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!

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