After a community event at a conservative church, I thanked the pastor for a solid dose of hymns nobody else seems to have sung for years. He smiled. "Do you know the differences between hymns and praise choruses?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Hymns have 200 words and you sing them once. Praise choruses have seven words and you sing them 200 times."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. I've sung a chorus or two, and some Taizé chant besides, and the repetition does sink one into a certain meditative state.
Hymns require a bit more attention, sometimes a great deal more. And they can surprise you, sometimes break you open.
There are hymns and hymns, of course. There are the grand hymns -- the ones that make you feel as if you are bathing in orthodoxy. There are the dippy hymns -- the ones that won't make it into a second hymnal. There are the heretical hymns and the badly translated hymns.
And then there are the hymns that are neither angelic nor edited by imps -- the human hymns.
I have long paid attention to these. One reason for my commitment to theological education is the fact that my congregation had no pastor when I was growing up. My father once uncharitably but accurately described the men sent to preach of a Sunday as has-beens and misfits. When one can't count on spiritual sustenance -- or even sense -- from the sermon, one is thrown back on liturgy and hymnody. Indeed, I recall a fair amount of reading the hymnal during sermons. And it was full of surprises.
It took me a few years to catch on that the train referred to in "The Son of God Goes Forth to War" did not run on tracks, but that made the hymn no less mesmerizing. It is an unabashed celebration of martyrdom, with nods to those who "faced the tyrant's burnished steel, the lion's gory mane: They bowed their necks the death to feel, who follows in their train?" There's a piece of formation not to be taken lightly.
The Wittenburg Door, the Christian humor magazine with the misspelled title, once ran a contest attempting to identify the silliest line in a hymn. The winner was from "It Is Well With My Soul," a hymn which is not usually giggled at, but rather sung with conviction. The line in question reads, "My sin -- oh, the bliss of this glorious thought."
Granted that the next line reads," My sin -- not in part, but the whole -- is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more." Some hymnals have substituted "He lives! Oh the bliss..." Perhaps not a good idea. Being brought up short focuses one's attention for the good stuff.
My entry in a contest for loopy but wonderful hymns would have to be "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy." It's a roller coaster. How can one hymn contain elegant poetry like "there's a kindness in God's justice that is more than liberty" and, at the same time, profoundly saccharine words like "If our love were but more simple, we should take him at his word, And our lives would be all sweetness in the sunshine of the Lord"?
Like a good roller coaster, among the ups and downs, there are twists and turns, as well. When last we sang "There's a Wideness" in church, my six-year-old caught my eye at the end of the second verse as it appears in our hymnal (although this verse is missing from some other hymn books). It reads, "There is grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this; There is room for fresh creation in that upper home of bliss. "We have been debating about life in other galaxies; he is a staunch little supporter of earth's exclusive rights to that banner. The notion that God might have more going on was a new thought for him, and I'm willing to guess that he got more food for thought out of that line than from my sermon.
Read the poetry of faith, but sing it, too.
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