The congregation is singing today a dozen or so songs from the upcoming hymnal that are not in the current hymnal. We have grouped some of the hymns in three mini-hymn sings. I will offer a brief reflection before each section. This reflection will be the longest.
The session will be deciding over the next few months whether or not to invite the congregation to purchase this new hymnal. We will set up a workshop soon for the congregation to learn more about the hymnal and to sing more songs from it. Should the session decide to purchase the hymnal, the congregation will be invited to purchase them individually in memory or in honor of a loved one.
The hymnal has a central part in our worship experience. Each week I choose hymns that enhance the theme of the worship service. While at times I choose hymns from other sources, usually they come from the hymnal.
I am going to share a little bit about the history of hymn singing in the Presbyterian Church and the layout of this new hymnal. In so doing I will also share my understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian.
This past week, on September 13th, I acknowledged the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) I am proud of that. I don’t consider my work a job or even a career. I consider it a calling. I am honored that Presbyterians saw gifts in me for ministry and claimed me as one of their own.
I wasn’t born a Presbyterian. I married into it. I remember when I realized it was home. The minister of the church my wife and I attended, Rev. Francis Horner, at White River Presbyterian Church in Auburn, Washington, took me under his wing. One of the first sermons I remember him preaching was about evolution. He didn’t call it Evil-lution. He preached about other things as well. He was from South Africa. This was in the 1980s and the church was in the midst of the struggle against Apartheid. He talked about AIDS (again this was in the 1980s) and the importance of the church responding with compassion and justice to those living with AIDS.
When I approached him about the possibility of going into the ministry he tried to talk me out of it by showing me his Greek and Hebrew Bible and telling me it would take a lot of school. I was hooked. My introduction to Presbyterianism opened my mind and heart. It was Christianity that I hadn’t seen before. It was engaged in social justice, in conversation with science, and it invited me to participate in God’s kingdom on this side of the grave.
This congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, is probably the most progressive congregation in this region. We might share that designation with the Unitarian church. If the markers of progressive are socially engaged in terms of awareness and advocacy for our environment, civil rights such as full inclusion in church and society of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, a celebration of different religious traditions, an embrace of science and psychology, and critical engagement with the Bible and the Christian tradition, then we are on the leading edge.
I suggest that we are that not in spite of but because of our Presbyterian heritage. That does not mean that other denominations do not have progressive congregations or that all Presbyterian congregations are progressive, by any means. I am just not surprised that the most progressive Christian congregation in our area is Presbyterian. Our stand for education, critical thinking, social justice, political engagement, and compassionate service is an outgrowth of the historic principles of the Presbyterian Church and Reformed Theology.
I think it is in the interests of our congregation to be intentional about our roots and our identity. It isn’t all who we are. Our mission statement says that we
Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
Yet we can be nurtured by our Presbyterian identity and we can contribute to our ongoing story. This congregation’s advocacy for social justice, freedom of conscience, critical thinking, theological exploration, and its work for peace is an important witness to the larger church. We are not alone in that.
What does this have to do with the hymnal? The hymnal is Reformed theology set to music. It is part but not all of who we are. Here we find our rooted-ness and our connectedness to the larger church, its history, and its various trajectories.
There have been seven hymnals in our stream of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The first was in 1831. This was the church’s first move away from singing only psalms in worship.
The next hymnal came in 1874 when the new school and the old school reunited.
The next was a hymnal published during the heat of the fundamentalist controversy in 1911.
The next was the green hymnal published in 1933.
In 1955 the red hymnal was published.
In 1972, this congregation started singing from the blueish gray Worshipbook. That was at the time John and Carolyn Martin arrived.
The Martins were here when the current hymnal was published in 1990. That is the hymnbook in the pews.
Since 1933, it has been about every 20 years or so, a generation, that the church feels the call to revise our "photo album." At the hymnal event last Saturday the speaker used the image of a photo album to describe the hymnal. There is only so much room. You need to add new pictures. What to do with the old ones? Some are keepers that you never want to lose. Some were interesting for a time but they can be replaced. When our Presbyterian family needs to update its “photo album” of hymns it wrestles with what hymns are our “heart songs,” that have been with us, what hymns are we as a new generation singing, and how do we put it together.
The formation of the committee for this new hymnal began in 2004. The new hymnal will be published in September 2013. None of the members of this committee, not one, is completely happy with it. What that means is that no individual person agreed with all of the decisions of what hymns to include and what to leave behind. Each of us would do better for our own selves in choosing our own favorite hymns! This congregation could not create a hymnal for itself that everyone would like. But, it isn’t about that. It is about the breadth of songs that speak to our hearts. It isn’t so important that I always sing my favorite heart song. It is of more importance that I am in community with the person next to me who sings a different heart song. If we each learn each other’s songs our hearts might be touched even more.
This new hymnal will have about 800 hymns. Half of them will be new, that is, that have not been in previous Presbyterian hymnals. About 60% of the 600 hymns in the current hymnal will be in the new one.
The order of the hymnal is such that the saga of the Christian story is seen in its fullness, so as we sing the hymns we sing the theology of the church.
Some of these hymns will be old hymns that this committee found and included. Three of those are in this first mini hymn sing. Growing up Baptist, we sang these first three. You may have known them as well.
Some songs will be new. People write hymns every day. We need to hear and sing new songs. Some will be from the global church. These are hymns from different cultures. These will have different rhythms. They will help us recognize that we all are neighbors.
Let us sing!
Here are the songs we sang from the upcoming hymnal. Some are from the sampler and some were from sources presented at the hymnal event. Here are the contents of the hymnal. Here are the hymns we sang on Sunday:
God Welcomes All
Come and Fill Our Hearts
I Love to Tell the Story
What a Fellowship, What a Joy Divine
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud
Glory to God
Give Us Light
He Came Down
As the Wind SOng
Heleluyan We Are Singing
We Will Walk With God