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Lutheran Hymns and Espresso

March 23rd, 2007
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I love classic Lutheran hymns. They are an acquired taste, particularly for folks who come to Lutheranism from a non-Lutheran background. Lutheran hymnody is one of those things that is a challenge "to get" for non-Lutherans. The hymns they are more accustomed to tend to be a bit more emotionally oriented, the music a bit more rhythmic, in the sense of a standard 4/4 time signature, etc. [musicians here is your cue to jump all over me and correct me on this point], but you know what I mean, I hope. Classic Lutheran hymnody tends to be more doctrinal in content and it is not at all uncommon to find them set in a minor key. [By the way, I recently read that when Bach presents you something in D Minor, well, strap yourself in, you are in for quite a ride].

That alone often causes non-Lutherans to recoil. Minor key? That’s just "too depressing" some say. Case in point: the amazingly good Easter hymn by Luther: Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands].

Here’s one way of looking at the situation. Lutheran hymns are to Christian hymnody what Espresso is to coffee. When you have y our first cup of really good Espresso you probably aren’t going to like it, but then you realize: wow, this is a lot better than ordinary coffee. And then, once you’ve acquired a taste for espresso, well, ordinary cups of java just aren’t quite as satisfying.

This is most definitely not to say hymns written by non-Lutherans are "bad" but….well, they are often not espresso. There are some great hymns written by non-Lutherans, no doubt bout it!

But, many times, when you compare non-Lutheran hymnody to classic Lutheran hymnody their is a noticeable difference. Some are like cheap cups of coffee you get from the Shell gas station when you are in a hurry. Others are like a better cup of fast coffee. Others are like a good cup of Starbucks, but …. Lutheran hymns…ah, well, they are like that cup of coffee you make yourself, at home, carefully choosing fresh beans, recently roasted, carefully ground in a burr grinder and then made precisely in a French press. If you are familiar with fine coffee freshly ground and made in a French press, well, you know precisely what I’m talking about. If you do not know how good coffee was meant to be: well, go check out a French press. Or, even better, just enjoy a fine Espresso. But I digress. [I suspect my digression has something to do with the fact that I'm trying very hard to give up caffeine!]

Here is what a friend just sent me last night, some reflections of his on the hymnody of Paul Gerhardt and the music of J.S. Bach and Lutheranism.

I have been using Gerhardt hymns for meditation during Lent. Some verses
which didn’t make it into LSB 453 are worth noting. It’s imagery is
striking. It’s theology of the cross is clear. Its witness to the
implications of the cross for daily living is moving, especially in
light of Gerhardt’s biography.

As I meditated on the hymn, I remembered
a painting on  the wall of a German pastor’s study. His wife was an
amateur painter. She reproduced a wonderful medieval fresco they had
seen which depicted a huge black monster. It’s mouth was propped open
by a cross like those often seen in portrayals of the Lamb of God. It
was being held by Christ who was leading forth the faithful from the
belly of the monster. That same imagery is employed in this hymn, but
in regard to the crucifixion rather than resurrection. I found the
translation at this site: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/winkworth/life.h013.html. It is by Winkworth and amazingly captures this wonderful imagery in verse. Here is the hymn.

