Monday, April 6, 2020

What the Pandemic Teaches Us About Hymnals and Congregational Singing


Singing together in our living room yesterday (Palm Sunday) during the ongoing pandemic, it occurred to me just how difficult it is to replicate the entertainment ethos in our living rooms--no soloists "leading" us, no band, no amplifiers, no voice enhancement technology, no mood lighting, in some cases, no fog machine. How did the underground house churches do it? How do they do church in Nigeria or North Korea without the hipster band? The following is an excerpt from GOD SINGS! my new release on recovering the biblical ethos of worship in our congregational singing: 

GONE AWAY HYMNAL

A
 dear pastor friend of mine, lamenting the loss of hymnals in so many churches, refers to lyrics projected up on a screen as “off-the-wall songs.” He’s not a fan. But the popular trend is definitely against him. Most churches see it as a giant step forward to leave their hymnals moldering in the basement of the church, relics of a bygone era, and good riddance.
The rationale is that people are looking up, not fumbling with the pages of an old book. And what about the visitors, unbelievers that come to church? It’s way easier for them to just look at the words up on the screen. No hunting for the right page number. No confusing musical score to distract them. It’s huge progress to leave those hymnals behind us.
Still more, it is argued that the old hymnal doesn’t include all the cool new songs. We’re stuck singing lyrics written hundreds of years ago by a bunch of old dead guys. Ewww. The new way lets us add new songs any time we want. Just get the lyrics to the tech guys; they can plunk them into power point slides, and we can sing the latest new thing next week.

NO GATEKEEPERS
But what have we lost by giving up our hymnals? We surrendered scrutiny. Publishing a hymnal is an enormous task, requiring careful organizing of the hymns by themes and biblical texts, also requiring an editorial committee of people chosen because of their literary and theological training and experience. Hymnal editors spent years compiling the best hymns for congregations to sing.
Giving up our hymnals takes all that scrutiny away and leaves us at the mercy of the latest new songs. We need more scruples about the new material. It’s way too easy to fabricate a worship song and introduce it next Sunday; no vetting, no scrutiny, no gatekeepers, no hymnal editors.
When we abandoned our hymnals we also abandoned literary and theological standards of orthodoxy and excellence. All too often, emotional nonsense, however well-intentioned, supplants a timeless hymn like Bernard of Clairvaux’s “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” that every Christian needs to sing in corporate worship several times a year and in family worship at least as often. Instead, we endure the singing of vacuous, repetitive lyrics that fall far beneath what is appropriate and well-pleasing to God—the kind of lyrics that used to be in our hymnals because they had undergone the rigor of the centuries.
Without that rigorous scrutiny we may find ourselves joining in a catchy Disneyland song about the world singing God’s love, “and we’ll all join hands,/every woman, every man,/we’ll sing His love.” This sounds like it was penned by a universalist Unitarian worship leader. True, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God, but unbelievers won’t be joining hands and singing his love. They will be weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth at his wrath. 
The hymnal helped us learn our theology, get it not only into our heads but into our hearts. The off-the-wall-song phenomenon hastens theological decline and illiteracy, leaving us vulnerable not only to doxological drivel but to blatant doctrinal error and apostasy.

GONE AWAY BIBLE
Another yet more pernicious loss when we abandoned our hymnals for the power point projection screen, is that in doing so we abandoned our Bibles. When we have the screen up there already, and the tech guys have the power point program at their fingertips, it’s simple to project the biblical text up on the screen too. Consequently, few people bring their Bibles to church anymore. Why bother? I realize that this too is motivated by good intentions, even gospel intentions; we want visitors who are unfamiliar with a Bible to see the biblical text under consideration effortlessly, without the distraction of an actual Bible in hand.
Getting your Bible off the screen instead of from, well, the Bible, is the equivalent of taking a nutrition pill instead of pulling your chair up to the dining table and feasting on a slab of grass-fed beef steak with all the delectable accoutrements.
An unintended consequence of getting our Bible from a screen, is that many do not know how to find their way around their Bibles (many can’t even find where they last laid their physical copy of the Bible; it’s got to be here somewhere). I wonder how many millennials could even find Zephaniah 3:17, back there in the clean pages, in a physical Bible, with pages, margins, a concordance, maps—you know—a real book.
I began annotating the margins of my Bible(s) in college, cross referencing, adding hymn lyrics on similar themes, quotations from Puritans and Reformers, and other great preachers since. My Bible is precious to me. First and last, because it is the Word of God, but also, because I own it. It is the same copy of it I read over and over. It has my marginalia in it. I can reread passages that I read and dated in times of celebration and thanksgiving, and in times of grief and sorrow.
Forfeiting our hymnals in favor of an ephemeral projection screen is one of the greatest contributors to biblical illiteracy. We are no longer a generation of Bible Christians. Oh, sure, we have the app on our phones, with all the notifications popping up to distract us, but we don’t truly own our Bibles.
The loss of the Bible leaves us vulnerable to the theology of the new social revolutionaries, shouting their unflinching doctrinal priorities in our faces. One of the ways we can tell when we are being more shaped by our culture than being shapers of it, is when the Bible’s language and themes begin to sound odd to our ears, when we feel like we need to make apologies for the biblical authors, worse yet, for the Holy Spirit. They didn’t really mean to put it that way. Couldn’t they have been more sensitive to the priorities of our culture? 
This is yet another important reason the Church must continue singing the psalms and the best hymns of our spiritual forebears. Then, after our minds, hearts, and imaginations have been thoroughly shaped by biblical and historical doxology, only then are we equipped to contribute new appropriate hymns for this generation of Christ’s body to sing.  

