Friday, August 31, 2018

For All the Saints

Be very careful, then, how you live —not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity,  because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
-Ephesians 5:15-20 (NIV)

My son and I were talking about this hymn tune that we heard in church a few weeks ago: Sine Nomine, written by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and used as the tune for the hymn For All the Saints. We were kind of thinking we had heard the tune attached to a different hymn, so we did a little internet detecting. Turns out that it was indeed attached to another hymn, but not one I had ever heard.
     The tune is used in a work called The Secular Hymnal, in which hymn tunes are given new lyrics without overt religious content (or much content at all, as it turns out). The hymnal actually exists, it seems, to allow student choruses to sing “hymns” without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. So it is what its title says: a Secular Hymnal, filled with lyrics that no one would mistake for being religious in any way.
      As an example, here’s William Walsham How’s  lyrics for the first verse of For All the Saints:
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed;
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

     The lyrics go on to describe how the Lord had been a rock, a fortress, a light for those who confessed him, and how the promise of their glory is an encouragement for us who still struggle to confess him in a world that doesn’t seem to know him. Their example makes us strong and brave in our own testimony, and helps us to look forward to the day when “all the saints” — us and those who have gone on before — will stream “through gates of pearl” as “a countless host”. The lyrics are powerful, and they make good use of the anthemic Sine Nomine.
     In comparison, here’s the first verse of the lyrics written for Sine Nominee in The Secular Hymnal:
This day, this day, I know I’ll find a way.
Let come what may, I’ll make it through this day.
Tomorrow’s fate is not yet on my plate.
But, come what may, I’ll make it through this day.
     Inspiring, no? I mean, the example of the faithful who have gone before us is lost, as is the promise that the same God who has cared for them in their struggles, and given them rest, can be trusted to do the same for us, to make us courageous in our own testimony and perseverance, and to bring us all together in eternity.
     But, hey. You’ll make it through this day, in a very nonspecific, nonreligious way.  
     I know, I know. The Secular Hymnal was made for a very particular purpose, and I can even understand the reasons for it. I just wonder if it should be called a hymnal at all, with lyrics like that. I mean, isn’t a hymn a song of praise, and as such shouldn’t it be addressed to something — and, preferably, to someone who can receive and appreciate such praise? 
     But I guess maybe This Day, This Day is a hymn to someone. Do you see it? Right: it’s addressed to the Great God I. I’ll find a way. I’ll make it through this day. Those who have come before me are long gone. The God in whom they trusted and placed all their hope means nothing to me. I have what I need. I’ll make it on my strength, my intelligence, my wits, my talents, my money, my accomplishments. I’ll find a way.
     But, hey: it’s called The Secular Hymnal. We shouldn’t really expect anything more. 
     Somewhere along the line, though, I’m afraid the church has decided that singing is all about I as well.
     I don’t mean just the lyrics here. (Though, actually, a fair number of more contemporary praise songs and choruses do seem to be written in the first person singular.) What I’m really talking about, though, is the expectation in some churches (surely not ours) by some believers (surely not any of us) that what I sing in church, and how I sing it, is mostly about making me feel the way I think I should, or singing the songs that I like the best, or checking off God’s requirements so I can feel confident that I’ve obeyed him perfectly. We’ve made singing about ourselves: we sing because it makes us feel good, or because the songs have sentimental connections, or because it allows us to take pride over those who don’t sing in the right way. (I mean, not us, or anyone we know; but we’ve heard about people who sing for these reasons, right?)
     Tell me, please, how we (they) get that from Ephesians 5. The only one who isn’t in that text is I. Paul says that singing should come from being filled with the Spirit — that’s his term for allowing the Spirit’s influence to direct the way we live our lives, as opposed to the flesh. Singing’s about God, not me. We sing best, not when we’re giving full vent to our emotions or taking pride in our knowledge, but when we’re letting The Holy Spirit call the shots in our lives. How we sing on Sunday should come from a life lived in step with the Spirit Monday through Saturday. That’s the only way to sing from our hearts — we hear emotions there, but what Paul is talking about is authenticity. We sing because we really are people who are thankful to God.
     Singing’s about God, and it’s also about each other. You may not love that one song, but the person sitting next to you may desperately need to hear it sung. We sing out of the influence of the Spirit in our lives, and we sing for one another. I’m sure God likes to hear us praise him from the heart. But we do it together because we need to speak to each other.
     Maybe it’s because we sit in rows facing a stage when we sing, but we need to get out of our heads the idea that singing is about someone entertaining us. If we come to church with the same expectations that we bring with us to a concert, I think we’re not quite doing it right. Instead, let’s try coming to church with the Spirit guiding our steps, instead of ping-ponging all over the place as our fleshly bodies and minds dictate. Let’s try coming to the singing as thankful people who want to sing about what God has done and how grateful we are. And let’s think about the people around us a little more, and a little less about our irritation over having to sing that song again. If I come away from church evaluating the singing based on how I feel, well, I’m not going to say it’s been a waste of time, but it’s awfully hard for me to be led by the Spirit and bless my sisters and brothers if all I have is me on my mind. 
     Make the most of the opportunity to glorify God and speak to one another. Don’t be foolish.
     I know you’ll find a way.


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