Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tacky Hymns 33

Continuing with our ongoing cackle at the hymn selection in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW; Augsburg, 2006)...

451 "We are baptized in Christ Jesus" is a baptism hymn by John Ylvisaker that comes so close to being excellent that it hurts. I'm not one to criticize a poem for using slant-rhyme (e.g. rhyming "death" with "life"), because I often use it myself and wholeheartedly approve of it as an alternative to hackneyed and obvious rhymes. In my opinion, the first of this hymn's three stanzas does an excellent job of summarizing Paul's argument in the first half-dozen verses of Romans 6, only to let the concluding line fall flat: "And if we have been united in a dreadful death like his, we will all be reunited, for he lives." It was almost good, but it forgot to complete the thought specifically that we will be raised from the dead! Stanza 2 uses phrase "the water and the witness" as an acceptable but weak alternative to "water and the word"; and while it arguably makes a good case for the promise of forgiveness fizzing through the waters of baptism, again its concluding line wimps out: "In the losing and the winning we hold fast." Stanza 3 is a very appropriate Trinitarian doxology, which leaves only one more thing for me to complain about: Ylvisaker's tune OUIMETTE, which, for all its noble attractiveness, reminds me of the jingle for an insipidly nice 1970s propaganda piece promoting something like UNICEF or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

453 "Baptized and set free" (first line: "We are people created, chosen by God") is a modern baptism hymn by Cathy Skogen-Soldner (b. 1956). The first of its four stanzas is only not-bad, though its language leans more toward simplicity than clarity. Stanza 2 makes the strange observation: "We are fed and we're nourished, filled and refreshed. Then our hunger returns and again we are blessed." This is strange in part because the "fed and nourished" imagery would seem more appropriate in a hymn on the Lord's Supper than one on baptism, and in part because the remark about hunger returning—while true in the sense that we must keep returning to the fountain of grace to heal our daily wounds and remove our recurring stains—also, again, carries imagery of food rather than drink (hunger vs. thirst), and could be interpreted as contradicting Jesus' promise that those who come to Him will drink such water that they will never thirst again. I don't think the poem's author means that you need to be baptized over and over, but once again, her lack of clarity in proportion to the simplicity of her language could make the hymn confusing. Stanza 3 carries the food/drink confusion further: "We are nourished by water, all living things, and by life that the Spirit abundantly brings." Wait. What? All living things are inspired by the Holy Spirit? Where is that written? Or are equivocating between the "breath of life" and renewal by the Spirit?

455 "Crashing waters at creation" is a baptism hymn by Sylvia Dunstan (1955-93), set to the well-known chorale STUTTGART. At first as I read it, I became quite excited by its great potential. Stanzas 1 to 3 echo Luther's Flood Prayer, drawing baptismal imagery from the waters at the creation of the world, the waters of the Red Sea that divided to let the children of Israel pass through, and the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. Up to the end of Stanza 3, my only regret is that Dunstan did not include a stanza referencing the Flood, which the apostle Peter showed to be rich in baptismal significance. But the concluding Stanza 4 disappoints me. Without specifically naming baptism, it speaks only of "living water"—a choice certain to please people who deny the connection between baptism and God's promise to save us through water and the Spirit. And while this spiritual water is supposed to "quench the thirst and flood the soul... drench our dryness, make us whole," it also falls short of specifically offering forgiveness and creating faith. You can read these ideas into the text, if you want to. But why should your pious imagination do all the work? It's an especially pointed question when experience shows what strange ideas come forward when even seemingly obvious conclusions have been left for the reader to draw for himself.

457 "Waterlife" (first line: "Before I can remember the covenant was sealed") is a CoWo pop song by Handt Hanson (b. 1950), set to his own tune SPIRIT LIFE, and copyrighted by Changing Church, Inc. Its three stanzas make a fairly decent case for infant baptism and the faith-creating power of baptism, which is more than you would expect of CoWo. Credit where due, and whatnot. But the refrain is too cute to be endured: "They were singing waterlife, beginning life, waterlife all my life, waterlife, Spirit life, waterlife." And the tune's pop-music rhythms and inflections are inappropriate for congregational hymnody. I do not mean that its style is out of place in the Divine Service (though I am also of that opinion). I only mean that it's a solo piece from start to finish; and though the stanzas are assigned to "Leader or All" and the Refrain emphatically to "All," it is actually the refrain that would be least conducive to congregational singing. If by "All" you mean "the backup singers" or "the gospel choir," that's another matter; but the question remains: Why is this in the pew book? What congregation will actually be able to sing this?