> Oh, world! behold upon the tree
> Thy Life is hanging now for thee,
> Thy Saviour yields His dying breath;
> The mighty Prince of glory now
> For thee doth unresisting bow
> To cruel stripes, to scorn and death.
> Alas! my Saviour, who could dare
> Bid Thee such bitter anguish bear,
> What evil heart entreat Thee thus?
> For Thou art good, hast wronged none,
> As we and ours too oft have done,
> Thou hast not sinn’d, dear Lord, like us.
> I and my sins, that number more
> Than yonder sands upon the shore,
> Have brought to pass this agony;
> ‘Tis I have caused the floods of woe
> That now Thy dying soul o’erflow,
> And those sad hearts that watch by Thee.
> ´Tis I to whom these pains belong,
> ‘Tis I should suffer for my wrong,
> Bound hand and foot in heavy chains;
> The scourge, the fetters, whatsoe’er
> Thou bearest, ’tis my soul should bear,
> For she hath well deserved such pains.
> O save me from the monster’s power,
> From Death that all things would devour,
> Thyself into his jaws dost leap;
> My death Thou takest thus away,
> And buriest in Thy grave for aye,
> O love most strangely true and deep!
> From henceforth there is nought of mine
> But I would seek to make it Thine,
> Since all myself to Thee I owe.
> Whate’er my utmost powers can do,
> To Thee to render service true,
> Here at Thy feet I lay it low.
> And I will study to adorn
> My heart with meekness under scorn,
> With gentle patience in distress,
> With faithful love, that yearning cleaves
> To those o’er whom to death it grieves,
> Whose sins its very soul oppress.
> When evil tongues with stinging blame
> Would cast dishonour on my name,
> I’ll curb the passions that upstart;
> And take injustice patiently,
> And pardon, as Thou pardon’st me,
> With an ungrudging generous heart.
> And I will nail me to Thy cross,
> And learn to count all things but dross
> Wherein the flesh doth pleasure take;
> Whate’er is hateful in Thine eyes,
> With all the strength that in me lies,
> Will I cast from me and forsake.
that this translation is in 888 888 meter. The German original is 776
778. The melody for LSB 683 works rather well with Winkworth’s
think one of our modern problems is that we have lost the artistic,
poetic, and Biblical language which is the basis for much of what
Lutheran piety so wonderfully gave the church catholic.  We have become
so fixated on being "creative" that we have lost the conventions which
make real creativity possible and understandable. It is by innovating
within conventions that the painting from Rosstal give expression to
the Lutheran proclamation of the Gospel. The convention of the Mercy
Seat was available to Duerer who then connected the Holy Spirit with
the blood and water gushing from Christ’s side. The Rosstal picture’s
placing of the dove at the foot of the cross is a theological as well
as artistic statement. Much of the shallowness of what passes itself
off as modern worship can be traced back to the loss of conventions,
vocabulary, and true innovation. Much of it is trite repetition of
modern conventions which have no connection with the past. There is an
awful lot to ponder in a Duerer painting or a Gerhardt hymn. Not so
much in a modern "praise" service. Bach without Lutheran hymns is
unthinkable. Bach used chorales to pick up the tradition and give it
new, yet connected expression. That is what is so great about Bach
and—might I say, LSB. The conventions (and witting departures from
them) which can be observed even in LSB’s modern hymn texts and musical
settings keep the connections with the past alive. That’s why it is
neither a museum nor an exercise in artistic self-indulgence. I think
it will last longer that the throw-away stuff being sold as
I have digressed enough.
May God’s angels watch over us during this night.
Michael Zamzow
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Categories: Lutheran Hymns
  1. organshoes
    March 23rd, 2007 at 08:48 | #1

    I have to say, there are [a blessed few] hymns in the LSB to be rigidly avoided.
    But the hymns to use–use them! We are loving it.
    I believe our little congregation is singing more boldly.
    I also believe that singing doesn’t stem from just the thrill of holding a ‘shiny new thing’ in their hands, but that the musicians who labored over LSB almost supernaturally tapped the innate musician in most everyone.
    This Sunday, we will sing the communion hymn Lord Jesus Christ, You Have Prepared. I always loved it in the LW, but the verses in LSB are more richly, deeply Lutheran, while even more poetic, and cannot help but tell the singer ‘This is who He is, and who He’s always been, and who I am and have always been.’ As if he or she understands for the first time, but again. Nothing new; same ancient thing; but new in our perception of it, same as the last ‘first time’ we perceived it.
    The verses of this and so many other hymns in LSB well-connect the 21st C. Christian to the earliest Christian, as well as to the Reformation Christian.
    I think we’re getting that connection from LSB.

  2. Bror Erickson
    March 23rd, 2007 at 09:33 | #2

    Really good Espresso should always be served with Grapa. Not a full shot, just a drop in the cup. Then you get the nice tension in your cup representing the law and gospel you find in Lutheran Hymns.

  3. March 23rd, 2007 at 10:58 | #3

    ‘Tis a pity we don’t have room in our Lutheran hymn books for all the great Lutheran espresso hymns. It would be nice to have one of those auxiliary paperback hymn books usually reserved for CCM-oriented “praise” music, just for all the extra espresso hymns. Small market maybe, but an instant classic.
    As for quitting caffeine, I’ve done so now by necessity. I’ve found an enjoyable substitute in a brewable product called Teeccino.

