The following article appeared in the December edition of Forward in Christ. It is is the sixth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.
Thinking I’m not the most charming conversationalist to begin with, it was doubly challenging for me to visit Betty at her home once a month. A stroke had taken away a fair amount of her ability to speak, but then a subsequent series of mini-strokes robbed her of what little speech she had left. Delivering the devotion and saying the prayer were easy; it was the small talk that was challenging. It wasn’t like having a conversation with myself; it actually was.
Until, one December, I sang a Christmas hymn with Betty. There was no doubt that she had learned the one about the herald angels singing. Her face lit up; she knew every word. I could hear her singing the words of the hymn far more clearly than any spoken response she had made in recent years. “God and sinners reconciled! Glory to the newborn King!”
As surprising to me as that particular case was, I know it’s not all that uncommon. Hundreds of pastors tell dozens of similar anecdotes of elderly Christians clearly recalling hymns they learned decades earlier. But will there continue to be those kinds of stories, and if so, what will be the hymn lines that those aging Christians recall?
Hymns tell the story
From the home of an elderly shut-in, the scene changes to a large body of water in Egypt. What if you had just stepped onto the other side of the Red Sea without getting your feet wet? If Egyptians who were intent on killing you were instead washing up dead on the shore and God was fully responsible for your deliverance, what might you say? What might you sing? “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:1). You might sing about what God had just done for you. You might sing it over and over again until you know it by heart.
Good hymn texts tell that story, the story of God’s deliverance through Christ. Like Christ-centered, law-gospel sermons that are fresh and energetic, good hymn texts tell the story of God’s love for the unlovable, and they come at it from every scriptural angle imaginable. They speak of how the Father sent his only Son to take our place, how Christ suffered indescribable agony to purchase us, how Christ rose to take the sting out of our death. They tell of how the Spirit preaches forgiveness and faith in Christ into our hearts through Bible truth, how he pours those blessings over us in Baptism, how he feeds those blessings to us with our Savior’s body and blood.
Hymns that do that are going to last. They are going to be published in one Lutheran hymnal after another. And, with God being gracious to us, over and over again we and our descendants are going to sing about “the wonders God has done, How his right arm the vict’ry won. How dearly it has cost him!” (Christian Worship [CW] 377:1).
In a memorable way
Christian recording artist Fernando Ortega wrote: “It’s easy to write a chorus that says, ‘God, you are a holy God. I need your grace to see me through. I need your mercy to make me new. Let me live each day for you.’ I just made that up in 2 minutes and there’s nothing wrong with it. It would fit easily and competitively among the hundreds of worship songs that are available to choose from.”
Ortega went on to compare his quickly written chorus to a well-crafted, Christian hymn (“Come Down, O Love Divine”), which he described as “timeless.”
But how does the hymnal committee determine which hymns will become timeless? We try to do that through comparative evaluations—thousands of comparative evaluations.
There’s a reason Betty still knew that Christmas hymn. I can remember the comfortable smile on her face when I read her the Luke 2 Christmas account. The Christmas hymn, however, also included rhyme and meter and music. The combination made the truths of the incarnation all the more memorable for her. Hearing and singing that hymn in her childhood home and in the Lutheran congregation of her youth had anchored it in her heart.
With the long-lasting impact hymns can have, throwing some lines together or using “any old text” just won’t do. Which lines would you want, would I want, would we want to usher us into old age, to remain in our brains when our brains may be losing track of other less memorable, less important things?
Out of hundreds, here are a couple that have made a deep impression on me:
“When he shall come with trumpet sound, Oh, may I then in him be found, Clothed in His righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne” (TLH 370:4; CW 382:4; ________).
“And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace” (TLH 429:3; CW 434:3; ________).
I’ve quoted the texts as I first learned them in The Lutheran Hymnal, but also with their Christian Worship citations. The blank space represents our next hymnal. There are, of course, plenty of things to sing about other than death and resurrection and judgment day, but none more important. Betty never had her eyes set on living in an oceanside mansion with an infinity pool that looked out over a dazzling sunset every evening. Her eyes were aimed at the mansions in the house of her heavenly Father, where she is today, free from the limitations of a stroke-riddled body and brimming with joy. She is, in fact, standing on the shore that’s far better than the far shore of the Red Sea, the shore where the saints in heaven raise the hymn of how God has delivered them from every enemy. She’s singing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (Revelation 15:3).
The examples above are the kinds of texts that are worth singing, worth learning, worth preserving. In many cases, they are hymns from centuries past and have already appeared in hundreds of hymnals. In some cases, they are from this century and are just starting to show up in a handful of hymnals. In every case, we are taking a close look at the words, making sure that they faithfully and accurately reference God’s gracious deliverance in Christ and that they do so in a well-crafted way. We want such texts to make a lifelong impression in the hearts and minds of God’s people, right down to our own youngest children and a generation yet unborn.
We invite your feedback as we work on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month we will post a segment of our current hymn list, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal.