Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Limerick or Epic Poem

Sunday a member of my parish spoke to me, somewhat in jest though not entirely so, that we might have to have a meeting of the minds to reduce the stanzas of the hymns to a more manageable 3 stanzas from the longer versions (one of which we used that Sunday).  His point was that if it cannot be said in 3 stanzas, perhaps it cannot or should not be said in 15 or 20.  Some of you may be sympathetic to his point.

When I look at the schools of our city and the classrooms where poetry is studied (no one memorizes them anymore), I find the same mentality at work.  Instead of longer poems, the classrooms seem to focus on snippets from the larger works or only on shorter poems.  It is as if we have dismissed the extended odes and epic poetry of other ages as simply too long for us to read or study today.  I am hoping that in other parts of America there are people who will tell me that this is not the case in their school systems.  I am not optimistic about this, however.

We as a culture seem to like soundbites.  In political speech we like slogans or one liners to rally our hearts and people toward a cause.  In liturgical speech we like one liners and so even in traditional churches there is immense pressure on presiders (or worship leaders) to issue forth a sentence or two to define, summarize and transition the elements of the service.  In sermonic speech we like short pithy sermons with enough memorable lines to carry us out the door and into the week.  In song we like those which have refrains that we can belt out when we cannot recall the verses and the bulk of contemporary hymns and songs are of this genre.

Our hymnody has been crippled by this limerick mentality.  The great poetry of the hymns of many stanzas is lost to us -- even when we like the tune we are not so sure we want to sing it that many times.  But the great Lutheran chorales and their many stanzas offer us not only great poetry, filled with rich and powerful images, but the unfolding of the Gospel story (long but still briefer than the actual words of Scripture).

In the face of this, I resist the impulse to skip stanzas or sing the first, third, and last stanza.  Our Cantor knows that if the hymn as 20 stanzas we will sing 20 stanzas.  Our people know it too -- although they live in denial.  Take a read of the wonderful text by Paul Seratus which lays out for us the entire story of the two testaments in verse form (LSB 555):

1 Salvation unto us has come
    By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
    They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
    He is our one Redeemer.

2 What God did in His Law demand
    And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on ev’ry hand
    For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
    And lost is our condition.

3 It was a false, misleading dream
    That God His Law had given
That sinners could themselves redeem
    And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
    That lurks within our nature.

4 From sin our flesh could not abstain,
    Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
    Our guilt was e’er increasing.
None can remove sin’s poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart—
    So deep is our corruption.

5 Yet as the Law must be fulfilled
    Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and has God’s anger stilled,
    Our human nature sharing.
He has for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
    Which over us impended.

6 Since Christ has full atonement made
    And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
    And build on this foundation.
Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Your death is now my life indeed,
    For You have paid my ransom.

7 Let me not doubt, but truly see
    Your Word cannot be broken;
Your call rings out, “Come unto Me!”
    No falsehood have You spoken.
Baptized into Your precious name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
    And I shall never perish.

8 The Law reveals the guilt of sin
    And makes us conscience-stricken;
But then the Gospel enters in
    The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
    No comfort and no blessing.

9 Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
    And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
    With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supply
    The proof that faith is living.

10 All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
    To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God who saved us by His grace;
    All glory to His merit.
O triune God in heav’n above,
You have revealed Your saving love;
    Your blessed name we hallow.

So it is not the 20+ stanzas of "I Come O Savior to Thy Table" which I sang as a child growing up, every month when Holy Communion was offered... But it is a marvel of theological integrity and it is true to the Scripture in telling us the story of our redemption.

I am not opposed to shorter hymns.  I am not in favorite of shortening the wonderful progression of stanzas that some of the longer hymns develop so wonderfully (there are those longer hymns which are just long and not wonderful).

Long not only in stanzas (by today's standards) but also in metrical construction, the Johann Franck text on the Lord's Supper remains a rich and powerful description not only of the gift that our Lord has given to us in this wonderful sacrament but also what it means to participate in the Body and Blood of Christ through this Holy Communion.  Read its wonderful words (LSB 636):

1 Soul, adorn yourself with gladness,
Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,
    Come into the daylight’s splendor,
    There with joy your praises render.
Bless the One whose grace unbounded
This amazing banquet founded;
    He, though heav’nly, high, and holy,
    Deigns to dwell with you most lowly.

2 Hasten as a bride to meet Him,
And with loving rev’rence greet Him.
    For with words of life immortal
    He is knocking at your portal.
Open wide the gates before Him,
Saying, as you there adore Him:
    Grant, Lord, that I now receive You,
    That I nevermore will leave You.

3 He who craves a precious treasure
Neither cost nor pain will measure;
    But the priceless gifts of heaven
    God to us has freely given.
Though the wealth of earth were proffered,
None could buy the gifts here offered:
    Christ’s true body, for you riven,
    And His blood, for you once given.

