Archive | September 2018

Today’s Politics Should Prompt New Hymns

MM at Moodys PubI’ve been working on my next book of reflections on hymns, and just completed the story behind “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.” The writing of this hymn was prompted by the social and economic conditions in the United States following the Civil War. As I was explaining the context of this hymn to Mim, she said, “That sounds just like the social, economic, and political situation today. You should blog about it.” So here’s a peek at one reflection that will be in my next book.

The time period following the Civil War in America was turbulent. In the late 1860s, America was beginning to change from a land of mostly farmers to an urban industrial society with two distinct classes of people – the super wealthy and the vulnerable poor – the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and the slum-dwelling working class. Economic injustice was one of the dominant themes of the day.

Washington Gladden was a Congregational pastor of a church in Ohio. He was very troubled by how society was evolving, and he became an outspoken activist for moral reform in industry, commerce, and politics. He wrote 38 books on related moral reform themes, as well as numerous editorials and articles, and even poems and hymns. He became a noted leader in the Social Gospel Movement, a movement to apply Christian ethics to social problems – to apply Jesus’ teachings to our daily living, to take seriously the prophet Micah’s admonition to “do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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Gladden was widely criticized by fellow clergymen for his political involvement. They thought he should limit himself to preaching the gospel instead of getting involved in secular justice issues. Gladden wrote the poem,“Walking with God,” and published it in his magazine in 1879 as a response to this criticism. The poem had three verses of eight lines each.

Dr. Charles H. Richards, an editor and publisher of hymns, read the poem and loved it, except for the second verse. He omitted that verse, and split the first and third verses into four verses of four lines each. Then Richards paired the edited poem with the tune MARYTON, and published it as the hymn, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” in his book, CHRISTIAN PRAISE. The omitted verse helps us understand why Gladden wrote this hymn. I’m sure he felt better after writing it – even if he’s the only one singing it.

O Master, let me walk with thee
Before the taunting Pharisee;
Help me to bear the sting of spite,
The hate of men who hide Thy light,
The sore distrust of souls sincere
Who cannot read Thy judgments clear,
The dullness of the multitude,
Who dimly guess that Thou art good.

Obviously, Gladden thought his critics were hypocrites who were totally blind to what the Bible really says about justice issues. That was back in the 1870s, as our country was evolving from an agricultural age to an industrial age, and economic changes were bringing about extreme wealth and extreme poverty. 

And that’s what is happening today, as well. Today’s age of technology of all types is bringing about chaos in many new ways. Unfortunately, our political parties have very different ideas about how to address the chaos. And, most unfortunately, people have forgotten how to work together to solve our problems. Listening. Understanding. Compromising. Respecting each other. These seem to be lost skills.

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I feel that many Christians support policies that I believe are contrary to what the Bible says about justice issues, like caring for the needy, and welcoming strangers. I feel just like Gladden felt. Maybe we should all do what Gladden did – write a hymn like Gladden’s, one that begins with words like,

O Jesus, Let me walk with you,
before the horrid Washington crew …

After getting out that bitter first verse, we might be able to move on to more constructive, positive verses, like the ones below, verses that begin with words like, “Help me… Teach me… In hope…”

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Multi-Purpose Melodies

fullsizeoutput_2003When I was in eighth grade, our English teacher gave us the assignment to celebrate National Library Week by writing a poem about books. In general, I was a good student, and I liked to write. But I didn’t (and still don’t) like to write poetry. I complained to my mom about the stupid assignment, and she told me about a trick for writing poetry. She said, “Just make up new words to a song you like. It will turn out to be a poem.” She said the song that always worked best for her was the Stephen Foster song “Oh, Susanna.” I decided to try it, using that song. I remember I started the song with, “I went downtown the other night to get myself a book…” I think I wrote half a dozen stanzas, the teacher loved it, and I got an A. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I don’t remember the rest of the poem.

I’ve thought about that poetry-writing experience periodically throughout my life. I’m sure my mom and I aren’t the only people who know about that trick for writing a poem – or a hymn. A lot of contemporary hymn writers seem to use it, although I don’t think they use “Oh, Susanna.” A lot of them use the hymn tune called BEACH SPRING. I’m not particularly fond of the tune, although it’s okay. It’s not hard to sing. It’s just not all that pretty, in my opinion. But it must be a good tune for fitting lyrics to. One of my favorite hymns that uses this tune is “Come and Find the Quiet Center,” a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray of New Zealand. Here’s the first verse of the hymn:

Come and find the quiet center
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed;
Clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Another contemporary hymn writer that has used this tune is Ruth Duck, an American theologian. Here’s the first verse of a hymn she wrote for this tune:

As a fire is meant for burning
with a bright and warming flame,
so the church is meant for mission,
giving glory to God’s name.
Not to preach our creeds or customs,
but to build a bridge of care,
we join hands across the nations,
finding neighbors everywhere.

The reason I’m thinking about “multi-purpose melodies” this week is that last weekend (Labor Day) we sang a relatively new hymn in church, one that uses one of my favorite melodies. The tune is FINLANDIA, composed in 1899 by Jean Sibelius. As a hymn tune, it is most commonly associated with “Be Still My Soul.” The hymn we sang this weekend was “This Is My Song,” a different kind of patriotic song. Verses 1 and 2 were written by American song writer Lloyd Stone. Verse 3 was written by another theologian, Georgia Harkness.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
So hear my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O God of all earth’s kingdoms,
your kingdom come; on earth your will be done.
O God, be lifted up till all shall serve you,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
So hear my prayer, O God of all the nations;
myself I give you; let your will be done.

As I was preparing the music for church this weekend, I was reminded of another new hymn written to this tune, “When Memory Fades” by Mary Louise Bringle. Basically it’s a hymn about aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, and where God fits into this picture. Here’s the first verse:

When memory fades, and recognition falters,
when eyes we love grow dim, and minds confused,
speak to our souls of love that never alters;
speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused.
O God of life and healing peace, empower us
with patient courage, by your grace infused.

I love all three of these hymns – Be Still My Soul, This Is My Song, and When Memory Fades – and this tune is the perfect complement to the message of each one. As I was looking for a piano arrangement of FINLANDIA to play for the offertory to subtly remind people of the opening hymn we had sung, I came across an arrangement by Anne Krentz Organ, currently the music director of a church in Chicago.  The arrangement begins with a bold phrase from FINLANDIA, which is followed by soft and tender phrase from “Jesus Loves Me.” The arrangement moves back and forth between the two hymns, phrase by phrase. Although a piano arrangement has no words, the juxtaposition of musical phrases from these hymns emphasizes the point that Jesus cares about me and loves me always – whether I’m praying to God to “still my soul,” or praying to the “God of all earth’s kingdoms” for peace, or praying for comfort “when memory fades.” God is always near – “Jesus loves me.”

I’m not sure exactly what God created when She created music, but I’m sure glad She shared the same trick with many hymn writers that my mom shared with me – that melodies are multi-purpose, and that using a tune is a great way to write a poem, or a hymn.

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