HYMNS AS POETRY
In the course of my research, writing, and teaching about hymns over the last decades I have learned many wonderful things about hymns, hymn writers, and hymnody—and every time I open the hymnal (usually the Trinity) I learn something new.
I love singing hymns. I love the very best of our hymn lyrics from the last 1,800 years or so, and I have come more and more to love them not only as heartfelt passionate expressions of praise to God but as the best of English poetry...
Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, including The Resistance set in enemy occupied Normandy, and two-time Grace Award book finalist; he directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is an award-winning teacher, podcaster, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. Visit his website for special buy-3-get-1-free book deals and study guides during the virus lock down at bondbooks.net

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Heal Us and We Shall be Healed: How our pandemic is similar to the plague in Wycliffe's day


"Lord Jesus, turn us to you, and then we shall be turned. Heal us, and we shall be truly whole. For without your grace and help no man may be truly turned or healed." John Wycliffe
The following is an excerpt from chapter 15 or THE REVOLT, my novel set in Wycliffe's 14th century England. Listen daily to my read aloud of The Revolt at bondbooks.net.
...Over the next weeks, I came to know fear. Like I had never known it before, I came to feel it gnawing deeply within my bosom. I lay awake in my bunk at night, my stomach churning, wondering who was next. Which one of us would be the next to die? I clamped my hands over my ears in an attempt to block out the cries of other people's terror, the wails of their denial when first they discovered the dreaded buboes on their glands. I was in torment.

My mind cast about for some solace, to make sense of it all. Was it the especially bad ones who died first in a pestilence? I felt it must be so. So I determined to be good, to pray, to confess, to give alms, anything to win the favor of God and avoid dying. I made promises to God if he would spare me. I begged. I cajoled. I cried and wept and begged some more. I feared dying like I feared nothing in all the world. Death hung all about me. I could think of nothing else.
It was when Alfred stopped jesting, and I first saw real fear in his eyes, that my horror was complete. Everyone had their cure and clutched at the tiniest thread of hope. For Alfred it was fresh strew on the floor. For others it was leeches; it was beer, specially brewed with certain herbs; it was flight. Everyone cast about for something on which to pitch their hope. Hope that plague would pass them by. Hope that it would lay hold of another. Hope that they had done something good enough that the death angel would pass over them and fall upon some other soul--but not on them.
Some blamed it on the conjunctions of heavenly bodies, some claimed it was caused by the winds bringing foul contagion from the French, others said it was the street filth, still others said it was from the rats, and the horrible stench they gave off in death, the miasmas from their rotting flesh. Furiously we dug holes and entombed rats--hundreds of rats.
Still others claimed the contagion was from the wrath of the Almighty for our sins. And so I fortified my efforts, renewed my determination to put off my sins, vigorously bent my will to doing good works that would appease the wrath of God, divert his rage from me to fall upon my less-vigilant neighbor, so I hoped, and so I labored to outdo my neighbor in being good.
Then the news arrived, bitter news it was to me. Thomas Bradwardine, newly installed archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Profundus himself had succumbed to plague. I cannot describe the gut-wrenching torments of the days that I endured after hearing the news. If such a one as His Holiness, Thomas Bradwardine, fell under the dreaded curse of the pestilence and died of plague—who could escape?
Despair followed, despair and still more dread, a fear I could taste, the only taste I had in those months. My breathing came in shallow gasps, and I never felt I was getting enough air inside me. I vacillated from frequent and minute inspection of my armpits and groin for buboes, to supreme avoidance, never once in a day, in a week, so much as touching myself. As the death toll mounted, and new reports of the afflicted and the dying came to my ears, I fell into the very dregs of despondency.
Most people stayed indoors, fearing contact with other human beings, ones who might be carrying the disease, paralyzed with the fear of breathing miasmas from the pestilence in the street. The wealthier fled to the countryside leaving the poorer people to take the brunt of the plague on themselves and on their children. Those who had silver, the priests and friars--many of them, though not all--were first to turn their backs and flee. Their money could buy for them lodging far from the dreaded contagion. While their flocks faced the agonies of dying alone, of perishing in unresolved iniquities, safe from it all they would live, take their ease, and be merry.
It was during these months of pestilence that the first seeds of resentment toward the clergy began germinating in my heart. I had, heretofore, pushed such thoughts aside with violence. That now ended. As I watched yet another of my fellows gasping for his final breaths, his eyes casting about in horror, the frantic clutching of his fingers at the bed clothes, the sheen of sweat and blood on his brow, the blackness closing in, the cries, the moans--I felt that I hated all friars and their kind still the more for their abandonment. And then I feared it was a mortal sin to hate them, and surely I would be damned for it.
I could discover but one source of comfort during those horrific months. My school fellow John of Wycliffe. His was imperfect comfort, to be sure; death was soul-numbingly real, and he had his own fears. I observed, however, that he faced the imminent horrors of plague like few other men. He seemed at his best when on his knees. Make no mistake, I prayed. I prayed like I had never prayed before. But I prayed as an act, a good work by which I desperately hoped to win the favor of the Almighty. My attempts at praying were poor, infrequent, and, at times, nothing short of hysterical. At other times, when I managed to calm myself sufficiently, I made to ape the pious incantations I had heard recited since my boyhood in church. I clung to the hope that God would deliver me by these my praying efforts.
But John of Wycliffe's praying was of another order. One morning in November of 1348, I awoke to hear him at his bedside. I propped myself up on an elbow and studied him as he did it. I confess that my motive was to learn from his method, from his technique, and thereby improve my chances with the Almighty.
Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, including The Resistance set in enemy occupied Normandy, and two-time Grace Award book finalist; he directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is an award-winning teacher, podcaster, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. Visit his website for special buy-3-get-1-free book deals and study guides during the virus lock down at bondbooks.net

