The West-Ark congregation is blessed to have Tom Chapin conduct his seminar, “The Heart of Worship.” Tom does not preference a particular style of worship but invites us to appreciate the core dynamic of worship that is our response to the majesty and mystery of God. I value greatly his reflections on his worship heritage and his own pilgrimage back to the heart of worship. His stories kindled some reflections and recollections of my own.
For instance, I recall how a dear sister from Arkansas would occasionally fuss just a bit about new fangled songs and then pine away for the old hymns. I enjoyed our conversations, but I never was certain what she meant by the old hymns. I am never sure exactly what any of us mean when we speak of new songs or old hymns as the terms are so relative. How old does a song have to be to qualify as one of the old hymns? When dealing with 2000 years of Christianity and at least 1000 years of church music how old is old? How new does a song have to be to be contemporary Christian music? Some of the so-called new songs would qualify for the play list on a “Christian oldies” station.
As a test, see if you can guess which song is the older of the pair: Burdens Are Lifted At Calvary or Teach Me Lord To Wait? If you guessed Burdens Are Lifted At Calvary then you are right — but only by one year! Burdens Are Lifted At Calvary was written in 1952 and Teach Me Lord to Wait (a song I didn’t learn until the1980’s) was written in 1953. Once again, which is the older of the pair: Our God, He Is Alive or Where No One Stands Alone? If you guessed Our God, He Is Alive then you are wrong. Where No One Stands Alone was written in the 1950’s, and you may be as surprised as I was to learn that Our God, He Is Alive was written in 1966 by Aaron W. Dicus. That means that this song, which is so well known that it is often referred to by its "Songs of the Church" hymn number of 728b, is only a year older than I am! How can this song that is so familiar that it is sometimes called “the Church of Christ anthem” be less than 40 years old? Surely I am not as old as the old hymns!
It goes to show that age has nothing to do with familiarity or acceptance. For instance, do you know any of these old hymns - Phos Hilaron or Dies Irae? Probably not what most of us would consider "the old hymns" as they sound more like chants, but they are old and they were once the hymns of the church. Looking at this issue from the other side, we may ask what makes a song new or contemporary? Some of our so-called new songs are just a few years away from Medicare eligibility. Many of the songs considered contemporary or new were written in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Do we assume that a song is new simply because it is nothing more than printed lyrics on a Xeroxed page bound by a single staple with a title like "Our Songs" written on the front with a magic marker? When does a “new song” become an “old hymn?” Does it become official and legitimate when it gets arranged with a musical score and added to a hardbound book with a ribbon bookmark and an impressive, stately, and authoritative title like "Sacred Hymns Preferably Selected?" When does a song become a hymn? I see a real opportunity here for a Schoolhouse Rock-type cartoon. Can you imagine a little rolled up piece of paper with typed lyrics chanting to the tune of I’m Just a Bill . . .?
I’m just a song, yes I’m only a song,
and I hope I won’t be waiting too long.
Well, it’s a long, long wait from composer to arranger,
a long, long time ‘till the church folk think I’m ancient.
And then they’ll print me as a hymn!
Oh I hope and pray it’s not long, but today I am still just a song!
There is something to be said for familiar songs. The songs and hymns that we have grown up with and are commonly known have a communal power. They are affirming and reassuring. They are an artifact of our cloud of witnesses. I will never forget the story a friend told me of walking into a worship service in Los Angeles in the 1940’s where he was stationed for Marine training. He felt like a stranger until they started singing his mother’s favorite hymn. The power to create that sort of bond is something to be cherished. Likewise, there is something to be said for encountering the unfamiliar song and learning it. I recall worshipping with the church in Mexico and Honduras and singing the song Bienvenidos. It is a song that the church sings to welcome one another and it is sung with joyous vigor and hearty hugs. This song is not a part of my natural worship heritage, but I was graciously allowed to own it as an outsider and I was, as the song implies, welcomed into a fellowship despite the fact that I was a foreigner.
Old and new are relative terms. Familiar and unfamiliar are relative terms. Sometimes we are the strangers and sometimes we are the insiders. I hope that we can all sing a few old hymns along the way and maybe learn a few new songs. That would be nice, because I fully believe that the good-natured conversation I had with my dear sister from Arkansas will happen again. Not between her and me, rather a day in the future, perhaps some seventy years from now, when a woman who is today about 15 but will then be in her 80’s will be politely fretting to some younger minister about all the unfamiliar new songs. She’ll be pining away for the songs that remind her of camp and youth rallies and her favorite CD’s and contemporary Christian artists who are dead and gone. She will be pining away for the old hymns.