Reflection: August 19

Let us pause for a moment to open our hearts and minds in the spirit of prayer:

Gracious God, you are the singer and the song of our faith.
Throughout the ages your spirit of love and hope has encouraged
people of faith to persevere in challenging times and to pause
to celebrate and give thanks for your steadfast presence in all times.
We gather this day as followers of the one we call Christ,
grateful for his life and teachings
and for your guidance and wisdom in our lives
as individuals and as a community, this day and always. Amen

“…be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of Jesus Christ.”(Ephesians 5:19-20)

These words written to the Early Christian Church in Ephesus close to the end of the first century are, I believe, as meaningful and relevant to our worship practices as Christians today as they were for those who first heard them nearly two thousand years ago.

During the storytime I showed you three major hymnbooks and two significant hymnbook supplements produced by the United Church of Canada since our birth as a denomination in 1925. Singing and music have been an important part of United Church worship from the very beginning of our denomination. Discussions about what styles of music, instruments, and lyrics that are appropriate for United Church worship have also been items of discussion that members have strong feelings about.

The Hymnary, (commonly referred to as the Blue Hymnbook) published in 1930, was the hymnbook of my childhood. As a person born in a different era I have to admit there were not many songs that spoke to my experience as a child growing up in the church. The one exception was the song, This is My Father’s World which speaks of God’s presence everywhere in creation, not just on Sunday morning in church. The lyrics speak of God who is immanent as well as transcendent:

“This is my Father’s world; the birds their carols raise; the morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise. This is my Father’s world; He shines in all that’s fair; in the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.” (The Hymnary, 589, v2)

This simple song captured my imagination and had a great influence on my understanding of God’s presence in my life and in the world around me.

The Preface to the 1930 hymnary states that, “Since the early days of Christianity a crowning glory of the Church of God has been the place and power of spiritual song in her worship life. The Church ‘has come singing down through the ages.’ Through this gracious medium her people, generation after generation, have lifted up their hearts and voices in adoring praise; have poured out their aspirations in prayer; have proclaimed the verities of the faith; and have expressed the higher emotions of the soul.”

Forty-one years later the “Red Hymn Book”, named simply “The Hymn Book”, was produced in 1971. This was a joint project of the United and Anglican Churches of Canada. In the Preface of The Hymn Book, theeditors state:

“Each generation, with its problems and outlook, must ever seek new ways of expressing its ideals and aspirations. Taste in literature and music changes. …a hymnal must be comprehensive. It must meet the needs of …every age group. It must be useful to churches large and small, rural and urban, old and new. …No hymn book prepared today will be of permanent usefulness to the church.”

Ironically, as I recall, many United Church members were unhappy with the new hymn book and in 1987 a supplement called Songs for a Gospel People (the Green Hymnbook) was produced by the Hymn Book Supplement Committee of BC Conference and the Alberta Northwest Conference and published by Wood Lake Books, Winfield, B.C.

Songs for a Gospel People was the songbook that was most influential in my faith formation as a young adult, and young parent, and contains many songs that are included in our current hymn book. The Forward to the 1987 Songs for a Gospel People says that,

“Today’s hymnody bears the mark of today’s church. It is ecumenical, drawing from all members of the family of God throughout the world. It is pluralist, recognizing that in the church we are a mixed community, and that our words and musical styles need to reflect that diversity. It is biblical and rooted in the Church’s story, because being faithful in the great issues of justice and peace in our world means drawing nourishment from our past. It is inclusive, imaging and nurturing the wholeness of the body of Christ. …The needs of intergenerational worship have been kept in mind, by including a number of songs with text and lyrics which make them especially attractive to people of all ages, including younger children.”

Seeing the need to have songs in worship that appeal to young children, five years later in 1992, All God’s Children Sing was produced by Wood Lake Books. (Produced in cooperation with the Alberta and Northwest Conference Division of Christian Development of the United Church of Canada.) I’m not sure how widely this songbook was used across the country but it was greatly utilized in the congregations in which my family worshipped and was an important factor in helping my children to feel there was a place for them in worship.

The most recent hymn books, published by and for the United Church of Canada, are the ones that we currently use in our worship services. Voices United was published in 1996 and More Voices in 2007. Voices United contains a combination of traditional hymns (with some changes to make allowance for inclusive language) and newer contemporary and world music. For example, my childhood favourite, “This Is My Father’s World” is included as “This is God’s Wondrous World” (VU # 296) which is a change that enhances and updates the language of the song for a new generation. It is important to note that a little more than half of the hymns included in Voices United are older hymns that are still in active use in worship.

Hymns have always been used as a way to inspire, teach lessons of Christian faith, respond to a variety of moods and circumstances in worship and to reflect other aspects of the life of the gathered community. The Introduction to Voices United says,

“Hymns  have always had a central place in the making of Christians. For many, next to scripture, a hymnal is the church’s most important sourcebook. It is from hymns that many learn and retain scripture stories. It is from hymns that many receive their primary and most enduring theological education. Hymns stay with us long after occasions of teaching and preaching fade from memory. Thus, the content of congregational song is of utmost importance. Hymns and songs should convey the biblical and theological substance that will help form worshipers into thinking, passionate, loving and courageous disciples of Jesus Christ. It is less important whether a hymn is old or new, folk or classic in style, joyful or sombre in mood, simple or complex in text or music. The church has always embraced and expressed diversity in its hymns. What is more important is that its hymns be grounded in the central tenets of Christian belief, and point to the living out of these beliefs.”

It is an interesting, and revealing, exercise to think about hymns that were favourites when you first began attending church, whether that was as an adult or a child, and which ones are favourites now. The hymns we love reveal something about theology that is dear to us and the memories of people who have been influential in our faith formation.

It is a fact that songs that are important to us are retained in our memory long after other memories fade. Once a month I plan and lead a worship service at The Pines Special Care Home. The first time I planned worship for The Pines, I was told that it didn’t matter what hymns I chose as long as one of them was Jesus Loves Me which is a favourite of many of the residents.

As a person who enjoys singing but is not a composer or a musician, I’ve always found it very important to listen carefully to the words I am singing and to sing them with conviction. Thinking about the words while I sing, strengthens my faith, comforts me when I am discouraged and offers me hope and encouragement. This has been true not only for me but for people of faith in every generation.

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, wrote down some Directions for Singing in 1761. Here are some excerpts from these directions which can be found in their entirity in Voices United.

Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. …Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. …Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. …In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually…” (VU # 720)

I’ll close with the words of encourgement and blessing that we heard earlier from Ephesians and ask you to listen carefully to these words and take them to heart:

“…be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20)

May these words inspire our singing,
our understanding and our faith,
this day and in the days to come.

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