Thursday, August 25, 2016

Are "Useful Hymns" Useful?

I may have mentioned, a couple hundred times, that I've been working on a book of (mostly) original hymns titled Useful Hymns. Well, it's out now. You can buy it on Lulu, 20% off the general distribution price, which in my opinion is a decent deal. But I would love to get some intelligent reviews (not to mention sales) of this book, which represents the work of my entire adult life so far - more than 25 years of hymn-writing, during which I have also spent a good bit of time studying hymns and hymnals, performing hymns as an organist, choir director, and singer, and trying to use hymns for the edification and instruction of my congregation as a pastor.

A few days ago, I bloviated at length about what makes a hymn useful. Now the question is, what makes me think my hymns are useful?

I'm going to start by imposing a gag rule on myself about criticizing specific worship songs that I consider useless, or not very useful. Let my record as an obnoxious critic of "tacky hymns" stand for itself (or see the thread by that name on this very blog). Suffice it to say, not all hymns meet the standard of usefulness that I proposed in this post. I think there is a crop of essentially useless but highly overrated worship songs circulating in many church bodies these days, and I think it is doing great harm to the health of the church as a whole. Also, I don't think this mediocre hymnody is doing much to help individual Christians in their struggle to live worshipful lives. What I have tried to do in this book is demonstrate that it is possible for contemporary hymns to meet that high standard of usefulness.

I do not claim that all of my efforts have been equally or completely successful on all levels. I'm hard to satisfy, and I'm not deeply impressed with some of them. I recognize there is some unevenness in quality there, partly unavoidable because they were written over so many years, during which I sharpened my ideas and polished my skills. And there are some relatively recent poems or tunes that I know aren't brilliant, because nobody can be brilliant every day. Sometimes I set myself very ambitious challenges, and some of those challenges bore really exciting and surprising fruit - but some of them got the better of me, in this or that detail, and there was only so much I could do later to buff the dings and scratches out of my less inspired attempts.

I also do not claim I'm the only hymn-writer creating quality stuff. I am plugged into a network of fine hymn-writers and composers, and some of them contributed to this book - a text here (to my original tune), a tune there (written for one of my texts). There are others I would be honored to collaborate with. Maybe I will get the chance as I work on my next volume, which I have already started. Its working title is Edifying Hymns.

So, to the purpose: Useful Hymns - the full title goes on to add, "for worship, prayer, and instruction in the Lutheran church, school, and home" - is simply my attempt to supply hymns for various practical uses in the life of the Lutheran congregation, family, and individual; hymns that focus on Christ, glorify God, teach and confess the faith once delivered to the saints, and direct troubled and afflicted hearts to where God has really promised to be; to frame prayers that express the real needs of struggling Christians; to provide help in the kinds of situations about which someone, sometime, must certainly have wondered why there isn't a good hymn to address it.

What's in the book?

In Useful Hymns, there are:

  • Two "dedication" hymns, one of which more or less outlines my spiel about what makes a hymn useful;
  • Three overarching hymns for entire seasons of the church year;
  • 19 hymns for feasts of the church year;
  • 58 hymns for the Sundays of the church year, on which I will say more in a bit;
  • Five "liturgical hymns," ditto;
  • 25 "catechetical hymns," ditto;
  • 15 "scriptural meditation" hymns, commenting on or paraphrasing biblical topics or passages;
  • nine "church and ministry" hymns, including a musical mission statement, a stewardship hymn, a hymn for calling a pastor, and a wedding hymn;
  • 18 "heroes of the faith" hymns, relating key people in the Bible to aspects of Christian discipleship;
  • 31 "comfort and encouragement" hymns, which I'll get back to in a bit;
  • 13 "care of the community" hymns, ditto;
  • three hymns for children; 
  • nine translated hymns; and
  • 12 hymn texts by other writers, to which I contributed original tunes.

Since when are there 58 Sundays of the church year?

