The Theology of Hymns

“The Theology of Hymns
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 12, 2022

Psalm 98adapted from The Message

O sing to the Lord a new song.
God has made a world of wonders!

God got to work
and set things right.

God made history with salvation,
God showed the world what’s possible.

God remembered to love us, a bonus
To Israel, God’s dear family, of indefatigable love.

The whole earth comes to attention.
Look—God’s work of salvation!

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
Shout your praises to God! Let loose and sing!

Strike up the band! Round up an orchestra to play for God;
Add on a hundred-voice choir.

Feature trumpets and big trombones,
Fill the air with praises to the living God.

Let the sea and its fish give a round of applause,
With everything living on earth joining in.

Let ocean breakers call out, “Encore!”
And mountains harmonize the finale—

A tribute to God’s arrival,
When the Lord comes to set the earth right.

God will straighten out the whole world,
God will put the world right, and everyone in it.

Ephesians 5:18b-19

[B]e filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.

– – –
As we celebrate our chancel choir and our music director, I want to take a moment to talk about hymns – certainly not the only thing our beloved choir sings, but definitely one of the important things they sing – as evidenced by how much more robust and full our hymns sound on Sundays when the chancel choir is singing!

Specifically, I wanted to talk about the theology of hymns. “Theology” and “hymns” may not be words you automatically associate with one another; I think many of us, when we hear theology, think of dusty books or journal articles, or (hopefully), sermons. But “theology” simply means “the study of God,” or, a bit more precisely, “the study of the nature of God” – that is, who we think God is and how we think God acts, and what our actions, beliefs, sacred texts, rituals, and yes, hymns, say about God. “Hymns are theology,” says Methodist academic and musician Steven Kimbrough, and whether we realize it or not, every time we open our mouths to sing a song in church, the words we sing (and even the melody, the music itself) say something about who God is, for us. And because music, maybe more than any other art form, sticks with us and shapes our perspective as we putter around the house humming a tune or sing our children to sleep or keep vigil at a deathbed or – especially – raise our voices Sunday after Sunday after Sunday together – hymns shape how we see God, and how we see ourselves in relationship to God.

“Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war,” for example, presents a very different vision of the Christian life than does “Let There Be Peace on Earth and let it begin with me.”

And “This Is My Song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine” presents a very different vision of our nation and its place in God’s world than does “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord, he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…” (Which, to be clear, I love to sing around the house while cleaning. You should try it.)

Most hymn theology is maybe a bit less blatant to us, or maybe rather we don’t quite realize how different various hymn theologies are. Some encourage us to think of God as a far-off, all-powerful cosmic entity – “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes” – while others paint a picture of a tender, caring shepherd: “My Shepherd, you supply my need, most holy is your name.”

Some see sin as Satan’s work in the world – “For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe!”, while others see it as a natural human failing God helps us overcome: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole” – and still others as a social, structural issue: “God, forgive us, we beseech you, when our love fails to empower. Changing life’s oppressive systems into ones empow’ring all.”

Some encourage us to relate to God corporately – “O God, our help in ages past,” “God of grace and God of glory, on your people pour your power”;
some in more intimate, individual ways: “Just a closer walk with thee, grant it, Jesus is my plea…”

Some turn us towards generosity – “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” or towards justice – “O for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways, where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise.”

Some turn us toward repentance, or rejoicing – and of those about repentance or rejoicing, there’s a whole spectrum of why we should repent or rejoice – because Jesus has saved us from our shameful sinfulness by sacrificing himself – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”
or because Jesus has lovingly liberated us from prisons of our own making – “Come Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace!” I sing my kids to sleep with both of those.

Sometimes we love hymns the theology of which we strongly disagree with, often hymns we learned as children and love because their tunes or poetic words are written in our hearts as part of cherished memories. That’s okay! You better believe I sang the first line of “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” every time I wanted my kids, as babies, to stand up after a diaper change – I just left off the “ye soldiers of the cross” part.

Some of those hymns – like “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” or “Onward, Christian soldiers” – we no longer sing in worship because publicly, as a church, we cannot endorse the language used and the theology employed. Other times, we use an updated version that’s replaced references to God as “He” and to humans as “mankind” to be inclusive, or that’s swapped out language about Jesus’ blood atoning for our sins for a different theology of what the cross means. We want to keep singing those beloved hymns but in a way that fits with who Park Avenue is as a body and what we stand for. But if those original lyrics are written in your heart, go ahead and sing them as you first learned them!

You see, hymns shape our ideas of God and who we are in relationship to God, and so we need to be thoughtful about what is in the hymns we sing, the theology, the language we choose to sing together in worship. But we also need a good variety, so that our image of God doesn’t become one-dimensional or  stagnant or self-serving. 

Speaking of old favorites – I know some of you feel like we just don’t sing enough of the old favorites – Ann Bruhn was one of those folks who gently encouraged me to use them more. Sometimes an old favorite that has imagery or theology like I described a few minutes ago ends up “retired” for those reasons, and instead becomes a favorite for singing around the house or at hymn sings.

But aside from that, after my first priority of choosing hymns that help us connect more fully with the scripture and the sermon of the day, my second priority is to try to make sure that we have music that speaks to a wide variety of hymn preferences – so I’m always on the lookout for something from the Blue hymnal that meets the theme of the sermon and speaks to our collective theology.

And that leads to one more piece of hymn theology I want to mention – and it’s practical theology, which is the academic term for theology not just of what we believe about God and ourselves, but how we act that out in the world.
Sometimes we really, really dislike a hymn – its melody, its lyrics, its perceived sappiness or stridency. Or it simply strikes us as “meh.” Or we miss an old favorite or – conversely – wonder why we can’t sing something more modern. Every time you hit a hymn for you like that here at Park Avenue, I want you to stop and think of it as an act of love for someone else here at Park Avenue, whose favorite hymn it might be, who might be being spiritually fed by it even as you inwardly groan roll your eyes. Because for as many times as someone has said “Not enough hymns from the Blue hymnal!” or, conversely, “More modern music, please!”, someone else has surprised me by saying that the hymns we sang in that very service are some of their favorites.

And that, friends, is good news indeed – that we can care for and support one another in our differences, that we can get our spiritual needs met and we can tolerate a choice that we wouldn’t make as a way to meet the needs of someone else in our beloved church community. For that, my friends, is being the body of Christ.