I was trying to make space in my garage over the winter break and came across some boxes labeled “downstairs books” that had remained unopened since we moved to Florida. When I opened them I found, amongst many other books, several hymnals from the Church of the Nazarene. It was at that moment that I realized I probably had a problem. For whatever reason, at some point, I thought it was an excellent idea to collect hymnals (Marie Kondo would be so disappointed in me). I would have collected United Methodist Hymnals too, but there’s only one and it was published in 1989.
Yep, 30 years ago the UMC received it’s first and only(ish) hymnal. Several things have contributed to the lack of new hymnals. The prevalence of good projectors that can display lyrics and liturgy, the cost of physical books, the availability of lyrics and information online, and the increasing number of new songs. In one sense, as soon as you publish a hymnal it’s already out dated. While the UMC hymnal was published in 1989, it was approved in 1988. The latest song that mad it’s way into the Hymnal was “Hymn of Promise” by Natalie Sleeth in 1986. (For a modern comparison, if we released an official hymnal this year, Good Good Father would be just as old).
I’m old enough to remember singing out of hymnals on a regular basis. My dad was a minister of music for my entire childhood and I don’t think there was ever a Sunday when a hymn wasn’t sung in some form. I still love several hymns, and whenever I actually attempt to piddle around on the piano, it’s usually to the hymnal. But even with my deep connections to the hymns, I’m ok with the fact that my kids will likely never sing out of a hymnal in their life.
Even just typing that seems weird and like a violation of some deep, universally understood rule. But the more I think of it, the less sure I am that there will ever be a need for them to sing out of one. I’m sure they will learn the great classics, they already have been exposed to parts of the hymnal I never used as a child (the Great Thanksgiving was new to me when I became a Methodist), but I’m not as worried about them learning all the ins and outs of hymns as I am them appreciating the poetical and musical complexity of them (and whatever other songs we sing in church). Take lyrics like “Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise / Thou mine Inheritance, now and always / Thou and Thou only, first in my heart / High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art” (6th century) and compare them to “Jesus is the rock and he rolls my blues away / bop shoe bop, shoe bop whoo” (1974). We can do better than that. Which is why I’m grateful for the modern songs that still embrace theologically accurate, poetical, and beautiful melodies.
In the end though, it’s not even about the music or the poetry. It’s about the God that the songs are glorifying. It’s been 30 years since ink met paper and formed our hymnal, but we could sing for a thousand more years and still have new songs to sing about God’s love. Our worship isn’t limited to what is inside a book, but rather basking in the presence of a limitless God.