There aren't, in any given year, when there are only 52 weeks, give or take. Nevertheless, this section has a hymn based on the readings for every Sunday in the historic one-year lectionary, plus a bonus hymn for Trinity Sunday. Because the date of Easter varies from year to year, the number of Sundays after Epiphany and Trinity to goes up and down in contrary motion. So there have to be extra hymns to allow the stretching and shrinking of these two variable seasons.

What's useful about a hymn for every whatnot of the church year?

No part of the worship service, in a liturgical congregation, is more dull and pointless than the line of boilerplate in which the officiant tells you what Sunday it is on the church calendar. "The first lesson for this 14th Sunday after Trinity is..." Who cares? What makes this cycle interesting, however, is the growing familiarity of many of the Bible passages that come around year after year, each with a distinctive message that would be helpful to Christians in their walk of faith, if only someone would explain it to them.

I made every effort in this group of hymns (as well as the section on feasts of the church year) to get right to the point of each Sunday's or feast day's lessons - including the introit, epistle, and gospel - in the hope that, even if the sermon loses folks in ill-applied anecdotes and confusing analogies, they will still take away something that will help that Sunday, any given year, contribute to their spiritual growth.

What's so useful about "liturgical" hymns?

Every worship service has a beginning and an ending. When you can't think of a hymn to open or close worship in a way that stresses the specific theme of that day's message, the "Hymn to Enter" or "Hymn to Depart" might help - and it might even be useful for teaching a healthful attitude about entering and leaving worship. In between are paraphrases of the widely known, ancient Christian worship songs Te Deum, Magnificat, and Nunc dimittis, traditionally used during Matins and Vespers (morning and evening prayer services). I don't consider my paraphrases a worthy substitute for the free-verse originals. But they might be useful alternatives for folks who have difficulty with chant.

What gives with "catechetical" hymns?

Catechesis means doctrinal instruction, or formation in the faith (two ways of saying the same thing). The hymns in this section of the book paraphrase, and explore in detail, key topics of historic Lutheran catechesis: the 10 commandments, the creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the efficacious means of grace (the word of Christ, the confession and forgiveness of sins, the Lord's Supper, and baptism). These hymns provide a musical reinforcement for the starting point of a Christian's lifelong process of learning the faith.

Why is there one hymn for each of the 10 commandments?

Long story short, I was interested in writing them, so I wrote them. In terms of the distinction between Law and Gospel (look it up), I'm aware the commandments are law, law, law, telling us what to do (or not to do), accusing us of sin, and threatening us with the terrible punishments we deserve for not keeping it. But the commandments can also be considered in light of (a) the law Christ perfectly fulfilled on our behalf; (b) the law under which He suffered and died as our substitute; (c) how violators of the law, like us, carried out on Him God's judgment against our sin - so that he suffered not only for man's transgression, but by means of it; and (d) the magnitude of the debt God has forgiven us for Jesus' sake. In short, the law can be considered in the light of a description of Jesus and what He has done for us, and also as a description of what He is now transforming us into, as His new creation. Still law (third use), not to be confused with gospel. But with eyes fixed on Christ, each commandment can open up a different, useful way to consider the gospel.

Is this "heroes of the faith" stuff saint worship, or what?

It's what. The difficulty with writing useful hymns around the career of a biblical character is that there are so many ways it can go wrong. It can paint the saint in unnaturally rosy hues. It can angle toward moralism. It can allegorize and spiritualize everything to the point where one can happily sing it without taking any position on the historical reality of the person or events in the story. It can lead to goofy applications and promote speculative theories and unverified rumors. Or it can just be a verse synopsis of the high points of the person's life, with no point whatsoever. The challenge I took on with this section - with more success at some points than at others - was to avoid all these traps and provide examples of "heroes of the faith" hymns that actually focus on Christ, while using each biblical character as an example to illuminate a topic useful for Christians' growth in the faith.

There were a couple of the "summary of the guy's whole career" type of hymn, I'm afraid. A couple of them were originally keyed to a book-by-book Bible study, a Lenten midweek sermon series, or a Vacation Bible School program. Some of them are pretty long, but only a few selected stanzas may be useful when a character or group of characters comes up in Bible class.