458 "Praise and thanksgiving be to God," set to the fine worshipful tune CHRISTE SANCTORUM, is a collaboration between Francis Yardley (1911-90) and Frank Whiteley (b. 1914), with the added "alt." meaning that the hymnal committee stuck their own spoon into the stew-pot. The first thing that tripped me up when reading through it was a line in Stanza 1 which addresses God as "prodigal creator." I am aware that the word "prodigal" can mean "profuse, lavish" in a positive sense, but most people understand this word in either the negative sense of "extravagantly and wastefully profuse, lavish" or, through a fallacious analogy to the story of the Prodigal Son, as a description of one who selfishly runs away from his proper station and later repents. So although the hymn uses the word correctly, it fails to account for John Pew Public's ignorance. The hymn's second misstep is a metrical miscalculation that puts the word "and" on a strongly accented note ("with" falls on the same note in Stanza 2). This is a verse-making error that I must frequently watch for in my own hymn-writing. I won't be mean and point out any other flaws in this otherwise reasonably good baptism hymn. It just seems odd that after passing through the hands of two authors and an editorial entity whose blue-pencil activity merited a type of co-author credit, such easy-to-fix missteps made it into print.

459 "Wade in the water" (God's a-goin' to trouble the water) is an African-American spiritual which, if what I've read about it is true, was originally a set of coded instructions for escaping slaves. Apart from frequent repetitions of the text quoted above, its four stanzas deliver the following content: (1) "See that host all dressed in white, the leader looks like the Israelite." (2) "See that band all dressed in red, looks like the band that Moses led." (3) "Look over yonder, what do I see? the Holy Ghost a-coming on me." (4) "If you don't believe I've been redeemed, just follow me down to Jordan's stream." And yet, somehow, this hymn meets ELW's requirements for a baptism hymn. I'm gobsmacked. I mean, apart from an apparent insistence on the Holy Ghost coming on me and the imagery of a riverside baptism-by-immersion meeting, there's hardly anything in it to do with baptism. There is something fanciful, perhaps even awesome, about its account of some kind of vision of a white-robed host, etc. But for the preachment of the gospel, or for a catechetical presentation on baptism, more is needed.

460 "Now the silence" is a communion hymn by Jaroslav Vajda and Carl Schalk that I have mentioned before, though I'm not sure I've given it the full treatment yet. Let me start by repeating what I said about 459: "More is needed." The hymn asserts nothing. It does not complete a single thought. It does not deal in concrete realities. It does not attempt to teach or confess any proposition regarding the Lord's Supper. Instead, it gambols about like a newborn lamb, each bounce of its springy legs powered by hypnotic repetitions of the word "Now"—"Now the hearing Now the pow'r Now the vessel brimmed for pouring." This impressionistic flow of experiences in thin slices is so hard to grasp as language that the editors of ELW went against their policy of not capitalizing the first letter of poetic lines except to start a new sentence. There is no sentence, not even any punctuation, merely a succession of moments arranged like bullet-points, with the word "Now" as the bullet. And when it finally flat-lines with three consecutive repetitions of "Now," you sense that the bullet has penetrated the brain and done what in it lies.

461 "All who hunger, gather gladly" pairs the early American shape-note tune HOLY MANNA with a communion hymn by Sylvia Dunstan that plugs in the words "holy manna" as early as its second line. It's a nice attempt to give a eucharistic spin to the Exodus account of the miraculous feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness. But it won't make folks like us, who are interested in the history of hymnody, forget that in the "Methobapticostal" revivalist camp-meeting hymn originally set to this tune, the phrase "holy manna" was used only as a euphemism for the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit, except in the last stanza when it looks forward to the feast that Christ will serve us in heaven. Evidently, there isn't anything of a meal-like persuasion that Christ serves us in this life... But never you mind. As to the merits of this hymn (apart from the tune's anti-sacramental associations of anxious-bench weeping and praying), I'm well satisfied at least with Stanza 1, where the words "You that yearn for days of fullness, all around us is our food" could be read as an admonition against abandoning Word and Sacrament in the desperate quest to make the church grow. But Stanza 2 spoils that impression with its line: "Seeker, be a welcome guest" (translation: We're not like those mean Missouri Sinners who won't give communion to anybody who shows up). From the stanza's further argument, it appears that this "seeker sensitivity" is a necessary consequence of the fact that we all "once were lost and scattered." Sure, this may be reading a bit too much between the lines. But the lines I'm reading between come from a church body whose most conservative rump-group wouldn't join the LCMS because (among other reasons) it couldn't accept closed communion.

