Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Can We Find New Meaning in Old Hymns?

I recently saw a video of a British comedian who does stand-up comedy.  He is very funny many times as he discussed modern life and its complexities.  He can be offensive at times, however, often using language that I would not recommend.  On one video, he talks about how boring he finds organized religion nowadays.  That was offensive to me since that is how I make my living and I promote church attendance.  I watched him anyway because he can be very funny.  His point was that being in worship is a tiresome task and that even the singing of hymns can be boring.  He demonstrated by mocking the singing of the hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" using long, drawn-out words and very funny facial expressions.  He blamed the lack of energy in the hymns, however, on the way the congregations sing in the United Kingdom.  "Good", I thought, "that may be the way they sing across the Pond but we have a little more energy over here."

To be honest, though, often we also don't have more energy when we sing familiar hymns.  I too have felt less than inspired by some hymn singing in church at times.  I sometimes look out over a congregation (present one excluded, of course) and see many persons simply standing and not singing at all and others chewing their gum and looking around the building and others going through the motions of singing but not actually thinking about what they are mouthing and I want to stop the music and give a stern rebuke.  I do not do this, however, because I want people to return the next Sunday and not stay home because they fear a stern rebuke concerning the way they worship.

So, that British comedian inspired me to examine familiar hymns and the scripture upon which they are based in a sermon series that I will begin this next Sunday and the first one we will examine is the one which he mocked.  We have been singing "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" in worship settings ever since Isaac Watts wrote it and published it in 1719 in a bestseller called, "The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament."  It is considered to be the finest of the 600 or more hymns written by Isaac Watts, who was called the "Father of English Hymnody."  The tune we most often use is called "St. Anne" and was composed by William Croft who earned a Doctor of Music degree at Oxford University.  He named the tune to honor Queen Anne who reigned at the time.  He was also the organist at the Church of St. Anne in London at the time he composed the tune.

So, the often used tune is paired with the words of Isaac Watts to get the hymn we sing today.  But, did you know that you do not have to sing words of a hymn to the tune that they are often paired with?  You can actually interchange the words with another tune that has the same meter.  For example, you can sing the words of "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" to the tune we use with "Amazing Grace."  You can also sing it to the tune of "The Coke Song" that was sung in commercials back in the 60s or 70s.  The tune you choose to use will do something to either increase its appeal to you or make it sound more dirge-like to you.

At a retreat I once attended, we did this very thing.  We sang the words to Amazing Grace to as many tunes as we could that are in the culture.  We used "The Coke Song", "Fernando's Hideaway" (from the play, The Pajama Game), and the theme from Gilligan's Island.  All of them work with it and it became fun to sing Amazing Grace.  We even sung it to the tune from "The Happy Wanderer" (you know, it has all those vel-de-rees, vel-de rahs in it).  Suddenly it was fun to sing Amazing Grace instead of just getting through all the verses we know from memory.

So, could we dare to sing familiar words of a hymn to other tunes and get away with it in a worship service and find that it still has meaning?  The Music Police will not arrest us for singing different tunes in church OR for talking about hymns and why we sing them.  You may actually enjoy hymn singing when you find out that they were written to praise God and to make that praise relevant to the generation of the day in which they were written.

Bonus Question: Did you know that John and Charles Wesley, who wrote thousands of hymns, often used tunes that were sung in the pubs of their day to pair with their theological words?  It was kind of like writing new words to go along with "I've Got Friends in Low Places" or "All My Rowdy Friends are Here".  Sacred words will always be sacred if they have that intended meaning, regardless of the tune that we use to sing them to.

