Monday, May 13, 2013
Morning Thanks--blushingly old hymns
It's not all that hard to miss Ascension Day, and, to be truthful, I didn't, because missing it would have been pretty much impossible with a roomful of preachers, several of whom had to get back home on Thursday for Ascension Day services yet that night. That's where I was on Thursday--in a room full of preachers.
But the little church we attended on Sunday didn't meet on Thursday night, so the heart of yesterday's liturgy was the holiday; and that meant singing some traditional Ascension Day hymns, like "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun."
Anybody who's been in church for any length of time can likely recite most of that old Isaac Watts favorite, or at least the verses people traditionally sing. But our hymnal yesterday included a verse I'd never sung before--or seen before for that matter, the second verse.
Here's the first, if you're drawing a blank:
Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Does his successive journey run.
His kingdoms stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Now the memory bank in my head insists that the next line is this: "To him shall endless prayers be made/And praises throng to crown his head. . ." That's not what followed.
Instead, we got this one:
From north to south the princes meet
To pay their homage at his feet.
While western empires own their Lord,
And savage tribes attend his Word.
I sang those words, I guess, but whatever came after got lost when I swallowed my tongue. Just the day before, I'd held forth at Pipestone, Minnesota, on early 19th century missionary work among the Dakota, so "savage tribes" was language I understood all too blushingly.
Not long ago, in fact, I had recommended that a worship leader find an old missionary hymn I used to sing as a boy, a hymn titled "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," for a worship service I had to lead in which I wanted to talk about old mission efforts. The organist politely refused to play it because, he said--and he was right--the lyrics are embarrassingly colonialist, if not racist. However, that old hymn was a staple of missionary presentations when I was a kid, and I wanted to recreate that whole atmosphere a bit, embarrassing though it may have been.
But back to yesterday. The attendance was spotty, but we rather like the determined unpretentiousness of the people there--they're not salesmen or hipsters or holy rollers; and they obviously--convincingly--aren't subject to whatever's cool with the evangelical crowd. They're a liberal church that worships in an immensely conservative style, something out of, say, the fifties. They're mainline, and, you're right, they're not growing.
All of which, I think, makes understandable that odd stanza of "Jesus Shall Reign."
Right in front of us stood a Korean family, interestingly enough. I don't know what they thought about "western empires" and "heathen tribes," but they didn't slam the hymnal or walk out, even though I suppose they could have.
Maybe I was the only soul in that Ascension Day worship who gasped. Who takes what they sing seriously, anyway? You could make an argument that church music isn't really about words. There are all kinds of reasons not to sing "Faith of Our Fathers," after all, but people love that old hymn anyway, even though "dungeons, fire, and sword" are so far behind any of us that an entire congregation would have loads of trouble remembering a single name from Foxe's Book of Martyrs. And what about the faith of our mothers--yesterday especially?
Still, this morning, a day later, I'm thankful for the old hymns, even when they're embarrassing. They're as much about faith as they are about us, both who we were and who we are--"western" or "savage."
Isaac Watts penned 14 verses of that old hymn, for worship that used to go longer than an hour, obviously. That multitude of verses make for an interesting poem. You can check it out here.