber (Zondervan, 1982) obviously preceded Verb, but I don’t think I’m alone in having come across it much later. Worship was Webber’s primary academic, ecclesiastical, and practical life. You see all his later focus here in his first work. If you have read Webber, but neither of these books from the early 1980’s, well – you’ve read these books. Especially Old and New.

Thank you, Bruce Leafblad!

Dr. Leafblad left Bethel Seminary for Southwestern Seminary at about the time I came to Minnesota for my immersion into full-time church music. So it was a special treat to take a summer intensive with him one summer at Bethel. It is not too much to say that these two books in particular set me on a theological course that eventually brought me to College Church.

The Worship of God Ralph P. Martin (Eerdmans, 1982) The subtitle serves as my annotation: Some theological, pastoral, and practical reflections. Wow.

The Bible: A sustaining presence in worship William H. Willimon (Judson Press, 1981) The Bible is not only the source book of our worship, it is the guide and judge of our worship. I believe worship is a ministry of the Word of God from beginning to end. William Willimon taught me that.

More reading on my own:

Music & Ministry: A biblical counterpoint Calvin M. Johansson (Hendricksen, 1984) Not to mention that the first “piece” I ever had published was a review of this book, Johansson’s work here absolutely crystallized a theology of music rooted in classic biblical themes – creation, imago dei, incarnation, stewardship. I rounded a corner and never looked back. See also his Discipling music ministry (1992).

Jubilate II Donald P. Hustad (Hope, 1993) Dr. Hustad is the dean of evangelical church music. If this work is neither magisterial nor encyclopedic, it is nevertheless a work that must be read and kept close to hand if one is going to be serious about music and worship in this context. Oh, and to be fair – this may have been on Bruce Leafblad’s reading list.

The Church Musician Paul Westermeyer (Augsburg Fortress, 1997). I mentioned this book in an earlier blog. In which Westermeyer argues for the term “Cantor” and champions “the peoples’ song.” These concepts alone would rescue many a church music morass.

And what shall I say? I have hardly begun, and I haven’t mentioned work on hymns proper, or pastoral practice specifically. Oh well, these are all foundational and each has shaped one or more aspects of my music ministry. More on others as they come to mind.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

On making a hymnal

“We sing hymns.” This is probably the best short-hand description of the nature of gathered worship at College Church.

“What are your services like?” “We sing hymns.”

In our morning services we rarely sing congregational songs that do not somehow fit the description. Our evening services have a broader range, but it is a rare evening service that does not include at least one hymn –which we nearly always open the hymnal to sing. “We sing hymns.”

Even when the evening service is led by college or high school musicians, it includes hymns. Now, sometimes those hymns are the standard melodies with an eccentric accompaniment, pace, or harmonization. (“A mighty fortress” with guitar and djembe) Or they may be familiar old hymns with new melodies. (“O love that will not let me go” from the RUF hymnal) Or forgotten old hymns with new melodies that have brought them back to life. (“Before the throne of God above” from Sovereign Grace ministries) At College Church the music does not sound the same from room-to-room, but one thing unites it all: “We sing hymns.”

I have just spent a week out of my office, working on a hymnal to be printed and used at College Church. It is a project long in the making, and long overdue. Almost 4 years ago I disbanded the initial selection committee as I prepared to “complete” the work on my sabbatical. Three years ago I was on that sabbatical, the second half of which (Fall 2004) was pretty much given over to this project. The press of life and work being what it is, the project has moved along in fits and starts since then. This week it moved along significantly. Now if I can just keep it going when I’m back in the office!

Te decet hymnus exists, in part, as a vehicle for reflections on hymns, hymnists, and hymn-singing. It will also chronicle in some obscure fashion the completion of the College Church Hymnal. A few words here about that project.

College Church has used the excellent Hymns for the Living Church (HLC) since its publication in 1974. It is still quite useable, but I am convinced it cannot stay in print forever. (Sometimes I wonder if Hope Publishing Company keeps it in print just for us!) We regularly use about one-third of the selections in it; just under one-half of the selections have ever been sung in morning services. Why not buy a newer hymnal? Briefly:

Text changes – updates often change or obscure the author’s intent, the theology, or the poetry.

Archaism removal – changing Thee/Thy to You/Your often interferes with the poetry. Where a hymn’s language is simply too archaic, we are not retaining the hymn. Otherwise, we are respecting the poetry. (In the case of 19th century translations on non-English hymns, we are more free to make these changes or to find newer translations.)

Political correctness – in many instances it would not be unfair to say that when it comes to hymn-singing (as to theology generally) we do not give a fig for political correctness.

Inclusion of Praise & Worship songs – here is a category of perfectly acceptable congregational song that for the most part is too short-lived to justify putting them under hard covers. HLC may not have been the first to do this (“Pass it on” and “The New 23rd” are in it), but it is a case in point. Printed in 1974, certainly by 1980 congregations were not still singing these items.

Well, and I could say more. Come to think of it, I will say more, as time goes on. For now I will end with this caveat: Kids, don’t try this yourselves! If this project ever ends, it will be an exciting day. But that is one big IF. More on that later.