A Friendly Letter to the United Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee

A Friendly Letter to the United Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee July 10, 2018

Dear UM Hymnal People,

I don’t know any of you personally, but let me tell you, y’all are the best. Seriously. Your denomination has needed you for, like, ten years now.

You don’t know me either, though, so I’ll introduce myself. I’m Jonathan. Some of my best friends are Methodist. I married a good Methodist girl in one of the most beautiful Methodist churches known to Methodism, served another Methodist church for a number of years, and I still usually refer to myself as one when people ask. Heck, I’d be surprised if there aren’t four or five dusty back issues of The Upper Room that have fallen down behind my bedside table. That alone should count for something.

Honestly, though, I’m not really Methodist anymore, because a wonderful Presbyterian Church (USA, of course) pays me to be Presbyterian. So as for me and my house, we will serve the session. Such is the life of a hungry church musician.

These Presbyterians, let me tell you, they have this new hymnal. You beat them last time, but dang it, they beat you this time.

Anyway, you might have heard about this new hymnal, Glory to God. It’s a great volume that I’m happy to use every week. And you can get it in purple!

I’m not joking.

Purple!

Since I get to use this great hymnal every week, and since I’m pretty familiar with the 48-pound hunk of Charles Wesleyan goodness you call The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), I thought I’d give you a few suggestions. Which you can, of course, take or leave.

(Take them! Take them all!)

Okay, so here are a bunch of things I think you should drop, a few I think you should keep, and a few more I think you should add.

Drop: El Shaddai (123)

1981 called. It wants its CCM back. This one should live on only in our heads, and only in the luxurious Jesus pop-stylings of she-baritone, Amy Grant.

See also: Thy Word

Also, responsible Hebrew scholars will be calling soon, I’m sure. And they do not like this one!

Drop: On Eagle’s Wings (143)

What is it about these non-rhyming, non-singable Catholic non-hymns that people are so in love with, anyway? I’m really, really nervous that the next UM hymnal is going to have the stanzas in it. Please. I’ve been there. Don’t do it. Church musicians hate it, congregations can’t sing it, and if you include it, everybody for the next 20 years is going to want the silly “Yoo-Hoo” song sung at their momma’s funeral.

I’m going to be nice this time and not say anything about “Here I Am, Lord” (593, a.k.a. The Brady Bunch Hymn).

Drop: Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus (347)

Because Gnosticism. Or at least add the stanzas to give that cute refrain a little context.

Add: A New Tune for “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” (479)

ABERYSTWYTH is the kind of hymn tune that makes people who hate singing hymn tunes say they hate hymn tunes. Unless you’re one of those big churches with a kickin’ pipe organ and a rent-a-chancel-choir, your people probably can’t sing it worth a darn. MARTYN isn’t as beautiful, but it’s actually singable. So leave ABERYSTWYTH where it belongs: with that group of Advent hymns nobody sings anyway.

Drop: “Because He Lives” (364), stanza 2

I just can’t do the “newborn baby” stanza. Just can’t. It’s weird, personal, and…just really weird. My big sister and I used to joke about how silly those words sounded in the hymnal. Our mom would say, “Just wait till you have children.” Well, now I do. And I still cringe whenever I think about Gloria with little Benjy.

Also, call up old Bill and Glo to see if they’ll let you change the words from stanza 3, “And then one day” to “Then one sweet day.” It flows better, poetically speaking.

See also: He Touched Me. Because you know why.

Keep: Everything By Chris Tomlin Far, Far Away

The following is a transcript of a real conversation had by the most recent Presbyterian hymnal revision committee. I am not making this up.

Chair: Okay, now we have this Chris Tomlin guy. I think he’s pretty popular with the kids nowadays.

Member 1: Yes, I have one of his tapes in my car.

Member 2: Meh, I think most kids actually think he’s awful .

Member 1: Yes, my grandson hates his music. Says it all sounds the same.

Member 3: And who exactly does this jerk think he is, ripping off dead hymn-writers?

Member 1: Isn’t he the fella that wrote “Amazing Grace?”

Chair: [sigh] Yes, okay, we all know he sucks, but the Baptist boy our church just hired as youth director loves him, so we need to include at least one of his songs.

Member 1: Yes, or we’ll lose credibility with the young people.

Member 2: I AM a young person. That’s why y’all wanted me here in the first place, remember? And I say his music is garbage.

Chair: People, okay, let’s focus. Just pick one freaking song, and let’s move on to fill our GIA quota.

Member 1: I like the “my chains are gone” part. It reminds me of Fifty Shades of Gray. And Jesus.

Member 3: Listen, pick any song you like, as long as it’s not one of the ones he jacked from Isaac Watts, okay.

Chair: Well, that leaves us with only one. It’s called “We Fall Down.” It’s a freaking theological disaster. Unbiblical Jesus imagery, even a big, noisy trinitarian collapse that would make T.D. Jakes beam with pride…

Member 1: Oh! I just love his book about loosed women.

Member 2: Okay, so, maybe we just move on and let his music die a peaceful…

Member 3: Then THAT’S the one we should include. Because he didn’t steal it!

Chair: Great. All in favor, say “I?”

