I have had a love affair with hymns since I was a child. I sang in the children’s choir at church and loved the images that the lyrics evoked. I loved the familiarity of the music. The hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” made me aspire to be the kind of saint described in the hymn – someone you could meet at school or in a lane or at tea – someone who tried to follow Jesus faithfully. My favorite season of the church year was Easter, not in small part due to the hymns. Easter morning, our church always began with “Welcome happy morning,” (179) a hymn which filled me with joy.
Hymns are evocative. Years later, I cannot hear “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee” (376) without being reminded of our daughter, Ann, who chose that as the first hymn she learned to sing when she studied with our church choir director. The description of nature and the Divine spoke to Ann’s love of creation.
Someone recently told me that it was music that brought him to church. Isn’t it amazing how God speaks to us in the language of our hearts? Hymns by nature are poetry set to music. They express both our soulful longings and our theological beliefs. Ancient truths find their way into the hymns, from the Psalms, to the poetry of 11th century philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard, the 16th century poet, George Herbert, and the 19th century Anglican turned Methodist, Charles Wesley, to name but a few sources in our hymnal.
When I was in seminary, one of my favorite classes was in hymn writing. Our theology inevitably was reflected in our writing. One Advent I led a class here at St. Mark’s called “A Creative Response to Mary.” With my seminary hymn writing experience in mind, our last creative response was to write a hymn together. It was interesting to see how the class’s theological understanding of Mary changed and evolved after studying the story of Mary portrayed in Luke. We chose a tune from the hymnal that fit and sang our hymn a few times in celebration.
The other day, as I looked through the hymnal, a hymn caught my eye. “Father eternal, ruler of creation,” (573) was written by Laurence Housman at the end of World War I. The hymn expresses the brokenness of a world divided by war, and the difficulty of rebuilding and reconciling. Its lyrics are as pertinent now as they were almost 100 years ago, and remind us that through God, the world will be healed.
I invite you to explore the treasures that are found in our hymnal. Which ones touch you? With God as your companion in this contemplative and creative work, consider the hymns as poetry, theology and story. Or perhaps even write your own hymn to help you discover a new way to express what you believe to be true about God.