Musica Sacra: College Hymn Fail
By Gaven M. Mize
There was a poem written nearly 25 years ago that was intended to inspire, but was coated in a kind of that sweet syrupy manipulation--so much so that a single glance threatened to give your emotions diabetes. The poem was named "The Dash," by Linda Ellis, and a cash-grab book and mini-franchise of the same name followed closely behind it. The premise of the poem is that you want to make your life count for something; you should seek to fill up that dash between your birth date and death date with meaningful things.
Perhaps you can tell that I'm generally not a fan of such poetry. It just gives me the willies to ever think life could be sustainable by that "Your Best Life Now" lie that many of us orthodox Christians have come to loathe. We would gladly replace such sentiments with, "Your baptized life always!" With all of that being said, I still do have to give credence to the idea of "the dash" when it comes to our hymnal and the future of hymnody in the Church. Trust me, there is a connection.
When I attended Concordia University Wisconsin, I had two loves. The first was the queen of all sciences, theology, and the second was the world's oldest sport, wrestling. Between pouring myself into those two passions and beginning to study Greek, I was sure I had started down the successful road to fill up my "dash". Still, I knew that one of the most beautiful and sacred expressions of theology was music. Since I didn't know how to play an instrument and had always sung in choirs, I was drawn to the university's choir. Singing proved rather challenging, since I have cauliflower ears, which make it very difficult to hear. By the grace of God, I persevered and my experience cultivated in me a great interest in theology expressed through hymnody. I had begun my journey into sensory perception through ecclesiastical beauty, and I wanted to have my own little part of it.
As I began looking through the LCMS hymnal of the day to search out my favorite hymn writers, I couldn't help but notice that all the dashes beside the hymn writer's names had dates on both sides. All my favorite hymn writers were dead. I determined that the days of hymnody were firmly set in the past, and our duty was to resurface them from history each Sunday. That’s what I had resolved to do until I began looking through the materials for the upcoming new hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book, and saw a name that I recognized. I did a doubletake and the name was still there: Kenneth T. Kosche.
I just happened to know that Kenneth T. Kosche was alive because I had him as my choir instructor the very next day in class. This was incredible! Not all hymn writers were dead after all, which meant I could be a hymn writer, too! The next day I walked up to Professor Kosche and I asked him how it could be that he was still alive and in the upcoming hymnal. I also asked him how one would write a hymn that could be included in the forthcoming hymnal. With a compassionate look in his eye, the good doctor told me that a degree in music would help, and that it would be a good idea to learn to read music. I recall asking him to help me write a hymn so I could borrow from his knowledge to get on the fast track. He graciously agreed to help.
I randomly picked Luke 23:28-30 to be the topic of my hymn. You know, the always cheerful hymn theme of "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!'" While clearly it was going to be a Lenten hymn, it turned out to be an apocalyptic disaster. It was terrible. It remains terrible. I confess that I still have the notes. It was never published nor was it ever put to music of any kind. Dr. Kosche, who would later become an invaluable friend, constantly and gently nudged my hymn into the direction of getting tossed off the nearest cliff.
To the point: It wasn't until I became involved in Higher Things that I realized the importance of craft. A child playing in the mud isn't a sculptor but could easily grow in his interest and passions to perfect the craft of "playing in the mud," turning into a modern-day Michelangelo. This connection with HT has fueled my desire to use sensory perception and aesthetics (appreciation of beauty) of all types as a way to communicate catechetical truths.
In my first parish, I found a young lady in my confirmation class who took to music as a duck takes to water. She and her family became involved in Higher Things and to this day I believe I'll see her name in a hymnal one day without an end date after the dash. The beauty of being a pastor while partnering with Higher Things and finding the natural love of the arts down deep in our youth is that I get to see them given a head start in re-cultivating these modern-day crafts and helping them along, much in the same way Dr. Kosche helped me.
Cultivation of the arts is consistently encouraged by Higher Things, be it through conferences, materials, retreats, podcasts, and lowly articles like this. The bottom line is that you--yes, you, dear reader--already are years ahead of where I was when I fell in love with beauty, which includes the art of hymnody. I encourage you to reach out and search for a love of singing, hymnody, liturgics, poetry, painting, sculpting, writing, incense making, sewing, creation of paraments and/or vestments, metalworking, playing instruments, or woodworking for liturgical furniture, etc. Just get out there and endeavor to beautify the church. If you have to toss a hymn like I did, so be it. Pick your pen back up and start again. Be a part of something growing and moving in our church body. Begin to hone your craft, perfect it, create things, and perhaps one day you'll have a dash with no ending date that you can look at with your own eyes and know it has beautified Christ's Church. To God alone be the glory!
Rev. Gaven M. Mize is the pastor of Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hickory, North Carolina. He is also a scholar in beauty (catechetical aesthetics), author of several books, including Beauty and Catechesis and God Loved Me Such That He Would Give, husband to Ashlee and father to Oliver Augustine (Skeletor) Mize.
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