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Avoiding Convenience: A Word to Hymn Writers

Every music minister knows the weekly anxiety of searching for the right songs for the upcoming Sunday service. The criteria may differ from church to church, but hopefully, the goal is to find songs that tie in thematically with the sermon or the weekly scripture reading. However, I know of a pastor on the west coast who directed his music minister to follow a grid when planning the music service—a large W—meaning that the service starts with upbeat songs that slowly give way to medium ballads, then go up again, then back down, before sending the congregation off with a happy bang. Never mind the content. The music becomes a space filler and provides the congregation with a reason to stand up and clap, or to settle down and get ready to dish out an offering, or listen to a sermon.

I used to serve in a church that followed a similar grid. It was always those dang happy songs that gave me the hardest time. Not that there wasn’t a plethora to choose from, but the upbeat songs were always so corny and forgettable. These days, no one sings the ones we used back then and I imagine the same fate will follow many of today’s happy slappy modern worship songs.

Now that I’m in an Anglican church the weekly song search is much more complicated than the W model. There’s the lectionary to deal with—scripture passages that are appointed for every week of the year: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an Epistle reading (or one from Acts), and finally the Gospel reading. These readings are arranged according to the narrative of the Christian calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time (the season after Pentecost). More often than not, there’s an obvious theme that ties all the readings together such as contrition, service, God’s faithfulness, baptism, etc. I’ve learned to love the challenge of discovering that theme and finding the perfect songs to underscore and enhance the various portions of the Anglican mass. This process in the last year and a half has opened the door for me to many rich and beautiful hymns that I’d never heard before. It’s how I stumbled upon the stunning hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine” (lyrics: Bianco De Siena; Music: Ralph Vaugh Williams) in the weeks before Pentecost Sunday last year. Here are the verses as we sing them at our church: [audio:ComeDownOLoveDivine.mp3]

Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine, And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing. O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing. O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn To dust and ashes in its heat consuming; And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight, And clothe me round, the while my path illuming. Let holy charity mine outward vesture be, And lowliness become mine inner clothing; True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part, And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing. And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, Shall far out-pass the power of human telling; For none can guess its grace, till he become the place Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

I’m drawn to the specificity of this hymn. It’s about something. It’s about a specific event in the Christian narrative. The humble stance, the plaintive tone; it’s a perfect hymn about God pouring out his Holy Spirit on a contrite heart that’s found redemption through Jesus Christ.

Let this be an encouragement to modern hymn writers—a cause for inspiration to those who are suffering from writer’s block. There are so many Biblical scenes to choose from that would make for beautiful songs: the transfiguration of Christ, the feeding of the five thousand, the woman at the well, the stoning of Stephen, water baptism, washing of the disciple’s feet, the betrayal of Judas. If just a few good modern hymn writers tackled some of these subjects, the anguish that untold thousands of music ministers suffer weekly could be greatly diminished.

It’s easy to write a chorus that says:

God, you are a Holy God I need your grace to see me through I need your mercy to make me new Let me live each day for you.

I just made that up in two minutes and there’s nothing wrong with it. It might fit easily and competitively among the hundreds of worship songs that are available to choose from. But compare those lines to the third stanza from the above hymn:

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be, And lowliness become mine inner clothing; True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part, And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

It took some real thought to craft those lines. They’re timeless. They set a standard for all of us who write music for the church. I didn’t set out to write a didactic piece. I’m reminding myself, too. Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliché. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you.

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Fernando Ortega is a singer/songwriter and song leader at a church in Albequerque, New Mexico. He and I toured together about ten years ago and have been friends ever since. I’d rather hear him sing a hymn than anyone else on earth. His new album Come Down, O Love, Divine is available here and at iTunes.

–The Proprietor

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