Church Life

Rainy Days and Hymn Sings…

It's raining, a lot and still, and I needed a little boost before undertaking my sermon, so I decided to read a chapter of Alexander McCall Smith. I found Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni headed to worship at the Anglican Cathedral with their orphaned foster children.

Mma Ramotswe read through the service sheet. She did not approve of the day's choice of hymns, none of which was known to her, and she quickly moved on to read the parish notes. (from In the Company of Cheerful Ladies)

Preachers, have we all been there? We choose thematically compatible and theologically sound hymns, only to receive the reaction above: disapproval. And it is hard to recover from that disapproval. It is deeply felt and strongly held and seldom relinquished, no matter how tuneful or simple the hymn in question may be.

This week many of us will face the gulf in hymn preferences when we hold what is known as a "Hymn Sing." If organists are brave and flexible, congregants will shout out the numbers of the hymns they want to sing. I've not had one of these before, mostly because in my first call I had a musician who wanted more time to prepare and it simply hasn't arisen in my interim positions, where we have scheduled a patriotic sing-song at the beginning of the service closest to the 4th of July rather than a free-for-all Hymn Sing.

But my current organist is game, and so we will have one on Sunday to begin the service.

You will note that I am willing to sing the patriotic hymns. I have come to feel that since there is no other place we sing publically in groups, we may as well set some time aside for them, as long as the civic holiday does not push aside the reason we are gathered to worship.

Which is Jesus Christ, in case we'd forgotten.

I recently received a printed list of hymn suggestions, which I happened to recognize as the same list I received in a handwritten version when I arrived at 1FP. It came from a congregational survey several years ago, or so I am told. It includes what I consider to be the usual suspects. We've sung most of them over the past year, so I must admit it bothered me to be given the same list again as if I had ignored it. I love many of the hymns on the list. I choose among them regularly, in fact.

In this particular church, part of the tension comes between those who would prefer to use only the 1950s-era Pilgrim Hymnal and others who want to make use of the mid-1990s New Century Hymnal, both of which are in the pews of both churches I'm serving now. I've been critiqued for using both and either. I've been critiqued for going back and forth within the same service. Really, I've been critiqued for doing my job, which in my understanding is to choose hymns that support the total worship experience by illuminating the scriptures in yet another way.

I sang in a church choir for many years at Large Church, and perhaps that experience ruined me for other churches. The anthems and the hymns there expanded on and expressed further the themes of the lectionary. At Small Church, working with a young and cooperative musician, I helped choose music for the small choir that did the same thing.

I miss that.

I miss the spirit of cooperation and I miss the exploration of the meaning of our faith and our holy texts through the medium of music.

Yes, I like to sing "O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee."

Heck, I even like to sing "Onward Christian Soldiers," or rather, I like to sing the tune, which is one of the most stirring ever written. *I* understand that it is a METAPHOR. The trouble is the foe in some cases is right within the church building. The trouble is being set up to feel like the foe, despite all best attempts to provide faithful leadership in the local church context.

Some of you know what I'm talking about, and I don't mean that you know the secrets of my situation, I mean you've been there, on the receiving end of "helpful" lists of suggestions that are in fact weaponized.

I will resist the temptation to reply with the dates on which the particular hymns have been sung in the past year.

"She did not approve of the day's choice of hymns, which were not known to her."

Yes, there is nothing new under the sun, or under the rain, in my case. We have these issues everywhere. We believe a piece of music or poetry that touches us will open God's word for others, when people want a cup of coffee or a report on the take from the bean supper or the chance to sing a song they know so well they don't even have to think about what the words mean.

This bothers me, because words mean a lot in my life, the words of poetry or hymns or, frankly, scripture. And I wonder what people actually hear. I wonder if they listen. I wonder if they care.

Before I begin to wrap myself in the mantle of John Adams, I will stop. Expect something about "1776" soon, though, because it's that season even if it's not that weather.

Yours on a rainy day,

12 thoughts on “Rainy Days and Hymn Sings…”

  1. *SO* there with you. I’ve always understood hymnals as intruments of theological pedagogy, and congregational resistance comes across as a bunch of grade-school kids holding their breath and sticking their fingers in their ears to keep from learning. The “hymn of the month” trick was the only thing that seemed effective in getting them to sing Unto the Lord a New Song.
    Speaking of new songs, I think I need to be initiated into the greatness of “1776.” I’ve somehow never actually heard/seen it. (Our family’s requisite 4th-o-July musical was always “Music Man,” due to early imprinting via community theatre productions. I’m ready to expand my horizons.)

  2. Ha! I quoted from that same 1776 song back in February in a post. I KNEW I liked you!
    I must confess that I haven’t gotten caught in the tangled web of hymn-singing. Most of the time the organists/musicians at my churches have lifted that load, with occasional interference from me! I do, however, commiserate, as music is a force to be reckoned with. If I tangle with anyone it tends to be the altar guild. I was accused of being inflexible because one year in December I wouldn’t let them decorate for Christmas before the fourth Sunday of Advent. Go figure!

  3. Patriotic hymns . . . .we know that issue well in my church. Our nod to July 4th this year is singing the NCH version of America the Beautiful. Unfortunately however, the person who’s in charge of choosing music (in our pastorless and music leaderless state) asked the guest organist to play Stars and STripes forever as the postlude — after communion and our traditional Let Their Be Peace on Earth congregational benediction response. Grr!

  4. I read in another pastor’s blog post today the notion that love of country is one way of understanding love of neighbor. What do you think of that?

  5. Hi there–
    I see what you see. 😉
    I live exactly there, actually–trying to balance exegesis, theology, pastoral concerns, musical concerns and the ever-elusive “style” question with every hymn I program.
    It’s complicated.
    I’m thinking of an “adult education” series next fall, unpacking a variety of hymns and trying to get people talking about them from more angles than “I like this one.”
    Of course, it might do nothing about the fact that they just like what they like…

  6. Been there as well. Through a sermon series and children’s sermon series (which quite frankly was more for the adults) on the elements of worship, I’ve tried to take all of our discussions regarding worship from “I like this” and “I don’t like that” to a deeper theological reflection on why we do what we do. Sadly, not many have been willing to go there with me – except the kids got it.
    Liturgy=work of the people. It is indeed work for people to get beyond “worship is all about me” to worship is only about bringing glory to God.

  7. A voice from the pews:
    I honestly do not think that most people in the pews understand the hymns are a “part” of the “theological pedagogy”….I do, at least I think I do, and I don’t even know what that expression means.
    How about this view: Church services are, in part, a place to receive comfort. They are a place to fill the tank of spirituality in order to go out and spread the Good Word. (I know that is not All they are, but it is some of it)
    Music is a primal source of comfort for many, many, many people. When there are words attached to the music, it works both sides of our brains. Using new music that is thematic to the service is wonderful, but is often incredibly uncomfortable and not nurturing.
    Like I said, just a view from the pews. (I love new hymns, please don’t shoot this messenger.)

  8. Sherry makes a great point. When we adopted the NCH we didn’t abandon the red Pilgrim hymnal. Both are in the pews. For a couple of years we sang from both at a service; now it’s mostly from the NCH. But at Christmas, and often at funerals, the hymns are from the Pilgrim hymnal. At times of stress we need the familiar. On the other hand, because we’ve intentionally been using NCH, some of the “new” hymns are now familiar ones. As our pastor (at the time of NCH purchase) and music director kept saying – “even Onward Christian Soldiers” was a new hymn once!!”

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