Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Third Stab

Here is my "third stab" at the burial hymn I have been asked to write for someone near and dear. Today my creative juices have been stimulated by the publicity over a new "Reformation Hymn" by Stephen Starke, which in my grade-book gets a solid C+. I'm not sure it's really a Reformation hymn.

Reformation Hymns, as I understand them, are lamentations by a church suffering under the hand of wicked leaders, pleading with God to deliver them and to safeguard the true faith. In other words, they're the very thing the Lutheran Church needs today. Concordia Publishing House's promotion of the new Starke hymn is a clue as to which side of the game they're batting for.

On a secondary level, proper Reformation hymns celebrate the key doctrine of the evangelical church: justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. Starke does hit this note, which is why I give his lyrics a passing grade. The style is a little wanting, however (and that goes also for Jeffrey Blersch's so-so tune). At times I wonder whether the terms with which he describes the Gospel are really Lutheran, or merely the kind of generic evangelical language that easygoing Lutherans are all too eager to accept at face value - even when it is possible that a different spirit hides behind it.

All this hoopla about the "enduring Word of God" smacks, to my senses, of a Protestantism stripped of the distinctive influences of Luther and the Lutheran Confessions. Sola Scriptura is not what the Reformation was essentially about. But that's the opinion of a fat, stupid jerk.

So, instead of correcting it with a Reformation hymn of my own (for now), I'm going to use the creative energy unleashed by my dissatisfaction with Starke's hymn to write the following funeral song.
O Lord, in whose mysterious ways
You called our (brother/sister) to (his/her) rest,
We thank you for the many ways
(His/Her) time of life in You was blest.
Teach us by this to count our days,
To do and die as you think best.

O Christ, who in the form of man
Served all, and reigned but from the cross,
Now ris'n and raised to God's right hand:
We learn of You that life is loss,
Death gain, and in Your promised land
All earthly wealth and pomp are dross.

Then, Holy Ghost, renew our lives,
The more when death would stake its claim!
Relieve the grief of daughters, wives,
Sons, husbands, parents, by the Name
That out of fear and darkness drives
The light and hope for which You came!

Now, Holy Trinity, arise
And mend these hearts by sorrow torn;
By mercy, turn our inward eyes
To view that youngest morrow morn
When, at the rending of the skies,
All flesh shall rise renewed, reborn!


Robbie F. said...

I know my this post is going to make a lot of people mad. Maybe I can head off a bit of negative criticism by striking first.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that it is wrong of me to be so harshly critical of faithful, talented people like Starke, Blersch, and Paul McCain at CPH. My answer is: we have to be critical in our evaluation of words and music for worship. The problems in our church, such as "worship wars," not going to be healed by our refusing to discuss them or pretending they don't exist.

A non-LCMS Lutheran pastor, who is also a longtime friend of mine, recently told me I was the only Missouri Synod guy he knew who would dare to say anything critical about, for example, the Lutheran Service Book. Apparently there is a school of thought in the LCMS that we are somehow doing our church a disservice if we say anything against LSB or its contents.

But there is much to be said against them. There are standards we should expect and uphold. Every LCMS hymnal has had a few hymns that congregations really serious about being faithful to the Lutheran Reformation would never use. LSB has an unprecedented number of them. Yet nobody in the synod seems interested in talking about that. When my ex-ELS buddy asks LCMS pastors (other than me) to discuss his concerns with LSB, they clam up. All they have to say is that it's a wonderful, well-laid-out book whose selection of hymns, taken from a variety of spiritual traditions, bears witness to its "catholicity." After that's been said, they seem incapable of finding any fault with it.

I'm sorry, brothers, but that's just plain idiotic. (continues...)

Robbie F. said...

I've addressed the word "catholicity" before. In this context, all that needs to be added is that "catholic" does not mean "representative of a wide range of Christian denominations and schools of thought." Rather, it means "conforming to a minimum standard of doctrinal faithfulness." In other words, "catholicity" is not a matter of where a hymn came from; it's a matter of its contents. Too many hymns got past the editors of LSB in spite of their questionable catholicity (i.e., unsound spirituality). It's a simple, heartbreaking fact.

Bringing these representatives of other spiritual camps under the shadow of our tent isn't going to heal the "worship wars" raging in our church. Having hymns that sample a different spirit in LSB isn't going to win over those who partake of that spirit. It isn't even going to result in peaceful coexistence. On the contrary, to anybody objective enough to judge critically, all that those hymns do is display the division in our church for all to see. It isn't going to get the churches whose practices those hymns reflect to adopt the hymnal and start singing historic Lutheran hymns. It isn't going to make them join hands in friendship with us. It isn't going to stop them from planning how to steal our sheep, bankrupt our congregations, and control the synod's agenda.

They might not even notice that we included samples of their worship music. They might be offended, or amused, or simply gobsmacked at our presumption in thinking such tokens would accomplish anything. But they aren't going to rejoice and say, "Aha! At last here is a hymnal we can share with the old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud, confessional crowd!" That won't happen, any more than the Hispanics will adopt LSB as their hymnal because it has a half dozen token hymns in Spanish.

Meanwhile, so much space had to be sacrificed to make room for this plethora of off-color praise songs that some hymns with real historic, artistic, and doctrinal merit had to be left out. Favorite lines were reworded, favorite stanzas were left out, hymns that make a compelling case for Lutheran theology were cut down to a crude semblance of their former selves, to keep that all-important layout looking good.

To my certain knowledge, decisions about what hymns to keep and what hymns to cut were made by a committee whose members included one who didn't understand the words "My anchor holds within the veil" in stanza 2 of "My hope is build on nothing less." (The line refers to the Hebrew Day of Atonement, when one priest entered the Holiest Place with a rope tied around him, so he could be pulled out in the event that he succumbed to the awesome presence of the Lord.) It's discouraging to think that the sung confession of our church was in the hands of professional experts who laugh derisively at such a metaphor because they can't make sense of it, even to the extent of calling it a "stupid hymn." It's actually a very profound expression of confidence in God's grace in spite of His frowning face.

The message sent by CPH's hymns-and-liturgy experts, on the other hand, is that they're too busy knowing more than the rest of us about what is and isn't good prosody to be bothered by the rank and file's real-world concerns. Concerns such as: does this book confess the same Lutheran faith as The Lutheran Hymnal and Lutheran Worship? Can it really replace them? And if by some chance it is suddenly a sin for members of the same Synod to use different hymnals, is LSB really the best choice for us all be bound to? If so, it means binding ourselves (as Lutherans have never been bound before) to a book that requires more "work-arounds" than any of its direct predecessors. Which leaves us wondering: Are we even in the same ballpark anymore?