I confess. I have a love/hate relationship with 19th century gospel hymns.
I generally appreciate and embrace their very personal, intimate language - but I cringe at the prevalent "lover" language in them. ("Jesus is my boyfriend" is not only a 20th century phenomenon.) I love the story-telling element of the gospel - but generally feel that they are weakened by their refrains. Some are actually fun to sing - at the same time I have to admit that this feels like a guilty pleasure.
And at College Church, frankly, we just don't sing this repertoire much. A bit in our evening service, rarely in the morning. I hasten to add: this is not a decision based on my own feelings about the hymns. There has never been a time in our morning service history when gospel hymns appeared in any significant way.
But we do not ignore them. And sometimes, don't you know, the sermon, the context of the morning, the requirements of praise demand one of these hymns.
The past two Sundays have been such services. August 7 opened with that great Charles Gabriel text and tune, "I stand amazed in the presence" (My Savior's Love). Almost everything negative I said above does not apply to My Savior's Love. It has an interesting melody, the refrain works strongly after each verse, the text is intimate without being maudlin. It is really a fine, fine hymn. But (I said to myself) it is "one of those" hymns. And so it was, until organist H.E. Singley got his hands on it! Writing parts out for trumpet and horn, H.E. scored the hymn such that the tune and text were respected, but that the whole package sounded "classical." Elevated. It was a revelation, and a powerful, joyful way to begin a communion service.
On August 14, casting about for a closing hymn, I asked the morning preacher, junior high pastor Eric McKiddie, how he'd like us to go. He shot back immediately, "can we use Hallelujah! What a Savior"? (Man of sorrows, what a name) and continued, "the second verse summarizes the point of the text ("in my place condemned he stood") and besides, it's my favorite hymn." Well, that was a no-brainer then. As with My Savior's Love, text and tune are by the same hand, in this case Philip P. Bliss. The gospel is clear, intimate, complete. There is not actually a refrain, but each stanza ends the same, "Hallelujah! What a Savior!" The dangers with this hymn is that it can either be all-out rollicky gospel, or funereal. Again, we were led through the singing of this hymn at a perfect pace, thoughtfully, majestically even. (I would never have considered Man of Sorrows a majestic hymn, but there it was!). Elevated. It was a revelation, and a powerful, thoughtful way to conclude the service.
Following confession - repentance. Trust these old hymns that have staying power. Trust your musicians. Trust the congregation. Stay out of the way, and let the gospel sing in its many forms. It will be truly elevating.