Sermon Series on Hymns from the Psalms--August 4, 11, 18, 25--Weimar United Church of Christ.  All are welcome and invited!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Unexpected Interruptions in Life

Last Monday I rose and had my usual two cups of coffee and then strapped on my athletic shoes to go walk my two miles that I try to accomplish daily.  I walk around our town and listen to my music on my MP3 player and generally have a happy time.  I see people who are going to work and wave at them and usually do all this in about 45 minutes.  On Monday, however, as I was getting toward the end of my trek, I decided to walk on Main Street on our ancient sidewalks to read a flyer from the funeral home giving the details about a citizen who had died recently and when the service for her would be held.  As I stopped reading and continued walking, suddenly I hooked my right foot on a piece of uneven pavement that was sticking up and found myself in one of those almost movie-like slow motion feelings in which I was sure I was about to fall flat on my face without not quite knowing what to do to prevent it.  This all happened in seconds, of course, but I can remember the mental contemplation of knowing that I was about to experience a painful fall and wondering what was I going to do to prevent it, all the while falling forward on the slope that the sidewalk makes as it joins Center Street.  Luckily, or by the grace of God, I grasped a railing at the end of the walk and did not fall on my face.  Instead, I felt a terrific pain in my left thigh, injuring my hamstring muscle.  I sat down on the base of a streetlight and wondered if I could make it home or would have to call for help.  As I began to try to cross the street, I knew the answer.  Luckily, I had brought my cell phone so I called home and my sweet wife came right away to pick me up as I limped to the next corner to meet her.

The pain was not so great that I could not walk but the injury left me with a constant reminder that it is there--pain when I walk in the back of my thigh.  I received my therapy from a massage therapist/physical therapist that I have discovered and got some good words of advice concerning exercises to help strengthen my hamstring from my former physical therapist at the gym where I go to exercise.  I hope I will be back to full strength and walking my 2 miles again soon.  I really miss getting out in the mornings and looking the town over at the crack of dawn.

Interruptions in life---we all experience them.  Sometimes they are joyful and welcomed and sometimes, as was the case with me this week, they are rude and painful and a bother.  When the interruption seems to be as a result of negligence on the part of another person or entity---such as a driver who runs into your car or a city that has not cared for their sidewalks in decades---then you tend to cast blame their way as you pick up the pieces and try to move on.  Blame does not generally help but we all seem to take part in it.  We sort out things and make a plan as to how to progress forward and then try to heal in whatever way we can.

Whether it is our bodies or our cars or our relations that are injured, those interruptions provide pauses in life that allow us to consider what is important in life and opportunities to give thanks for those things or people who mean so much to us.  I am thankful that I have a spouse who came to my aid and cared for me.  I am thankful that I have friends who expressed their feelings of caring when they learned of my accident.  I am thankful that there are trained persons who have the knowledge and expertise to share with us to help restore us to health.

Interruptions also give us the opportunity to make changes in our lives or life settings so that life will be better both for us and others.  Since my accident I have already called our city manager and told him about my experience and suggested that the city needs to repair those sidewalks.  I also called the mayor's office and left a message for him to call me in regard to this problem.  If need be, I will go to the city council and bring up the issue too.  This incident was an inconvenience in my life but an elderly person who should fall on a piece of uneven sidewalk could break a bone or hip or be injured severely in a fall.  That matter takes precedence over my pain and is something that can be pursued on behalf of others.  We all have to look at our surroundings and see if perhaps we are being called to a higher purpose in life revealed to us in our daily experiences.

Interruptions in life could be God's voice speaking to us, opening our eyes to situations we never have seen before.  They could be one of life's teaching tools to press us to get involved because we have had an experience that convinced us that a wrong should be made right or a change should be made in the world around us and WE are to be the ones to help bring about the change.  Notice those interruptions in life.  Perhaps God is Still Speaking to you and me to act in concern and service to the world around us.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Never give up.....never?  No, Never!  At least that is what is taught in the Gospel lesson for this next Sunday from Luke 11.  Jesus tells a story about a man who has gone to bed with his kids.  He finally got everyone quiet and has settle down for a well deserved rest when he hears a knock on his door.  He goes downstairs to answer the door and sees a friend there asking to borrow some bread.  At this time of the night?  You have got to be kidding!  The man tries to send his friend away without any bread telling him that this is not an opportune time but the friend will not give up.  He is insistent, saying he must have bread and he does not care about the time of day.

Jesus' conclusion to the story is that "at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever  he needs."  In other words, it's the old "squeaky wheel gets the grease" routine.  If you ask, you will receive.  If you never ask, then your chance of receiving is small because others do not know what you need.  This passage contains the familiar admonition--"Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you."  Jesus then goes on to say how much God wants to give to God's children simply because of the love God has for them.