Monday, March 16, 2020

Plague, Leeches, and Raw Fear

By the Death Bed, 1896 by Edvard Munch

I have this annoying mannerism; when I'm anxious about something, I catch myself licking my lips. Licked lips get chapped. Mine are pretty chapped right now, more so than usual. I don't know about you, but I've undergone a series of changes in my thinking and feeling about the global coronavirus pandemic. 

First I was pretty cavalier and dismissed the whole thing as a product of media withdrawals after the impeachment frenzy, a media now bored with the race (more of a stagger) for the Democratic nomination; the virus provided a novel, scary story to improve ratings, but nothing really to worry about. As things escalated here in my own region--Seattle, Washington being an epicenter of the US cases and deaths--I found a degree of comfort in the initial fact that the majority of cases and deaths were isolated mostly to the elderly and infirm in one nursing home (I didn't consider myself either elderly or infirm). Then I resorted to tallying the statistics on how many more people died of flu this winter than have died globally from coronavirus. 

My attitude toward the virus began to change when I received the first cancellation notification from a speaking engagement where I was scheduled to be key note. And then another speaking cancellation came from a large conferences where we sell more books than any other single venue each year. And then President Trump restricted travel from Europe, and next day, from the United Kingdom. With that news, I was forced to cancel/postpone my Oxford Creative Writing Master Class (we had already cancelled the Rome to Geneva Tour). Now the pandemic was seriously hitting my schedule and our family finances. Then the rush on toilet paper, shortages, long lines, and store closures (a sneak preview of a Bernie presidency). Now in Washington State, by order of our governor, all restaurants and coffee shops are closed, as are libraries, schools, gyms, even churches with more than fifty congregants are closed. We are in lock down.

Which gets back to my chapped lips. This is not the first pandemic in the history of the world, nor am I the first person with chronic chapped lips. Before modern medicine (which is scrambling to figure this disease out), how did people in the past manage their fears during pestilence and plague?

In the following excerpt from my historical novel The Revoltset in John Wycliffe's 14th century England, my characters stare wide-eyed as the Black Death descends on the terrified occupants of Oxford and unleashes its deadly work:
...I studied the puncture where the leech had drawn his blood. “Will it work?” I asked as we walked down the street back to the hall.

“I say we do an experiment,” said Alfred. “When the pestilence hits Oxford, we’ll watch and see. If it gets you and you die but I live, then I guess we’ll both know that the leech did his work. If we both die of plague, well, we’ll be forced to admit that I just wasted a handful of silver, and we’ll need to be more prudent with our resources in future.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “How can you jest about such things?”

Alfred grinned. “Someone’s got to do the jesting around here.”