  4. Mike Baker
    March 23rd, 2007 at 15:37 | #4

    I would add to your good point about the aquired taste of Lutheran Hymns an additional difference:
    The Lutheran hymns are difficult musically speaking. A huge segment of the Lutheran hymnody is not designed to be easy for beginner vocalists.
    [McCain: This is an interesting observation. I know of any number of Lutheran children's choirs that have zero problem picking up and running with these hymns. It's simply often a matter of an adult who is enthusiastic about teaching them to children. This style of singing was all that was known in the 16th and 17h century and so they were "easy" for "beginner vocalists." With the devolution of musical abilities and knowledge, in general, it is easy to understand why these hymns are considered difficult now].
    In many cases, those who are not musically gifted find it near impossible to keep up the difficult rhythms and hit the extremities of the pitch.
    This issue is readily recognized by many. My adult confirmation class had a disclaimer about the difficulty of the music.
    You see this played out when people join the church from other traditions where the hymnody is easier and they get broadsided by hymn selections that most high school honors choirs would be challenged to execute correctly.
    Take a perfect example: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
    This is a Lutheran hymn which is a mainstay in all protestant churches that still use hymns. I even heard the local Roman Catholic church play it on their church bells one Sunday. …but the rest of the church does not use the “Lutheran Espresso Gold Label” melody. They use the block chord melody format that most traditional Lutherans do not enjoy as much. Why? The bland coffee version is easier to sing and that is important to people who can’t or don’t like to sing. If you find Lutheran hymns outside of Lutheran churches, they tend to be the easy ones.
    [McCain: It all comes down to teaching. We must stop impoverishing our children because of our impoverishment.]
    I think it is a question of capability in addition to taste.
    In many cases, the composer seems bent on tripping you up. I often ask myself why we have to alternate half notes and quarter notes as we studder step through hymn verses… or why this now sainted German wanted to wait until the last possible eight note before resolving the melody on a particular line.
    I see lifelong Lutherans stop singing for versus of songs because it is just too hard to keep up. They pick up every chorus or every tag-line at the end of the verse (especially where Canticles are concerned.)
    We will sing a wonderful hymn that has lyrics that make the roof tear away and heaven decend before our eyes… but the simple congregation chokes measure for measure on a tough tune. After the service everyone remembers that hymn as “that tough one I couldn’t sing.” and someone will comment “I hope we don’t have to go through that one again anytime soon.”
    I think that the issue stems from the age and source of various hymns. Lutheran hymns were written by real masters of composition when music was music. The new Lutheran composers do their best to preserve the style. The result is some pretty tough stuff if you are not prepared.
    If you open hymnals from other denominations, they typically were written in the last 100 to 250 years when hymn music was intentionally made more simple… and very few were built on a 6-12 verse structure.
    As a musician who was used to performing and singing “rated” music for competitions, I was amazed at how advanced LW was in terms of musical difficulty. The LSB is a touch easier, but still much more difficult than other segments of Christian hymnody.
    Within our own churches, this is a case of the stronger parts of the body helping out the weaker parts. The solution seems to be that the song selector should be sensitive to the difficulty of the pieces during hymn selection and to try not to load down any one service with difficult melodies that will exhaust the less musical segments of the laity. The music gurus in the congregation need to help out those who clearly struggle with the music.
    On the other end of the spectrum, I would encourage the less musically gifted to work at it and improve what talents you do have. The hymnody is tough work sometimes, but it is well worth the effort.

  5. Mike Baker
    March 23rd, 2007 at 16:49 | #5

    Good points, Rev. McCain.
    I think the reason why this music is difficult to many of us now is a matter of focus as well as what you correctly identified as “the devolution of musical abilities and knowledge.”
    I am often baffled that, in a time where we have so many literate people who have so much time to devote to accessing the limitless fountain of knowledge and culture, we remain so ignorant and alone.
    We should be teaching hymnody and people should be eager to learn it. If that simple task was done, more among us would look forward to singing these hymns as they were meant to be sung.
    You are right, these hymns SHOULD be easy like they were in the ages when they were written. It is too bad that they aren’t.
    As a people who are truly blessed to live in a wealthy nation of liesure, we should spend a greater portion of our abundant energy investing in the heavenly treasure trove of doctrine and practice… and that includes our rich hymnody old and new.
    A great example of this is something we do in my home church that I certainly hope is common everywhere:
    We play “Stump the Organist”. This is a great tradition that has helped me catch up on all this hymnody that I have never heard before.
    Prior to the service, the organist takes requests out of the LSB and plays them. Those who are in the pews waiting for the service to start sing along. This time is at its most effective when the “popular favorites” are passed by in favor of hymns that many may not know.
    For new Lutherans like me, it really helps to get that much hymn exposure and good old-fashioned practice.
    Another aid that our pastor has done in the past also helps. When a hymn for that service is new or difficult, he has held a “congregation practice” just prior to the beginning of the service. We do a quick run through the hymn to give everyone some exposure to it before the service starts.
    Both of these have been great aids to me and have given me the practice I needed so that I can better focus on the hymn when it comes up in the service. I have also noticed that those songs that are taught through these two methods are the ones that our congregation does really well on.

