by Scott C. Weidler
Worship is powerful—more powerful than we realize. As we gather around Jesus Christ, present in God’s word and the sacraments, to be sent out into the world, are we fully cognizant of our words, actions and songs—especially our songs?
I can’t help but remember something Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s words in Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row, 1982):
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Do we understand the power we invoke, especially in our songs? We hear of this power in the “Chorister’s Prayer” from the Royal School of Church Music, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit that promotes the study, practice and improvement of Christian music for worship. Here are the words of the prayer:
Bless, O Lord, us Thy servants who minister in Thy temple.
Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts,
and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For many years, I invited members of choirs I directed to pray this prayer at the end of each rehearsal. One year we had a singer who was not a member of the church—he just liked to sing. We welcomed him joyfully. After many months of singing faithfully, he quit coming without a word. When I followed up with him, I discovered that the text of this prayer bothered him so much that despite his desire to sing, he simply couldn’t be with us anymore.
I was baffled. What could possibly be offensive about this prayer? He explained that he honestly didn’t believe a lot of the words he was being asked to sing. This prayer made it clear to him that, if he couldn’t believe it all, he ought not participate. I tried to explain that even for me, a lifelong church-going Lutheran, there were certain words that I couldn’t fully believe either. There were texts of many hymns and anthems that were unsettling to me personally, but they were part of the church’s canon and expected to be sung, so I just didn’t worry about it and sang. Until the conversation with this one particular singer I would never have articulated this feeling to myself, let alone spoken it aloud to others. His honesty made me dig deep and admit my own doubts.
Enlightening as it was, this encounter was also a jarring reminder about the power of words, especially those words we put on the lips of worshipers. Do those of us who plan worship, who select the spoken and sung texts, realize the power we have to help shape or challenge faith?
Singing is believing
I’m curious about what unchurched people who, for whatever reason, visit our worship services think when they are asked to sing words like this:
Though hordes of devils fill the land
all threatening to devour us,
we tremble not, unmoved we stand;
they cannot overpower us.
(A Mighty Fortress, ELW 504, stanza 3)
I’m even more curious about what people who have sung this text for decades are thinking as they sing. Is this scary? Is it comforting? Shocking or jarring? Full of assurance and confidence? Or is it simply routine? Do the words really matter?
What about a beloved text like this?
Fair is the sunshine,
fair is the moonlight,
bright the sparkling stars on high;
Jesus shines brighter,
Jesus shines purer,
than all the angels in the sky.
(Beautiful Savior, ELW 838, stanza 3)
Is singing this in a world that is deeply divided and troubled appropriate? Helpful? Honest? Does it provide needed balm, or does it mask a harsh reality?
During the years that Evangelical Lutheran Worship was being developed, I remember many challenging conversations about what to do with some hymn texts that, while beloved by many, were simply not conveying an honest message. If people were singing untrue or weak texts year after year, were untrue or weak beliefs being instilled in them, even if they didn’t realize it?
For example, for nearly 30 years, we sang:
Sometimes they strew his way and his sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath, and for his death they thirst and cry.
Today, the text reads:
Sometimes we strew his way and his sweet praises sing;
resounding all the day hosannas to our king.
Then “Crucify!” is all our breath, and for his death we thirst and cry.
(My Song Is Love Unknown, ELW 343, stanza 3)
Does it make a difference that we ask people to sing “they” and “their” or “we” and “our”? Are we pointing fingers at others during the Passion story, or are we complicit as well? Many would argue it doesn’t matter, but I have come to believe that such a simple alteration really does make a difference over many years of singing.
What about this text?
If our love were but more simple, we should take him at his word;
And our lives would be all sunshine in the sweetness of our Lord.
If we do take God at his word, will our lives really be “all sunshine”? I haven’t experienced that even during times when my faith is strong.
Today we sing:
Make our love, O God, more faithful; let us take you at your word,
and our lives will be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
(There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, ELW 588, stanza 4)
The answer to all these questions will certainly vary from person to person, depending on personal experiences, preferences and beliefs. A text may even be understood differently by the same individual at various points in their life. For example, my feelings about many texts I grew up singing have changed over the years as my perspectives on life, theology and worship have evolved. Certainly, many texts we cherish today will be altered or discarded in the next generation.
What I do believe, without question, is that what we sing together as the body of Christ really does matter. What we sing creates, affirms or challenges faith. We need to pay attention to the words. Are they honest? Are they true? Strong? Appropriate? Might we struggle with a particular phrase but continue to sing it boldly because we know it supports and strengthens someone else in our community of faith? Just like faith itself, the answers aren’t always easy.
Scott C. Weidler has been a church musician and teacher in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania, serving 21 years as program director for worship and music at the ELCA Churchwide office. He currently lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Thanks, I appreciate this kind of focus upon familiar hymns (or not familiar).