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.

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