  6. organshoes
    March 23rd, 2007 at 17:09 | #6

    As a ‘song selector’ in my own congregation, I’m aware of the difficulty of Lutheran hymnody.
    Overpowering that, however, is the richness of it, and the uniqueness.
    But, Lutheran hymnody isn’t a stand-alone thing. It’s a neat thing, that the hymnody is as rich as the theology.
    Pastor often tells the congregation that, for those who complain that we never sing the ‘old-time songs,’ well, you can’t get much older in hymnody than that 9th or 15th Century hymn we’ve just sung.
    I realize I’m begging the congregation’s abilities, and try not to impose too much difficulty at a time. Indeed, in LSB, the greatest difficulty in some hymns is that those that had 5 verses in LW now have 14!
    But, over the years, our little group has learned so many great hymns *of the church*, which is what they are: the songs of our theology. Hymns like I Trust, O Christ, In You Alone. Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart.
    Salvation Unto Us Has Come. We All Believe in One True God. Seek Where You May to Find a Way. We’ve learned to chant the Our Father and the Kyrie–a cappella in Vespers! And through only one way: repetition, repetition, repetition. Same way we learned the rest of our theology; our catechism.
    Whether or not they like it, I can’t tell. Maybe they’d rather sing Onward Christian Soldiers and Amazing Grace every Sunday. Point is: we don’t. We go in the hymnal same as we go for the rest of Divine Service: we go where the theology is.
    If people want to use unfamiliar melodies and rhythms as stumbling blocks, or just reasons for grousing, they will. The grousers will always be with us.
    The organist has a duty to make the hymn as accessible as he/she can; to not demonstrate the organ or the talent playing it, but the melody/melody/melody: that which the people sing. If it has to be played only in [very slow] octaves for all the verses the first time out, so be it.
    And use the choir. The choir (rehearsed, of course) singing the first umpteen verses–or all of them–not only introduces a hymn harmlessly, it proves that human beings can indeed sing this song.
    Pastor McCain is right: why reward ignorance with a chance to remain ignorant?
    And why don’t pastors turn over (with their supervision, of course) the selection of hymns to church musicians whom they help to train in this process? I’ve heard pastors moan that they can predict what a certain someone will say in response to a certain hymn, so they avoid using it. Well, heck: give that task to someone else, or work with organists/choir directors, etc. in selecting hymns. Shoot for the good stuff. Concordia has long published many great resources for selecting hymns.
    And send your organists to organists workshops at Concordia, Fort Wayne, offered every summer. (Don’t know if St. Louis offers them.) Insist that they go! Pay their way!Invaluable! Especially when you come, as I do, from nowhere near a local, strong Lutheran presence, nor a Lutheran tradition.

  7. March 23rd, 2007 at 20:05 | #7

    It’s funny you mention Lutheran hymns in the context of good coffee and/or espresso, as I am also a lover of both. (I recognize a fellow coffee lover when he mentions “burr grinder”, the coffee-lover’s shibboleth!)
    I think there is need to be clear about what we mean when we say “Lutheran hymns”. Is it the tune or the words? Or can the two be separated? As to the latter question, it seems clear that they can — it’s not uncommon to swap tunes and words as long as the meter works out. As to the former, I would argue that, just as Lutheran sermons are not about the particular diction or rhetorical devices, so our hymns are Lutheran not because of their tunes, but because of their words — it is the doctrine! After all, we know that God’s truth is for all people and all times, and this is just as true if it is packaged into short, rhyming lines.
    But I’m not sure you can say that a given tune is for all people and all time. I like much of the traditional Asian music I’ve heard, but I’m not sure I fully grasp its emotional connotations, nor am I convinced I could sing it. In that light, I have to wonder what Asian people think of several-hundred-year-old music from north-central Europe*. Just as Martin Luther realized the value of giving people God’s word in their own language and idiom, shouldn’t we consider the same thing in a musical sense when God’s word is expressed in a hymn?
    *Of course, this hardly describes all — or maybe even most — Lutheran hymns. Quite a few are based on traditional folk melodies from Britain. Do we have any hymn tunes based on more recent American folk melodies? If not, why not?
    Again, I love me some old hymn music — the closer to 1500, the better (although, ironically, this is probably because it makes the music more unique to me, whereas tunes from the 1800′s can seem a bit interchangeable). But I’d still rather sing the words from “Be Still, My Soul” or “Jerusalem the Golden” (ironically, both from the 1800′s) to the tune of “Shine Jesus Shine” than sing the words of “Shine Jesus Shine” to the tune of “Be Still, My Soul”. I find the tunes to those two songs very moving, but it is their words that makes me cry (literally — as a man who almost never cries, I have a hard time making it through those songs, so beautiful and sure is the promise they speak of). And yeah, those tunes are more appropriate for those songs’ lyrical content than the aforementioned praise tune, but still.
    That said, it’s true that Lutherans don’t often appreciate the treasures they have, whether it’s teachings in our church, or their hymns, which embody those teachings, often with a tune that is artistically valuable. We should encourage our fellow believers to enjoy the old and the new — whatever is valuable, we should hold on to! In many arts, the masters are respected and referred to, and yet new works are produced that fit into their times — why should hymns be any different?
    As to charges of difficulty, isn’t that also a cultural issue? People unfamiliar with old music styles will probably stumble when first encountering them, yes. But I have also heard a traditional congregation stumble — or at least sound awkward — when it tries to sing the syncopated rhythms of an African-American spiritual (which appeared in a Lutheran hymnal). Both groups could probably use some practice and additional exposure, no?

