Friday, October 4, 2013

Tacky Hymns 39

Here's another segment in our current series picking on the hymn selection in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006). A reminder, for the sake of those just now joining this thread: in my crusade against "tackiness on holy ground," I am focusing on what strikes me as out of place in the context of American Lutheran congregational singing and liturgy. Before jumping down my throat for expressing the opinions herein, please observe that distinction. Some of this stuff may play well in a performance by a choir or soloist(s), in a public concert, in a private home, in other countries or cultures or spiritual heritages. But I firmly contend that, in the context specified above, this stuff pushes bad taste to the threshold of sin.

ELW hymn 575 "In Christ called to baptize" is a "Vocation, Ministry" hymn by Ruth Duck (b. 1947),1 a United Church of Christ pastor and seminary professor and prolific hymn writer dedicated to "language that is fair and just...whose style and tone is as reverent as it is relevant...that speaks of God in universal terms" (source: her biography on the GIA Publications website). In other words, her career as a hymn-writer has been shaped by a concern for inclusive language. What the first stanza of this hymn does not include, however, is a view of baptism as a sacrament (something God does for us). Instead, it speaks of baptism as how "we witness to grace," etc. While the lines, "In deep flowing waters, we share in Christ's death, then, rising to new life, give thanks with each breath" could be understood sacramentally, they can't be understood in terms of a rite of pouring water over a small baptismal font. Unless you understand all this as metaphorical language, and admit that the Pauline imagery of being buried and raised with Christ in baptism does carry "full immersion" baggage, this could be embarrassing to any Lutheran who actually thinks about what he's singing.

Stanza 2 zooms in on the Lord's Supper, but moves even farther from sacramental thinking. The communion Duck speaks of is horizontal, not vertical: "One table we share, a haven of welcome, a circle of care"—perhaps also a subtle dig against those of us still practicing that mean old fossil, Closed Communion. As for the food we take in this rite, Duck describes it as "one bread" and "one cup of thanksgiving" that "proclaims Christ, our head"—but not as His body and blood. Stanza 3 does make a nice gesture in calling the gospel "life-giving." But then Stanza 4 misapplies Ephesians 4:12 (as many in the "everyone a minister" crowd do), putting in the congregation's mouth a prayer that God would equip them for the ministry, for "in Christ is our calling." Is there a hymn writer out there who will grant that each person's vocation in life—be it parent, spouse, farmer, or laborer—is holy and God-pleasing? Will any hymn-writer dare to say that Christ calls specific men into the office of pastor or evangelist, which He instituted, and forbear to burden each individual Christian with some specious "anointing" or "calling" to do the work of the ministry?2

576 "We all are one in mission" is by Lutheran pastor Rusty Edwards (b. 1955).3 It goes on to make the remarkable claim, "We all are one in call, our varied gifts united by Christ, the Lord of all." Thus it spreads a veneer of truth over the same dubious view of Christian vocation on which I just commented. The Great Commission (to make disciples of all nations, etc.) is indeed directed toward the whole church; but the suggestion that we are all equally called to carry out its functions (by teaching, baptizing, etc.) is deeply misleading, as is the confusion between "our varied gifts" and our public vocation. Stanza 2 admits that "our ministries are different," but this language only blurs the sense of "The Ministry" as a specific office that Christ instituted. It goes on to describe our purpose, viz. the Great Commission, as "to touch the lives of others with God's surprising grace, so ev'ry folk and nation may feel God's warm embrace." This sounds soft and cuddly, to be sure; but it doesn't necessarily mean "making disciples." In fact, these lines would fit right into the evangelism paradigm coined in the last couple of decades, under which any mention of your faith to an unknown person would be considered a "significant event" or a contact for Christ, worthy of being counted on the spiritual odometer of our walk together in mission. Stanza 3 calls for us to be united as "a vessel for God's redeeming Word"—apparently for the purpose of pouring it out on other people. To do that, ought we not be a vessel into which God pours His Word? Where is the awareness that the church is carrying out its mission when it is teaching, baptizing, and forming us? Where is the consciousness that we need the gifts we are in such a hurry to bring to the world?