So discomfited was I by the friar’s forebodings, and by Alfred’s airy manner at it all, my usual vigilance to avoid street filth slackened. Beneath my feet I suddenly felt an object unlike the usual substances littering the street. This was not slimy underfoot like most street filth encountered on the streets of Oxford. I recoiled. This was firm, but gave way underfoot—and it was still warm. I bent low to discover what it was.

Both Alfred and John turned back. “What is it?” asked Alfred.

“A rat,” I said, my voice little more than a croak. “A d-dead rat.”

14
The Leech

Willard was not easily frightened. After what he had experienced in the Gallia wars, a stony hardness had settled in. Encircled by the fortification of that hardness, he rarely allowed himself to succumb to fear. But when he heard the friar in the square in Oxford that day, describing the horrors of the plague, the hardness weakened, the barrier began to crack, and he felt a constricting of the muscles in his neck, a shortness of breath, a rapid thundering of the beating place in his breast. Try as he might, he could not fend off the rising anxiety planted in his bosom by the words of the friar.

He found his fingers running inadvertently to his underarms, to his groin area, touching, feeling, inspecting for the dreaded buboes. Yet was it not entirely fair to describe Willard’s fears in this selfish fashion. More than for himself, he feared for his mother, and for Beatrix. With a grimness born of desperation and something deeper that eluded Willard’s understanding, he was determined to find a way to protect his family from the dreaded pestilence. Whatever the cost, he was determined.

“Whoa!” he called to Rosemary and Sage. Amidst the creaking of cartwheels and the blowing of the oxen, he halted at the quarry in Headington. A pond had formed where he had for over a year now been quarrying rough stone. Though he didn’t entirely believe all the friar had said, the man’s words had assisted in forming an idea in his mind. Willard sat at the base of a willow tree. Leaning against the rough bark of its trunk, he unlaced his shoes and rolled up the legs of his trousers. The willow stood at the south end of the pond, and in the shade of its drooping branches, green slime had formed on the surface of the water. Gingerly, Willard stepped into the cool water. A shudder ran through his frame. He didn’t like placing his feet in water covered with slime. He could not see what lurked beneath the surface. Wading in up to his mid thighs, he stopped and waited. What would it feel like? He wondered. And how long would it take?

After a long day of walking and working, the cool water at first felt refreshing on his feet and toes. After a half an hour his feet began to feel numb—but that was all he had felt. When he could stand it no longer, he waded back to the mud at the edge of the pond. As he began rolling his trousers over his damp legs, he halted. In the cup formed by the bending place in back of his left knee was the black slimy body of a leech. Lowering his trousers carefully over the sucking creature, he smiled with satisfaction. He had gone fishing for leeches, his own blood as bait. It had worked. Who needed silver to buy the friar’s leeches from Transylvania? The last thing he wanted was to put silver coins back in the hands of a friar.

Careful not to disturb the blood-letting creature, Willard unharnessed and fed the oxen, bedding them down for the night in Squire Reginald’s barn. As he walked through the hovels that stood off from the manor house, he was not met by the usual bustle of his neighbors. There were dogs, and chickens, and goats, and Widow Hannah’s large cat rubbed against his leg, her gray striped tail twitching for attention. But there were no children at play, no men carrying fuel for their cooking fire, no housewives tossing seed to their chickens. He saw no one. Puzzled, he entered the low doorway of his family’s bower.

“Have you heard?” cried his mother, gripping his shoulders.

Willard eyed her cautiously. How much had she heard? He looked about the bower. There was no sign of Beatrix. He had hoped to keep word of the pestilence from his family. There was no sense in raising their anxiety. The more knowledge, the more grief; the less they knew the better. But from his mother’s wide eyes and the creases in her brow, and the trembling of her hands, he feared she knew all.

“Does Beatrix know?” he asked.

“She’ll have heard,” said his mother. “The whole manor’s heard. What shall we do?” she moaned. “We must pray,” she added, answering her own question.

Willard scowled. Friars prayed. And no doubt the folks in Southampton and Bristol had done more than their share of praying. Little good it had done them. He’d leave praying to others. He had his own plans.

“Word is that it’s the stars,” she went on, stirring the pottage simmering over the coals. “The pestilence is brung on by the conjunctification of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars.”

“And who was it that told you so?” asked Willard, looking hard at his mother.

“The gray friar passing through this morning,” she said, wiping her hands over her apron. “He said it’s so.”

“Did you give him silver?” said Willard.

She spun around, busying herself with the pot.

“Did you, then?” he pressed her.

“He promised us ever so many years off purgatory, did he,” she said, the water rising in her eyes. “And what good’ll silver do us when the plague overtakes us?”

