Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Sing a hymn to Christ as to God"

The panel of speakers
I was fortunate and honored to be selected to attend The Sung Confession: Lutheran Hymnwriting in the 21st Century, a conference of hymn writers this week. The conference took place at the Toddhall Retreat and Conference Center in Columbia, Illinois. If you read my blog--which you must, if you're reading this--then you know that I've been writing hymns for about three and a half years now. Some of them are dross; some...well, some may not be dross after a great deal of editing. A large number of people submitted three hymns for evaluation and consideration, and (because of financial limitations) of those hopefuls only thirty were selected after the evaluation process to attend the conference. 

After taking some time to let everything sink in, I have a few thoughts to share.

The Presentations
The meat of the conference was provided by our presenters. Meat it was, and not cotton candy, with which they fed us over the three days.
  • The presentations opened with Dr. Joe Herl on What Works and What Doesn't: Lessons from the Hymnal. He opened his presentation with an interesting premise, and I'm paraphrasing because I don't remember his exact words. It was something like, "The church's song has a longer-term impact on our peoples' theology than her sermons do." He asked how many of us remember hymns we sang as children, and then he followed that up by asking how many of us remember sermons we heard as children. He talked about comparative strengths and weaknesses of certain hymns which spoke of similar subjects, and he emphasized the importance of imagery in hymnody. He encouraged us to examine the works of John Donne and Charles Wesley as positive examples.
  • Pastor Steve Starke was next, presenting One Perspective on the Craft of Writing a Hymn Text. He began with the very helpful definition: "A hymn is a combination of doctrine (dogma) and worship (doxa) for worshipers to sing in a corporate setting." As with Dr. Herl before him, Starke emphasized the importance of vivid imagery. He also emphasized the importance of the care which goes into examining the doctrine which goes into a hymn, as false theology in hymns invite worshipers to share in and accept false perspectives. He encouraged us to examine the works of Timothy Dudley-Smith and Paul Gerhardt as positive examples. Finally, he encouraged us to offer our hymn texts for use. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I have, at times, been critical of Pastor Starke and his hymns. Part of that, I think, comes from unfamiliarity. Like most Lutherans, I don't like change and find myself suspicious of new things. His large imprint on Lutheran Service Book was all too easy a target for such suspicion. Sinner that I am, part of my disdain has certainly come from the demon named Competition which gnaws into my heart and leaves behind his poisonous saliva infested with the germs of jealousy. As Jesus might say, "Is your eye evil because I am good?" Having met with the man, I can say that I found him to be well-spoken, thoughtful, and willing to share his knowledge without being overbearing or displaying narcissism. I owe him an apology which I probably should have delivered in person.)
  • The Reverend Doctors David Maxwell and David Schmitt presented The Nuts and Bolts of Hymn Construction. "Hymn construction" is an apt way of describing their presentation, as they spoke of syllables/meter, accent, rhyme, and progression, the actual skeleton of hymns. As a former English major and after two years of high school music theory, some of this was review for me, but applying it directly as we analyzed and broke down some hymns to examine their skeletons was an eye-opener.
  • Matthew Carver presented The Art and Science of (German) (Lutheran) (Hymn) Translation. Matthew has been a blessing to the English-speaking church, translating such treasures as the four books (in two volumes) of The Great Works of God by Valerius Herberger and, more recently, Walther's Hymnal. He spoke of the advantage of using hymns that have been tested by time and circumstances, even when that means translating them into the vernacular. One who would translate must know his own language, the other language, and know the hymn itself inside and out.
  • The Reverend Doctor Frederick Baue, known most commonly as Fritz, presented Lyric Poetry. Using popular poetry and song lyrics as examples, Fritz spoke about the what makes for good and memorable texts. He encouraged the reading and study of poetry. (A gifted musician, Fritz used his guitar to good advantage to aid his presentation.)
  • Our last presenter was Peter Reske, managing editor of music and worship resources at Concordia Publishing House, who presented Six Lessons from a Hymnal Editor. He opened by telling us that the Church needs good hymns. He spoke of how hymnody is the intersection of three disciplines: theology, poetry, and music, and how those who would write hymns must be students of all three disciples. Writers must write; they must also read. Study hymnals and hymnology, poetry, theology, and music. He emphasized that writers must be willing to edit themselves severely--or as he quoted Arthur Quiller-Couch, "Murder your darlings." And at the end he discussed various methods of getting the hymns out into the Church. 
All in all, the presenters gave an excellent overview of the craft of writing hymns. Though each presenter nibbled at it, the only thing that was missing, I think, was a full-on theological presentation, something to round all of it out and bring it all together. That being said, I was pleased with the content we were given and plan to use their teachings to improve what I've already written and shape what I hope to write in the future.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the opportunities for prayer. We gathered a number of times each day for prayer offices. The services were liturgical, used directly from Lutheran Service Book. We prayed numerous psalms. We sang hymns--and sang and sang and sang! On Monday night we had a hymn sing, hymns from LSB interspersed with hymns from the conference attendees. It was scheduled to be half an hour. Pastor Weedon, who was worship leader, master of ceremonies, and head honcho for the conference, extended that to 45 minutes, and finally let it run for a full hour before we moved into Compline. The singing was glorious, often done in four-part harmony without the aid of the organ--though Dr. Herl graciously thundered out anything we selected. It was a foretaste of eternity, when we will join in the hymns of "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven."

Gem├╝tlichkeit and free time
Whenever Lutherans get together for conferences, there is always the conference within the conference. This is where the rubber hits the road; this is where the actual work gets done, in a sense. The attendees sit around in smaller groups with beer and wine, cigars, and snacks, and they shoot the proverbial breeze. When you gather thirty attendees along with presenters and a few guests, people with diverse backgrounds, you're bound to have some interesting dynamics. Sometimes it was reunions of old friends. In other cases it was complete strangers or "internet friends" meeting for the first time. Excellent discussions, the singing of even more hymns, and the consumption of Lutheran beverages were hallmarks of our free time. (I don't think any of us will look at St. Ambrose the same way ever again. *wink*)

It would not be an exaggeration for me to say that I'm different now than I was before the conference. If you've ever been to a Higher Things conference, you probably know what I mean when I say that. When you spend an intense period of time with a group of people and learn about the Word and God's gift of song and story, you can't help but be molded, shaped, by what you've heard and seen. (By the way, that's why in-house seminary education is so vitally important.) In some ways I wish the conference had been longer, but if the truth were told, after three days my head was so stuffed with information and thoughts and...stuff, and it's going to take a while to unpack it all. 

I am very thankful to have had this opportunity, and I would like to thank those who organized it; the presenters who gave of their time and knowledge and experience; those who provided the financial backing to make it a free conference for the attendees; my fellow participants, whom I hope to get many chances to meet with and maybe even work with in the future; and my wife, family, and congregation, none of whom begrudged me the time to attend.

1 comment:

Presbytera said...

Thank you very much for the summation! I am especially glad that you found much to chew on. I look forward to any improved hymn writings you do. Carry on!!!