Friday, October 29, 2010

Giving New Life to Old Hymns: Part II

In Part I we discussed 3 ways in which we can revive hymns in our local congregations. We briefly touched on the most prevalent way which is to Re-tune, that is, taking an old and often unfamiliar hymn text and writing an original tune for it. We went into a bit more detail for the other two; Rearrange and Rewrite. Today we will look at the last two ways in which we can serve our congregations by reviving hymns: Replace and Redeem.

This is perhaps the easiest way to give life to an old hymn. Replace the hymn text that is associated with a familiar tune with an unfamiliar text. With good judgment and common sense you should be able to do this with just about any old hymn text. Most hymns are written in a particular metre so that they might be sung to any number of tunes that are also in the same metre. Many people find it humorous that “Amazing Grace” can be sung to the tune of “Gilligan’s Isle” or “House of the Rising Sun” but the reason for this is because the text and tunes of all of these songs were written in what is known as Common Metre. Common Metre can also be read as This is simply a reference to the amount of syllables which are found on a particular line of the song. Line 1 has eight syllables while Line 2 has six.

There are all types of metres and most modern hymnals contain an index of metres so that you can easily match a text with a tune. I have flipped through my copy of Spurgeon’s “Our Own Hymn-Book” and have found a text in Common Metre at random: Hymn 494, written by Joseph Humphreys in 1743. You can easily sing this text to the tune we commonly use for “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”:

Come, guilty souls, and flee away
Like doves to Jesus’ wounds;
This is the welcome gospel-day
Wherein free grace abounds
God loved the church, and gave His Son
To drink the cup of wrath:
And Jesus says, He’ll cast out none
That come to Him by faith.

This is immensely simple and there are a million possibilities. Where I serve, we recently sang a song by Isaac Watts to the tune of “Jesus Paid it All”. The tune is known by most but the text is completely new to all. The tune for “Jesus Paid it All” is not exactly easily applicable for many older texts as the metre is a bit irregular, but finding and fitting a text was relatively painless.

The text I used by Watts was originally written in Small Metre, which is, however I had to tweak the wording slightly to fit the tune but I am confident that no harm was done to Watts’ original. For the refrain I simply used the last verse which serves as a fitting response for the other verses to revolve around. I have italicized the refrain below.

Sing His Bleeding Love
(to the tune of Jesus Paid it All)

Not all the blood of beasts
On Hebrew altars slain
Gives the guilty conscience peace,
Or wash away the stain

But Christ, the heavenly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
Sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they

Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse removed;
O Praise the Lamb with cheerful voice,
And sing His bleeding love

My faith would lay her hand
On that dear head of Thine,
Like a penitent I stand,
And there confess my sin

My soul looks back to see
The burdens Thou didst bear
Hanging on the cursed tree
And hopes her guilt was there

Another aspect of replacement is simply the opposite approach. Instead of replacing a familiar text with an unfamiliar one, try placing a familiar text with an unfamiliar tune. There are tons of tunes, all listed by metre, over at CyberHymnal. Do some clicking around and listen for some tunes that you believe might connect with your people, or find tunes that might capture a certain mood. Make note of those tunes and grab a familiar hymn text and match it with this unfamiliar tune. The result will be that the text is now sung in a different light, hopefully exposing truth in a fresh or greater way to your congregation.

Personally I would love to find an old tune hidden away that would re-energize a hymn like “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”. Such a great text that has become attached to a decent catchy tune, however to me the tune gives off a ‘1946 Tent Revival-ish’ kind of feeling that has the capability to become sappy and sentimental.

In some aspect every hymn that is tailored and tweaked is being redeemed in some form or another. In a previous example I showed how I used Rearranging and Rewriting to give new life to “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior”. That hymn has in a sense been redeemed and now serves useful in its new purpose to our congregation. In fact many songs I’ve tried to redeem are songs from the late 19th and early 20th century, mainly because the tunes are often familiar but the content is rather shoddy, or vise versa, the content is solid but the tune is pretty hokey.

But when I speak of Redeeming a hymn I also want our focus to be a little narrower. The way I am thinking of Redeeming is taking a hymn, or a verse from a hymn, and correcting it in such a way that it exposes the truth in a better way. This may be theological or grammatical and may call for removal or replacement or both.

As a side note I should mention that we should first determine if the hymn is worth redeeming at all. If the text is junk and the tune is junk then you should probably put it out of its misery. A song that is not worth redeeming to me is a song like “In the Garden”. Aside from it being a theological monstrosity, the text is sappy and the music is sappier. I am content to junk it.

