Thursday, July 20, 2006

Things I've Learned at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (#4 - Hymns)

When I first arrived at CHBC, I considered myself a lover of hymns. I wasn't particularly well-schooled regarding music, history of hymns, etc., but I liked hymns. I liked the theology expressed in them and I disliked the rather juvenile expression in a lot of contemporary music. But honestly, I thought I was one of a dying breed when it came to hymns.

My first Sunday at CHBC was wonderful! My wife and I walked into a service not knowing what to expect. We were first struck -- almost physically it seemed -- by the "white space" in the service. There was solemnity there. Quiet. Reflection. We hadn't experienced that in any of the churches we'd visited prior to CHBC. It was reverent, and we were fed by it.

The prayers were rich... a prayer of praise, a prayer of confession (who does that any more?!), and a pastoral prayer of intercession. Long portions of scripture were read. But then there were the hymns. And not just the favorite hymns I'd grown accustomed to, hymns written in the last 50-75 years or so.

Some of these songs were ancient by modern standards! And the theology was outstanding. But to hear the congregation singing these gems "lustily" (as Luther put it) was amazing! Who knew that really old music and lyrics could sound so good?! And not only sound good, but engage the head and the heart so effectively.

I'd been a victim of the prevailing notion that "worship" is a pretty much emotional experience that needs to be "lead" by people good at strumming other people's sentiments. Christian "emo" I suppose. But what I found at CHBC was an approach to singing God's praises that was mere and solid, thoughtful and subsequently emotionally engaging. Now, at times I had to work hard to cross the cultural chasm between my small-town, hip-hop heyday generation, African American, social scientist trained background to connect with the melody or the words (usually the melody). But when I did, it was well worth it. It brought me into contact with a stream of Christian musicology and praise that was outside of my experience. And that was a good thing.

I don't think I was alone in this experience. The congregation is perhaps 30-40% twenty-somethings working on the Hill as interns or attending one of the area universities. They sang as capably and engagedly as anyone. It wasn't just a thing for people with blue hair. It was a thing for Asian, African, European, Latinas and Latinos, and African Americans. It was an experience for us all.

I was instructed by the music at CHBC. Every Wednesday the pastoral staff met for 1/2 hour to review the coming Lord's day service. We inevitably sampled, discussed, and debated the merits of the proposed hymns. Were they theologically sound? Were they melocially interesting? Was there an alternative version that would edify more? Did they fit with the theological theme and text for the morning's sermon?

Those discussions and debates taught me a lot about the care that should be put into planning a service and thinking through selections. I was reminded weekly that we want what we sing to express true and lofty thoughts about God. I learned to read music (a little) and to sing (tolerably, I think). I was taught that as a pastor I need to be a student of hymns and music more generally so that I might avoid and help the people to avoid offering strange fire to our Holy God.

Many battered, bruised and buried bodies exist because of music wars in churches. Perhaps there will be others added to the body count before the Lord returns. I'm not necessarily advocating that we should strike up old and often-times unhelpful battles. But, I've learned that a return to the theologically rich treasure trove of hymnody is a beautiful and spiritually helpful thing.


Unknown said...

Sounds like there are many, but could you commend to us some of the best hymns used... perhpas with some of the comments that commended them for use...

FellowElder said...

There'd be too many to name and comment on, but here are a few.

I love singing about heaven and eternity, so:
There Is A Happy Land;
On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand;
Jerusalem, My Happy Home
Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal (more recent, 1967)

We also enjoyed hymns that meditated on the Person and work of Christ, so:
And Can IT Be That I Should Gain?;
How Sweet and Awesome Is This Place;
O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus;
Here Is Love;
Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending;
What Is the World to Me?;
The King of Love My Shepherd Is;
Thou Who Wast Rich (more recent)

This is a brief selection. To hear the congregation sing portions of these hymns acapella is amazing. Any recommendations you'd add?

Andrea said...

One of my absolute favorites that we sang around Christmastime is "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" (from the 4th century, translated in 1864).

FellowElder said...

That's an excellent hymn! And beats my selection by 1400 years ;-)

Any other favorites you'd recommend folks considering learning?


Annette Harrison said...

Among the hymns that I would count as my favorites is "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" by Isaac Watts. The words focus on the wonder and magnitude of the sacrifice, and to the realization that I indeed need to "pour contempt on all my pride."

"Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my ALL."

But not only are the words to this hymn beautiful, the music itself is poignant with worship; it seems to build to new intensity as it is sung, and a good musician can take it to new keys several times over, leading a congregation in adoration and worship of "Christ my God."