Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 6, 2010

Hymn Fest in Hindsight

In my last post, I previewed the hymn festival we offered at my congregation last Sunday.  A few days before the service, I said to our school’s Kindergarten teacher, “If I think about doing this again next year, please remind me how I felt right now!”  I was pretty nervous going into Sunday.  Since I haven’t played organ regularly in worship for about a decade (beyond an occasional service here and there), I don’t have the same confidence and accuracy that I had during my college and Seminary years.  I knew that this would not be a “perfect performance” — even though this really wasn’t about a “performance,” but about a musical proclamation of the gospel.  But, from a personal and musical standpoint, it was good for me to learn a few new pieces, to brush up several old ones, and to actively practice for a specific event.

Well, now that it’s over, I’m glad I did it.  It wasn’t perfectly flawless, but most worshippers probably didn’t even know the difference anyway, and my concern about flawless playing probably says more about my problem with perfectionism than anything else.  All in all, it was actually a very good Sunday morning service.  Here’s a link to the service booklet.  Make sure to check the previous post for additional links to online resources for Paul Manz (1919-2009), the Lutheran musician and composer whose music was featured during our Hymn Festival.

Now that the Hymn Festival is done and I’ve had some time to reflect on it, I’d like to put those reflections down in words here.  These observations are not strictly about the Hymn Festival, but also about the larger blessings and strengths of Lutheran worship and hymnody.  So … here goes! 

1. Worship is an experience.  You can talk about worship and educate people about worship all you want (and we should!), but it’s important for people to experience solid, vibrant, Christ-centered worship for them to understand how it can be a beautiful and meaningful proclamation of the gospel.  That general observation about worship applies specifically to hymnody.  We can study hymns in Bible class and talk about the treasure of Lutheran hymnody all we want.  But the experience of singing hymns with interpretive preludes, exuberant singing, and interesting registrations and accompaniments helps people to see the value of Lutheran hymns and music in a way that education alone can’t accomplish.  Think about how you would explain a banana split to someone.  Would you list the ingredients?  Maybe.  Would you pull out the periodic table from high school science class and map out the combination of elements found in ice cream, bananas, and everything else?  Probably not!  Or would you place the dessert in front of a person and say, “Here’s a banana split.  Taste it!”  The experience will go a long way toward “understanding” a banana split.  The experience of excellence in Lutheran hymnody — in content, music, instrumentation, and performance — will go a long way toward appreciating the blessing we have in the great hymns that have come down to us through the Lutheran church.

2. Worshipping together is an expression of our fellowship with one another.  Singing together has a way of psychologically cementing that fellowship and unity which we already share spiritually.  I was encouraged to hear from so many people who enjoyed the Hymn Festival — and these comments came across all generations.  A teenage girl said to me as she left church, “We have got to do that again very soon!”  Our church secretary and her husband, who have been Lutherans for only five years, said, “Can we do that again every month?  How about every quarter?”  An elderly woman in the congregation said that it has been hard for her to come to church lately, but she was determined to be here for the Hymn Festival and she appreciated it so much.  On Sunday, we experienced how Lutheran worship and hymns actually brought generations together rather than dividing them, as is often the case in worship today.

3. The children of our church’s elementary school sang selected stanzas of two hymns: “Jesus, I Will Ponder Now,” and “Jesus, Lead Us On.”  I think my favorite moment in the service was hearing those young voices sing, “Make me see your great distress, anguish and affliction, Bonds and stripes and wretchedness and your crucifixion.  Make me see how scourge and rod, spear and nails did wound you, How for man you died, O God, who with thorns had crowned you” (Christian Worship #98, st. 2 of “Jesus I Will Ponder Now”).  Ever since I became a parent, I’ve had a lot more of those “holding back tears” moments, and that was one of them — especially as I watched my oldest daughter sing in the group.  There aren’t many better ways to instill love of Christ’s gospel into those little souls than teaching them songs of faith — songs that tell the story of salvation, even so far as saying that God died for us on the cross!

4. Children aren’t the only ones who benefit from songs of faith that tell the story of salvation.  The entire congregation essentially preaches the gospel to one another when we sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs that proclaim Christ, his manger, his cross, his empty tomb, and his gospel promises.  I had a short sermon-like commentary near the start of the service.  In that commentary, I pointed out how the hymns we sang that morning would all proclaim the gospel and other important biblical truths in their own unique way.  Even the organ music served as a musically symbolic expression of the truths we sang about in the hymns and heard proclaimed in the Scripture lessons.  We certainly should not go so far as to say that simple texts and songs are wrong or that they have no place in worship, but we also ought not abandon the blessings of Scripture-proclaiming texts that are rich with Christ’s gospel message.  If the gospel alone creates and strengthens faith, then let’s include the gospel richly and generously in our songs!

5. A hymn festival seems like an excellent opportunity to invite our neighbors to visit us (not that the same couldn’t be said for any Sunday!).  The visitor hears the gospel proclaimed in several Scripture lessons and multiple hymns.  The visitor sees worshippers’ appreciation for the gospel by their enthusiastic participation.  The visitor comes on a day when we can put our best foot forward; they experience excellence in distinctively Lutheran worship and songs.  What a great, gospel-centered “first impression” we can offer them!

“Be filled with the Spirit.  Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”  (Ephesians 5:18b-20).  What a blessing to have heard the Word spoken to us and to have proclaimed that same Word to one another in song!

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