But there are many hymns that are well loved and often times their flaws or shortcoming are overlooked. Again, we should always keep our congregational context in mind as we seek to redeem hymns. The word ‘fetter’ may be fine for a particular congregation while another congregation is left wondering what in the world a ‘fetter’ is. Here are a few things I have done:

The carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” is loved and sung by millions around Christmas time every year. It also has a great tune. But the problem with this carol is that there is no mention of Christ! There are subtle illusions to Jesus, but the song is essentially about singing angels and peace on earth. The reason for this becomes a bit clearer when we understand that the author, Edmund Sears, was a Unitarian who did not believe in the divinity of Christ. Knowing this, when it comes to selecting carols for worship what do we do with this old, beloved song? Do we scrap it or redeem it? I decided that for my congregation I would seek to redeem it. So I sat down with pen and paper and intentionally put Christ into the song while maintaining the flavor of the song so that this extra verse didn’t feel like it was out of place. Now the congregation sings these lines as either the first or last verse:

He came down from His heavn’ly throne
Into a world of death
And with His perfect sacrifice
the sinner now is blessed
Though as a Child in manger lay,
He still is Christ the King
“All glory be to God on high!”
the saints and angels sing

A simpler example of this might be the changing of a word or two simply for clarification. The gospel song “To God be the Glory” contains amazing lyrics, packed with the language of the atonement. However there are a few words that I have changed for clarification. During the first verse we sing of Jesus:

Who yielded his life, an atonement for sin
And opened the lifegate that all may go in

These words are true, but there remains the possibility that one may be led to believe that when Jesus “opened the lifegate that all may go in” that it includes those who enter in without faith or without belief in Jesus. To some this seems like a very minor issue. To myself, also, this is a fairly minor issue, but I would rather fix a minor, almost unnoticeable, crack before it gets chipped away and becomes a glaring hole in someone’s understanding of the gospel. So I changed the wording to:

And opened the lifegate, by faith enter in

I’ll admit that it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way but it get’s the point across and there is no confusion as to how one ‘goes in’.

When Charles Spurgeon was compiling a hymnbook for his people he amassed nearly 1000 hymn texts, yet he was compelled to compose a few hymns himself. In the preface to his hymnbook he writes, “The editor [Spurgeon] has inserted with great diffidence a very few of his own composition…and his only apology for so doing is the fact that…he could find no version at all fitted for singing, and was therefore driven to turn them into verse himself.” Spurgeon wrote new texts for his people because he knew his people. The reason given is that, in a few cases, he could find ‘no version at all fitted for singing’. This is a very subjective statement. Perhaps the church down the street would find it rather fitting to sing the very songs Spurgeon chose to substitute. Spurgeon understood his congregation and their context and served them accordingly. When you tailor and tweak these hymns for your congregation you are doing the same thing. You understand your congregation and their context and you serve them accordingly. Always remember that the treasury of hymns can be a toolbox for ministry.

I would love to hear what you have done to Retune, Rearrange, Rewrite, Replace, Redeem, and ultimately Revive hymns in service to your congregation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Giving New Life to Old Hymns: Part I

I am so grateful for the abundance of hymnody that has been passed down to us throughout the ages. I am also grateful for the resurgence of these hymns through groups and ministries like Indelible Grace and Red Mountain Music. I really feel that one of the reasons this resurgence has some real oomph behind it is that reviving hymns accomplishes two important things at once: On one hand it establishes a real connection with our Christian forefathers and on the other it is immensely authentic.

The connection to the past is obvious, but I say that this reviving of hymns is authentic because it gives our congregation a real voice. We are able to say the same thing that Isaac Watts said but in our own context. The ability to take the texts of these old hymns and give them new life in the midst of our congregations is an amazing gift to the modern church. And again, while I am grateful that there are groups and churches out there doing this, I want to encourage the local church worship leader to begin doing this as well. As talented as Matthew Smith is, he ultimately doesn’t know your congregation like you do. You have your finger on the pulse of your congregation; you know their needs and what they need.

Beyond Re-Tuning
Much of the focus of this resurgence of hymns has been writing brand new tunes to old hymn texts. Though it is hardly a new concept, I’ve heard this idea cleverly called a Re-tune. This is the most obvious way hymns are being used in this resurgence, however the idea of giving life to old hymns doesn’t always have to end with a new tune. For local worship leaders the goal shouldn’t be writing a new tune, the goal should be serving your congregation with this ancient treasury of hymns. There are a variety of ways we can use hymns to serve our congregation aside from writing a brand new tune. I want to offer a few other suggestions beyond Re-tuning that will allow you to tailor hymns to serve your people.