462 "Now we join in celebration" continues the tackiness streak with a communion text by Joel Lundeen (1918-90) set to the fine chorale SCHMÜCKE DICH by Johann Crüger. Already in Stanza 1, Lundeen borrows the imagery of being "clothed...in joy and wonder" from the hymn most commonly associated with that tune, "Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness." Ordinarily, I would be in favor of such a hymnological cross-reference. But already in the next line, Lundeen begins to stray into some doubtful christology, characterizing Christ as "the Lord of all existence, putting off divine transcendence." Clothing it in flesh, yes; making less than full use of its powers and perquisites, certainly; but shedding it like a garment? I'm not so sure. Can we run this one past the department of systematic theology of a really solid Lutheran seminary? I'd like their opinion on this. For now, let's call it poetic license and move on to the third and last stanza (because Stanza 2 is actually quite good). After the first half of the stanza sets up the perfect premise for a confident prayer for forgiveness to be applied through Jesus' body and blood, the second half of Stanza 3 veers instead into another example of this hymnal's thematic emphasis on serving one another, seeking justice in this life, etc. In itself what it says is good and true; it's mostly the proportions, the weight of emphasis, that feels off to me. Plus, after such a convincing feint toward real gospel, this return to harping on the "third use of the law" could cheat some poor afflicted soul out of the comfort it craves.

463 "Lord, who the night you were betrayed" is a lovely eucharistic prayer for Christian unity by William Turton (1856-1938), set to Orlando Gibbons' renaissance-era tune SONG 1, which deserves to be more popular than it is. I only wish that in his zeal for uniting the church, Turton might have put more stress (or any, really) on the removal of error and the healing of doctrinal schisms, through agreement on the truth. I suppose this is a lot to ask of a church body whose very existence is predicated on a merger between groups with unresolved doctrinal differences between them. It is easy to wish for "our sad divisions soon to cease," but in reality it will take more than a love of peace to accomplish it.

466 "In the singing" is a communion hymn by Shirley Murray (b. 1931) with music by Carlton Young (b. 1926). Again, please note that in my ruthless witch-hunt to exploit any sign of weakness in hymnody, I passed over a poky little ditty by Ray Makeever and Rusty Edwards (464) and a Marty Haugen setting of lines from the second-century Didache (465), the latter of which misses most of the notes that I want to hear in a eucharistic hymn. But they simply don't meet my current criteria for tackiness, such as "Dear Lord, help me! I'm still 10 hymns away from 475 and I've been at this for two hours!" Nevertheless, I couldn't pass by this hymn, with its refrain: "Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, be the wine of grace; Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, be the bread of peace." It isn't that I object to what the refrain says or doesn't say, as such; what troubles me is that these are the best lines in the hymn. The rest of it—two short stanzas worth—reads as a pale imitation of "Now the silence": pale because not quite as single-mindedly committed to not committing itself. Stanza 1: "In the singing, in the silence, in the hands expectant, open," etc. Stanza 2: "In the question, in the answer, in the moment of acceptance," etc. You get the idea, or lack thereof. If I ever want a hymn that could make me nostalgic for "Now the silence" (where at least I can be somewhat sure of what the imagery is meant to suggest), I now have its address.

467 "We place upon your table, Lord" is the communion hymn by M. F. C. Wilson (1884-1944), set to the early American tune DISTRESS, in which this hymnal finally achieves the goal implicit in its liturgical portion: dialing up the sacrificial (versus sacramental) emphasis in Lutheranism's eucharistic thinking. In Stanza 1, we sing about the bread and wine of the eucharist in terms of gifts we bring to the Lord. In Stanza 2, we meditate on the significance of bread and wine for us (apart from their consecration in the Lord's Supper). Stanza 3 concludes with this tour-de-force of sacrificial thought: "Accept them, Lord; they come from you; we take them humbly from your hand; put these your gifts to higher use: the holy meal that you command." Hey presto! A Lord's Supper hymn with absolutely no gospel!

