Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Wrong Words

Last Sunday was the very special "Kirkin' of the Tartans" service at the Presbyterian church that I attend. It's a wonderful time of remembering the heritage of the denomination and of recommitment of family and faith.  There was much pageantry with a procession of tartan banners, all the choirs, and "Highland Cathedral" on the bagpipes.  There were the usual readings and prayers, but somehow so much more regal as I looked out onto a congregation splendidly adorned with bits of tartan; a scarf, a kilt, a vest, a skirt, or a ribbon.  Each family selected their certain pattern to represent their sense of pride and unity.  I wore the "Laurie" family plaid even though I should wear the "Wallace" plaid as it is within my ancestry.  But I love the blue and green of the "Laurie" plaid, so I have adopted it as my own. During one of the hymns of the service, the congregation is invited to come to the front of the church and lay a selected piece of the family plaid on the alter. It is a beautiful symbolic act of rededication to the church and family, of thankfulness of the blessings of the year, and a prayer for guidance, comfort, and peace for the coming times. When the hymn is concluded, there is a beautiful mound of cloth in multiple patterns and colors blended together, a symbol of the congregation together in love.  I am always moved to tears by the sight.

This year, however, I was somewhat distracted by the hymn itself.  The organ began the introduction as a very familiar hymn tune, "Hyfrydol", that I know as the hymn "Hallelujah, What A Saviour" or, a bit lesser known, "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus".  I looked down at my book and realized that the words to today's selection were totally unfamiliar to me.  For a moment, I panicked; how could I get down from the choir loft and sing words I didn't know without falling or tripping?!?  It was momentary and I just didn't try to sing and walk at the same time, resuming the song when I was once again stationary at my choir seat.

This brings me to confess my struggle.  I was brought up in the Baptist church; in attendance every time the doors were open.  I had the hymnal practically memorized by age 13 or 14.  I had no idea that other denominations might sing different words until I was invited to sing at a community Christmas service when I was 18.  A friend of mine was responsible for the music for the service and asked me to come and sing "Birthday of a King".  I didn't realize until I arrived that evening that he expected me to also sing in the choir as they lead the carol singing.  Not a problem, really, until we got to one carol that had slightly different wording than I was used to.  Of course, I wasn't really following the hymnal, and got a sharp elbow from the soprano next me when I loudly proclaimed the wrong attribute to the Baby Jesus. At the time, I wondered, "Is that a misprint?!?"   Needless to say, I paid more attention to my hymnal for the rest of the service.

Since that time, I have attended a number of other churches and have seen there are multiple settings of familiar hymn tunes. It always throws me for a loop. Is it really necessary to completely rewrite lyrics to century old established hymns?  I mean, I have sung "Amazing Grace" so many times, but I am often surprised to open a hymnal only to discover that the version printed has yet another unfamiliar verse.  My husband has attended many Christmas concerts to hear me sing, and is quite adamant that Christmas carols should be sung "straight" (his version of the familiar); no fancy arranging, no additional or new lyrics, no "mash-ups".  Some may say new lyrics to old tunes just make you pay attention and think about what you are singing.  Yeah, ok, I'm thinking, "What was wrong with the old lyrics?"

As I settled back to listen to the sermon on Sunday, I wasn't sure what to expect; the sermon title printed in the bulletin was a bit vague.  The pastor began to talk about God speaking to us through each other, using the words of fellow believers around us to convey His message of love and care.  How not only might we be the voice of God to our neighbor but that we should be listening to the voice of God to us through others.  What is God trying to tell us?  Are we open to hearing God speak, even through unconventional words? 

Ah, a light bulb moment.  Was I being too quick to dismiss the poetry and message of a new lyric because it was unfamiliar?  Was I missing an opportunity for a blessing because I wasn't willing to hear?  God is found when we seek Him, and perhaps I was not seeking by being opinionated and closed minded about hymn lyrics.  It won't come easily; I love to sing the familiar hymns and lean on the memories and messages I have already discovered within them.  They will always be with me and I find comfort in them.  Perhaps I can also learn sing those words that are new to me with an open heart and ear, listening for the voice of God anew to me, giving me a new message discover and heed.  Alleluia.

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