  8. organshoes
    March 23rd, 2007 at 22:11 | #8

    Point is: so what our hymns are difficult? They’re also among the best hymns ever. Kantor Resch says they’re the envy of the world.
    Resenting hymns–that they’re too hard or too tricky–is maybe no different from resenting the length of the sermon, or the sameness of the liturgy, or church being too boring or too cold or too hot, or coming at too good a tee-off time.
    McCain: Let’s run with the theory that if something is hard to learn and a challenge to do well we should just substitute something easier. Let’s consider, of all things, golf. Is golf hard? You bet it is. Is it a challenge? Absolutely! Do you have to do it often to get really good at it? You bet. So, do we stop playing golf? Or do we simply substitute miniature golf for it? Do we build a golf course that has no sand traps, no rough spots, no dog-legs? OK, that’s just one analogy. Consider more.

  9. March 24th, 2007 at 11:59 | #9

    As a counter-analogy to Organshoes (though she makes a good point), which Bible translation do we use most often in church? The King James Version is often quite poetic, has a majestic air to it, and sometimes is a better translation than modern ones. But the NIV is easier to understand, and still a good translation most of the time.
    [McCain: Ah, but just try to change the words of "How Great Thou Art" to "How Great You Are" and see what people will say!]
    Is there anything we can do with hymns that similarly presents fewer roadblocks to understanding God’s word, while still preserving his truth? And yes, I agree that education of those unfamiliar with good, complex hymns will be a part of it. But should we have consideration for those people beyond “This is hard, you need to learn this”?
    [McCain: Yes, we offer them the chance to learn them. That's the greatest consideration we can show them.]

  10. organshoes
    March 24th, 2007 at 16:47 | #10

    It’s not *that* hard. It’s not as they say rocket science. No one’s being asked to sing solo or compose hymns or risk anything at all.
    ‘Is there anything we can do with hymns that similarly presents fewer roadblocks to understanding God’s word, while still preserving his truth?’
    Sorta what was done with LW, I think. Little of thee or thou or thine. Some denoms are cutting even wider, removing references to He, Him, Father, Son and the like. We know what stumbling blocks those gender references can be, if gender is the bottom line.
    Hymns make great reading too. Great prayers. Great meditations. Reading them without a melody attached is helpful too.
    They aren’t just for congregations. Hymnals are for the home as well. For the family; for the person.
    Compare a hymn already mentioned: Lord Jesus Christ, You Have Prepared. LW 246 vs. LSB 622.
    One word sums up this business about language so difficult to understand, why should we bother: Shakespeare. Probably the only difference between me and the guy who gets Shakespeare to his bones is that he’s worked at his comprehension, and I haven’t.
    Maybe we need a disclaimer in our
    hymnnals: No one was hurt, nor will anyone be hurt, during the production or singing or playing of these hymns.

  11. organshoes
    March 24th, 2007 at 19:36 | #11

    PS–You might say the French press brews coffee in d minor.
    To complete this circle of strong coffee, Lutheran hymns, theology, and Bach:
    Bach’s Kaffee Kantate.

  12. Steve Schlund
    March 26th, 2007 at 11:14 | #12

    With regard to Lutheran hymns being too difficult, I think it cuts both ways.
    When I have been present at contemporary worship servives where contemporary praise songs are, I often find them difficult to sing. I am not a musician but I have been told that it is because such songs have been written in a “performance mode”. In other words, they have been written for solo singing and not group singing. So, groups will naturally struggle in singing them.
    So, I find the criticism of Lutheran hymns as being “too hard” to be unfair. I think that ANY new song is difficult to sing, some more than others, regardless of when it was written and the denomination of the writer/composer.
    When I had parishoners who would complain about a song being new and difficult to sing, I would respond, “Every favorite hymn you ever had was once new and unfamiliar to you.” The odd looks I get make me wonder if they think they came out of the womb singing “Amazing Grace” or “Shine, Jesus, Shine”.
    I agree with Pr. McCain. The answer is teaching Lutheran hymnody rather than jettisoning it. It’s like trying to get your kids to eat meat, potatoes and vegetables or just giving them McDonalds. One is harder than the other, but well worth it in the long run.

  13. Christine
    March 26th, 2007 at 11:58 | #13

    Lutheran hymns too hard ? Oh how I rejoiced this past Sunday to once again experience our “theology in song” at Divine Service. I didn’t realize how deeply I missed our wonderful Lutheran heritage. Our hymns teach and inform as well as giving praise to God.
    Contemporary music has been a bane wherever it has taken root. Just attend a normal Sunday Catholic Mass and watch how the people refuse to sing the contemporary stuff but come to life at “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.”
    With time and patience all people can learn Lutheran hymnody and be enriched by it.

