Saturday, October 16, 2010

Control Group 10

Here's a hymn that I memorized when the college choir I was in sang it, oh, 18 years ago. Yesterday, it came to mind as being relevant to a project where I work. I typed it up from memory and emailed it to several of my co-workers. And now, on consulting with the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (MorningStar, 1996), I am pleased to discover that my recall was still 100% accurate.
It's been years since I've heard anyone sing this hymn. I owe the fact that I remembered every word of it to a job I vehemently hated the summer after the Bethany choir sang it. The only way I could get through each day was to sing hymns, from memory, while I worked. This was one of the handful of hymns I knew by heart at the time, and one of the more comforting ones in my circumstances. Danish- and Norwegian-American Lutherans have a history of singing this hymn to open church meetings, but in my native Missouri Synod it's never been heard of. The text is George A. T. Rygh's (1860-1942) translation from the original Danish by Johan Frederiksen (1603-41). The tune is from a 1699 Danish hymnbook edited by Thomas Hansen Kingo (1634-1703).

In spite of my avowed distaste for Pietism, and in spite of my origins (and current affiliation) in the Missouri Synod, my experience in the "old Norwegian" Evangelical Lutheran Synod has led me to expect fruitful results if ever the LCMS allows hymns of a Scandinavian Lutheran heritage to enrich its predominantly German roots. Maybe I'm more open to this than the average Missouri Sinner because, by father-son lineage, I am not German either. As a fourth-generation descendant of Québécois francophones, Missouri-Synod Lutheran by the happy accident of Zephyre Poisson's easygoing boy marrying Valentin Erschfeldt's strong-willed daughter, I have to stick with the other outsiders and underdogs. Plus, I've spent a third of my life in Minnesota, where it's almost unsafe to admit that you don't have a drop of Scandinavian blood in your body. So I wear as a badge of honor Dr. Larry Rast's epithet, hurled at me during a church history class one day when I had gotten a little too lippy for my own good: "Norwegian Wannabe."

All this may seem like a lot of hot air to you. After all, who really cares where the hymn came from? Well, let me tell you a story from my own experience. After assimilating into the Norwegian Lutheran culture of my college campus (Bethany Lutheran, Mankato), being still of impressionable age and having a mind wide open to a diversity of musical styles, I thought "In Jesus' name" would be a hit at my home church amid the lakes and forests of the Iron Range. So one Wednesday night at the end of our weekly Bible study, I tried to introduce it to the folks back home. It didn't catch on at all. Everyone scratched their heads at the tune's strange modality and the text's peculiar meter (PM). At least one person, as I recall, commented that they found it ugly.

So, apparently, a mind formed within a Norwegian-heritage can find something beautiful that makes no sense at all to a German-American ditto. One person's heart-string-tugging expression of faithful togetherness is another person's collection of dull, prosaic words set to notes out of a random note generator.

But I would still include this hymn in my "fantasy hymnal," first because I want it to appeal to Lutherans of any heritage, but also because it could at least be read as a private devotion, or perhaps as a public meditation before a parish meeting, a circuit conference, etc. And, thirdly, it could be taught to younger people whose minds haven't yet become too set. In time, a generation of non-Scandinavian Lutherans could arise who "get" the poignant and edifying beauty of this hymn.

Is it a little Pietistic? Not likely. P. J. Spener, the "Father of Pietism," didn't write his manifesto (Pia Desideria, 1675) until over three decades after Frederiksen's death. Though some allowances might have to be made for the fact that, at this stage in history, Pietism can no more be uprooted from Lutheran culture than the tares could be pulled up without destroying the wheat, any concern you may have about the Lutheran orthodoxy of this hymn has nothing to do with Pietism.

Stanza 1 is about work, stanza 2 about worship, stanza 3 about death and the life to come. Thematic throughout the hymn is the idea that whatever we do, it is not in vain if we do it in Jesus' name.

Can Law-Gospel, Lutheran theology really support this claim? Can it support the claim that "ev’ry deed which in [Jesus' name] doth proceed, success and blessing gains"? The answer is No and Yes. No, unless you interpret it correctly; for we can't expect the "success and blessing" that attends every deed done in Jesus' name to be immediate or apparent to all in this life. But also Yes, in the sense suggested by the phrase "till it the goal attains," in the sense that what we do in Christ does move us daily closer to the goal which we will reach in eternity. Jesus dares to promise us that everything we ask in His name will be granted by the Father; but it is the same Jesus who teaches us to pray, "Thy will be done." Scripture repeatedly shows how God's answers to prayer--often including "No" and sometimes "Wait"--are meant to teach us (1) to conform our will to God's, and (2) to persevere in prayer, even when we do not immediately receive the answer we like.

In other words, prayer is to be an exercise of faith, which can only be faith when its object is unseen. But where would our faith be without Christ's promise regarding prayer in His name? Why would we bother to seek God's help in serving His kingdom without the encouragement of such promises as "Every deed done in Jesus' name gains success and blessing"? It's another instance of the principle of Biblical interpretation that prompts the rationally-minded to cover their faces in despair: "The Scripture cannot be broken." Both Jesus' promise ("Whatever you ask the Father in my name," etc.) and the caveat (you can't always get what you want, in the way you want it, or at the time you want it), must somehow coexist in harmony.

Maybe the winning point is this: When you are proceeding "in Jesus' name," what you do will be different. It's not that adding Jesus' name to whatever you decide to do results, as if magically, in success. Rather, your choice of what to do will be influenced, to some degree, by your consciousness that you are acting in Jesus' name. And this hymn is a wonderful reminder of this; I would even say a needful one, after some church meetings I have experienced.

So, when we gather to plan and carry out our agenda as Christ's church in a given place, we must make Jesus' name the beginning and end of all that we do. This is not only so that, as a result of doing what we do in Jesus' name, we may honor God and receive His blessing (cf. the end of stanza 1). Rather, it is also a reminder to see to it that what we do, and how we do it, honors God, because Jesus' name is involved for better or worse; and it is this name by which we are blessed and in which all our good exists, so it behooves us not to bring shame on it.

Stanza 2 is harder to find fault with. It actually confesses the efficacious power of God's Word! It agrees with Christ that our Father is "working still" (John 5:17). So it is easy to see how praising and proclaiming Jesus' name can bring blessing to us: God is at work in the very Word with which we worship Him, in the message that we proclaim, and in the "wonders" (Sacraments) by which He still bares His arm to help us. And finally, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's because of Jesus' name, the name imprinted on us, the name by which God will summon us out of our graves and into His glory.

"Saved by His grace... Live with Him in Paradise..." This is a thoroughly Lutheran hymn. It ends on a Gospel promise without any strings attached. It moves from our works (where, even in church matters, there is always room for doubt) to God's works in Christ (where there is no doubt), and finally to heaven.

IMAGES: Kingo; historic Saude Lutheran Church (ELS) near Lawler, Iowa; the Lutheran cathedral in Odense, Denmark, where Thomas Kingo served as bishop; the chapel organ at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota, on which I took my first organ lessons.

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

Here's an unnerving thought this post brought to mind... Kids starting college this year were born while I was in college!