Tailoring and Tweaking our Treasured Hymns
Inspired by the phrase Re-tune I have categorized a few ways we can tweak, tinker with, and tailor this massive treasure of hymnody we have at our disposal. Aside from a complete Re-tune I have come up with four ways in which we can do this: Rearrange, Rewrite, Replace, and Redeem. Some will overlap, but I believe we can utilize each one for the glory of God and the edification of our churches. We’ll look at two of these today and two in a later post.

One very easy way to give a hymn new life is by rearranging it. I find that this has worked best for me with some of the old familiar gospel songs that often have a refrain after each verse. A simple way to rearrange this type of song is to not sing the refrain after every verse. For example, for the song “The Solid Rock” you might begin with the refrain:

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

Then sing Verse 1 followed by Verse 2. Only after Verse 2 would you sing the refrain once more. This is only a slight change but it will be breath of fresh air to a congregation who has sung it the same way for most of their life. Compare the arrangements side by side:

Normal      Rearranged
Verse 1       Refrain
Refrain        Verse 1
Verse 2       Verse 2
Refrain        Refrain
Verse 3       Verse 3
Refrain        Verse 4
Verse 4       Refrain

The trick however in rearranging is to not mess up the logic of the original text, so you likely wouldn’t sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” in reverse or in a mixed order. But you can still rearrange a hymn by repeating a verse or portion of a verse at the end of a song. Use it as a tag to reinforce the theme of the hymn or to expose a particular truth that you want to drive home. In this case, at the end of “Come Thou Fount” you might repeat the middle of the last verse:

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it
Seal it from Thy courts above

Rewriting is the opposite of Re-tuning. This is taking a familiar tune and writing brand new words to it. Perhaps a tragedy has taken place in the church and you cannot find the words to say in any particularly familiar hymn, nor does the congregation have the time to learn a new song during their heartbreak. Penning new lyrics to an old tune can be a powerful tool to serve your congregation well. If you are able to give your congregation new words to sing in a familiar way that meets them where they are, there is likely no better way a worship leader can serve people in a time of grief. This can be done for many different seasons in the life of a local church.

Rewriting can also be used to reinforce a certain theme or a particular truth that the pastor might be preaching on. This is a good way for you and your pastor to team up for the cause of the gospel. Again, familiarity with the context of your local congregation is key.

Rewriting can also be a good starting place for you and for those interested from your congregation to begin re-tuning your own hymns. Instead of worrying about an original tune, begin with a familiar tune. This instantly gives you a way to see if the words you write are singable and at the same time automatically provides a particular mood for your song. Perhaps you will be content to simply sing your new song with the old tune, but don’t be afraid to branch out every now and then and try a new tune. This is a great first step in hymn writing.

Below is an example of a Rewrite I did earlier this year with “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior”. I must admit it is only a partial rewrite because I only rewrote the refrain based on the verses. The reason for this rewrite is because I felt like this song had become a one trick pony. The only time we broke it out was after the sermon, and then we only sang the first verse and refrain. I had always felt that the remaining three verses were more powerful than the first, but the refrain always pulled us away from the truths explored in those verses. So I ditched the first verse and rewrote the refrain section based on its preceding verse. Instead of a constant refrain pleading to Jesus “Do not pass me by” there is now a logical progression that runs through the song from unbelief and sorrow, to salvation and grace, to eternal joy through Jesus. The tune remained the same, but now the song has been set free and we’re able to use this song in a more meaningful and purposeful way in our service. The verses are original and the italicized refrains are my additional rewrites.

Let Me at Thy Throne of Mercy
(to the tune of “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior”)

Let me at thy throne of mercy
Find a sweet relief
Kneeling there in deep contrition;
Help my unbelief
Jesus, Jesus help my unbelief!
Glorify the Father through my
sorrow, loss and grief

Trusting only in thy merit
Would I seek thy face
Heal my wounded, broken spirit
Save me by thy grace
Jesus, Jesus, save me by thy grace!
Through the cross have mercy on all
sinners in this place

Thou the spring of all my comfort
More than life to me
Whom have I on earth beside Thee?
Whom in heav’n but thee?
Jesus, Jesus; More than life to me!
Endless pleasure! Joy abounding!
All are found in Thee

In my next post I’ll discuss two more ways in which we can use the treasury of hymns to serve our congregation. In the meantime I hope that this post has encouraged you to begin not only selecting hymns, but utilizing them in skillful ways to serve your church.