  14. Mike Baker
    March 26th, 2007 at 13:04 | #14

    Just in case my point was misunderstood, I am not saying one should move away from traditional Lutheran hymnody because it is hard.
    My point was that many of the melodies are difficult and that can be a hurdle that keeps non-muscial people from enjoying it as much as we do. This is not a criticism, but an observation that I believe to be fair. When you compare non-lutheran hymnody to lutheran hymnody there is no comparison in terms of difficulty.
    This is not just my point. The comission that devloped the LSB cited “hymns that are easy to sing” as one of their selection criteria for inclusion in the new hymnal.
    I think it is important to recognize the different hymn difficulty levels and tailor hymn selection to your congregation’s skill level.
    To use McCain’s golf analogy: Some golf courses are more difficult than others. You would never want to take a beginner or a friend of yours who was not good at golf and make him play the tough course day in and day out. You will crush his spirit and ruin his love for the game. It is likely that he’ll just give up golf all together. No one wants to turn a moderate golfer into a non-golfer.
    The answer is obviously not minature golf. The answer is golf at your friend’s skill level. Does that mean you never take him out on the tough course? Of course not. After all, that is why compassionate golfers invented handicaps. Everything about the game of golf is geared toward helping the non-pro get better and enjoy the game. Hymnody promotion should be more like golf.
    I am not even advocating using non-lutheran hymns (much less going to CCM). I am merely trying to point out that picking lutheran hymns that are easier to sing and not loading down services with the challenging hymns is a compassionate act.
    If you couple that occasional selfless compromise with an upbeat education program about singing hymns, you will build love for these hymns instead of frustration. That is the ultimate goal after all: increased appreciation for the traditional Lutheran hymnody.
    If people are given access to the hymnody and are equipped to sing and understand it, their feelings about it will improve. If they are not overly burdened by an abundance of difficult hymns, they will be more willing to take on the harder hymns when they do come around and will be more open to hearing what those hymns have to say.
    That is the best way to protect the hymnody. If people love it, they will work hard to preserve it.
    This kind of meets the point of another post on this blog about Lutheranism being too clannish, cliquish, and negative. Lutheran Hymnody is an area where we could gain alot of ground working to be inclusive, supportive, and positive by reaching out to others and winning them over to our point of view by way of honey instead of vinegar.

  15. organshoes
    March 26th, 2007 at 16:24 | #15

    Depends upon what ‘overly burdened’ is.
    And, again, it’s hymns, not golf. It’s not a game. And turning away from golf is hardly comparable to turning away from church because of difficult hymns.
    Maybe people frustrated with burdensome hymns at least owe their pastor and/or their organist a little word about their concerns. And they’re under the same constraints as the pastor and the organist: we’re Christians brothers and sisters here, speaking in love to one another.
    But, again, it depends upon what is actually ‘difficult’ and what constitutes a ‘hurdle’ and ‘an abundance of difficult hymns.’
    And, for this organist, it would depend upon how many people actually came forward with such a complaint, and, inevitably, how consistently they themselves are in church.
    I don’t think organists and church musicians in general should behave as if music is their special sphere, and those who don’t ‘get it’ are less than Lutheran. But aren’t we all under the same yoke, and can’t we all use some time–and resources–to learn our musical heritage?
    Even then, it’s hardly just for old times’ sake, or even for beauty’s sake, that it’s imperative. It is good medicine.
    But I’d really like to know what’s too much and too difficult.
    (Sorta reminds me of an old commercial about feeding children prunes. ‘Are three enough? Is six too many?’)

  16. March 27th, 2007 at 06:22 | #16

    I love Lutheran hymnody. We don’t sing those hymns enough at our church (those brought up on English hymns can find German chorales a bit of a struggle).
    That said, I’m not sure “espresso” is quite the analogy. Given that the typical Lutheran hymn seems to consist of 16 verses sung to a metre, a better Starbucks analogy would be “grande”, or possibly even “vente”… :-)

  17. Peter
    April 3rd, 2007 at 07:44 | #17

    Rev. McCain, great post. My wife and I were having a discussion about the issues you raised just a few days ago. She is a “cradle Anglican” who is now coming to my Lutheran Church. She finds Lutheran hymns very challenging and really misses the Anglican hymnody, as John mentions above. Not being a “cradle Lutheran” myself, I also find the hymns in the LSB and LW can be fairly challenging. This is compounded by the unfortunate fact that our church organist is not an organist by training and…how can I say this charitably…gently slaughters the hymns every Sunday morning.
    [McCain: And, just to make this all the more interesing, Daniel Zager, musicologist and music historian at Eastman School of Music in New York, an LCMS Lutheran, has provided definitive proof that the slow, plodding, dirge like pace that Lutheran chorales are played in is NOT original to the era in which they were composed, the horrible isometric slaughter of the chorales came in as a result of the influence of Pietism which felt that people should be forced to sing them S L O W L Y in order to force them to "meditate" on the words. The original forms of these hymns were lively and moved briskly! The Lutheran chorales are much more fun and interesting and joyful to sing when they are played with vigor and with the rhythmic style that was intended for them.]
    That said, we do love them for their doctrinal content.
    I wonder if there is a good collection of Lutheran Hymns on CD that you might recommend, in the vein of the Praetorius Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning CD?