Members 1, 3: [gently nod heads]

Member 2: Oh, for the love…

Chair: Then it passes! Okay, everybody, let’s sing the Hal Hopson communion setting on the way to lunch.

Everybody: YEAH!!!!

The lesson you should learn from their mistake is that no, Chris Tomlin hasn’t written anything worth including in your new hymnal.

Drop: Let There Be Peace on Earth (431)

Nothing against it. It’s just not a hymn by any reasonable definition. Next thing you know, you’ll want us all to hold hands and sing Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.”

Add: The Right Tune for This Little Light of Mine (585)

Do yourself a favor. Go to the nearest piano, if you can’t read music take someone with you who can, and plunk out the melody from hymn 585. Yes, go ahead. Hear it? Yeah, that’s not anything like the “This Little Light of Mine” we all learned in Sunday School. So, if you’re going to include it, please don’t make it harder than it needs to be.

Drop: The Battle Hymn of the Republic (717)

Am I remembering wrong, or was this the one that was originally going to be omitted by the previous committee? That committee had the right idea. Its wretched theology has marched on long enough.

Add: The Rest of “What Child Is This”

One of the biggest injustices leveled in the current hymnal is the awful hack job done to William Dix original poetry. It’s nearly unforgivable to have left out four lines of poetry from each of the last two stanzas, especially lines with such stark, poignant meaning for Christian people.

Nails, spear, shall pierce him through;
the cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail, the Word made flesh,
the babe, the son of Mary.

Raise, raise the song on high.
The Virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
the babe, the son of Mary.

Drop: Any Notion of Including “Awesome God”

True confessions: I love Rich Mullins. I never liked him when I was a kid and actually listened to CCM, but he’s grown on me. I would bet a thousand bucks though, that if he were here, he would call this ugly little ditty the worst piece of garbage he ever wrote. Simply put: it’s weird and kitschy. And Methodists, I need to tell you that you’ve got people among you who think this kind of music belongs in the “contemporary” service. You know, because all the kids are listening to 30-year-old parodies of mainstream 80s pop.

Drop: Those Weird Extra Stanzas

The best example are those tacked on to “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” (79). After the doxological majesty of stanza 4, good ol’ Bishop F. Bland Tucker shouts to 200 years of Christians, “Hold my beer!” and then pulls a Tomlin over on everybody.

That’s probably not what happened. And Tucker’s lines are actually pretty good. Make them into another hymn, though. Heh, maybe you could try singing it to ABERYSTWYTH…

Keep: Matthias Setting of the Communion Liturgy

Seriously. Those first chords of the sanctus are like the heavens opening up and the heavenly host beginning to sing across the ages. And keep the other musical settings, too. No, it’s not Katholische. It’s the way it was meant to be.

Drop: “Weary of All Trumpeting” (442)

I mean, I see the trajectory of this text, and I get it. But could it not have been written more coherently and paired with a tune people would actually want to sing? Honestly, you’ve got Fred Kaan’s We Utter Our Cry just a few pages earlier at 439. Do we really need this one?

Oh, and the youth all joke that it’s about the pastor’s prolific mid-sermon flatulence. So there’s that.

Add: All the Stanzas of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (184)

If you’ve got enough room for “Spirit Song” (347) by that charismatic dude with the sketchy theology, you’ve got enough room for six of the most rich stanzas ever penned. Also, feel free to take out “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” (334) if you need extra space.

Drop: Serenity (499)

It’s Charles Ives, y’all. Friends don’t let friends.

Keep: The Psalter

The UMC desperately needs to return to Psalm singing. Show them the way. Just make sure all the Psalms line up with the Revised Common Lectionary this time, huh?

Drop: We Are the Church (558)

Seriously, what the heck, guys? What is it?

Is it a hymn? Is it a 2nd grade Sunday School project? Rhyming homework?

If you’re looking for a good hymn on the nature of the church, look at a few others in the section titled, “The Nature of the Church.”

Drop: When We All Get to Heaven (701)

Welcome to Dumb, Unbiblical Eschatology 101. Let’s all greet our professor, Don Piper.

Add: The Real Words to the LASST UNS ERFREUEN Doxology (94)

I know you were just trying to sneak in some inclusive, modern language with this one, which is all fine and good. But the whole “Praise God, the source of all our gifts! / Praise Jesus Christ, whose power uplifts!” sounds hokey, kind of like a December TV commercial jingle.

And then “Praise the Spirit…………………Holy Spirit!” sounds more like a mistake that you caught and corrected mid-breath.

Plus, it steals some of the real power of singing the doxology to this fantastic tune by abbreviating the triumphant Alleluias.

And it really sucks to steal the song of the heavenly host.

So seriously, it’s not going to cause any eternal torment to just sing it the regular way.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
praise him, all creatures here below:
Alleluia! Alleluia!
praise him above, ye heavenly host;
praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

See, isn’t that better?

Drop: I Sing a Song of the Saints of God (712)

*Ahem.*

And one was a doctor,
and one was a queen,
and one was a shepherdess on the green…

And one was a soldier,
and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast…

You can meet them in school,
on the street, in the store,

in church, by the sea,
in the house next door.

Any questions?

We’re all counting on you, United Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee. We know you can do it.

Just reach out if you need any more help.

Your Friend,

Jonathan A. Aigner

Photo:
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