From: Music As Prayer
At the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, I used to team-teach with Patrick Evens a course on congregational song as a resource for preaching and worship. The course began with a review of the history of congregational song, examining how poets and musicians in every generation have been continually creating new hymns and songs as theology, culture, and human understanding changed across the centuries. Thus, for example, the hymns of the early church fathers often promote the theological formulations of church councils; the hymns of the medieval church give witness to the mystery of sacramental practice; the hymns of the Protestant Reformation proclaim a recovered understanding of faith and grace; the spirituals of African-American slaves offer a vision of a redeemed world while simultaneously including coded messages about escape from bondage; and hymns of the social awakening call people to action against economic and political injustice. This list does not begin to cover the full richness of the dynamic tradition of congregational song.
I often use the analogy of geologists who bore into the Earth’s crust and then analyze the layers they draw up to understand the history of what lies beneath their feet. In a similar way, the history of congregational song reveals the history of the church’s conflicts, beliefs, practices, and needs.
After we examined the varied historical layers of congregational song in the course, we turned to the conflicts, beliefs, practices, and needs of our own time and place in history to ask: what new words and music are required now in order to sing as effectively about the current state of our world as our ancestors sang about theirs? We brainstormed a list of things we need to sing about. Students then wrote hymn texts on any topic they chose. Many worked in tandem, one writing the words and the other composing a musical setting. Some wrote to a standard hymn setting that was well established in their memory banks.
The fall semester of 2009 provided a revelation about what was going on in our students’ souls. When all the texts and settings were handed in, eight of the ten pieces of congregational song were laments! We organized a service of worship that employed all of the students’ work. The service progressed through one lament after another and then concluded with the only two student hymns that pointed toward hope. Even those two were restrained in both their poetic and musical idioms.
After the service, which we held in the chapel where our class met, we had a probing discussion about why the lament had prevailed. Each student acknowledged a heartfelt sorrow over the state of the world, our brokenness, and the rancor that now pervades our politics and social discourse. But they also said something else, and it is significant to realize that all of the students, except one, were in their early to mid-twenties. They told how helpful they found the service. As one of them puit the matter, “It was so in touch with reality as we experience it now. There is a need to lift our sorrow in prayer and music that too often our worship services neglect.”
Whether you are Christian or of another faith or of no religious persuasion, I believe that through our common humanity all of us can understand what the students in the course were trying to express. We are living in a season of sorrow for the human community, and part of our role as musicians is to help the human heart release its tears so that we might sense anew the resilience of hope that we will never know if we have never wept.