Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tacky Hymns 37

Moving on from where we left our snarky review of the hymn selection in "ELW" (silent L)... I've said it before: if you're not Lutheran, don't sweat it. But if you dare to call yourself a Lutheran, and you don't think these hymns are tacky in the context of Lutheran worship, prepare to tremble before my scathing wit!

Hymn 526 "God is here!" (As we your people) is a "Gathering" (for worship) hymn by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), set to Cyril V. Taylor's (1907-91) gorgeous high-Anglican tune ABBOT'S LEIGH. From one of the leading lights in recent Lutheran liturgical scholarship come four double-period stanzas of theology-of-worship-in-verse-form. The result is just a bit disappointing—a solid "Meh" on my three-point scale from "Oy Vay!" to "Shazam!" Stanza 1.0 prays that in worship, we may "find in fuller measure what it is in Christ we share"—a strangely vague, uncertain-sounding phrasing. Stanza 1.5 opens a long series of "Here" statements with, "Here, as in the world around us, all our varied skills and arts wait the coming of the Spirit into open minds and hearts." This sentence, all at once: enshrines the ecclesiastical plague of "spiritual gift inventories" in the church's hymnody; makes the concept of God-given vocation seem subordinate to an enthusiastic spirit of "whatever I feel gifted by the Holy Spirit to do must be God-pleasing"; and leaves wide open the question of why, if it's the same deal in the world around us, we consider what goes on "here" to be special at all. Stanza 2.0 refers to table (sic), font, pulpit, and cross as "symbols...of our lifelong need of grace"—which, in the first place, could be read as a suggestion that the Sacraments themselves are symbolic only; and, in the second place, smacks of law rather than gospel. Stanza 2.5 says that the Spirit comes in "honesty of preaching" (which sounds more like "authenticity" than "faithfulness") and "in silence, as in speech" (which sounds like it means "without means"). Stanza 3.0 talks about "bread and wine" in a way that, by omitting mention of Christ's body and blood, further raises the likelihood that deniers of Christ's sacramental presence will find this hymn entirely to their way of thinking. Stanza 3.5 depicts worship as a time for "servants of the Spirit" (here meaning "everybody") "to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore," as though there isn't a right answer that should be taught to us; as though we are free to find our own answer to the question "What is the faith?" By Stanza 4.0's prayer to "keep us faithful to the gospel; help us work your purpose out" I'm no longer quite equal to putting the best construction on everything. F. P. G. could be trying to say that we offer ourselves in worship to be instruments of God's ongoing purpose in the world; but there's a certain tacky side of me that snickers at the impious idea that we're scratching our heads at what God is up to. Plus, I misgive that we tend to give ourselves too much credit for doing the work of God, when for all we know, He may be doing it in spite of us.

528 "Come and fill our hearts" is a Taizé/Jacques Berthier paraphrase of Psalm 136:1 which, with a brevity and simplicity that lends itself nicely to hypnotic repetition, says exactly the following: "Come and fill our hearts with your peace. You alone, O Lord, are holy. Come and fill our hearts with your peace. Alleluia!" You can also try this in Latin: Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus, Alleluia! Only to the extent that Lutheran worship is totally about altering the worshipers' state of mind so they can be toyed with, is this not tacky.

529 "Jesus, we are gathered" (Jesu, tawa pano) is a hymn by Patrick Matsikenyiri, a Methodist hymn-writer in Zimbabwe. His ditty has a simple charm, but there's no overlooking the fact that it consists entirely of the same phrase sung three times, followed by the concluding line: "We are gathered, Lord Jesus, for you." As sweet as this is, it doesn't really teach us anything, give us anything from God, or even build anything on the bare fact that we are present, accounted for, and ready to begin worship. Compare this to what "Dearest Jesus, at your word" (hymn 520) gives us. It doesn't even blow enough time to give the liturgist a chance to catch his breath. So what is its purpose?

530 "Here, O Lord, your servants gather" (Sekai no tomo to te o tsunagi) is a hymn translated from a text by Tokuo Yamaguchi, a Japanese Methodist; predictably, because Multiculturalism Is Our God, it includes one stanza in Japanese, in addition to four stanzas in English. There's a nice theme of "Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life" running through this hymn. But there are also some lines that ought to make us blush. For example, do we really mean it when, in Stanza 1, we claim to be standing hand in hand?

531 "The trumpets sound, the angels sing" (The Feast Is Ready) is a hymn by Graham Kendrick (b. 1950). It is an OK hymn on the theme of the invitation to the Lord's feast. My only complaint about the text, other than some mild reservations about the literary quality of such rhymes as "He'll fill you up with love divine, he'll turn your water into wine" and "applaud/God," is that it very pointedly avoids even the slightest suggestion of the warning side of Jesus' sayings about the great banquet—the perils of refusing the invitation, of trying to get in without the garments He provided, of slumbering rather than watching for the Bridegroom, etc. Minor quibbles, to be sure; but the music is where the tackiness comes into the foreground. Its lively Caribbean rhythm simply doesn't lend itself to being sung by a musically average American Lutheran congregation. A choir of musically trained amateurs or semi-professional singers could handle it; soloists from a culture where these rhythms are commonplace can handle it; but whether or not individual Lutherans can dance, Lutherans en masse do not calypso.

