Saturday, November 30, 2013

Tacky Hymns 43

The Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymn hilarity continues...

Hymn 677 "This little light of mine" is an infantile Sunday School ditty (allegedly an African American spiritual, though I have also read that it was a children's folk song that only later found its way into African American culture). Even when my age was in the single-digit range, I found this song so precious that it made me want to puke. I once visited an LCMS church where this was one of the hymns sung by the entire congregation. Once, I say. Complementary hand-signs and all. But that was a situation where the words were printed in the service bulletin. Now that the song is actually in a pew hymnal, you're not safe from that mortifying experience even in a church that strictly adheres to hard-bound, synodically approved worship books. Hooray for progress!

All right, in fairness to ELW, the arrangement printed there stands closer to the African American spiritual than the heavily redacted, kiddified version I learned in Sunday School, back in the 1970s. Nobody inserted the word "Gospel" into the first line, lest a lack of specificity raise questions like, "Is this actually a Christian song?" (Of course it is, silly. Stanza 3 says, "Jesus gave it to me." And not much else.) The cutesie verses about not letting Satan wh it out, and not hiding it under a bushel, have not been added by a patronizing pedagogue with a glee in forcing children to look ridiculous in front of their adoring parents. But still, it's a tacky song in the context of Lutheran worship because it belongs more to the Civil Rights movement than to the church. And at bottom, it doesn't distinctly teach much, though it indistinctly teaches a number of things. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, I would rather hear 48 clear words spoken straight through than six vague words repeated eight times.

With 678 "God, whose giving knows no ending," ELW moves into a new section of hymns, grouped under the surprisingly familiar topic "Stewardship." With words by Rusty Edwards (d. 2006) set to the pomp-and-circumstance tune RUSTINGTON by C. H. H. Parry (d. 1918), it sets a predictable baseline for a message on stewardship: the idea that in our worship and lives of service, we respond to the great things God has done for us. As I begin my survey of this section, I wonder how many hymns will hit on the even deeper truth represented by the biblical concept of stewardship: that we really have nothing to give to God, because it is all His anyway; but since He has entrusted it to us, we glorify Him for the trust, feel the responsibility of using it on His behalf, and hope to render a good account to Him. Stewardship means that whatever we do in His name, and in faithfulness to His word, God is effectively working through us. Next to that terrible and wonderful truth, there is something watery and bland about such expressions as "Gifted by you, we turn to you, off'ring up ourselves in praise" (st. 1); "Now direct our daily labor, lest we strive for self alone" (st. 2); and "Open wide our hands in sharing... serving you by loving all" (st. 3); etc.

Most of what Edwards says is correct and even beautifully put—though one line(!) in stanza 2 sacrifices perfect clarity to squeeze in a plug for peace, health, freedom, racial integration, and ecumenism. This strain on the syntax, however, is not one of the top two reasons I number this among ELW's tacky hymns. Number one is the fact that it depicts stewardship essentially as our work, though one helped by God, motivated by gratitude toward Him, and funded (as it were) by His gifts to us. It is close, so close, to the kingdom of God; but I think the difference is a matter of Law vs. Gospel. Quibble number two is the line (in st. 1) enumerating God's gifts: "nature's wonder, Jesus' wisdom, costly cross, grave's shattered door"—which, in my opinion, makes Jesus' cross and resurrection sound like just another two examples of God's abundant goodness. I'm not saying there may not be a good way to interpret what Edwards writes here; but the perspective seems distorted. I wonder how differently this hymn would come across if at least one whole stanza of it focused on Jesus' death and resurrection, and its consequences for our stewardship.

680 "We plow the fields and scatter" is an old German hymn—well, not very old; the text is by Matthias Claudius, who died in 1815. Nevertheless, ELW throws this nod to Lutheranism's Germanic heritage under the wheels of its Cultural Diversity juggernaut, featuring not only a three-stanza Spanish translation (in addition to the English) but also a Hispanic tune (in addition to the Germanic tune WIR PFLÜGEN, set to the same English text in hymn 681). I still don't understand what these occasional demonstrations of bilingualism accomplish. In spite of them, this is no hymnal for an Hispanic congregation. The only explanation for these paltry little tokens of inclusiveness, that makes sense to me at any rate, is that they stroke our pride. Pride in what? In our patronage of a church or churches that, on some level, we expect will be shining their brightest after English-speaking Lutheranism has gone dark.

