Several years ago, a friend looked me in the eye and said in all seriousness, without a touch of irony, “You know, my granddaughter may never know what a hymnal is.”
And . . . ?
Not to be flip, but my yet-to-be-born grandchildren will never know what a manual typewriter is. Nor a phone booth. Nor, tragically, a wooden tennis racket.
Behind my friend’s complaint was the unspoken assumption that the music contained inside the pages of the hymnal is somehow sacred, inspired, and ancient.
A casual look through the United Methodist Hymnal shows that the bulk of the hymnody comes from the 18th and 19th centuries with some early 20th century tunes mixed in.
Do you know what that means? That my friend — the same one lamenting the demise of the bound hymnal — is himself unfamiliar with all the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs written before, say, 1500. And we know that Christians were singing in those days! But those words and tunes are by and large lost to us. Even those of us most faithful to “ancient” or “traditional” worship.
It goes to show that all of us value contemporary worship. It’s just that someone who is 75 has a different understanding of contemporary than does someone who is 25. Or 54.
This past Sunday we sang the little Christian ditty (not the one about Jack & Diane) I Will Enter His Gates. You know what I learned about it? It was written in 1976 — 40 years ago. You know what that means? It is closer on the timeline of composition to How Great Thou Art (1953) than to today!
So what about the hymnal? We at Good Shepherd hope to take the best of what it contains — think “Jesus Paid It All (in Baptist hymnals but sadly not in the UMC’s)” “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art” and “Nothing But The Blood” — and sing it with appreciation for the tradition it represents and the God it praises. But we’ll also leave out some that never quite connected with even the most loyal of United Methodist congregations — ever sung “God Of the Sparrow, God Of The Whale” (#122)? I didn’t think so.
And you know what’s great about much of the modern music we sing? Much of its lyrical content comes from the oldest, most enduring hymnal of them all — the book of Psalms.
That’s one hymnal I feel sure my grandchildren and yours will know.