Friday, June 28, 2019

For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. . .

Rightly or wrongly, Lutherans have been associated with the reintroduction of hymnody.  To some, especially those affectionados of the Latin Rite, hymns are an often unwelcome intrusion to the sacred texts assigned to the liturgy.  The cry of those is to sing what is in the missal, not to sing hymns.  Still, it is impossible to see how hymnody can ever be forgotten or banished from what happens among the faithful when they gather on Sunday morning.  So, for better or for worse, hymns are here to stay.

If that is the case, then what we sing should be a singularly important issue for those who plan worship.  It can never be a matter indifferent.  Hymns have become too important to overlook what is said in them (I should have said sung in them).  Equally, the melody should also be of importance since music is not neutral at all but itself conveys a message, sometimes even more strongly than text.  Think how many of us like the sound of popular songs even though we cannot recall more than a few of their words.  This is because music is a powerful medium, sometimes even more lasting it our memories than words.  So if hymns are here to stay, then let us work for that which is richer, rather than settling for that which is poorer.

When things are going well it is easy to pray, easy to believe, and easy to worship.  It is precisely when our world falls apart that hymns are most valuable.  We sing the faith by singing the hymns that have been written and sung through the ages by those who voices were equally challenged by the changes and chances of this mortal life -- just as we are now.  We cannot afford the luxury of shallow texts or music that detracts from the words even when life is good, we feel great, and faith is easy.  For when we face sickness or challenge, persecution or trial, our memories will fail to give us strength and power and the empty words and discardable melodies of the good times will surely fail us in the bad times.

Words matter to a Church and a faith in which we confess the Word made flesh, the Word that proceeds to accomplish God's purpose in sending it, and the Word that brings faith to hearts closed to belief.  Words matter and what we sing matters.  Not every hymn must confess every doctrine or give an unabridged rendering of what we believe but they must be orthodox in theology, solid in substance, rich in poetic image, and elegant of language.  These are the hymns that survive, that are sung down through the ages, and that are taught to children.  Words matter and hymns become the sung form of our vows to know only Christ and to make Him known.

If words matter, then music matters.  Music is not an indifferent medium but has the power elevate the words or mask them entirely with an identity that ends up competing with a text -- no matter how profound those words.  The music for hymns should be well-crafted, appropriate to the text, singable in range, without so complicated a rhythm that attention is drawn away from the words, and lacking in the kind of sentimentality and saccharine sound that makes it prove unusable over time or an embarrassment to another generation.  We all know when text and tune have married together to form something bigger and more profound than either alone.  This should not be a rarity.  This needs to be the norm.

Certainly among Lutherans a liturgy without hymns is the odd man out but hymns have become a staple of every theological tradition.  If this is true, then those who plan worship and those who lead it must give more than passing attention to what is sung and to the tunes with which we sing it.  Anything less and we have not simply squandered the gift of hymnody but abused the faith itself.  The marriage of text and tune, the wedding of liturgy and hymns, and the union of yesterday's voices with our own are worthy of our most profound attention.  Our failure to give such attention to hymnody will leave the Church and each of us Christians worse, poor, and ailing.

1 comment:

James said...

Pastor Peters wrote: "We sing the faith by singing the hymns that have been written and sung through the ages by those who voices were equally challenged by the changes and chances of this mortal life -- just as we are now."

I respond: "Worship is prayer put to song." Otherwise, why bother?