579 "Lord, you give the great commission" is by Episcopalian bishop and seminary professor Jeffery Rowthorn (b. 1934).4 The great commission of which Rowthorn speaks is: "Heal the sick and preach the word"—revealing an interesting decision in favor of Jesus' sending of the Twelve in Luke 9 over His post-resurrection command in Matthew 28. This counter-traditional choice could enable Rowthorn to place works of mercy on an equal footing with proclaiming the gospel. He does quote the Matthew 28 commission in Stanza 2, in the context of the service Christ calls us to: for, again, "everyone a minister" gets more play than the message that everyone (including we ourselves) is the mission field. Stanza 3 makes the remarkable (for this book) confession that in the Lord's supper, Christ "make(s) the common holy" and says, "This my body, this my blood." This is more than most of the new communion hymns confess (discussed earlier on this thread), but it lacks direct application to the forgiveness of sins. Instead, following through on its overall missionary theme, the hymn prays: "Let us all, for earth's true glory, daily lift life heavenward, asking that the world around us share your children's liberty." In other words, just as we elevate Christ's body in the mass, we ask that God would help us to lift up the lives of our neighbors in prayer that they may be converted and saved. At least, that's what I think it's saying; it's a bit of a poser. Stanza 4 quotes Jesus saying, "Father, what they do, forgive"—but again, it falls short of applying these words to the giving and receiving of forgiveness. Instead, it sends us on a guilt trip for "hoard(ing) as private treasure all that you so freely give," and urges Christ to lead us "to a just society." Stanza 5 returns to Matthew 28 with a fifth snippet of the words of Christ, "I am with you to the end"—making this one of the most scriptural and Christ-centered hymns I have seen found in this book, albeit with questionable application of the text. In this instance, it takes Christ's promise to serve us as such a given that it doesn't comment further on it, rather offering him our service. And finally, each stanza concludes with the same misapplication of Ephesians 4:12 previously noted: "With the Spirit's gifts empow'r us for the work of ministry." If this is being sung by students or candidates for the ministry, or by a gathering of ministers, well; but placed in the mouths of the congregation, they undermine both the distinctiveness of the pastoral office and the sanctity of every Christian's lawful vocation. D+!

581 "You Are Mine" (first line: "I will come to you in the silence") is a CoWo ditty with words and music by Catholic songwriter David Haas (b. 1957), which from beginning to end puts the imagined or paraphrased words of Christ into the mouths of the singers, or (more likely) the soloist(s) or choir. Trust me on this. The irregular way the words fit the melody, the unexpected instruction to skip the refrain after Stanza 1 and go directly to Stanza 2, and the bars of vocal tacet sparsely filled in by instrumental cues make this a number for trained and rehearsed musicians, not for hoi polloi. For all the merits of the text, it could be printed as a tract, or part of a book of devotional poems. What it's doing in the pew hymnal, I can't make out.

583 "Take my life, that I may be" is a modern-language adaptation of Frances R. Havergal's (1836-79) beloved hymn, "Take my life and let it be." Observe: Havergal did not live in Jacobean times. So when, as a modern hymn writer, she deliberately chooses to use Jacobean language (such as "Thee"), do we not owe her such respect as to leave her poem alone? I'm conflicted within myself as to whether a hymn with doctrinal or poetic shortcomings should be "improved" by hymnal editors, or simply left out of the book; but whether or no, I'm not for bowdlerizing or, worse, arbitrarily deciding to rewrite a whole hymn because its style isn't what one wishes. But this argument is not new to ELW, even with regard to this particular hymn. What ELW brings to this hymn is the pointlessly "multicultural" touch of including a Spanish translation of all four verses. Gee whiz, people; if your congregation is bilingual, go whole hog and invest in a Spanish hymnal! These itty bitty crumbs of Hispanic hymnody will only work as a token gesture at best; as an insult at worst. And then there's the matter of the tune. ELW opted to settle the age-long dispute between those who sing this hymn to William Havergal's tune PATMOS (See Lutheran Service Book hymn 783) and those who prefer Henri Malan's HENDON (See LSB 784), not by laying both tunes side by side, but by scrapping them both and using instead a piece of rhythmically tricky, contemporary Hispanic melody titled TOMA MI VOLUNTAD, by William Dexheimer Pharris (b. 1956). After which the anglophone parishioners might as well give the hymn up entirely to their Hispanic daughter congregation, since they're the only type of congregation likely to make anything but a hideous mess of it. Interesting to note: the English stanzas selected for inclusion in this book do not seem to be the same as the stanzas selected for Spanish translation; or at least, they aren't arranged in the same order. That the hymn itself has a certain tackiness in the Lutheran context, I forbear to mention (for now) because long use has made it a sacred cow. The message ELW 583 sends to little old ladies who can scarcely recognize the church they were brought up in: "Adapt or die, or go away. It's all the same to us."