682 "To God our thanks we give" (Reamo leboga) is a short, single stanza from Botswanan oral tradition (words and music), transmitted by one Daisy Nshakazongwe—then translated into English and written down, in both languages, an activity about which I am ambivalent. I mean, it's either a violation of the very concept of oral tradition, or a timely act of preservation... possibly both. Apart from that and the difference in language, I would say much the same about it as I said about 680. And then I would add that the music has rhythms and decorative inflections that probably put it out of range of the average congregation, while the text ("To God our thanks we give" repeated four times) just isn't much to get excited about.

683 "The numberless gifts of God's mercies" is translated by Gracia Grindal (a leader in the ELCA's conservative Pietist movement that is planning its own hymnal as an alternative to ELW) from Carolina Sandell Berg (remember, the Swedish Fanny Crosby), set to a bland tune probably written for it during its author's heyday. It basically covers the same ground as "How Great Thou Art," only less memorably. Sung with an English text, the tune's rhythm brings out awkward effects and requires a repetition of the the first half of each stanza.

684 "Creating God, your fingers trace" is a mostly very effective poem by Jeffery Rowthorn (b. 1934), set to the Southern Harmony tune PROSPECT. It's nice to see the mysteries of creation displayed in a beautiful poem. But the poem has mysteries of its own. The first bit that raises my eyebrow is in stanza 2, where the lines "Let water's fragile blend with air, enabling life, proclaim your care" sounds a bit like a dry run at recruiting the four elements of medieval science for an explanation of how creation works. It's just a weird detail. Then stanza 3 makes the sweeping statement that God's "arms embrace all now despised for creed and race." In a hymn that touches on the "creating, sustaining, redeeming, and in-dwelling" aspects of God, this is the stanza on redemption—not at all concerned with the salvation of sinners, but with world peace and social justice. And the "all" in the quoted line could be read as putting all members of sectarian rivalry, including those of non-Christian religions, in the same divine embrace. It's such a nice, humanitarian sentiment, but in terms of Christian theology, it's a face-plant.

687 "Come to us, creative Spirit" is by David Mowbray (b. 1938), set to the tune CASTLEWOOD by Richard Proulx (b. 1937). It focuses on the "talent" side of the stewardship-message cliche "talents and treasures," going as far as to include a list of ways people with various gifts can contribute to worship: "poet, painter, music-maker... craftsman, actor, graceful dancer." To me it sounds like the thinking behind the "spiritual gift inventories" that some churchmen bandy about: the idea that anyone who considers himself naturally talented in some area can rightly feel himself called to serve the church in that area. I'm all for promoting artistic excellence in the church's ceremonial, but deep thought and painful experience compel to warn against letting anyone who thinks he is good at something relating to worship, or even better at it than the rightly called pastors, force his "services" on the congregation or the pastor. Feeling gifted is no substitute for a regular call. And a wish to use your talents to God's glory is not necessarily a good reason to introduce cute things like liturgical dance.

Stanza 3 of the same hymn prays that the divine Word would "in all artistic vision give integrity" and "kindle yearning" in us by "the flame within us burning." This has the ring of a hymn written to open or close a conference on hymn-writing or the liturgical arts. It may also suggest that the creative artist owes a debt of faithfulness more to the inner conviction of his artistic vision than to an external Word from God—which, silly as it may sound to you, is an idea I really see at work in many instances of "tackiness on holy ground." Finally, Stanza 4 begins as a nice, originally phrased, trinitarian doxology—only to end with: "In our worship and our living keep us striving for the best." Thematically and in practical terms, that's a good prayer; but in the thought-structure of a doxological stanza, I think it is a misstep. This is no place for another round of cheerleading or exhortation; say "now and forever" and have done!

688 "Lord of light, your name outshining" is by Howell Lewis (1860-1953), set to the fine Anglican-sounding tune ABBOT'S LEIGH by C. V. Taylor (1907-91). One immediately perceives what Lewis is about when he prays, "Use our talents in your kingdom... use us to fulfill your purpose" (st. 1). One of the most difficult things a talented person may have to cope with (I know I have) is the possibility, seemingly ignored by this hymn, that God's answer to this prayer may be "No." Again, it's partly a problem of understanding holy vocation, and partly the harsh reality that even when one has a regular call to serve in the church, one's specialized talents may not be wanted or appreciated. Perhaps I would be more willing to accept this stanza (with its "Thy will be done" refrain) as a humble prayer that God would help us with these problems, rather than a confident assertion of one's right to consider his God-given talents a free pass around them, if it weren't for the tune's air of noble piety and pomp. Stanza 2 focuses on the service of God through labor and suffering; stanza 3, on enlightening knowledge ("lift the nations from the shadows..."); and stanza 4, finally, on the ministry, the peace-bringing cross of Christ, and the love of God. Each of these stanzas improves my impression of this hymn after an opening stanza that struck me, and still strikes me, as presuming too much on our talents and powers.