“What good’ll our silver do friars and all their money-grubbing kind when plague o’er takes them? Priests and the like die of plague as well, they do. The very scoundrels that tell us to set our hearts on the life to come, seem most of all men to have set theirs on this one. I’m no scholar. I just cart stone to Oxford. But I know this much: friars who terrify us with news of plague and death and then fleece us of our little silver for their paper forgiveness, men who do such things are nothing but low-down cheats. I put no stock in the likes of them friars.”

He paused for breath. It was more words than Willard was used to putting together at one time. His mother buried her face in her apron and collapsed onto a stool.

Willard watched a spark from the coals meander upward and out the hole in the roof. Why had he gone and upset her? He dropped to one knee beside her stool and drew his mother to himself;[J3] , her shoulders rose and fell with her sobs.

“Trust me, Mother,” he said, patting her shoulder. “I have a plan. You need not fear. I’ll save us from plague. You’ll see. You’ll see.”

“How, then, will you do it, Brother?”

Willard looked up and stood to his feet. Without his hearing her, Beatrix had entered the bower. Her cheeks were the color of the wild roses that bloom in the hedgerows, and she cradled a sheaf of oxeye daisies in her arm.

“How then will you go about saving us?” she asked again, her eyes dancing.

It was precisely the question he had begun asking himself. Whether from the heat near the coals, or from having its fill of Willard’s blood, the leech that had attached itself to his leg let go its grip. Willard felt its release like the pricking of a Hawthorne on his flesh. Pulling up his trousers, he took the oily black creature in his hands and held it for his sister and mother to see. “With this,” he said simply.

Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, including The Resistance set in enemy occupied Normandy, and two-time Grace Award book finalist; he directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, is an award-winning teacher, podcaster, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. Visit his website for special buy-3-get-1-free book deals and study guides during the virus lock down at bondbooks.net

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

How NOT to Sing at Christmas (or any other time of the year)

SING A NEW SONG (excerpt from God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To)

"If it was good enough for Isaac Watts, it’s good enough for me.” Few of us would come right out and say this, but I confess to thinking along those lines. Over two decades of writing and speaking about singing and liturgy, I’ve been accused of being a liturgical traditionalist. Skim through the proliferation of lyrics mass-produced in recent decades, and, whatever your particular taste in music, it’s impossible not to observe how different they are from the psalms and hymns the Church has been singing for centuries. That’s precisely by design. They were written not only to be different, but to be better, more relevant, to conform to a new ethos.
Some years ago, while visiting a church on our family vacation, we were invited to rise and sing the following:

You are my wholeness,
You are my completeness.
In you I find forgiveness,
Yes, in you I find release.
It’s a wonder you take all those blunders I make
And so graciously offer me peace.

Bewildered, I reread the lines. Unless I was missing something, it appeared that the writer of these words had managed to flip everything around. The eternal living God who made the earth, the sky, the sea, and all that in them is, had been reduced to a means of individual self-discovery, “you are my completeness,” the added bauble that finally makes me whole, as if God were a fashion accessory that puts the finishing touch on my outfit.
I looked around the congregation. Hands were raised; eyes were pinched shut with emotion. What was I missing? There were references to forgiveness and peace, vague ones, but blunders? Only those “who think of sin but lightly” will refer to their offences as blunders. The psalmist uses no such reductionist terminology. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (51:4). To my ear, the flouncy cadence of the lines about blunders sounded so different from the earnest sobriety of David on his face confessing his evil to a holy God.
But, surely, this song had to get better. How could it get worse?

And in you I find true friendship,
Yes, your love is so free of demands,
Though it must hurt you so,
You keep letting me go
To discover the person I am. 

Maybe I was being too critical, and the lyricist was onto a deeper truth in the line, “your love is so free of demands.” I wanted to be more generous, find at least a morsel of truth that might redeem these lines.
While I cast about, I tried to picture the persecuted church singing this; imagine Christian martyrs throughout the centuries lustily joining in with “your love is so free of demands” as the fagots were lit beneath their feet at the stake. Not only was it nonsensical, singing this made a mockery of the persecuted church, then and now. Isaac Watts put it far better: “Love, so amazing, so divine/Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
It felt like the fabricator of this ditty of self-actualization had learned his theology from a pop-psychology textbook—not from the Word of God. Truth and the honor of Christ were at stake. I looked down the pew at my family; we all stopped singing.
Historically, the finest poetry woos us away from self-absorption and makes us less self-referential. The best poetry “turn(s) us from ourselves to thee,” as one poet put it. The Christian’s chief end is to do all things to the glory of God alone; how much more so when we are taking poetic words on our lips, addressing God in sung worship?
Though we were no longer giving voice to these words, the rest of the congregation dutifully murmured onward:

And like a father you long to protect me,
Yet you know I must learn on my own.
Well, I made my own choice,
To follow your voice,
Guiding me unto my home. 

