Friday, April 13, 2012

A hymn, and some thoughts on a new hymnal

The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song released its list of those hymns and tunes to be included in the forthcoming new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and any others who want to use it.  (That list can be seen here.)  As a particular aficionado of hymns and the singing thereof, I was of course happy to get the chance to see and even download the list, though I won't pretend I've done anything like a thorough and thoughtful survey yet--I'm still in classes, after all.  Still, I can make a few close-to-home observations:

1) "Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord," about which I blogged some time back, appears to have survived to be sung from another book.  Yay!

2) When you get the hymnal in your church, plan to use the hymn "Look who gathers at Christ's table" immediately for communion.  Just do it.  You will thank me later.

3) I wish the table was sortable by heading (say, by author), because I'm curious about who the most-represented new hymnodists would be in this book.  I suspect John Bell and the Iona community show up well in that regard, though I am a little too preoccupied/lazy to go through and do the counting right now.  Taize songs would probably tally strongly, too, but there are at least a couple in the 1991 book, whereas I don't recall any Bell/Iona pieces in the current book.  I don't have one at hand so I can obviously be wrong here, so feel free to correct me without being a jerk about it. ;-)

4) Is it just me, or does there seem to be an odd influx of old nineteenth-century gospel hymnody into the new hymnal?  I'm not saying it's taking over, but there do seem to be several such pieces not in the current book that are going to give me bad flashbacks to my past in another denomination.

5) Is it fair to say by now that we can see what products of the "hymn explosion" of the 1970s have demonstrated staying power?  Fred Pratt Green remains quite well-represented in the new book, it appears from a too-quick scan.

6) Some years ago, when I was teaching at a school in south Florida and helping with a morning prayer service on that campus, I was looking for a somewhat topical hymn text for the service which followed shortly after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.  Searching (I think) the message boards of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, I found a text suitable to the occasion by one Adam M. L. Tice.  Unable to find the tune he had recommended for that text, I searched out another to use and plugged the hymn into that service.  As requested, I sent the author a brief note mentioning its use, and received a very kind and gracious reply.  All of that is to say that it's nice to see a different hymn by that same author is to be found in the new hymnal.

With any luck I'll be able to spend more time with this list and have some more focused thoughts on it before the next hymnal committee is formed.  For me, though, the week's other hymn news hit a little closer to home, even if it doesn't amount even to a tenth of a teardrop in the Atlantic Ocean by comparison.  It was this week that I joined the ranks of "hymnodists," so to speak--not in the sense of writing a hymn, but in actually having it sung by other people.

Dabbling in hymn-writing seems to have been an odd but pleasant side effect of the longer-term process that set me on this fool's errand.  My first effort actually dates back much further (and shall never see the light of day), but in the course of struggling over this whole change of my life and vocation a small number of hymn texts found their way into my psyche and into Word documents.  I won't pretend that many of them are of tremendous quality.  There is a Psalm 97 paraphrase that might be okay, and a hymn on the upper-room events of Maundy Thursday that might be workable.  The one which most pleased me, though, was a little text that actually came from a rather angry place, about the time Arizona started flogging its anti-immigrant law.  The furor surrounding that event put me in mind of Leviticus 19: 33-34, and the words formed themselves with frightening efficiency.  I tucked the result away, with a handful of possible hymn tunes attached, wondering what occasion might ever prove suitable, if any.

A few weeks ago, our New Testament class was offered the opportunity to participate in the planning of this past Wednesday's chapel, to be led by our professor, and as usual I jumped at the chance.  In the initial layout of plans for that chapel our professor indicated he would be giving his homily on verses from Romans, speaking to the idea of living in community, welcoming one another "without borders," as the eventual title of the homily would put it.  Perhaps surprisingly it took me some time to remember my own little hymn and to guess that this might be an opportunity to try it out, if the others were willing.  They were, and it went into the service.

When I first began studying music, I majored in voice, which meant I had to perform in front of others, obviously.  As I shifted into academia I obviously had to lecture in front of an awful lot of college and university classes, as well as give research papers in numerous locales in the United States, Canada, England and Ireland.  Getting up in front of people and speaking (sometimes my own writing) or singing (stuff written by other people) was, in other words, fairly common, though in some cases still nervousness-inducing.  It's been a long time, though, since I've been as nervous as I was in the couple of days leading up to Wednesday's chapel.  In a way the release of the hymn list on Monday may have heightened my nerves a bit, if only by reminding me that there are plenty of people out there who are quite good at writing hymns, and what makes me so arrogant as to think I had anything so useful to offer?  (I am not the most secure person, folks.)  Still, it was too late to back out.  It was printed in the service order and everything.  If I had hoped to escape notice even that could not be helped, since John Carroll pointed out my authorship of the hymn before we sang it.

So we sang it.  And it went well, as far as I can tell.  It sang pretty well, I believe (I did manage to pair it with a fairly familiar and singable tune), and at least some people responded to it positively.  So, somewhat emboldened, I will put it out here for others to see.  It's not under copyright or restricted or anything, so make of it what you will, and if you have any use for it in a worship service or other setting feel free to do so (all I ask is that you let me know, perhaps in a comment below).

There are several tunes with which this text can work; LAND OF REST (found in the current Presbyterian Hymnal at #522) was the one used this week, and it seems pretty suitable to me.

Receive the stranger in your midst with welcome and with grace;
For you are strangers in this world, and living out of place.

The world may splinter and divide by race or creed or clan,
But there are no dividing lines within God’s loving plan.

There are no aliens in Christ’s eyes, exempt from God’s full love;
But all are children of our God on earth just as above.

Receive the stranger in your midst as Christ has welcomed you,
And be Christ’s welcome in this world in all you say and do.

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