Friday, February 4, 2011

Oh, Those Darn Lutheran Hymns (or Dirges)

I have been following several discussions and several blogs on the subject of Lutheran hymnody.  There are several issues being addressed.  One is the idea that in order to help new people develop a taste for Lutheran theology we have to give them Lutheran hymns (and liturgy) in little dribs and drabs.  Another idea is that Lutheran hymns are by nature somber and rather funeral like and we have to import so-called gospel hymns to spice up the mix and make things more happy.  Another idea is that hymns don't matter -- that as long as the meat it there in the Law and Gospel of the sermon (and maybe the liturgy), you can use whatever hymns you want -- they are nothing more the condiments to the main course.  Finally there is the idea the hymns are both expressions and confessions of our faith and witness we sing to those around us and to the world and that they need to express our theology and speak the Word faithfully just like the sermon.  I will let you guess where I fall.  And I have written about this before...

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:

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
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.


knittin' mama said...

I'm a mother with small children. I'm doing good on many Sundays to be able to listen to half the sermon. If Law and Gospel are not present in the hymns and liturgy, I may well miss hearing them. (Thankfully, I know most of the LSB liturgies by heart, so I can still sing them while attending to the needs of a three year old.)


Dr.D said...

In a youth oriented culture, any Christian hymns that deal with the great test we all face with approaching death is certainly going to be considered a downer. For people who believe that this world is all that there is, and that includes many, so-called Christians, to talk of death is absolutely not allowed. That only happens to someone else, someone I don't even want to know.

Matt said...

"Heirs of the Reformation" gets more time on my iPod these days than anything else. I've been collecting "church music" lately and this is simply the best recording I know of. Anything from the Ft. Wayne Kantorei is a close second.

Heirs of the Reformation is available for digital download at Amazon for $17.98 for 45 songs. If you have ANY respect for great church music, this will blow you away. And I'm in no way affiliated with CPH!

And "Lord, Let at Last Thy Angels Come" is simply one of the deepest, most beautiful, most profound, most moving, most true things I've ever heard. Reprinting the stanzas doesn't do it justice,you have got to hear this!! I don't know the correct musical terminology, but what the voices do in that piece reinforces the theology.

The idea is one of courage, even joy in the face of mortal death in the ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY that we will be physically resurrected to meet our Savior face-to-face in salvation, not judgment.

What can possibly be more Lutheran than that?

I hope that when my final day in this life comes that I will have this song in my ears and a faithful pastor speaking Christ's absolution for me one last time. I will be smiling.

To quote the movie Legends of the Fall: "It was a good death."

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

My wife wanted to sing "Who Knows When Death May Overtake Me" from the TLH at our wedding... Not depressing at all.

X said...

As a recent convert, I can say that many Lutheran hymns sounded sad to me. I'm not a musically inclined person, I can only tell you how the tunes and keys made me feel. I jumped from contemporary worship to TLH in one fell swoop and it was quite an adjustment. My best friend went from Baptist Hymns (upbeat, happy, marches) to Lutheran Hymns and it was hard for her to adjust as well. It took two years for us each to not hear them as sad anymore. I think it has something to do with medieval music styles, and maybe that Lenten hymns are in a minor key... I don't know. I'll re-evaluate the Lenten hymns soon enough.

I think much of it has to do with the fact that other music is written to tug at your emotions, and Lutheran Hymns are not. Suddenly, without having the music tell you how to feel, there's a new emotional-emptiness period that you have to go through until you respond naturally to the content of the words.

So, that said, I could never go back to CoWo or even Baptist Hymnody. I love being Lutheran.

Rev. David Rubke em said...

"Lord, Thee I Love With All my Heart" is one of the most moving hymns that the Church has been blessed with, especially the final stanza. I want it sung at my funeral.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Pastor Peters!

The responses of these posts proves your point, if nothing else! Reading these folks gives me great joy.

Yesterday, we had a funeral at Mt. Olive. The family had in mind some good hymns, but what would be our recessional? Their choice: "For All the Saints Who From Their Labors Rest"! Brought tears to my eyes.

Dr. D gives a good point, but I'd push it further. It's not just a youth oriented culture, it's a culture in which even warfare has become antiseptic and removed from reality. Lutheran hymnody, which proclaims the crucified Christ, is necessarily bloody and violent - that is what brings us peace (thank you, Isaiah).

Dr. D is correct, but, if the good Dr. were friendly to it, I'd add that we're reluctant to allow any talk of the violence that delivers us from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

By the way, "Lord, Thee I Love" is one of my all-time favorite hymns.

God bless!
Pastor Kevin Jennings

LoieGarb said...

I've heard the same songs played and Sung with joy (if appropriate)and at another church as if the organist is dreading being hung. A lot has to do with the musicians. They need to play like they mean the words. I think that if the words are theologically good then we should try new styles of music, assuming that the style doesn't detract from the message. It is good to help the congregation understand that some hymns are meant to be hymns of thanks for what God has done for us and others help us pray. Some teach. There are over laps of course . If a church totally refuses to consider a certain style of music, but it is theologically sound, I think that is saying, in effect, that we don't honor our God who gave that Christian composer his/her talent.

Anonymous said...

I too love this hymn. I'll be going to a funeral tomorrow and just happened to receive the bulletin today. It's All Saints Day on the church calendar, so that's very appropriate but there will be no congregational singing. Someone will be singing Amazing Grace, but that's it. It will be the first Lutheran funeral that I've attended without congregational song. What a shame. We seem to be losing our Lutheran heritage in song.

In Christ,

Unknown said...

I think it's not the songs themselves, it's the way they are sung. In many churches folks seem to be more interested in hearing their own lovely voices than in praising with feeling. Sure, everyone loves a well prepared choral presentation, but I'd rather hear the guy behind me singing with feeling than academically perfect tones. I hope the lady in front of me doesn't mind that sometimes I crack the notes because I am distracted by how the words have overwhelmed me.

kbruun said...

I'm teaching a Sun sch class on Luth worship for a small LCMS congregation. They pretty much love the LSB hymns, sing them out so well! But I can understand why some people struggle with them. I think the comments of the recent convert are well taken. There are communities where the hymns are forms of pious entertainment rather than robust and sometimes challenging extensions of the Word. Luth hymns are not sad, but they are heady, requiring thought and time to acclimate to the style. The answer is to help people do that, not to give up on the hymns. (They will sing Holy God We Praise Thy Name at my funeral because it is the first hymn I ever learned as a child, and we still sing it now and then!)

MamaD said...
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