689 "Praise and thanksgiving," by Albert Bayly (1901-84), suffers from the special sort of tackiness that frequently afflicts hymns written to fit the Gaelic tune BUNESSAN. To wit: Stanza 1 rhymes "sown fields" with "mown fields," to comic effect. The other rhymes aren't so bad, but between them are such sentiments as "bless the labor we bring to serve you... we would work with you" (st. 2), which sounds more like "we'll do our part if you do yours" than it really needs to. Stanzas 3 and 4 are full of nice lines about learning to share with each other and making sure that no one goes hungry. It doesn't ask anything that isn't quite appropriate to pray for. But the drift of the hymn, from one stanza to another, seems to move away from really praising or praying to the provider of all things, and toward dropping hints about what we should be working for.

690 "We raise our hands to You, O Lord" is translated from a text by Svein Ellingsen (b. 1929) and set to music by Trond Kverno (b. 1945). I think it's going to irritate some folks, because although its five stanzas follow the same meter (albeit an unusual one), they have no rhyme scheme. The effect is like discovering by surprise that what you thought was a piece of prose is actually poetry.

691 "Accept, O Lord, the gifts we bring" is by Rev. Beth Folkemer (b. 1957), and set to an Alice Parker arrangement of the folk tune BARBARA ALLEN. In my opinion, a hymn is not the right way to deploy an Alice Parker folk-song arrangement, which my mind's ear refuses to hear otherwise than sung by a choir with the original lyrics. (I have a special love for this particular folk song. Don't ask why.) Folkemer's text begins by touching the idea of the sacramental wine and bread being placed as gifts from us on the Lord's table—an interpretation of the offertory that Luther and the Reformation rejected because of its connection to the "sacrifice of the Mass." Lest you guess this is only talking about the collection baskets being set on the altar, read stanza 2, which makes it clear that we're talking about grapes and grains being grown and made into common food, which now becomes "holy treasure." (What isn't clear is any idea of Jesus' body and blood being taken by mouth.) Stanza 3 talks about hopes and dreams being lifted up to God, similar to an obnoxious post-Communion canticle I have discussed before ("Let the vineyards be fruitful"). The concluding lines, "Lord, by your grace now come to us," etc., could be interpreted as a prayer for a spiritual visitation, rather than Christ's bodily presence in the Sacrament. The weaknesses of this hymn as a song for between the offering and the Sacrament may be slight (and owing to the slightness of the hymn itself), but they are also endemic to the entire hymnal, as this thread has repeatedly shown.

692 "We are an Offering" (first line: "We lift our voices") is a CoWo anthem by Dwight Liles (b. 1957) in which we offer God our hands, lives, voices, all that we have, all that we are, all that we hope to be, all while basking in the thought that we are an offering. Some may call this total commitment. Others might point out that, given the shallowness of this hymn, it rather sounds cheap and easy. It presupposes that what we have is worthy to be given to God, or accepted by Him; yet it doesn't state why this is a safe assumption to make.

695 "As saints of old their first-fruits brought" is by Frank von Christierson (1900-96), set to the English folk tune FOREST GREEN (known to many of my generation as "the other tune to 'O little town of Bethlehem'"). Stanza 1, naturally, emphasizes the giving of first-fruits to God, which is all right. Stanza 2 speaks of dedicating ourselves to the mission of "a world redeemed by Christ-like love"—which, you'll note, isn't precisely the same thing as "a world redeemed by Christ." Are we talking about proclaiming the Gospel, or working for social justice? The hymn isn't bothered to make this clear, while it is busy directing us to "make our life an offering to God, that all may live" (more of this new language of sacrifice in which we are the bread given for the life of the world) and to hear "the church... calling us to make the dream come true" (again, throwing around "calling" language in disregard of the clear meaning of Christian vocation). Stanza 3 talks about sharing God's love and, in response to Jesus' giving Himself to us, giving "ourselves each day until life's work is done." Nothing wrong with that stanza, as such; but in the context of Stanza 2's assault on Christian vocation, it lacks a certain something. Like, for example, an assurance that giving ourselves to God each day really means receiving His gifts faithfully, and doing whatever we do (according to our station in life) to His glory.