What kind of "comfort and encouragement" does this book have?

Lots of kinds - as many as I could think of, while I was planning the book, as well as some that popped up spontaneously and struck me as being needed at the moment. Dying, death, and grieving lead off this section with seven solid hymns, including one praying for what comfort can be had when a loved one dies without much evidence of saving faith. Don't jump down my throat with your "you can't give the family any hope for their loved one" shtick. Read the hymn and see what I mean. These hymns might help you mourn with a more hopeful heart, or might teach you to be more useful to someone else who is mourning. They might also help you as you face death yourself.

Besides death-related hymns, the "comfort and encouragement" section includes hymns about how to pray, prayers for patience and stronger faith, pleas for help fighting temptation, a confession of hunger and thirst for the sacrament, another stewardship hymn, hymns for spiritual warfare and the end times, a hymn about angels, and a joyful hymn about the freedom of the gospel.

What topics does "care of the community" cover?

This little section boasts some of the topics for which good, edifying hymns were most desperately needed: hymns for dealing with mental illness and physical disability, hymns for responding to disasters and political disturbances, prayers about labor and agriculture, travel and family strife, persecution and division within the church. It concludes with hymns for courage and a cheerful heart.

Throughout the book, there are useful surprises, such as a Christmas hymn that honors the life of the unborn, a children's "baptismal birthday" song with a tune that cleverly inverts the "Happy Birthday" song, a "feeding of the 4,000" hymn that makes godly use of a running joke about math, a prayer for faithful youth, a thoughtful look at the scandal of the cross, a confession of sins that applies repentance "head and shoulders, knees and toes" style, and a look at the 12 apostles that shrinks back from psycho-analytical canards and puts the focus again where it belongs, on Jesus. There are hymns for the weak in faith and those tormented by guilt and temptation, hymns that lift up the downhearted and that clear up difficult-to-understand Bible stories, hymns that bring all-too-familiar stories of Jesus' parables and miracles home to where Christian families and congregations can best use them.

All right, wrap this up. What else do I get in this book?

There are several hymns that I translated, completely or in part, from German to English. There are also a handful or two of hymns by other writers (and in some cases, translators), set to original tunes that I wrote for them. Two of the tunes I am most proud of are the ones I wrote for Richard Wilbur's Christmas hymn "A Stable Lamp I Lighted" and Martin Franzmann's "O Kingly Love," both used by permission of their copyright holders.

Apart from these numbers, U.H. comprises 201 original hymn texts that I wrote between about 1992 and this year. Most of the older texts have been significantly revised from their original form. Here is the table of contents, which lists the topics of the hymns in order.

Each hymn text is headed by one or two hymn-tunes, melody only. I haven't counted the original tunes I wrote to go with these hymns. A few original tunes were graciously contributed by other contemporary composers. Many of the hymns are set to historic hymn-tunes from a variety of styles and traditions, public-domain tunes that I think deserve another chance to be better known in the Lutheran church. Some hymns have two choices of tune, but a metrical index is provided to allow users to choose a tune they like better. Several tunes are used more than once in the book, but none is used more than twice.

In an appendix at the end of the book, I include chorale harmonizations or keyboard arrangements of all the tunes in the book. I composed the arrangements of all my original tunes, several existing hymn tunes, and a couple of the original tunes contributed by my contemporaries. A few of the hymn-tunes have more than one arrangement available. This appendix adds considerably to the thickness of the book, which finally weighs in at 508 pages. I am considering also publishing a spiral-bound "Hymn Arrangements Edition," with the appendix material blown up to letter-size pages that will lie open flat against a music rack. This would be helpful to pianists and organists who want to play the music.

Besides the metrical index, the book also has a table of contents (listing the titles, or topics, of the hymn in order, with hymn numbers and page references), a first-line index, and an alphabetical index of tune names. The latter two both include a little information about the provenance of the texts and tunes. More complete author and composer credits are listed within the body of the hymn-book.

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