587 and 588 are both "There's a wideness in God's mercy" by Anglican and later Catholic priest Frederick W. Faber (1814-63), first in a modern musical setting by Calvin Hampton (1938-84), then set to the American traditional hymn-tune LORD, REVIVE US. The latter seems more congruent with the character of Faber's text. I've always been left cold by the impersonal language that dominates this hymn, second only to the chant "I don't know, but I've been told" for distancing oneself from the message one proclaims. There's a feeling of vagueness about it. There's a touch of manipulative sentimentality in its reluctance to commit to anything concrete and specific. See what I mean? Lines, like the second half of Stanza 1, that drop a negative into the sentence (such as "There is no place where earth's sorrows are more felt than up in heav'n"), actually come through more strongly—perhaps due to the principle of logic that holds a categorical "no" to be more persuasive than a "sometimes yes." Perhaps another thing that makes me uncomfortable about language such as "There is welcome for the sinner" (Stanza 2) is the question that immediately jumps to my alert mind: "Where?" And the hymn that doesn't answer that question could either leave its hearer in an agony of doubt, or lead him to seek his own answer, however wrong it may be. Stanza 2 hints that there is "healing in [Christ's] blood," but it doesn't say where that blood is to be found. Without prompting the hearer to choose between "the means of grace" and "other, including your own pious imagination," which answer do you suppose he will give? The same stanza opines, "There is grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this; there is room for fresh creations in that upper home of bliss." That could be taken as pure encouragement to trust God's boundless mercy; but in the context of American Protestantism, could it not also be read as sanctioning the ideas of a certain breakaway sect? At last in Stanzas 3 and 4, Faber drops the "there is" construction and begins to make stronger assertions, such as "For the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind," etc. Nevertheless, the latter half of Stanza 3, which complains how "we make this love too narrow by false limits of our own," cries out for more specifics, without which these lines could be read equally as a just condemnation of legalism ("teaching as doctrines the precepts of men") or as a criticism of doctrinal niceties the author may have found too restrictive for his broadminded outlook; and if the author's intentions are open to a range of interpretations, so also will be the ideas that play in the mind of those singing it. I sense some omitted stanzas implied by the "alt." at the end of the credit line, and by a disorienting gap in logic between Stanzas 3 and 4. What is "not all we owe to Jesus"? The answer seems to be lost in the crack between these last two stanzas. Part of Stanza 4 may be read as suggesting that "evil" and "the fall" are good things because they give scope to God's mercy, a facile idiocy of which I hope Faber was innocent; but it's hard to tell.

591 "That priceless grace" is a four-stanza hymn by Emmanuel Grantson (b. 1949), set to a Ghanaian traditional melody. Its repetitiveness is actually disorienting. Stanza 1: "That priceless grace, that priceless grace, that priceless grace which gave me life: Jesus' life is priceless grace. (Refrain:) That priceless grace is life for me." Stanza 2 is the same, except it replaces "grace" with "blood" and "which gave me life" with "was shed for me." Stanza 3 changes "That priceless grace," etc., to "that painful death took sins away." Stanza 4 says, "That precious word, which brought me light," etc. All that it says is good. What you have to go through to find out what it says, is rather trying.

593 "Drawn to the Light" (first line: "People who walk in darkness have sought") is by John C. Ylvisaker (b. 1937), and set to his own tune LA CROSSE. It draws on imagery from Isaiah 9 and Revelation 21, but what it has in biblical credentials, it wants in literary and musical style. Refrain: "Dawn is in sight! Gone is the night, drawn to the light and the morning. Glorious and bright, oh, what a sight to be drawn to the light of God." It's got "for kiddies" stamped all over it; but I think even among children's hymns there are better-written texts and tunes.

598 "For by grace you have been saved" is a Finnish hymn by Kari Tikka (b. 1946), set to his own tune. If I am not mistaken, this Tikka is a composer whose works include an opera about the life of Luther. I like his text. No, that isn't strong enough; I think it's an excellent text—although you have to pay close attention to which stanza is in quotes if you want to keep straight whether you're speaking for Jesus or for yourself; and the fact that an Amen is specifically written in at the end of the hymn, in addition to the Amen at the end of each stanza, undoes years of patiently redirecting organists and parishioners to omit the Amen at the end of a hymn when there's already an Amen in the hymn itself. But why do I think this hymn is tacky? Well, I'm afraid Tikka's tune ARMOLAULU is a bit uninspired. And I am slightly perplexed by the fact that the editors of ELW bypassed this opportunity to include stanzas in Finnish in their book of hymns to the god of multiculturalism, especially given the links between Finnish Lutheranism and the forerunners of the American and Canadian church bodies for which this book was prepared. But mostly, I single this hymn out for attention because, in its very simple language, it knocks most of the other contemporary hymns in this book into a cocked hat. It's not so much that it's tacky in and of itself, as that it makes the tackiness of its more sophisticated neighbors that much more apparent.

1Tune: ST. DENIO, a traditional Welsh tune many will associate with the hymn "Immortal, invisible, God only wise."
2Actually, the answer is Yes. See hymn 580, Fred Pratt Green's "How clear is our vocation, Lord."
3Tune: KUORTANE, a Finnish folk tune, also used in ELW 419, "For all the faithful women."
4Tune: ABBOT'S LEIGH by Cyril V. Taylor, my personal first choice for the hymn "Glorious things of thee are spoken."

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