The other day I needed to look up a hymn in the LBW – the “green book” of the Lutheran church which most congregations have now discarded in favor of the new “red book,” which in Holy Communion’s pews resides right beside the supplemental “blue book.” (Evidently, Lutherans like their colors.) I was wanting to look at a the words of a moldy oldie titled “O love that will not let me go,” which had started running through my mind during a funeral I recently attended. I was a bit surprised (but not shocked) that this rather old-fashioned hymn hadn’t made the cut for our new book, and I dutifully went to the shelf in the church office to find the handiest copy of the green book to find what I need. And it was there, just as I knew it would be.
I was looking in the office copy of the hymnal, in which the secretaries keep track of which hymns are sung each Sunday. It’s to help me or whoever is choosing the hymns to know how familiar a given hymn is, or how recently it’s been sung – or maybe to figure out if we sang a particular carol on Christmas Eve last year. They just inscribe the date above a given hymn every time it’s sung, so something that gets sung a lot will have a blizzard of graffiti on its page, while plenty of other hymns will sit there rather forlornly with not a single date written in the white space around it.
Anyway, when I turned to “O love that will not let me go” (the sort of hymn that your great-grandmother probably loved) I was a bit surprised to see that the hymn had last been sung at Holy Communion in 1987. . . a year before I started as Minister of Music. That means that in my 21 years at Holy Communion, I never once picked this as a congregational hymn.
And then I realized that for 21 years, I have wielded a certain amount of power at Holy Communion in choosing – with only a tiny handful of exceptions – every hymn that has been sung over the last two decades. That means that for a Holy Communion young person who just graduated from high school (and you could just about say the same thing about our recent college graduates) I am the person who has determined what hymns they know and which ones they don’t. And even for people who have been around a lot longer than that, I have probably managed to throw certain hymns into obscurity by bypassing them for twenty years while making other hymns central and more familiar. Of course, someone who loves a certain hymn we never sing could go home and put on their Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings Hymns LP and listen to it all night. . . but in terms of the hymns we sing together as a congregation, that has pretty much been my call for 21 years now.
I’m sure you couldn’t care less about that. (I think of that wonderful line from the film “Arthur” when Dudley Moore’s character announces to John Gielgud’s butler that he’s going to take a bath, to which the butler icily replies “Shall I alert the media?”) But I care, because it’s a little scary to think of how this has never dawned on me until now – how important this responsibility has been and what a difference it has made, for good or for ill, in our church. I know other places do it differently, where the pastors choose the hymns- and I know that Marshall’s church in Fort Atkinson actually chooses them by committee. But at Holy Communion, I am the Mussolini of Hymns. Which is not to say that people cower in my presence, afraid to speak their mind when a choice of mine displeases them. I certainly hear about it when the hymns on a given Sunday are too unfamiliar- and not long ago, one of the pastors lowered the boom on me for choosing three hymns that made it seem like we had stepped back in time to 1955. And I tend to take those sorts of complaints like a boxer takes a blow to the solar plexus – and if I’m really ticked about it, I usually write a little letter of resignation in my head or – at the very least – a memo to the pastors renouncing the selection of hymns to someone else. But it always passes and I’m back at it the next week, picking and choosing, selecting and discarding. . . making choices which don’t exactly alter the course of human history, but which do make at least some difference in this little corner of the universe. And it’s always nice to know that one is making a difference. And when you have just blown out 49 candles on your birthday day (at least figuratively- there was no time for a cake this time around) it’s especially nice to know.
pictured above: the office copy of the green book- and this spread shows a hymn to the left that we have sung many times over the last 20-plus years. . . and a hymn to the right that we have sung exactly once.