Impotent and passive, the father figure portrayed by this lyricist now sits wringing his hands and waiting. How vastly different this is from the God of the Bible: “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:9-10). How equally dissimilar this is from the God portrayed in the rich canon of the Church’s hymnody.
The final plumage of self-praise in “You Are My Wholeness” shifted to praising the songwriter’s own choice. Unwittingly, all those who sing these words are praising themselves for following someone’s voice. We’re left to fill in many gaps, including who this someone is. Though the Apostle Paul calls us to do everything in the name of Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:17), oddly, while ostensibly singing to him, there is zero mention of the triune God, Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, in this reductionist doggerel.
Wouldn’t ruined sinners rescued by Christ want to sing more like this?

Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?

SING A NEW SONG
Hence, I confess, because of lyrics like “You Are My Wholeness,” I had retreated into traditionalism. There’s so many great psalm versifications and hymns to sing, let’s solve the problem. Instead of being subjected to such unworthy lyrical nonsense, let’s simply stick with the best of the past. I thought I’d found my safe place in self-righteous traditionalism.
Until reading in Psalms. I love singing Psalms, and I’ve always tried to avoid debate with my exclusive-psalm-singing brethren. “Oh, you only sing Psalms?” Only? The Psalms are the very words God breathed by his Spirit to the ancient poets who penned them. There’s nothing only about them. But it was throughout those very psalms that I was repeatedly called to sing a new song (33, 40, 96, 98, 144, 149). As the psalms were once new expressions of praise for old covenant deliverances, so new manifestations of the gracious deliverance of our God call for new “songs of loudest praise” to give voice and substance to our new covenant gratitude.
But it wasn’t just in Psalms. In Revelation the saints and angelic hosts, in a culminating torrent of splendor “…sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’” (5:9). My traditionalism was getting pummeled.

THE MOUTHS OF BABES
Meanwhile, my children began to work on me. “Daddy, don’t read us another book. Tell us a story, one you make up yourself.” I pointed to the walls of books in our home. There are so many wonderful things to read. “No, Daddy, make up a story.” That was twenty years ago. I’ve been making up stories ever since, my children often my chief critics. But writing books was one thing. Attempting to write a new hymn terrified me.
Then, I hit on a solution. I would have a character in one of my children’s books (The Accidental Voyage) write a hymn. Throughout the story, my protagonist gnawed his pencil in fits and starts. It was perfect. If he managed to craft a poem that resembled a singable hymn, I was safe. More likely, if my efforts in his persona were an unmitigated disaster, I simply blamed the adolescent protagonist. What do you expect from a twelve-year-old? I felt liberated and furiously worked in secret on several other hymns. But exposure was around the corner.
After writing a birthday sonnet for a pastor friend of mine, he asked me to write a new hymn for the Thanksgiving service—in a week. His was a discerning congregation of hymn-savvy Presbyterians. What did he think I was, a performing circus animal able to crank out poetry that would stand up to their scrutiny? I declined.
Besides, my father, after a long battle with cancer, had recently died. I didn’t feel much like writing a new hymn. We had sung hymns at my father’s bedside, recited and sang psalms, the thirty-fourth emerging as one of his favorites. “This poor man cried to you and you delivered him out of all his trouble.” He would often ask me to read it, then lean back on his pillow, close his eyes, and smile as I read.
Though I had declined to write the hymn, I found myself looking up biblical passages on thanksgiving, always drawn back to my father's favorite Psalm and the phrase, “O, taste and see that the Lord is good.” I was thrilled with the Eucharist and Lord’s Supper implications of the text. But the days before the Thanksgiving service were clicking by and all I had was an initial idea. Neophyte muse that I was, how could I possibly write a hymn in so short a time, one that would be worthy of the high worship of God?
Three days before the Thanksgiving service, I managed to produce five stanzas that began like this:

We rise and worship you, our Lord,
            With grateful hearts for grace outpoured,
For you are good—O taste and see—
            Great God of mercy rich and free. 

The next stanzas explored the salvific roles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for which every Christian has unmeasured cause for thanksgiving. To match the poetic meter, the accompanist had chosen a Long Meter existing tune. As the congregation rose, I sweated and fidgeted as we sang this new song. 

