Friday, February 4, 2011
Oh, Those Darn Lutheran Hymns (or Dirges)
For now I continue to be mystified by those who insist that Lutheran hymnody is dirge-like, somber, and a downer. I have perused the Lutheran Service Book many times and I can find very few hymns that sound like this in text or in tune. There is such a rich tapestry of text and tune available in LSB that even if you might think one a bit somber, you have a myriad of other choices which are not -- in the same section or with the same thematic content. It all makes me wonder of these critics have spent any time reading and singing these hymns or just react on the basic of them being "Lutheran."
I spent the other day at the bedside of a dying man and use the Commendation of the Dying. In it I used a stanza from a hymn that many Lutherans never attempt -- "Lord, Thee I Love." It is a two pager so some groan when they see that the hymn spills over on to another page. Its melody is used only for this text and so some groan when they sing any hymn specific tune (except all those Christmas carols and gospel songs, of course). And it addresses head on the reality of death but it does so from the vantage point of the great hope and confidence we have in Christ. So in one of my last conversations with this man he prayed with me the wonderful words of Martin Schalling:
To Abr’am’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end!
This is depressing? I am sorry. I do not get it. He had tears of joy in his eyes. This was not a hymn he was accustomed to singing. But it drew together his hope and confidence when the last hours of life are there. None of us are isolated from this reality. All of us have known the reality of death for our loved ones or even faced our own mortality. So I continue to be mystified by the idea that ignoring harsh realities is a better track than to confront them with the power of Christ and His resurrection.
I could fill this blog with hymn after hymn, new ones and old ones, short ones and long ones, on all themes and subjects. There is a real and vital expression of our hope and confidence resident in these hymns. Sure, they do not focus solely or even primarily upon the response of the Christian as do most of the generic hymns of protestantism, the gospel hymns and songs of America, and the praise choruses of contemporary Christian music. But they do not dance around the subjects of sin, suffering, and death. They do not deposit our hope in some nebulous feeling or idea (I know He lives because He lives in me). They are oriented toward the means of grace where we have Christ's promise and the pledge of His presence and gifts and grace. Is this not what we want to be sung? Is this not the song that should accompany the liturgy and carry out the door in the hearts, minds, and voices of God's people? Is this not the soundtrack that accompanies our faith and confession in such a way that they speak the same message and sound the same truth?
So I do not get it.... Lutheran hymns are not some terrible burden upon our people or something for which we should be ashamed or embarrassed. Lutheran hymns are part of the faithful deposit, the good tradition passed on to us by our faithful fathers and mothers from generations past. Lutheran hymns should be celebrated and joyfully sung -- not because they are Lutheran but because of the faith and hope they express. They remind us that Christ's story IS our story -- the only story that offers redemption to counter the death and destruction that is our story because of sin.
Another day I will talk about how we play those melodies and how we sing them... perhaps this might be part of the problem. But for today I will let this stand. Lutheran hymns are a gift to the church at large and they continue to speak to the world what we believe, teach, and confess. And some of them have proven to be the most popular hymns in Christianity -- i. e. "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." So you will get no humility from me when it comes to the great treasures of the faith we call "Lutheran" hymns.