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.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

HYMN: I Thank You, Holy Father

My latest effort is more of a children's hymn written around Luther's morning and evening prayers. It's repetitive, but I don't think that's much of a problem, considering the nature of the prayers. I envision the first and third verses being sung in the morning, and the second and third verses being sung at night. It still needs at least a little work, but that's okay. Anyway, it's set to the same tune as "Jerusalem the Golden." Here it is.

I Thank You, Holy Father
1. I thank You, holy Father,
Through Jesus Christ, Your Son.
In nighttime You preserve me.
Now is the day begun.
O send Your holy angel
To guard me through the day.
Protect me from all danger.
Keep Satan’s pow’r at bay.

2. I thank You, holy Father,
Through Jesus Christ, Your Son.
Through daylight You preserve me,
But now the day is done.
O send Your holy angel
To guard me through the night.
Preserve my soul and body
From Satan’s awful might.

3. All glory, holy Father.
All glory, dearest Son.
All glory, Holy Spirit—
Eternal Three in One.
From dawn until the sunset
And then ‘til night is past,
Your holy name be hallowed
As long as life shall last.

© 2013
76 76 D
Tune: EWING (LSB 672)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sermon for 1/20/13--Transfiguration of Our Lord

A Glimpse of Glory
Matthew 17:1-9

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen

Surprising as it may seem, there was really nothing new in the Lord's Transfiguration. The glory that shone forth from Jesus on the mountain was the glory that was rightfully His. When the Son of God came in flesh, He did not leave the glory of His Godhead behind. He did not become less than God. He wraps that heavenly glory up in human flesh. You do not see the bright and shining light of heaven's glory in the stable at Bethlehem as Christ is bedded there in weakness and humility. Hanging in agony on the cross, He dies the death of a common criminal. Where is the glory of God in all of this? It is hidden in the flesh of Jesus. So to see Jesus is to behold the very glory of God. That's why the Apostle John writes “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth.

But now, for a brief moment, the glory that was hidden in His flesh and visible only to the eye of faith is made fully apparent. His flesh no longer veils His glory; instead that glory shines with the light of God. Matthew reports that His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. As that is happening, Moses and Elijah, representative of the law and the prophets, stand and speak with Him. What a sight! Jesus shines with unborrowed light while Moses and Elijah carry on a conversation with Him.  The boredom of the disciples gives way to enthusiasm. “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Before Peter can finish explaining his foolish plan, a bright cloud overshadows the scene and out of the cloud the voice of God the Father declares, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!

The glory God is a marvelous thing. That being said, it’s all too easy to focus on God’s glory. It’s easy to get bored with the everyday Jesus. It’s all too easy to forget that it was in His state of humiliation that He performed His greatest work on the behalf of sinners: taking on flesh, bearing the sins of the world on His sinless body, dying the death that is the wages of sin which only sinners deserve. But the transfiguration made apparent who Jesus is. Peter’s enthusiasm skyrocketed. This is the Jesus who excites. Of course, the vision soon ceased and Jesus and His disciples went down from that mountain; and they made their way toward another mountain, Mount Calvary, where He would suffer and die bearing our sin and shame. The transfiguration points to Calvary and beyond the cross to the glory of Jesus Christ in His heavenly kingdom.

The transfigured Christ is the Christ who was crucified for us and raised in glory as our Brother and our Savior. What Peter, James, and John witnessed in our Lord's transfiguration, we are given here today in the Divine Service as we stand in the presence of Jesus Christ according to both His divine and human nature. We have the prophetic word made more sure. That is, we have the words of Moses and Elijah fulfilled in the sinless life, the atoning death, and victorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Father's voice from the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him.”  And He is speaking here, this morning, as His words are read and proclaimed in preaching. He is speaking here as in the words of absolution, He says to you, “I forgive you all your sins.” He is speaking here as He says, “Take eat this is My body, given for you;” and, “Take drink, this cup is the new testament in my blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” Heaven intersected with earth on the mountain of the transfiguration as Jesus was revealed as the Son of the Father. That same thing is what happens in the Divine Service.

Like Moses who stood on holy ground when He stood barefoot before the burning bush, you stand here in the presence of God. Like Peter, James, and John who stood before the transfigured Lord, you stand in the presence of the incarnate Savior, the One who is both true God and true Man. He is here. As He touched the disciples and pulled them out of their fear with His Word so He comes to you today. In the midst of this world of sin and suffering, Jesus gives you a glimpse of the glory that is yet to come, the glory that you are destined for in His heavenly kingdom. It is the glory of His presence. It is the glory that you behold by faith when you eat His body and drink His blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins. It is the glory that one day you will behold with your own eyes, as you will stand before Him, lost in wonder, love, and praise.  In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always.  Amen.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

HYMN: Sing of Christ, Our Consolation

Okay, I'm a little behind in writing this, as the Sunday After Christmas was over a week ago. That's how these things work sometimes, especially when an idea sparks itself from something you've written in a sermon. Anyway, yes, this latest offering is based around the readings for the Sunday After Christmas in the LSB 1-year lectionary, and in particular the Gospel appointed for the day: Luke 2:22-40. I thought about focusing more on the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, but there are so many rich themes in the text that led me in a different direction. A special hat tip goes to the Reverend Rick Stuckwisch, whose sermon for the day (and particularly the sermon title) got my creative juices flowing.