532 "Here in this place the new light is streaming" (Gather Us In) is by the already often-mentioned Marty Haugen (b. 1950). It combines a ballad-like tune with lyrics whose searching invocation of a vaguely identified God must appeal particularly to the flower-child generation. Stanza 1 describes worship as a place where "our fears and our dreamings" are brought to God. Stanza 2, which contains the dubiously tasteful rhyme of "myst'ry/hist'ry," toys with the idea that "we have been sung," then asks God to "give us the courage to enter the song." Stanza 3 throws more cold water on the teaching of the sacraments, repeatedly referring to wine and bread but making no mention of Jesus' body and blood; the closest it comes is "the bread that is you." It also muddles baptism and the eucharist, grouping "the wine and the water" in one phrase, then making a strange reference to "the bread of new birth." Stanza 4 takes away more than it gives in the lines, "Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away—here in this place, the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, now is the day." I get the whole "not in buildings made with stone" thing, but Haugen simply isn't clear about what he is denying in the first phrase, versus what he is asserting in the third; and I also get that the right hand of God isn't a point in outer space but wherever God chooses to be present, but is that all that "now is the kingdom" might imply? It isn't hard to imagine a believer singing these words and being disturbed by the idea that there isn't an afterlife, especially when the forgiveness of sins (in a word, the gospel) forms no part of this hymn's vision of worship.

We now move from the section of hymns tagged as "Gathering" (because ELW holds no truck with received terms such as "Opening of Worship" or "Hymns to Enter," and must introduce new language for everything), to the "Sending" section (i.e., "Close of Worship" or "Hymns to Depart"). I'm cool with the word "gathering" as a synonym for "opening" or "entering" worship. But I have a niggling doubt about the appositeness of "sending" for "closing" or "departing." To my fertile imagination, it suggests the idea that corporate worship is a sort of spiritual battery charger that juices us up so that we can go out in our personal lives and really serve God—rather than the key focus of Christian life, where God comes to us to heal, feed, cleanse, and serve us: a refuge apart from the world that tests our faith and burdens us with sin. I suppose not all will agree with me as to which emphasis is better for Lutheran Christians. But in the language of "sending" I also smell an idea that we are ordaining everyone to be a minister and commissioning them, week in and week out, to evangelize the world. There is something vaguely arrogant about this. Perhaps I wouldn't be so concerned if I saw more evidence that the gospel (evangelion, the good news with which one is to be evangelized) is actually reaching the people who are being "sent" to proclaim it.

535 "Hallelujah! We sing your praises" (Halleluya! Pelo tsa rona) is a South African hymn whose refrain consists of the above line, plus "All our hearts are filled with gladness," repeated four times before, between, and after the two stanzas, each of which is also to be repeated. Stanza 1 says, "Christ the Lord to us said: I am wine, I am bread, give to all who thirst and hunger." Stanza 2 adds, "Now the Lord sends all out, strong in faith, free of doubt. Tell to all the joyful gospel." And that, except for repeats, is the whole hymn. It's all imperative to preach the gospel (i.e., all law) with no recital of the message to be preached (i.e., no gospel). This is combined with a tune whose rhythmic complications defeat the purpose of putting it in the pew hymnal (i.e., so that congregation can sing what is in it). It will only be within the reach of choir, soloists, groups steeped in African culture, and campus or town-gown congregations whose level of musical skill is unrepresentative of the wider church. When Grandma and Grandpa Smurf's church tries to sing it, the result will be mortifying. And lest I forget to mention it, this hymn includes a bit of the original-language text—but only the refrain, because our cultural diversity can only be pushed so far.

538 "The Lord now sends us forth" (Enviado soy de Dios) is a Sending hymn whose sole stanza is given in both English and the original Spanish, once again because of diversidad cultural. And the only gospel in this text is Social Gospel (which is no gospel, but law), bordering hard upon Liberation Theology. The opening section states that "the Lord now sends us forth with hands to serve and give, to make of all the earth a better place to live." Even the "everyone is being commissioned as an evangelist" folderol would be better than this; at least in concept, it includes the intention of proclaiming Christ. The second section goes on to add nothing but law, law, law. I do not object to Christians having a social conscience or caring for the needy. But the purpose of the church, as such, is to preach Christ.