4 Now in faith I humbly ponder
Over this surpassing wonder
    That the bread of life is boundless
    Though the souls it feeds are countless:
With the choicest wine of heaven
Christ’s own blood to us is given.
    Oh, most glorious consolation,
    Pledge and seal of my salvation!

5 Jesus, source of lasting pleasure,
Truest friend, and dearest treasure,
    Peace beyond all understanding,
    Joy into all life expanding:
Humbly now, I bow before You;
Love incarnate, I adore You;
    Worthily let me receive You
    And, so favored, never leave You.

6 Jesus, sun of life, my splendor,
Jesus, friend of friends, most tender,
    Jesus, joy of my desiring,
    Fount of life, my soul inspiring:
At Your feet I cry, my maker,
Let me be a fit partaker
    Of this blessed food from heaven,
    For our good, Your glory, given.

7 Lord, by love and mercy driven,
You once left Your throne in heaven
    On the cross for me to languish
    And to die in bitter anguish,
To forego all joy and gladness
And to shed Your blood in sadness.
    By this blood redeemed and living,
    Lord, I praise You with thanksgiving.

8 Jesus, bread of life, I pray You,
Let me gladly here obey You.
    By Your love I am invited,
    Be Your love with love requited;
By this Supper let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure.
    Through the gift of grace You give me
    As Your guest in heav’n receive me.

So go for it.  Risk rebellion and unpopularity with your people.  Give them once a week or several times a month the wonderful experience of an epic poem and not just the limerick poetry of the brief hymn, song, or chorus... They may, much as children do about healthy foods, develop a taste for it after all.... But they would ne'er admit it to their Pastors any more than a kid would say to mom, "Ya know, I really like brussel sprouts."


X said...

"In sermonic speech we like short pithy sermons with enough memorable lines to carry us out the door and into the week. In song we like those which have refrains that we can belt out when we cannot recall the verses and the bulk of contemporary hymns and songs are of this genre."

I don't mind long sermons, but I do find that a couple of power-packed soundbites in the midst of a sermon help me to take the lesson into my week (and beyond) better. Is that so wrong? That one bumper-sticker saying can help me remember the point of the whole sermon.

At my church we don't skip stanzas. We might split the song in half or thirds and sing part during the processional, part as the offertory, and part at the recessional (or something like that). What sense does skipping stanzas make? That's like saying "Let's read the gospel of John, but we'll only read the 1st chapter, the 3rd chapter and the last chapter. You're missing so much of the story. With that said, as a Lutheran convert I feel a little empty because I can't recall the words to hymns and sing them throughout my week. They lack a memorable quality, which is a shame since they have so much more to offer than praise choruses. I feel like I'll never have any of them memorized, except for maybe "A Mighty Fortress.." and that's only with the newer tune. The older tune is just too hard to sing.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Sometimes it shouldn't be a issue of length, but being concise. Salvation unto us has come, but it is concise - it doesn't ramble. It gets to the point, and then makes another one and gets to it.

Also, best thing that happened to me in High School was reading the Odyssey. The whole thing - in a poetic translation.

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

Thank heavens some of us LIKE brussels sprouts! (Long hymns) Your comparison of short hymns to limericks warrants another point: Most limericks are dirty dittys. So many of today's praise songs are more than "Jesus Is My Boyfriend" songs. I am repulsed by so many of the female "artists" that sound almost lewd in their breathless singing. Aside from the overheated performance the theology is just like singing one of the great hymns with half the verses left out.

For X: I, too am a Lutheran convert. Rather than lament I can't remember tunes or words, I lament I wasn't born Lutheran so that these great hymns would be burned into my brain and soul.

X said...

@Janis, Oh, I lament that too, sometimes. Then again, if I was born into a Lutheran family, I might not know what I treasure I have.

TSchneider said...

I'm a life long Lutheran and have grown up with many of these hymns, and while I might not have the words for the hymns memorized (even the shorter ones) I've memorized the tunes which remind me of the words they contain. Even though I can't remember all the words I am reminded of the first verse or at least the message of the hymn.
Much of the pressure to cut stanzas from hymns comes from the pressure to keep worship to one hour long and not a minute more.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it funny how everyone can memorize entire popular songs, such as "American Pie" or other songs on the radio but people are reluctant to sing and/or memorize such wonderful treasures as our hymns, which proclaim our faith??

Becky said...

My friend likes "Jesus Came, the Heavens Adoring" so much, she asked several of us friends to write some more verses. I think she has at least five more, now.

TSchneider said...

@Anonymous: I think the reason that many of us can memorize these pop songs, like "American Pie" or "Bohemian Rhapsody," is because we hear them more often. We are immersed them, the radio plays them every three hours and we have them on cds, ipods, or mp3 players that we can listen to whenever we want and sometimes three of four times in a row. It is unfortunate that we do not do so with our hymnody, even though we have such a rich collection to draw from.