469 "By your hand you feed your people," by contrast, delivers a solid gospel-rich presentation on the Lord's Supper. With words by Susan Briehl (b. 1952) set to Marty Haugen's tune CAMROSE—and so, ironically, a hymn borrowed from the Roman Catholic church—it says no less of the Sacrament than: "For these gifts we did not labor, by your grace we have been fed." It clearly states that the bread and wine are Christ's body and blood, and connects them to His work of redeeming and restoring the world. I would be even happier if it came right out and said, point blank, that we receive forgiveness in this Supper. But once again, where I would expect that stanza to be, I find one that asks God to send us "to the hungry, lost, bereaved." At least it does this well, its final line of stanza-text transforming the meaning of the refrain: "In our living and our dying, we become what receive: Christ's own body," etc. As modern communion hymns go, it's just OK (including Haugen's vaguely pop-sentimental music). But I can't help noticing that I've gotten a fair way into the Holy Communion section of this hymnal, and I still haven't seen any of the classic Lutheran chorales for the Lord's Supper. What gives, ELW?

470 "Draw us in the Spirit's tether" by Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), set to Harold Friedell's (1905-58) haunting tune UNION SEMINARY, is a communion hymn that, in a test for clearly and distinctly proclaiming a Lutheran theology of the Lord's Supper, fails on every count. The presence of Jesus that Stanza 1 appeals for is His spiritual presence within the church. The significance of Stanza 2's review of the church's history of gathering for meal fellowship proves to be the prayer: "So now bind our friendship up." And after hardly describing at all the Supper that Christ specifically instituted, and not even mentioning the chief gifts we seek of Him there, Stanza 3 asks Him to make "all our meals and all our living...as sacraments of you, that by caring, helping, giving, we may be disciples true." Worse than the adulterated post-communion blessing that adds "and serve" after "depart in peace" (thus ensuring that, after the gospel, the law gets the last word), this hymn is all thankful response with no saving act to respond to; again kicking the horse's ribs with the spur to serve your neighbor, without any feedbag of gospel or forgiveness. To which I say, neigh!

472 "Eat this bread" is a Taizé/Jacques Berthier communion hymn whose original text, in full, says: "Eat this bread, drink this cup, come to me and never be hungry. Eat this bread, drink this cup, trust in me and you will not thirst." I apologize in case this two-sentence quote of a copyrighted text exceeds fair use, but my purpose is two-fold. First, you have to see to believe how little there is to this hymn; and second, this puts in perspective how much is lost by using the alternate lyrics ELW provides: "Jesus Christ, bread of life, those who come to you will not hunger. Jesus Christ, risen Lord, those who trust in you will not thirst." Now, I ask you: why would the folks behind ELW want to change such a simple little hymn so radically? What do they gain that might be better served by not including the hymn in the book at all? Other than changing the conceptual direction of the words from "Christ speaking to us" to "us speaking to Christ," the only difference is that the ELW revised lyrics drop all reference to eating and drinking; i.e. everything that distinctly makes this a communion hymn. This is the classic case of hymnal editors' tampering with a hymn so that any incentive to use it is lost. And just to show what world-class asses they are, the ELW committee allows us to glimpse this "before and after" picture.

473 "Holy, holy, holy" (Santo, santo, santo) is the Argentine traditional ditty that says, in its entirety: "Holy, holy, holy, my heart adores you. My heart is glad to say the words: You are holy, God." And it says this in both English and Spanish, not because this hymnal could adequately serve a bilingual Hispanic church, but because, in the algebra of today's Lutheran worship culture, Cultural Diversity = Catholicity.

474 "Bread of life from heaven" completes today's torture with a communion hymn by Susan Briehl, its refrain set to the same Argentine folk-tune as 473, and the music for its stanzas freshly composed by Marty Haugen. I appreciate what Briehl is trying to do in her text, but something is wanting in the execution. In Stanza 1 she tries to tie in the miraculous feedings of the four thousand and five thousand with the all-sufficient "bread of Christ's sacrifice," only seem to suggest that the Lord's Supper should continue until everyone has eaten his fill. The other four stanzas all say excellent things, but in a rhythmically awkward way that promises to be tricky for the congregation to sing. And while an admirable pattern is evident in the poem's composition, there is something not quite satisfying about its overall structure—as though Stanza 5 were originally meant to be Stanza 2, perhaps. It's enough to distract me from some of the merits of this hymn which, after all is said and done, is just one more mildly appealing, artistically ankle-deep lure to replace all vestiges of Lutheranism's distinct heritage of sung worship with the Pius-come-lately strains of post-Vatican II Catholicism. So even while I recognize some good points in this hymn, I will tend to avoid it (and most other things with the words "GIA Publications" and "Marty Haugen" printed under them) on the principle that I don't want to wake up one day and discover I've been replaced by one of the Pod People.

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