So, the main idea is--"Do not give up!  Keep on asking!  Keep on praying!"  This story follows Jesus' teaching of what we call The Lord's Prayer, something many of us say every Sunday during prayer time.  It is called The Lord's Prayer because The Lord taught his disciples this way to pray.  That prayer contains every petition that is needed for life--praise to God, bread for life, forgiveness of sins for ourselves and others, and a request for freedom from temptation.  We also pray that God's Will would be done on earth even as it is done in heaven so that we would be open to what God would have for our lives because we often do not know what is best for life.

So, we pray with our finite understanding of what is best for us and others and we open the door to God's grace working within us in ways we cannot understand.  We pray for others to be healed.  We pray for mercy and forgiveness because we know we are not perfect people.  We pray that God's Will would be done in ways we cannot imagine even if that should be different from our own wills and requests.

To provide for a neighbor in the middle of the night required patience and grace and understanding.  The friend who asked for the bread in the story would have suffered great embarrassment and social shame if he had not had something to provide for someone who dropped in to see him.  Since the friend did not have bread to offer the visitor, then finding it nearby was the next best solution.  Even if it was late and the one being asked for the favor was being put upon, the need still existed and had to be solved.  So, the friend would not give up.  He had a need and had to find a solution.

He sounds rather desperate, doesn't he?  Sometimes we are desperate too when we pray.  We have needs and they will not go away.  We want answers to problems that plague us.  We need solutions.  So, we pray, but often we pray only once or twice and then stop or forget.  I think this story is teaching to pray and not give up.  Pray that God's Will would be done and pray for what you need because God wants to bless God's children in the same way that a loving parent want to bless a child.  God will provide what is needed for each prayer that is prayed....but what we receive may not be what we thought we really needed.  The answer is granted according to God's Will for our lives and the lives of others...and it may not be what we think is best, but what God determines to be best.  But....keep on praying and trusting and know that God will answer.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Movie Review--Hi-Yo Silver, Away!

Yes, after seeing the new version of "The Lone Ranger" I thought I would write and give some of my impressions of the movie.  Having seen the television series back in the 60s when the Lone Ranger would ride through the black and white western scenery and shout, "Hi-yo Silver, Away!" weekly in answer to a person who asked, "Who was that masked man?" I thought I would share some of my thoughts regarding this new re-make of that western classic.  I am not going to get very technical and describe the cinematography or try to analyze the intricacies of the film but I simply want to talk about the effect of movies on society today through the lens of this film.

I had seen an interview with Johnny Depp a couple weeks ago and learned that much of the movie was filmed in Colorado with the cast using Creede as their home base.  I actually saw landscapes in the movie that reminded me of Colorado...bluffs and buttes and mesas that look very much like the southwestern part of the USA.  I did not see anything that looked like Texas to me, even west Texas or Big Bend, although the opening of the movie said it was in "Colby, Texas" which must be a mythological setting because I cannot find a town in Texas with that name, even in Texas mythology.  The opening setting in the fictional Colby was supposed to be where the transcontinental railroad was being built.  Again, a historical non-fact--the transcontinental railroad did not go through Texas.  It was built across the midwestern states and southern Wyoming to meet the other track coming from the west and they met in Promontory, Utah.  Precisely, the eastern track started in Council Bluffs, Iowa and the western track began in Sacramental, CA and they met in Utah.  Texas was way too far south to have anything to do with it.  This is a movie, of course, so we can suspend our historical accuracy for the sake of the story, I suppose.

One thing that I do not like in movies is violence.  I know this is a western so we must have cowboys and outlaws having a shoot out or two and even cowboys and Indians battling it out and both of those were included in the film.  What I did not think was necessary was gratuitous violence and torture such as one outlaw cutting the heart out of a dying cowboy.  I actually hid my eyes and could not watch that scene...the thought of it was too gory for my imagination much lest to see it depicted on the screen.  I know this is an action movie but such gore is not necessary for general audiences, in my opinion.  I detest violence, whether real or in films, and rarely go to movies that I know have a constant flow of violence in them.

