Epitaph for Hymnals
I to the hills lift up mine eyes,
from whence shall come mine aid.
Mine help doth from Jehovah come,
which heav’n & earth hath made.
These words, adapted from Psalm 121, and written in common meter, are part of the first English book printed in North America. The “Bay Psalm Book.” And yes, it was a hymnal.
The “hymnal” was more than a collection of songs and words and musical notation.
For nearly three thousand years, since the days of Solomon’s temple, the people of God have embodied their greatest hopes and deepest sorrows into the music of worship. The Hebrews sang of their joy in triumph even as they sang of their sorrow by the rivers of Babylon. The book of Psalm was, of course, the hymnal they produced.
Paul describes the New Testament church as lifting up psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs. The pagan governor Pliny, would describe Christians early in the second century as those who met before dawn to “sing to Christ as to a god.”
In the pages of a hymnal we uncover the music of worship from high church to low church, African to Latino, and ancient to contemporary. Here they are preserved so that one generation, one culture, one era can proclaim His praise to another. The hymnal is the inescapable witness that the church is much bigger than our one congregation, greater than our one tradition in our little corner of the world, and much older than the brief moment of our whole remembered lifespan. Within its pages we catch a small glimpse of the fulfillment of Christ’s great prayer in John 17. In its hymns and songs Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English, African and European, rich and poor, the living and the long dead all join together in words and melodies lifted to the throne of the Almighty.
In the emerging church, raised with dazzling technology and the world wide web, it may seem hopelessly archaic to say good words for something abandoned by cutting edge churches. But, it seems to me that the combination of praise team and generated lyrics-on-a-screen have all served to foster the meta-message that we are invited to sing their music. They pick it. They (alone) see the musical notations (or, at least, chord charts). They select. I stand. They start. I wait for the words. They sing. I sing, or at least try to sing. I only see what they have selected for me to see and only when they decide that I should see it. In that sense, it’s not too far from a kind of participatory television (like the old “Sing Along with Mitch” from back in the sixties).
Hymnal also provided those marvelous serendipities when you’d thumb through the pages and find a long-forgotten song you remember your grandmother singing, or come upon a song you’ve never heard but discover to be powerful. In its pages were often preserved not just the popular, but also some songs less well known but judged worth preserving by those, nearly always church musicians, who worked through the long process of selection.
Ah, well, I suppose I may as well long for the quiet clip-clop of the horse and buggy as to extol the value of hymnals. There are many benefits to using generated words projected on to screens. They are much easier to read. We are generally looking up as we sing, instead of downward. They allow the newest music to be done in worship as easily as well known music. When combined with pictures and animation, they can be visually attractive and give added meaning to the words. But, as with all things bright and new, we do not always know what we’ve lost until it is already long gone.
And so, let’s all turn to number 487…