Hymns

2 hymnals

A big part of my job at church revolves around the praise band. I have a fun time playing with the band (on keys, bass, banjo, whatever), but I confess that praise music really isn’t my bag. There are very few contemporary Christian artists I would choose to listen to in my spare time just because I enjoy their music. (Lauren Daigle is one exception that springs to mind, and maybe I Am They, but these are definitely exceptions.) I grew up the son of a Methodist organist and the grandson of a Lutheran organist, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I prefer the traditional hymns. Beyond personal preference, though, I’ve always been hard-pressed to put into words exactly why I find the old hymns so much more meaningful than contemporary worship choruses. Undeniably, our somewhat dated church hymnal is filled with archaic language and non-PC lyrics. And musically, most of the well-known hymns are at least at formulaic and repetitive as the songs I could hear on Sirius’s “The Message” channel.

This article from Christian Century magazine (November 16, 2010) comes as close as anything I’ve read to voicing my feelings. “I understand the value of praise choruses for those who find them more accessible than hymns. But I doubt that anyone will be singing ‘Our God Is an Awesome God’ on a deathbed. The problem isn’t…the lyrics, but its lack of gravitas.” – M. Craig Barnes

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2010-10/closing-hymns

 

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This was written after I attended a recent church meeting in which a contentious issue took center stage. One angry congregant rose to say, “Why are we even discussing this? The Bible is crystal clear!” This person went on to claim that opposing viewpoints were “dumbing down the Bible.” I would like to submit that dumbing down the Bible happens when we read it in a manner to make it appear crystal clear. To read it in such a simplistic manner is an insult to a tremendously complex and difficult book. It is also an insult to the reader. This is following sola scriptura to its logical and dangerous conclusion: that we set aside our brains whenever we open the Bible. This is, as Richard Rohr says, turning the Bible itself into an idol.

Bible study demands that we bring a lot to the table, including our experience, our knowledge, and our best thinking caps. To borrow a bit of advice from Peter Enns, we should ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What do we do with it?

Those questions are tougher than they first appear (They are NOT crystal clear!), but we ignore them at our peril.

My Only Mission Trip

Proud church-goers tend to wear their mission trips like badges of honor. My one and only mission trip happened when I was a kid. I didn’t, and still don’t know how it came about, but one summer our church became involved in an exchange program with an Indian tribe, and several of us got to go to Cherokee, Oklahoma and live on an Indian Reservation for one summer. (The Indians were not Cherokee, by the way, but Comanche.) I’m calling them Indians, because at the time that’s how we referred to them. It’s how they referred to themselves. No one worried about being PC, and the term “Native Americans” was not yet in vogue.

Turns out, summer on the reservation was fairly primitive. We lived in a tiny church, slept on wooden pews, took care of privy matters in an outhouse, and brushed our teeth and bathed by hand pump. Another non-PC term we adopted: “Indian Time.” If one of locals said something was going to begin at 7pm, that meant sometime after supper but before sunrise the next morning. “I’ll get to it soon” could mean ten minutes from now, or ten days. Life on the reservation was just not as rushed what we were accustomed to. Our first example of Indian Time came on the second evening. The loosely scheduled entertainment was to be a real pow-wow. Pow-wows look exciting on TV westerns, but this one was an excruciatingly long and dull affair – with bad food.

Most of that summer was an excruciatingly long and dull affair. The highlight of the day, every day, was when the train came by in the afternoon. We kids would hear the train in the distance, and drop whatever we were doing – which was usually nothing – and rush to pile any bits of interesting trash we could find on the tracks to watch it get crushed. Chains made from soda can pull-tabs were a favorite. (I’m dating myself; who remembers pull-tabs? To put things into context: Leisure suits were still in style, and the big hit that summer was “Renegade” by Styx.)

We spent much of our time making up stupid lyrics to campfire songs, most of which were not suitable for family ears. Since it was a church trip, we decided we should have an official hymn. The hymn thus honored was “The Old Rugged Cross,” to which we did not know all the words, so we substituted our own:

On a hill far away
Stood an old rugged cross
An old rugged cross on a hill
And that old rugged cross
Was an old rugged cross
And that old rugged cross is still rugged!

We sang this frequently, and by “frequently” I mean incessantly – enough to become very annoying to the adults present.

My two prize souvenirs from Oklahoma, aside from some smashed trinkets, were a turquoise pendant and a tiger eye claw on a chain. I lost the pendant early on, but I wore the claw around my neck intermittently for many years. When I was 19, it fell off its chain and broke on the hard kitchen floor of the pizza restaurant where I worked. The train-track trinkets had long-since been thrown away. Things get lost, but not memories. My friend Spencer was along on that trip. Not long ago, after not seeing or hearing from each other for over thirty years, we met up by chance in a crowded theater lobby, where we entertained our embarrassed wives with an impromptu rendition of “Old Rugged Cross.” And yes, that old rugged cross is still rugged.

Has Sunday morning become to casual?

I am old enough that I can remember when going to church meant dressing up. Men wore jacket & tie; women wore a nice dress. Older folks wore hats. By the time the organist (who happened to be my mom) finished her prelude, the congregation was in place, ready to stand and sing the first hymn.