696 "Jesus calls us; o'er the tumult" by Mrs. Cecil Alexander (1818-95) is a nice little hymn stressing the First Commandment aspect of loving Jesus above all things. It would make a fine hymn for St. Andrew's Day (Nov. 30), since that apostle is discussed in Stanza 2. And I like this hymn best when it is set to the tune given here, GALILEE by W. H. Jude (1851-1922). But there's no denying that it has a few things against it, from the standpoint of what is in the best taste for a Lutheran house of worship. First, it is an artifact of a distinctly un-Lutheran, Protestant culture. Second, it has a very moralizing tone, exhorting from start to finish without so much as a drop of Gospel. It's all about us and what we're supposed to do, and it blows more than one golden opportunity to say anything about what Jesus does for us. It mentions our cares and sorrows, but tenders no comfort. It gives us instructions, but adds no reason to consider them doable. It doesn't even specify how (by what means) Jesus is calling us and talking to us. It leaves an awful lot to the pious imagination.

697 "Just a closer walk with Thee" has words and music credited to "North American traditional," which presumably means "we could trace it as far back as Bluegrass Country, but we can't get any closer to finding out who wrote it." It doesn't have the character of a folk song. Rather, it sounds like a sentimental, old-timey, religious country-and-western song of the kind apt to appear between "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In the Garden" on some pre-stereo crooner's album of Christian covers. That's where it should stay, too. I never heard this song in my life until, several years after entering the ministry (and mere weeks after exiting it), I visited a congregation whose Communion distribution was accompanied by songs out of a booklet titled "Your Favorite Hymns" (or something like that). Suddenly, old folks who couldn't sing "A mighty fortress" above a quiet mumble, even if you held a gun to their head, were belting this song out like they wanted the whole street to hear it. Edifying I'm sure, but I repeat: I had never heard this song before. One generation's old favorites is another generation's "What in the name of glory is that awful racket?!" And the generation that favors this hymn is on its way out. There can't be many reasons to perpetuate hymns like this, and their content isn't one. The music oozes smarm, and the refrain talks vaguely about walking closely with Jesus, and the verses clarify this only to the extent of suggesting that it has to do with avoiding wrong behavior (st. 1), carrying a burden (st. 2), and going to heaven when we die (st. 3). And it has one of those lines that, read out of context, could strike the ear of today's generation as unintentionally funny: "If I falter, Lord, who cares?" No, really: Who cares?

The above hymn inaugurates a new section of the book, titled "Lament." It's interesting to see a hymnal being so up-front about this. I have often said that the best "Reformation" hymns are hymns of lament, praying for deliverance from spiritual foes. I've gotten the impression, lately, that today's worship leaders want to avoid hymns of lament, leaning more toward triumphalism and enthusiastic praise. How well does this section of ELW do the lament thing? In the next installment on this thread, we'll see. For now...

698 "'How Long, O God?' the psalmist cries" is by Ralph Smith (1950-94), set to the early American tune LAND OF REST. And while the hymn admits that we make this cry our own, as we suffer a whole list (five stanzas worth) of fears and troubles, the solution or medicine it offers is rather weak. It doesn't, in fact, promise much comfort, or relate our sufferings to a fellowship with Christ. It merely offers a pop-psychology panacea ("name the sorrows, name the pain") and finally, after leaving us "lost, alone, afraid," it abruptly ends with this good news: "Our God will lead us home." In terms of sounding lament-like, A+. In terms of directing those who lament to a specific hope or reason to take encouragement, D-.

699 "In deepest night" by Susan Cherwien (b. 1953) suffers from an aggressively uninspired tune by Thomas Pavlechko (b. 1962). I like most of what Cherwien says in this hymn, though I think she muffed it when she concluded stanza 1 with "yet sounding in us quietly there is the song of God." Song isn't quite the right word to convey the Spirit's groaning within us, when our agony runs too deep for words. But it's her poem, so...

700 "Bring peace to earth again" (first line: "Where armies scourge the countryside") is by Herman Stuempfle (b. 1923), set to a contemporary tune by Perry Nelson (b. 1955). I'm not particularly attracted to the tune, but it's got more going for it than that of 699. The text, however, is brutal in its depiction of brutality, like a newsreel of horrors set to verse: people fleeing, sirens screaming, flaming nights, troubled streets, anger and terror, families torn apart by conflict, "deeds of hurt and shame" taking place in the home... It's the kind of hymn that sings itself in your heart when you read the headlines many a morning. But it's a bit disturbing to think about putting this highly specific, nasty imagery in the mouths of people you want to comfort and edify. I can't think of many worship contexts where this wouldn't be, quite simply, in bad taste.

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