Monday, October 26, 2015


It seems hard to find people in the middle when it comes to music in the service, specifically to hymnody.  One either thoroughly loves hymns or one finds them a nuisance.  I have folks in my parish who positively swoon over hymns and others who would be extremely happy if there were no hymns and no singing whatsoever.  I once thought it had to do with singing ability but I am not sure that is the full explanation for it.  Surely people who love to sing are more likely to love the hymn more than those who do not sing but there are really very few people who never sing.  Listen into the shower songs belted out or the sound of the back up singers driving down the road to the radio and you find that even people who cannot sing, sing.

Some of my Roman Catholic friends think that hymns are overstated and should be reserved for the offices and eliminated entirely from the Mass.  Of course, many of these are the same folks who idealize the Latin Mass wherein the hymn is, if anything, something out of place.  The Roman pericopes include appointed texts for things that Lutheran typically fill in with hymns or sung parts of the ordinary.  These folks really do not get my appreciation for the hymn.  It is for them a tolerated thing and not really something of great affection.

Other of my friends think that a hymn or two and a few well chosen stanzas are well enough for the non-Roman traditions and they positively cringe at the good Lutheran chorales and their 20 or 30 stanzas.  They shake their heads in disbelief when I suggest that you cannot even get warmed up until you plow through 6 or 8 stanzas.  Sadly, many of my own members sympathize with these folks and I hear an audible groan when they turn the page to the hymn on Sunday morning and see it spill over two pages with many stanzas.

You have probably heard the old saying that if you really want to know what your people believe, find out what is their favorite hymn.  It may be more than you bargained for... the popularity of In the Garden and Amazing Grace and The Old Rugged Cross seems to transcend the fact that many of such songs are not even in Lutheran hymnals (or have been slightly altered for theological purposes, in the case of Amazing Grace.  I know that there is truth to this.  Hymns are the theology we sing -- except when we love to sing bad theology and then these hymns become like guilty pleasures.

I have found it useful to find out what hymns are more typically sung in a parish as a good barometer of their theology and identity.  Shockingly to me, but perhaps not to you, many parishes sing the same hymns over and over again.  Look at the worn pages in the hymn section and you may be surprised at how small the hymn repertoire of many parishes truly is.  I wear it as a badge of pride that we completed Lutheran Worship and our transition to Lutheran Service Book with only a dozen or so hymns of LW that we had not attempted.  We sang All Who Would Valiant Be to both tunes and even though we are predominantly white, we sing with gusto Lift Every Voice and Sing.  We do this along with the great Lutheran chorales of Gerhardt and so many others.

Some are rather snobbish about hymns -- the hymns we all love to trash -- but I will admit to my own guilty pleasures.  I do sing Earth and All Stars and Father Welcomes All His Children and continue to hum their melodies throughout the week.  At the same time I love to encounter hymns that have laid forgotten along the side of the aisle -- the kind of texts the Matthew Carver at Hymnoglypt is do adept at finding and translating.  I love hymns, love to sing them, and find them some of the most effective means of teaching and expressing the faith.

As I sing Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart I cannot but remember the many with whom I sat and prayed the commendation of the dying, some of whom heard the final stanza as their last words this side of glory -- including my own father.  The tune may be part of it but the text is the central element of my love and affection.  I am in awe of the craftsmen who have taken pen to paper and created hymns that have been sung for generation after generation -- each one learning to know, love, and pass on these confessions in song.  I must admit that many of the more modern attempts will surely wear out their appeal long before the people stop singing Now Thank We All Our God

Nothing profound today -- just some thoughts about the hymns I love to sing!

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