Some years ago at a Calvin Theological Seminary chapel service, the college choir led us in singing “My Life Flows on in Endless Song” by Robert Lowry, also known as “How Can I Keep from Singing” (see p. 3). It was a good service, but I don’t remember reflecting on it much as I tucked the bulletin into my coat pocket.
The following is a collection of building blocks for a series of worship services based on key themes from the Belhar Confession. This series is adapted from the longer version available on the website of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (worship.calvin.edu.) A few notes:
The function of hymnals in the life of the church has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. Many congregations rarely use them. Thousands of Christians seldom, if ever, open one. When people hear of the publication of Lift Up Your Hearts (LUYH), it’s natural for some of them to ask, “Why would you ever want to publish another hymnal?”
Cultural forces can sometimes affect how we “see” the Bible, how we approach the Scriptures. So we receive the Bible as a sort of divine encyclopedia full of revealed “facts,” or we treat it as an abstract rule book, or we revere it as merely a historic relic of a past when people seemed to actually encounter God. What gets lost in these functional “pictures” of the Bible is something central to the Scriptures themselves: the fact that the Bible is a story. God reveals himself to us in a narrative.
In recent years a number of people have asked me why I would ever get involved with creating a hymnal. Among the many comments I received were these:
"Aren’t hymnals a thing of the past?”
“There are so many new songs. Why would we sing those old, irrelevant ones?”
“This is the digital age. Why get stuck with a book that’s out of date the moment it’s printed?”
“Why would a contemporary/modern church ever buy a hymnal?”
Part of my job at Faith Alive Christian Resources and on the editorial committee for the new hymnal Lift Up Your Hearts was to be one of the “theological police.” But is it truly important to make sure hymns pass theological muster? They’re only songs, after all.
The psalter has long played a prominent role in the worship of Christians in the Reformed tradition. John Calvin held the newly reformed church to the singing of the inspired words of the psalms. In the nineteenth century, particularly in North America, Reformed denominations began to accommodate hymns by binding them to the back of their psalters. The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) has maintained this “Psalter Hymnal” format right up to the twenty-first century.
The sung word has an inherent power that pierces the heart, mind, and imagination all at the same time. For example, we speak about the lyrical beauty of poetry and the spiritual reach and depth of the psalms. When the psalms are sung and received well by the worshiper, they become deeply embedded in memory. They speak the language of the worshiper’s joy and lament.
In the beginning . . . there was chaos. Then God brought light into the darkness, and waters were separated and given boundaries, forming land that brought forth living things and beauty. God created humans to participate in and enjoy the beauty. And it was good. Then the people God made in his own image willfully brought the chaos back, and there was a new darkness, new storms, new desert places.
In the late summer of 2012, the worship ministries group of the congregation I pastor began considering whether to preorder Lift Up Your Hearts for our pews. Since I am a member of the hymnal’s editorial committee, I said very little during those discussions. Although I occasionally answered questions that arose, I wanted to ensure that the decision was made in the congregation’s best interest rather than because I was pushing it through. Nonetheless, I could barely contain my excitement when I heard the decision had been made to proceed with the preorder.
How does your congregation celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Is it a celebration, or is it a more somber, reflective experience? Do you take communion as a community, or is it more individualized? Maybe your answer is that it’s a little bit of everything, or maybe it depends on the time of year.
My home congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper the same way about once a month. At certain times of year we may mix it up a little bit and go forward to the table rather than receiving communion in the pews. Other than that, things remain fairly static.