HOSTILITY TO FORM
As Augustine put it, “I count myself among those who learn as they write and write as they learn.” And did I ever need to learn several important things about hymns and writing them in these early efforts.
My poetry tutorials, however, began much earlier. God placed me in a hymn-singing, literary home, where we would snuggle up on the couch and listen to my mother read aloud from Shakespeare, even Chaucer in Middle English. Not understanding a word, I was charmed by the sounds and cadence of the poetry. In my adult life, during decades of teaching history and literature, including the writing of poetry, I watched with mounting apprehension as our culture descended further into a post-poetry, post-literacy malaise, the Church dutifully in tow.
Along with post-modernity’s hostility to form, dismantling culture and disfiguring art, our ability to define and appreciate poetry has been marred. We’re taught to disparage poetic conventions such as meter and rhyming, and anything else that gives shape and order to art. Literary experts say that we are to read poetry just like we read prose, as if poetry was a literary birth defect of prose rather than its own genre with its own rhetorical qualities.
For thousands of years, poetry has included various metrical patterns and parallelisms of sound, rhyming being one of the most delightful and anticipated. In our moment, however, vers libre, is celebrated as the highest form of poetry, emotive free verse that defies the conventions of the ages. With lines capriciously designated, much of this material is little more than fragmented prose masquerading as poetry.
Literary elites assure us that traditional poets were simply being cute with words, showing off, being crafty in their slavish devotion to convention. I wonder if they might also tell us that Michelangelo was just being crafty with marble, that medieval architects were simply showing off with stone-vaulted ceilings, or that J. S. Bach was merely being cute with counterpoint.
Critics of poetic conventions asked 20th century poet Robert Frost why he didn’t write in free verse; he replied with an apt simile, “Writing poetry that doesn’t rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down.” Frost believed that there was something inherent in the genre that demanded structural boundaries if it is to be what it is. But his was a voice crying in a literary wilderness.

CONGREGATIONAL PASSIVITY
How does this relate to sung worship? Observe the congregation in a contemporary service, and it becomes clear that it is difficult to sing lyrics composed to post-poetry dictates. Throughout much of Western Civilization, poetry was composed to be sung by the whole clan. Today, singing is now largely done for us by commercially popular, celebrity entertainers, or those who imitate them. The congregation has become avid listeners, but increasingly inept participants in full-voice singing.
Finding myself a guest in many different churches, most arranged with the entertainers and their instruments on center stage, I’ve been observing congregational singing for years. Many people are not singing at all, especially the men, and most of those whose lips are moving, are murmuring more than full-voice singing. Why is that?
Whatever our playlists look like, and however lustily we might sing in the privacy of our cars, let’s be frank, one who is not a pop musician feels uncomfortable attempting in public to sing like a solo-voice entertainer. It turns out, though they call themselves worship leaders, they are not leading us. They are doing it for us. Our participation is irrelevant to the performance. Join in if you care to; either way, it will not change the instrumental, high-volume sound pulsing through the worship center.

CONGREGATIONAL SINGING
So, how are we to write, compose, and sing new songs that reflect the ethos of worship rather than the ethos of entertainment? David played his harp, a solo performer—for the sheep. But he wrote psalms to be sung by the congregation, young and old, without any consideration for generational preferences. Hence, as we attempt to craft new songs, the hymn writer will not write for a solo performer or for a choir. A good hymn could be sung by either, but the writer of a new hymn, like David, will intentionally craft poetry accessible for the whole congregation of God’s people to sing with full voice.
When Christians of all ages and various singing abilities rise to their feet to sing the praises of their Redeemer, if things are to be done decently and in order, they will want to sing with one voice. Though it is more difficult to observe when hymn poetry is subordinated to the musical score, as in American hymnals, for centuries, virtually all hymns have been written in regular rhyme and meter. Solo entertainers can sing metrically irregular songs, and often do, but singing free verse worship songs is difficult for the congregation.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD HYMN?
Our greatest problem discerning what is worthy to sing in worship is firstly a theological problem. Egalitarians don’t make good worshipers. Sinners, undone by their crimes in the face of a holy God, falling on their faces before the Sovereign Lord who has paid their vast debt in full with his precious blood, make better worshipers. We must get our theology right before we can correct our doxology.
Another problem we have with evaluating what is worthy to sing in worship is that we no longer think of hymns as poetry, and in our post-poetry culture, we have lost the literary tools to require the highest standards for that poetry. What we sing before the face of our Redeemer in worship must be the finest human poetry, set to the most appropriate human music, shaped by the biblical ethos of worship. 
Music in worship is not firstly about loud instruments, multi-colored lights, or soloists aping entertainment celebrities, as we see in the ubiquitous nightclub liturgy of our present situation. Music in worship is first and last about the voice of the congregation singing to and with one another the word of Christ. Paul put it this way:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach
and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as
you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with
gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you
do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of
the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father
through him (Colossians 3:16-17).