Your feedback would be appreciated. Anyway, here it is:

Sing of Christ, Our Consolation

1. Sing of Christ, our Consolation.
Sing of Christ in peace and joy.
Sing as we behold our Temple:
God’s own Son, a human Boy.
Word made flesh to dwell among us:
Death’s dominion to destroy.

2. Son of God and Son of Mary,
Born to crush the serpent’s head,
His own righteous Law fulfilling,
Sinless in the sinner’s stead.
Word made flesh to dwell among us:
Bathes us in the blood He bled.

3. Sing of Christ, our soul’s salvation.
Sing of Christ, our joy and peace.
Sing our Light in ev’ry darkness
Who from terror brings release.
Word made flesh to dwell among us:
Here all dread of sin to cease.

4. Mystery beyond all telling
In the water and the Word,
Here in Gospel proclamation,
In His flesh and blood adored.
Word made flesh to dwell among us:
Make us holy to the Lord.

© 2013
87 87 87

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Sermon for 1/6/13--The Epiphany of Our Lord

Sorry about the layoff, y'all.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The story of the Magi is one that is shrouded in mystery. Who were they? Where did they come from? And why did they come in the first place? There have been any number of suggestions made as to the origin of the Magi. We are told that they came from the East, but that could refer to any number of places. Whatever their origin, what was it that motivated them to give the gifts they did? What did those gifts say about what they knew of the infant King? What we can say with certainty is what Matthew tells us by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Magi came from the East. They were drawn by a star which they understood to be a sign for the birth of the Savior King. They came to worship Him, and as a part of their devotion offered Him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And then they escaped into history.

Even if we cannot answer all the questions about who they were and where they came from, the gifts they brought are not so mysterious. Indeed, their significance is rooted in Holy Scripture. The first gift they brought Him was gold. Gold means wealth and power, glory and magnificence. No doubt, in the simplicity and humility of the infant Savior’s surroundings, gold probably seemed out of place. It was a sign that things were not as they seemed. Even though His throne was first a manger and then the lap of His mother, He was and is King. All of the wealth and magnificence of the world is His by right. There is nothing we can give the King which is not already His. The gift of gold says just that; we are merely returning to Him what is His to begin with.

They brought Him the gift of incense. Incense means that this King Jesus is also God. Consider the words of the liturgy of Evening prayer which we will pray together during Lent: “Let my prayers be set forth before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” Throughout the Old Testament, frankincense was used with the sacrificial offerings made to God; it provided an aroma that was pleasing to God. Its smoke accompanied the prayers of the faithful to the throne of grace. To this day incense is used even by Lutherans to remind worshipers that the prayers of the faithful are something pleasing to God. Frankincense identifies Jesus as God, the only One who should ever receive our worship, and the only One to whom our prayers should be raised.

And they brought Him the gift of myrrh. Myrrh tells us that King Jesus, the God-man, is also the sacrifice appointed for sin. Extracted from the wood of the tree of the same name, myrrh was used in oils and ointments and in perfumes. It came to be used as one of the primary embalming ointments of that culture.  Myrrh was used to prepare a body for burial. It was a strange gift to offer a newly born child. But this was not any Child. This was God’s Son, who had come to this earth in human flesh. Right from the beginning the cross hovered over all He would do and say. Death for the sins of the world was His inevitable goal. The gift of myrrh confirmed this to be the truth of God, a truth that surpasses and even defies human understanding.

These gifts of the Magi represented more than just the Magi. These men were the first Gentile visitors to come and see Him who was born King of the Jews. Because the star God put there led them to the infant Savior, there has been an unceasing pigrimage of others who have been drawn to Him, to receive from Him the gifts of life and salvation and the joy and peace that comes with the remission of sins.

What gifts can we give Him now? By what offerings can we imitate the Magi who came bearing gifts so long ago? We can take to heart, and then speak with hearts full of faith, those words of the Psalmist: “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?  I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.  I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all His people.” It is God Himself who is the great Giver of gifts. He has given us His only-begotten Son, the One full of grace and truth, to be our Redeemer and our Lord. The gift that we can return to Him, which means more than all other gifts together, is to receive joyfully and faithfully the gifts He gives us, and then, like the Magi, fall before Him in worship and praise. Like the Magi, worship and praise are the gifts we bring in thanksgiving to Him who is our Savior and King. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always.  Amen.