Today’s Word from Karl Olsen, Minister of Music…
Sheila and I have been writing about hymns and hymnody lately in these missives, and I thought it might serve us well to look at what that study is…so here is a definition of hymnody:
1: hymn singing
2: hymn writing
3: the hymns of a time, place, or church
Hmmm…seems a little bit incomplete, so try this one:
1: the singing or the composition of hymns or sacred songs.
2: hymns collectively, especially the collective hymns of a specific religion, place, or period.
The “collective” part of that definition hits home with me. Of course, what constitutes a hymn and makes it different from a song can be discussed for a while, and then what makes it a praise song rather than just a song can take even longer.
Over all these years at Trinity, and several years in other churches prior to that, it is clear to me that some people have real preferences! There are those for whom a hymn or song written in “classical” style from the 19th century or before is really where the canon of church music lies. O God, Our Help in Ages Past or Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee might be examples.
And others wouldn’t appreciate anything other than more recent CCM (contemporary Christian music) songs—older examples might be Lord, Be Glorified and How Great is Our God. Certainly, “old” is relative here, as those two praise songs were written in 1978 and 2004, respectively.
Luckily for me, we here at TLC have a pretty eclectic hymnody—our collective body of song. We’ve done pretty much everything from classic hymnody to praise songs and more—remember Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and All You Need Is Love? And sometimes in the same service we might have J.S. Bach’s Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light. Slight whiplash sometimes, I’ll admit, but toward a good goal. Pastor Jim and I have taken (mostly!) good-natured heat over some of these choices for the past 31 years. (Hint: we have more to come!)
So, there is an old story which you likely have heard, but that puts this in sort-of real-world examples…
A farmer (from Coupeville?) went to the city (Everett?) one weekend and attended the big city church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the farmer. “It was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”
“Praise choruses?” asked the wife. “What are those?”
The farmer said, “Well it’s like this … If I were to say to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well that would be a hymn. If, on the other hand, I were to say to you, ‘Martha, Martha, Martha, Oh, Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows, the white cows, the black and white cows, the COWS, COWS, COWS are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn, in the CORN, CORN, CORN, COOOOORRRRRNNNNN,’ then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well that would be a praise chorus.”
As luck would have it, the exact same Sunday a young, new Christian from the city church attended the small-town church. He came home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the young man, “It was good. They did something different, however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”
“Hymns?” asked the wife. “What are those?”
The young man said, “Well it’s like this … If I were to say to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you,
Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry
Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
To the righteous, glorious truth.
For the way of the animals who can explain
There in their heads is no shadow of sense,
Hearkenest they in God’s sun or his rain
Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced.
Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight,
Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn chewed.
So look to that bright shining day by and by,
Where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn
Where no vicious animal makes my soul cry
And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.
Then, if I were to do only verses one, three and four, and change keys on the last verse, well that would be a hymn.”
Make sense? Good! DeAnn Olson, a singer, among other abilities, recently sent me a link to a quick tour through Christian Hymnody, encompassing a good range of styles, and about 1500 years of singing in the church. Singer David Wesley does a masterful job of singing this compilation along with several himselfs and a little autotune. For a listen, click HERE.
(Grab another cup of tea or coffee and a quick snack—it takes about 8 minutes. But hey, the pandemic… you know you’ve got the time, right?)
That was pretty fascinating! (If you click on “show more” beneath the video, there will be a list of all the hymns and songs.)
I hope you enjoy the tour through hymns that is yet to come—and we’ll keep on trying to pick music that lifts, that challenges, that comforts, and most importantly, points us toward the truth of God’s endless love for us, and our challenge to respond to that love by serving all of God’s creation.
Be well, be safe, and sing on! (It makes the time pass faster!)