This movie is a bit like the old cliff-hangers of the melodramatic genre.  The heroes of the film...The Lone Ranger and Tonto...were again and again in danger of dying, just to be rescues at the last moment by some miraculous act.  I also liked the horse Silver and all the thing he could do that normal horses cannot do...such as ride on a roof or across the top of a moving train in order to rescue The Lone Ranger.  Silver was called a Spirit Horse by Tonto so I guess he had special powers that ordinary horses do not.

The movie is way too long---2 1/2 hours---in case you have trouble sitting that long after drinking one of those large drinks at the movies.  I have taught myself over the years never to drink at the movies because I cannot sit that long if I do.  I am glad I saw it.  It was a good comedy picture mixed in with all the action.  Johnny Depp's Tonto is a good rendition of the character even though he is a bit goofy and not in the serious mode of the Tonto from the long ago television series but perhaps that is what the character is supposed to be for this particular show.  I did not like the idea of him being an old man and working in a sideshow at the fair, though.  That seemed rather cruel.  Perhaps the movie was to point out the cruelty of humans and how that cruelty can be based on greed, as was evident in the picture.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

And Who is My Neighbor?

          “And who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer of Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan that we recently studied in worship last month.  The question is a good one for modern people to ask also.  Who is my neighbor? 
          I live next door to the church in Weimar, most of you know.  We have three houses on the street in front of the parsonage.  We know all of our neighbors and we all talk now and then.  One family belongs to our church and one other attends our church now and then.  I think we are all friendly toward each other and would help each other if help were needed.  People who live near each other are called neighbors in society.  Who besides these, though, are my neighbors?  Is it only geographic proximity that designates someone as a neighbor?  How far down the road do I go and still call the persons who live in the houses on the road my neighbors?
          I think Jesus was addressing the issue of inclusiveness when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  I think Jesus was attempting to teach the idea that inclusiveness crosses all boundaries and brings into our social sphere everyone who lives, regardless of how much or how different they are from us. 
          St. Paul echoed Jesus’ teachings when he wrote to the church at Corinth—“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  (I Cor. 12:12-13)  It is true in the Christian family that all Christians are related to one another because we are united by One Spirit through Christ.  What about others who are not Christians?  Are they our neighbors too? 
          The Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches exactly that by Jesus’ use of the hero of the story being an enemy of the Jewish people.  The word “Samaritan” was used as a curse word by righteous Jews of Jesus’ time.  To call someone a Samaritan or a dog was to level the worst insult you could against someone.  Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews because their ancestors had intermarried with the Babylonians and Assyrians over the years of exile and occupation of the land of Palestine.  Those who had intermarried with the “enemy” were considered traitors and their descendants were labeled the same way even though they had nothing to do with the history of their people.  Jews did not have any interactions with Samaritans.  
          To say “good” and “Samaritan” together in the same breath would have been a terrible oxymoron to righteous Jews.  So, to tell a story in which righteous Jews refused to help a wounded person and in which a Samaritan did so would have stung the ears of the listeners.  Samaritans were considered at the bottom rung of society, along with tax collectors and prostitutes (also people that Jesus ate with and defended.)  A Samaritan who would stop to assist a wounded person and give his money to a stranger to pay for caring for the stranger was like a character out of a fairy tale to good Jews, just something made up but unlikely to actually exist. 
          “And who is my neighbor?”  Perhaps our own answer to that question requires us to delve deeply into our own feelings and sensitivities to find out who we resent or mistrust or consider evil or bad.  Perhaps our answer brings up our prejudices or hatred.  Maybe the answer is too painful for us to even admit but it is something needed for us to find healing in our own spirits.  The answer itself may bring freedom because once we admit to ourselves that we could not be a neighbor to a certain class or culture of people, we can begin to examine why we are the way we are and to seek to change to accept and include even those whom we may despise. 
          “Which of these was a neighbor...?” Jesus asked the lawyer at the end of his story.  “He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.”  (Luke 10: 36-37)  To be a neighbor to others requires showing mercy to all, even those whom we cannot seem to accept for one reason or the other. 
          Look at the world around you.  See who inhabits the world with you.  Who can you not accept for one reason or the other?  That very one is the neighbor that God is calling you to consider as loved by God and cared for by you.