540 "Go, make disciples" is another Handt Hanson (b. 1950) ditty, with a CoWo anthem rhythm that puts it firmly outside the range of hymns Grandma Smurf's home church can sing. If worship is a performance to be delivered by soloists and backup singers, well. Then there's the issue whether reciting the words of Christ's "Great Commission" in the context of a close-of-worship (or Sending) hymn is really the correct application of the words that give the church as a whole its mission—not individual Christians. Plus, such added formulations as "Go, be the salt of the earth. Go, be the light for the world. Go, be a city on a hill, so all can see that you're serving me" reinforce the sense that a Mission Paradigm that has first been forced into Jesus' mouth is now being used to club us with law and fear and guilt. That, at least, is my reading of the expectations this message sends people out of church with; and it contrasts miserably with the encouraging nature of the promises from which these commands are derived ("You are the salt of the earth," etc.).

541 "O Jesus, blessed Lord, to you" is the familiar two-stanza post-Communion hymn by Thomas Kingo, here set to a nice tune by Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), though most Lutherans are probably more familiar with this hymn from its setting to OLD HUNDREDTH. I have long been aware of two different translations of this text, one of which (cf. The Lutheran Hymnal, 1941) ends with the lines: "My Savior dwells within my heart; how blest am I! how good Thou art!" The other (cf. Lutheran Hymnary, 1913, and Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 1996) concludes: "My Savior dwells within me now; how blest am I! how good art Thou!" This very small difference in translation has produced many an interesting discussion as to which does a better job confessing the Real Presence of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper. Your first homework assignment is to think critically about it and write a one-page essay explaining why the Hymnary translation is the right answer. (Now tell me I'm just a TLH repristinator!) Mind you, this is a case in which the Scandinavian Pietist forefathers of today's ELCA got something right that eluded the dead-orthodox Germans of the LCMS's heyday. So the fact that ELW regresses even further from the Lutheran verity by changing the words to, "My Savior dwells within my soul and makes my wounded spirit whole," cannot simply be put down to the influence of Scandinavian Pietism. Something else must be going on. Your second assignment is to tell me what it is. I really want to know.

546 "To be your presence" (is our mission here) is another hymn by Benedictine sister Delores Dufner (b. 1939), set to Charles Villiers Stanford's (1852-1924) attractive tune ENGELBERG, which has become a magnet for trendy new hymns over the past 30 years or so. This is another hymn that will appeal to the wedge of the church pie that appeals strongly for considering "mercy works" part of the mission of the church, if not its central focus. Feeding the poor, upholding justice, speaking for the voiceless—these are all good things in their way. But when this hymn uses the word "mission" to sum it up, I think it is mincing words. In the context of Christian theology, which should never be divorced from the church's hymnody, "mission" has a specific meaning, and it is not this.

548 "Rise, O church, like Christ arisen" is a post-Communion hymn by Susan Cherwien (b. 1953), set to the original tune SURGE ECCLESIA by Timothy Strand (b. 1958). (Are you suddenly noticing a prevalence of authors and composers with birthdates in the 1950s?) I read this hymn over and over, trying to like it, but it impressed me less with each re-reading. I would like it better if it mentioned the forgiveness of sins in clear, direct terms, rather than leaving it up to one's pious imagination to find it between such lines as "from this meal of love and grace" and "to release and to console." I think it is at least as likely that someone will interpret this hymn as though the Lord's Supper gives us power to work for social causes. Some of Cherwien's poetic decisions seem underpowered, such as Stanza 1's concluding line, "God, the wonder of our days." Others seem ill advised, such as Stanza 2's "Rise, transformed, and choose to follow" (why the emphasis on "choose"?) and "broken, shared, our lives are hallowed" (suggesting another plug for the new theology of the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which we are the bread given for the life of the world). Stanza 3 loses me entirely: "present by God's loving nurture, Spirited then let us live." Note the capitalization, which seems significant in a hymnal that pointedly does not capitalize the first word of each line: evidence that this is Cherwien's clumsy way of saying we have been given the Holy Spirit. Stanza 4 closes the hymn to the same effect as the redacted post-Communion blessing I have heard some pastors give ("Depart in peace and serve"), again making sure that the law has the last word, rather than the gospel. Don't give me your guff about the Third Use of the Law. That ordinal number ("third") is not meant to designate its chronological position after "Law" and "Gospel." It is nowhere written that we can't let people go free with the unconditional promise of forgiveness echoing in their ears. But where is that promise in this hymn?

549 "Send me, Jesus" (Thuma mina, Nkosi yam) is an eensy-weensy South African part-song, complete with off-the-beat rhythms and a bass-line tag dovetailing the end of Stanza 1 with the beginning of Stanza 2. Both stanzas are given in both English and the original language, which I lack the linguistic chops to identify (and ELW does not help). It doesn't take much expertise, however, to boil down this hymn's content to "Send me, Jesus; send me, Lord" (Stanza 1), and "I am willing, willing Lord" (Stanza 2). Not very specific, is it? I guess the context is everything. The context suggested by this hymnal, however, is a bunch of fair-skinned Americans of northern European extraction, making themselves look like fools in the service of the god Cultural Diversity. If they're lucky, it will only be the choir doing this, rather than the whole congregation; then at least the music may be almost recognizable. But the doubt that lingers is whether, on this basis, the song should be in the pew hymnal at all—a theme to which I find myself returning again and again!

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