Here, Paul tells us how and what to sing. New songs of new covenant worship find their substance and boundaries in this locus classicus of sung worship. Notice, three times we are told to take Christ’s name on our lips in our singing, and we’re told three times in the whole context of the passage to sing our thanksgiving. Which strongly suggests that new lyrics will be Christ-centered and filled with gratitude.
The passage reveals three more functions of hymns, summarized by hymnologist Erik Routley: New covenant hymns will codify doctrine (“teach and admonish”), unify the Church (“one another”), and glorify God (“to God”). We have seen decay of all three of these functions in most of the new songs of recent decades. Praise choruses and worship songs have been generally reductionist in theological content, saying less and less about doctrinal truths, often never using the name of Christ.
Furthermore, instead of unifying the Church, the shift to lyrics and music that suit the ethos of entertainment, has created a generational rift, disunifying the Church. Some churches have a traditional service and a contemporary one, thus, dividing the congregation by tastes and age rather than bringing Christians together with one voice in song. A good test if a lyric will unify the Church is to ask if the persecuted church would choose to sing it; would the early church sing it; would Christians have sung it in the Reformation, the Great Awakening, or the Missionary Movement of the 19th century?
Lastly, the third function of singing to the glory of God has been under attack for decades. When churches prefer singing what entertainers sing at concerts, or what Christian radio stations are playing, there is a pull to imitate the entertainment industry and its popular celebrity method of singing, church worship leaders now attempting to look like and sound like they are on stage at a concert.
The late Keith Green, himself a vanguard of contemporary Christian singing, was offended by the “‘look at me!’ attitude I have seen at concert after concert, and the ‘Can’t you see we are as good as the world!’ syndrome” of fellow rock and roll performers. Decades later, would Green be less offended by what he would see were he alive today?
However noble the intentions, the entertainment arrangement is the perfect storm for singing to the glory of the performers on the stage. Routley quips that when the three functions of hymns, codify, unify, glorify, are absent, he wished for the song to have “the short life of all rootless things.”

NEW REFORMATION HYMNS
Finally, Paul tells us to write and sing new hymns “with all wisdom,” that is to do so skillfully; which means those who presume to craft new hymn lyrics or compose tunes for those lyrics need to study, develop their skills, know what they are attempting, stand on the shoulders of the great hymn writers of the past—Cowper, Watts, Wesley, Havergal, Bonar and many others.
It was while immersed in the study of our hymnody that I became so reluctant to attempt writing a new hymn. How could I possibly measure up with the best hymn writers of the past? Then it occurred to me: I don’t write books because I think I’m the best writer in the world, any more than I love my wife because I think I’m the best husband in the world, any more than I parent my kids because I think I’m the best parent in the world, any more than I worship Christ because I think I’m the best worshiper in the world. Neither do I write hymns because I think I’m the best hymn writer in the world.
Then, one frosty December evening, as I scribbled in front of the fire, I found myself toying with the idea of attempting a carol. When I came to my senses, I contemplated tossing my notes into the fire. What was I thinking? Christ’s Advent? The sacred mystery? Angelic heralds? The culmination of thousands of years of prophecy? The best of the existing carol canon guaranteed failure. Carols are uniquely rich with celebratory atmosphere, evocative of rejoicing and feasting, sleigh bells, and every charming winter association imaginable. Hymnologists tell us the best-loved hymn of all time is actually a carol, Charles Wesley’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” It was literary suicide to attempt a carol.
Because of my fears, early scribblings for this carol lay dormant for several years; hymn writing can sometimes be like that for me, an initial burst of ideas, then nothing, just an imaginative black hole. And then another Advent season approached. I read aloud from Luke’s gospel with my family; we sang a carol. When the kids were tucked in their beds, I pulled out my initial notes and sifted through the scribbled idea banks and word banks. Late that night, with fear and trembling, I managed to set down six stanzas as they appear below, beginning with the angelic announcement of Christ’s Advent to the shepherds, proceeding to our Lord’s sinless life, Gethsemane and the cross, the resurrection, concluding with Christ’s triumphant Second Advent.

What wonder filled the starry night
          When Jesus came with heralds bright! 
I marvel at his lowly birth,     
          That God for sinners stooped to earth.
        
His splendor laid aside for me,
          While angels hailed his Deity,
The shepherds on their knees in fright
          Fell down in wonder at the sight.

The child who is the Way, the Truth,
          Who pleased his Father in his youth, 
Through all his days the Law obeyed, 
          Yet for its curse his life he paid.          
          
What drops of grief fell on the site 
          Where Jesus wrestled through the night,
Then for transgressions not his own,
          He bore my cross and guilt alone.

What glorious Life arose that day
          When Jesus took death’s sting away!
His children raised to life and light,
          To serve him by his grace and might.

One day the angel hosts will sing,   
          “Triumphant Jesus, King of kings!”  
Eternal praise we’ll shout to him 
          When Christ in splendor comes again!


Douglas Bond is author of Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) and twenty-seven other books of historical fiction, biography, devotion, and practical theology. He is lyricist for New Reformation Hymns, directs the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, speaks at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours in Europe. His book God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), from which this post is an excerpt, is available at bondbooks.net; order today and receive a free Rise and Worship cd.