Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Lesson in Hymnody:They are Better than you Think, Part One

I love hymns. I confess it freely and unashamedly. I will confess further that if I had to pick between a hymnal and a compilation of the latest praise and worship music I would pick the hymnal hands down. What we have, for the most part, in our hymnals are the greatest poems and songs written in the past 1,000 years. While some of the current 'praise and worship' music is enjoying a season of popularity, they will not be sung in churches 100 years from now, or even 2 years from now.

I must admit that I was converted, rather shockingly, to a love of hymnody. I became a Christian in college, and I attended a "contemporary" worship service at a local church and I went to Campus Crusade through the week. Needless to say, there was never any organ music present at those events. Indeed, the country music band Alabama once had a hit song that said, "If you want to play in Texas, you've got to have a fiddle in the band." That sums up nicely how I thought of worship music, "If you want to have the Holy Spirit, you've got to have the drums, a guitar, and a band."

But that all changed, radically, my first chapel service in seminary. Upon walking into chapel, the first thing that I noticed was a monolithic pipe organ that would not even fit into most of the churches I have attended. It was not even subtly old school; it was in your face. And, to my great dismay, I saw no drums or guitar, just cold, steely pipes staring down at me like great gatekeepers of the old guard.

As i was taking in the sight of the new chapel, the music director came to the podium and announced that we would be opening with "And Can it Be" on page such and such. I dutifully turned to the page in the hymnal and looked at the bottom for the credit. It read: Charles Wesley, 1707-1788. Oh brother! Not only were they going to be using a pipe organ, but this song was older than dirt.

My conversion to hymnody was almost immediate and was certainly miraculous. The pipe organ spoke, and it demanded attention be paid to the music. It made all other organs I had ever heard sound like cheap, carnival hand-crank organs to which the monkeys dance. The sound did not come only to my ears but literally went through me, reverberating in my heart. And the singing! Over a thousand preacher boys with their wives and old professors and preachers lifted up their voices with one accord and sang this grand old hymn. It was as if that organ and the voices of that congregation lifted my soul to Pisgah and showed me a glimpse of the Promised Land.

I faithfully attended chapel all the years of my seminary experience. I can honestly say that after hearing three sermons a week for three years that I probably remember only five. I do not even remember who preached or what was preached that day, but I remember that song and I remember that organ. Part of me never left that place and that time, if you can believe it. That song and that music and that moment are still bouncing around in my soul as I sit here typing this post.

That conversion experience led me to take a closer look at hymns and the rich tradition that lies behind them. Indeed, it was because of hymns that I decided to join a choir and to learn to sing harmony. In more ways than I probably know, hymns have helped to shape my thought and my praise to God. Over the course of the next post or two I want to share a couple of neat things that I have learned about hymns and why I think that choirs are awesome. I look forward to your comments.


Pappy said...

Im glad that hymns are around. Some of our youths favorite songs are the hymns. And to think I didn't appreciate them much till I met you. Hmmm.

Matt Brown said...

I agree with you, I much prefer hymns to most of the new "worship" stuff. I look forward to reading your posts.