  18. Mike Baker
    April 4th, 2007 at 17:26 | #18

    Fantastic points.
    I would never create hard and fast rules to define “overly burden”, “difficult”, or “abundance of difficult hymns”. That would contribute to the very issue that I was trying to address.
    What might be “difficult” for one congregation may be a walk in the part for another. What may “overly burden” one congregation may be a simple warm up for others. I was not and would never suggest a dumbing down or abandonment of the traditional Luthean hymnody because it was hard. That was not my point.
    Here was my point: We should be sensitive to the needs and limitations of others in all things.
    My goal was to offer an additional explanation for the resistance of non-lutherans toward lutheran hymnody other than a simple matter of personal taste. As a new lutheran myself, I would be closer to the issue than most. My hope was to offer more light on the problem so that solutions could be developed on a case by case basis.
    While I am sure that many people dislike our hymnody for the reasons Rev McCain expressed, I wanted to offer up a very real alternative explination.
    To quote the original post:
    “They are an acquired taste, particularly for folks who come to Lutheranism from a non-Lutheran background. Lutheran hymnody is one of those things that is a challenge “to get” for non-Lutherans.”
    Rev. McCain then goes on to explore the stylistic challenges and personal tastes of non-Lutherans who discover this hymnody. I agree with all of his points about new things taking time to get used to. Additionally, I think that “one of those things that is a challenge to get” in this case can also include technical and cultural hurdles that must be overcome by gradual exposure, practice, patience, and perhaps a little understanding on the part of those who grew up with these hymns.
    Obviously different groups of people in different areas working in different situations are… well… different. That was why my point may have sounded vague and the terms poorly defined. It requires individual assessment and sensitivity.
    This issue may not apply to every congregation and the levels at which it applies may be found in different degrees and require different solutions.

  19. organshoes
    April 4th, 2007 at 21:46 | #19

    I guess I resent the implication of not being sensitive to people’s tastes or abilities. I can’t tell where sensitivity to someone’s lack of exposure ends, and the need to expose them begins.
    I wonder if the frustration isn’t like what we used to experience in a business I used to work in, where there was a handful of us ‘long-timers’ who knew the product, the lingo, the customers, the procedures, and the hectic pace, but there was meanwhile a constant stream of turnovers who couldn’t stand the heat, but, as long as they were in the kitchen, had to be trained in the product, the lingo, the customers, etc.
    The manager was very impatient, and gave slow-learning new employees a hard time. Sometimes, it seemed the harder they tried, the harder he came down on them. Some buckled and left; others rose to the challenge, stayed, and learned the necessary skills to survive and to flourish.
    I survived my first difficult year only through fear of not having a job. Meanwhile, I was learning lots of useful things besides the job, like getting over myself–the hurt feelings and the insecurities, and the sheer frustration of hitting the ground running most every morning–and eventually I came to work with self-confidence and competence in something I hadn’t had a clue about a short while ago. It’s a job I still miss, and a sense of accomplishment that stays with me to this day.
    I once asked the boss if maybe there weren’t simply a certain type of person suited for this job–maybe it wasn’t a job for ‘just anybody.’
    He said it was a job anyone could do. A person just had to know how badly he needed a job, he said.
    He couldn’t change the business, he said, just to suit someone who doesn’t like the way it’s done. ‘The business is what it is.’

  20. Christine
    April 5th, 2007 at 10:18 | #20

    Mike raises some very good points. On the one hand, those of us who were born into Lutheran families and raised same learned to sing these hymns from the get go and they are as natural as breathing.
    It sometimes takes new Lutherans some time (understandably) to realize that our hymns are really “theology and prayer” set to music. Most hymns serve to offer praise to God as well as bind the community together, but Lutheran hymns go even farther. They truly are “teaching” moments.
    Yes, they can certainly seem formidable to those outside of the Lutheran Church but in all the *catholic* traditions that will be evident. Just imagine a person with no church history whatsoever learning the intricacies of Gregorian and Byzantine chant.
    My main objection to evangelical “praise” music (which, according to the complaints I’m hearing from my Roman Catholic relatives who have been subjected to it) is its poverty of substance. Those who we are privileged to welcome into the Lutheran fold deserve better.

