Monday, November 26, 2012

Seek Ye First

Monday after the Last Sunday of the Church Year
November 26, 2012

The Lord be with you

Karen Lafferty
This past Sunday we sang hymn 712, “Seek Ye First.” This “hymn” was written by Karen Lafferty, who was born in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1948. (She was raised there also.) This particular song is now found in most major hymnals, which is why I called it a “hymn.” Hymn is in quotes because the song does not conform to what most traditionally call a hymn. It is more what we might call a “scriptural chorus,” and is in the genre we commonly call Contemporary Christian Music. Karen has remained an important influence in Contemporary Christian Music for decades.

This song, in one of our official hymnals, illustrates a point that is often overlooked by many who are passionate about worship styles today. It is a point that can be made for each generation. That point? Every song in every generation, or even from a single song writer, is not created equal. Some are good and worth remembering. Others are weak and should be forgotten. Some fall somewhere in between. In any generation, the majority of hymns fall into the weak or somewhere in between categories. Even if the hymn writer is a strong hymn writer, the majority of their songs will probably fall into the bottom two categories. This is true in all genres of music.
Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

I grew up with rock-and-roll. Someone I thought was fabulous was Jimi Hendrix. His records were uniformly excellent. He died in 1970. After he died something interesting happened. It seems that Jimi recorded a tremendous amount of material that he didn’t release. In fact, he had no intention of releasing it. However, with a legion of fans clamoring for his music, someone saw an opportunity to make some money and they began to release more Jimi Hendrix recordings. Eventually more Jimi Hendrix recordings were released after his death than before. I discovered that, for the vast majority of the music, I agreed with Jimi; they were not worth the vinyl they were printed on or the time spent listening to them.

Taking that kind of experience into the world of hymns, we find a person like Charles Wesley. You can’t find a hymnal worthy of the name “hymnal” that doesn’t contain some of his hymns today. He has been called “The Prince of Hymn-writers,” The Sweet Bard of Methodism,” The Father of Sacred Song,” and so on. The Lutheran Service Book has nine of his hymns. The Lutheran Hymnal has twelve. Yet, with such a contribution, it represents only the smallest of fractions of Wesley’s work. He wrote around 6,500 hymns! There is a reason why even Methodist hymnals do not include the majority of them, and that is not simply because of space. Many simply are not “top shelf” hymns. Like writers of Christian music today, Charles Wesley produced some “turkeys” and a lot of “second place” hymns. That so many of his hymns are remembered by so many believers is a testimony of God’s grace.

This insight can be applied to our worship life. Some churches use a very “high” church format with a completely chanted liturgy, splendid vestments and altar paraments, candles, incense, maybe icons, pipe organ, and so on. Others follow a format called “contemporary.” The service will often feature elements like music written within the last fifty years, guitars, drums, etc., projection screens, ministers in a business suit, a spoken liturgy, and so on. A third option is sometimes called “traditional.” It falls somewhere between the two.

Now worship is something people have deep feelings about. Because of that, adherents of the various styles can (and sometimes do) say silly things to support their preferred style and to discredit other styles. The simple truth is that everything new is not weak and everything old is not strong. Just as some that passes as Christian worship today really reflects little that is distinctively Christian, so in the past there was worship that really reflected little that is distinctively Christian. Also, just as the history of the Church has provided us with outstanding Christian worship formats, so people today can (and I might say, do) produce outstanding Christian worship formats.

Worship at Lamb of God Lutheran Church
It is part of the best nature of the Christian Church to recognize gold in worship and hymnody wherever and whenever it is found. Thus we have “Seek Ye First” in our hymnal. To reject it because it wasn’t written with a pipe organ in mind is silly. To say that it is okay in a worship service if accompanied by an organ, but out of place if accompanied by a guitar, is silly.

On the other hand, to say “A Mighty Fortress” (Martin Luther, 1483-1546), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (Charles Wesley, 1707-1788), or “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (Bernard of Clairvaux, 1091-1153) are outdated and can’t reach a modern listener is just as silly. To say that a modern listener can’t follow the theology of such hymns is silly. To say they can’t appreciate a pipe organ, or enjoy singing to one, is silly.

Maybe some who read this will think I am silly. Maybe I am. But I feel we should give thanks to our Lord for all the gold he has given us, throughout the centuries, in our worship formats and hymns. As the old hymn puts it, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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