Daily archives "June 15, 2019"

TAO July 2019–Canticum Divinum

Recently, I had a chance to teach an adult education class on the history of hymns. Putting it together was a lot work, so much so that I began to think of it as my (very long) Lenten journey. My wife, who is a professional educator, was a life-saver. Her creative ideas pushed me beyond my usual lecture format. She is current with the creative teaching strategies that are making schools more interesting than we remember. My adult learners thrived. We delved into how the Psalms were sung, why early hymns are so doctrinal, how hymns’ purposes change over time, and how Christian Contemporary Music is becoming a font of creativity. It’s true what they say, the teacher becomes the learner, and I learned more than I ever imagined possible.
The history of hymns is also the story of our faith. They reflect the story of the church as it has changed throughout history. When cultures changes, the church also changes. Worship reflects change in the church, and evidence of change shows up in the words of prayers, in the communication styles of its sermons, and in its musical expressions. Despite many changes, hymns remain the people’s music–one of the most direct ways we have of connecting with God.
We expect a lot from our hymns, don’t we? Their primary role, of course, is to lift praise to God. To accomplish that lofty purpose, hymns must help us make an interior connection. There’s an art to that. We expect our hymns to reaffirm scriptural passages, make theological points, and uphold deeply held beliefs. We also want our hymns to bond the community together, to articulate its shared purposes, and to motivate churchgoers toward worthy ministry projects. The multiple purposes that hymns serve create a dynamic that supports and enhances other liturgical actions–sermons, baptisms, communion, etc. It takes careful thought to make the best choices for weekly worship. So, why is it so easy to take hymns for granted?
As worship leaders, we cannot allow the singing of hymns to become anything less than vibrant. Effective organists spend hours developing creative hymn materials to bring them alive. How effective hymns are in the development of your congregation’s faith comes down to YOU. When you are engaged with hymns, it will show in your playing. You simply must make them your top priority.
The key to renewing your engagement with hymns is to find new ways of looking at them. Hymns are rich in history. If you already have a book or two on the history of hymns, dust them off. You don’t have to read the whole thing, just dip in to learn more about this week’s opening hymn. One classic, The Story of Our Hymns by Ernest Edwin Ryden, is now available as a free download on Kindle. Two more books for your library are: A Survey of Christian Hymnody, by Reynolds and Price (Hope Publishing Company), and Sing with Understanding, by Eskew and McElrath (2nd edition, G.I.A). Many denominational publishers provide a companion volume to their hymnals, and they can be valuable resources as well. Exploring a hymn’s history is a good way to enrich your appreciation for its meaning.
A more direct and personal way to delve into the heart of a hymn is to use a variation of Lectio Divina, which I call Canticum Divinum. Lectio Divina (or Holy Reading) offers a way of deepening the prayer experience. Just as Lectio Divina uses short passages of scripture for reflection, Canticum Divinum (Holy Singing) chooses hymn texts instead. Here are some simple guidelines to get you started:
1. Pray for guidance. Read the hymn aloud (singing is optional).
2. Listen quietly for a while. Allow yourself to slow down.
3. Read the hymn a second time, this time being aware of any passages that stand out or “nudge” you.
4. Again, listen quietly for a couple of minutes, remaining open to subtle intuitions.
5. Read the hymn again, slowly, allowing for stronger resonances.
6. Allow the Spirit to guide you to new awareness, insights, or reflections, and allow yourself to sink more deeply into prayer.
7. End your prayer time with a prayer of gratitude and dedication for the day ahead.

Through Canticum Divinum, we gain access to deeper perspectives on life and on music. Letting go into this process also involves facing the emptiness of waiting for an unknown outcome. But, waiting, listening, and trusting get easier with practice. As with all things spiritual, a surprise is always possible–music frequently shows us the delights our creator has in store for us.
Canticum Divinum is just one of many portals that invites you to further explorations. I am convinced that opening to your own creativity is the best way to keep engaged with hymns. After a few weeks of study in my History of Hymns class, one member of the class wrote the words and music to two hymns. If she can, you can, too! Whether it’s a new hymn text, a reharmonization, or a chorale prelude, finding and expressing the essence of hymn will be a big boost to your morale. When you are aligned with your music, you free hymns to do their work–touch the hearts of worshippers.
Touching the hearts of worshippers has been an important focus for my “The Practical Organist” columns. Together, we have explored the many facets of music and worship leadership, but it is time for me to say goodbye. The pleasure of writing for you, my beloved AGO colleagues, began when Past National President John Walker, invited me to author this column. I am grateful to him, as well as to TAO Editor, Todd Sisley, for his collegial support, and to our Executive Director, James Thomashower, for his friendship and encouragement. I also owe a very large debt of gratitude to my wife, Betsy, and my son, Nick, for their constant support, creative conversations, and eagle-eyed editing. I can only echo the words of Garrison Keillor, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch!”