Pastor’s Friday Comments (07.12.19)

I write today in praise of hymns — not in contrast or opposition to any other type of music — but simply for their beauty and power as they lead us into and enhance our worship. The classic hymn form allows a depth of expression and exploration of theme unmatched by any other genre for making us both think and feel.

The occasion that got me thinking along these lines was the juxtaposition between the text for last Sunday’s sermon and the song Carey Huddlestun chose for our hymn of commitment that immediately followed. The sermon text from Galatians was Paul’s exhortation to Christians to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) and the hymn was Gloria Gaither’s  “I Then Shall Live,” set to Jean Sibelius’s tonal poem, Finlandia.

As I explored the biblical text I saw the connection between Paul’s urging of the Galatians to take upon themselves the sins and burdens of one another and the critical need we have today for a sense of empathy. In fact, the element that I think is most lacking in our cultural “dialogue” (if such even exists today) is the ability to see a situation from another person’s point of view. I remarked that we were never going to be able to bridge the cultural, theological, and political gaps that divide us if we could not see life as others who are different from ourselves see it.

Some months ago Carey chose the hymn of commitment knowing only the title and text of the sermon, without any clear information on the direction I would be taking with the sermon (which is not surprising since at that point I had no idea myself). Now hear these words from the second verse:

I then shall live as one who’s learned compassion;
I’ve been so loved that I’ll risk loving too.
I know how fear builds walls instead of bridges;
I dare to see another’s point of view.
And when relationships demand commitment, then I’ll be there to care and follow through.

Though this is a modern hymn and lacks a traditional chorus, could any words set to music more eloquently express the point that I was trying to make in the sermon? The connection is all the more remarkable when you consider the unlikely combination of words written by someone known more as a gospel writer than for her classic hymns and music by one of the great composers of the Romantic period. The combination was incredibly beautiful and moving to me.

And experiences like this happen all the time in worship, especially when the service is crafted as sensitively and thoughtfully as Carey structures ours. Deep thoughts come flowing forth from beautiful settings. We are not merely moved to some ephemeral feeling of well-being, but challenged to act more courageously, consider more carefully, love more deeply, struggle with hard issues more determinedly, and to follow Christ more closely. Whether the hymns are familiar, and therefore comforting and reassuring, or new, and cause us to consider traditional themes in new ways, they enrich our worship immeasurably. 

I’m not knocking the way others choose to worship, but for me the privilege of participating in the congregational “choir” and offering music to God that has been produced by such talent and accompanied by our skilled musicians is a gift that I deeply cherish — and I hope you do too. It’s something we should never take for granted and for which we should always offer thanks, both to God and to those who have committed themselves to honing their talents and offering them to both God and the Church. The best expression of your appreciation would be your joyful and enthusiastic participation in their singing. Let’s join together in the praise of God through hymns.