These days, jeans and a casual shirt are the norm for all genders. In the summer, flip-flops and shorts prevail.  People likely dress up more for work during than week than for church on Sunday. Our mainline Protestant service begins with two or three contemporary Christian songs from the praise team. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, people continue to chat in the narthex, refill their coffee, grab a donut, and slowly filter into the sanctuary.

There is something comforting in the relaxed atmosphere, but I wonder: Has Sunday morning lost its specialness? There is something to be said for traditional hymns, a choir in robes, a minister in clerical attire. These things used to set church apart. Sunday morning was not like other mornings. Its differentness put people in a certain frame of mind—a knowledge that this time and place had a meaning beyond the everyday. If the church is trying to reach more people by becoming just another entertainment, it is not only going to lose to secular pop culture, it also risks losing its identity.

There are ways to be inviting, to foster a “come as you are” openness, while maintaining a sense of ancient otherness. I once attended an Episcopal church in Boston that discouraged dressing up, because it was an inner city church that wanted the area’s homeless to feel they could join in worship without feeling out of place. The service itself, however, was High Church. Sung liturgy, a censer with incense, rectors in vestments, traditional hymns accompanied by organ. The idea was to allow people from any station in life to attend casually yet be treated extraordinarily.

This type of compromise is not going to work everywhere. A church is more than a fancy building and elaborate accoutrements. Furthermore, church isn’t something to be done for an hour or two on Sunday morning in isolation from the rest of the world. But I think Sunday morning worship deserves to be both delivered and received as a special occasion.

“Oh wanderer come home
You’re not too far
Lay down your hurt
Lay down your heart
Come as you are”

– David Crowder / Ben Glover / Matt Maher

 

Nerdfighters and Community

At 55, I am much too old to be a Nerdfighter. Even Nerdfighter founders John and Hank Green, who joke these days about their own ages (41 and 39, respectively), are considerably my juniors.  Nevertheless, in the Nerdfighters, I have found a community that brings me great comfort and connection.

For those not in the know: The Nerdfighter community grew up organically around the Green brothers, author John and web entrepreneur Hank, beginning with their YouTube VlogBrothers channel back in 2007. Since then, both Greens have become wildly successful, and their handprints are everywhere with projects like Crash Course, SciShow, podcasts, conventions, bestselling novels and movie adaptations. Through it all, they keep in close touch with their fans. A Nerdfighter is defined as someone who “is made entirely out of awesome.” (Yes, there is an entire Nerdfighter lexicon. https://nerdfighteria.com/).

John has said a Nerdfigher is someone who is not afraid to express unironic enthusiasm. Perhaps this is the quality that most attracts me to the Nerdfigher community. In an age where irony has become the normative way of seeing and expressing our emotions and those of others, it is refreshing to wholly embrace feeling, whether it is a passion for literature, soccer, science, or marshmallow Peeps. This enthusiasm is apparent in the tagline with which the Greens end all of their broadcasts: “Don’t forget to be awesome!”

Outspoken atheist Kurt Vonnegut frequently advised people to join a church if for no other reason than to be part of a community. Sometimes churches can feel threatening to an outsider though. Whether it is a perceived holier-than-thou attitude, the baggage of a long history of narrow-mindedness and scandal, or simple fear of a place filled with unknown ritual and terminology, churches are not necessarily as welcoming as Nerdfighters. What can the church learn from the Greens? To borrow another phrase from John: This is not a rhetorical question.

 

Going to Church

Blog Post for 1-6-2019

 

My mom has played organ in church for as long as I’ve existed. Her mom before her played organ for most of her life. So it was inevitable that I would be dragged along to church every Sunday, and again every Wednesday for choir rehearsal, which involved both of my parents. And what did I think of this? I hated it! On Wednesday evenings, I occupied myself playing with the rather anemic selection of toys in the church nursery, usually alone. On Sunday mornings, Sunday school found me in with a bunch of kids who all went to a different school than I did, so I was again left feeling alone. What’s worse, once I began taking an active interest in the current music scene, the Sunday morning service forced me to miss Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” on the radio! That was unforgivable.

In high school, I began dating a girl who went to a different church, and by this time I was allowed to make a few of my own choices, so I abandoned the church of my childhood, and even switched from Methodist to Baptist! (In my dad’s eyes, THIS was unforgivable!)

When I left home for college, something happened to me that happens to a lot of kids when they first leave home: I stopped going to church altogether. And I stayed stopped for a good long time. It wasn’t until I started playing piano for a church choir that I began once again regularly attending Sunday morning services. It’s nice. I enjoy going now. Outspoken atheist Kurt Vonnegut used to routinely recommend going to church if for no other reason than to be part of a community.

The community aspect is certainly part of church’s appeal, but I think an even bigger factor is being part of a purpose. After all, a church isn’t just a group of people with nothing in common thrown together randomly. I can get that in a restaurant, at a concert, or on a subway car. The group of people in a church have a common purpose. I don’t pretend to agree with everything my pastor says, or with every line of every creed church hierarchy has handed down. I have too many doubts, questions, and concerns to blindly swallow every morsel of church dogma. But I respect the sense of purpose. I am happy to be part of something bigger than myself. I am not alone.