  21. Mike Baker
    April 5th, 2007 at 14:18 | #21

    Allow me to apologize to you, Organshoes, if you felt that I was in any way using you as an example of what I am talking about. I am also sorry if you thought I was placing the blame on organists or a particular group or vocation in general. That is most certainly not the case. As a matter of fact, I have had a fantastic impression of the several Lutheran organists that I have met.
    I would extend that positive impression to the pastors and cantors that I have met as well and the presenters that ran the workshop for the LSB. I think the sensitivity that I am talking about is there in many places. My point is that I want it in more (or maybe all) places.
    I was merely trying to bring attention to the possibility of an alternate view point. I think that – especially in this narcissistic society – we Christians often do not consider other points of view and they resist reaching out to people in need.
    I used to be unapologetically pro-contemporary worship service. That was not because I hated hymns or I didn’t respect the musical style. I felt it had limited access in the modern age and I just accepted all of the emotional straw man arguments that prop up the fad-based style.
    Thankfully, I was exposed to pro-liturgy views instead of anti-contemporary views. Worship is very personal. An attack on someone’s worship can be seen as an attack on them individually or their piety. Anti-contemporary arguments only validate someone who already views the liturgy as old, stuffy, and disconnected. People who approach them that way only serve to prove their point. You have to give some people a reason to love what you love. You have to take steps to help them get access to what you love. And there is alot to love. The truth is that Lutheran liturgy is more alive, more relevant, and more mature than most people realize. How do we get people to open their eyes and see that?
    Classical music teachers do not attack modern music because that is a futile effort. It does not cause their students to listen to more classical music. It is a matter of changing passions, providing exposure and explaining reasons why classical music is so great. If you show someone how great something is, most of the time they will make the logical evaluation on their own. Once I learned how great our hymnody was, there was no reason to want to do anything else. For me, there is no comparison. The liturgy wins hands down every time.
    I think that this approach can also extend to lutheran hymnody over other hymnody… even one hymnal format over another hymnal format. You do not get anywhere tearing by down people’s defenses and reminding them how silly they are for disagreeing with you. You get somewhere by convincing them to open their gates and come on out of their fortified position.
    To use the espresso analogy as a strategy to promote the liturgy: It is far more useful to explain why stronger coffee is better than telling people that they’ve spent their life drinking weak coffee.
    As liturgical lutherans, our views and goals are ultimately the same. We have a strong love for the lutheran hymnody. You are blessed with being able to love it for a long time and I for only a short time. We both want to see an increase in the love, participation, and understanding of the hymnody. How do we acheive that wonderful goal?

  22. Laurie
    April 14th, 2007 at 10:08 | #22

    Funny….this just came up on Palm Sunday when my oldest dd was confirmed.
    My dh leaned over to me and said “Pastor should have picked different hymns, these are too *hard* to sing.” (He comes to church on Christmas and Easter.) And I replied that the hymns that were chosen were some of my favorites and I didn’t find them to be difficult at all.

  23. organshoes
    April 14th, 2007 at 16:49 | #23

    Well, it seems we’re doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t.
    It’s difficult to defend Lutheran hymnody without sounding as if one is attacking all others.
    But, then, what if those others are bearing down on our doors, indeed, invading our very hymnals here and there? Remember: an invader is nearly always content with incremental access. The foot in the door is worth a lot more than we like to think.
    So I don’t compromise. I don’t see the value in wringing my hands over what people like, as opposed to what is right in the Lutheran church’s eyes.
    There. Is. No. Way. to make people like the food that’s offered. Liking it is not what the liturgical meal is about anyways. Who likes it that what’s offered is not at all what we’d choose for ourselves, left to ourselves? Who chooses medicine over cotton candy, for Pete’s sake?
    So I got over, a long time ago, thinking people ‘ought’ to love this stuff, and instead work from this stance: people will sing this stuff. I can’t make anybody like it.
    I can’t approach it from the standpoint of taste. It’s not at all about taste, even from my side of things. It’s not my tastes that dictate what we sing. It’s who we are–me too!–dictating that. We can’t be one thing, and believe one thing, and sing and chant another.
    And, even if it were about tastes and choice and such as that, well, there’s good and bad tastes and choices. That’s undeniable, just as there’s truth and there are also lies.
    Don’t worry about who does or doesn’t get it or like it or appreciate it, or who’s singing A Mighty Fortress through gritted teeth, or not at all. It’s their loss, frankly.
    I can’t imagine anything more dispiriting to a pastor, than to have kept a solidly Lutheran hymnody alive within his congregation, only to have a family member request something like Shall We Gather at the River or One Day At a Time at a loved one’s funeral. Go figure.
    If people want to make it all about feelings and personal taste, well, just try and stop them. That’s all I’ve learned. It’s not any easier for me, Mike Baker, in my position. I don’t have people clamoring for something solidly Lutheran over something they heard on the radio. I just gave up worrying about it, or lamenting it. I just do it, and figure, if there’s any payoff–any Eureka! moment–it’s theirs, and not mine. I already had mine.
    I haven’t been a Lutheran so very long myself. Not even half my life. Didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church, and have no other family ties to it. So it wasn’t bred into me from childhood days. I’m as mixed a bag as anyone. but I’m glad to have been shown the Lutheran difference.

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