Tuesday, July 01, 2008

At last

At Morning Prayer today, the final hymn was "Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart." The worshippers were the participants in a regional conference of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians. The occasion was the commemoration of Catherine Winkworth and John Mason Neale, English hymn translators of the 19th century.

As the service neared its closing, I geared up for singing this great, dense, and rather long German chorale, rendered into English by Catherine Winkworth, a woman I imagine to be a lot like me. Well-educated, adept with words, respectful of the spiritual power of language, of which there are many examples in "Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart." The first stanza:

Lord, thee I love with all my heart;
I pray thee, ne'er from me depart;
With tender mercy cheer me.
Earth has no pleasure I would share,
Yea, heav'n itself were void and bare
If thou, Lord, wert not near me.
And should my heart for sorrow break,
My trust in thee can nothing shake.
Thou art the portion I have sought;
Thy precious blood my soul has bought.
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise thee without end!

The hymn speaks passionately of love for God so intense that you want to crawl inside to get close enough. I think that feeling comes in part from the melody being so tightly centered on the tonic. All but one phrase starts or ends there--like the soul always wanting to return to the Lord--despite a broken heart, great sorrow, or feelings of being forsaken.

I thought this morning, how many times have I sung this hymn in the last six months? Two or three times in worship services. Sang the last stanza on Good Friday in the Hassler double-choir setting that we do at the end of Tenebrae at my church. And I've sung it at several funerals, one just last week. I have sung from my place in the adult choir. I've sung it leading my children's choir.

With them, I took the time to explain why organists open up and let it rip when they get to the final half-stanza:

And then from death awaken me,
That these my eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise thee without end!

I wanted the kids to pay attention to this hymn as they sang, and I figured anticipation would keep them sharp and focused on the thrill of the mighty crescendo of eternity.

It is a wonderful hymn. Besides the account of an all-consuming love for the Lord, it contains a straightforward, unsentimental theology of death, burial, and the resurrection of the dead, of the body, when "these my eyes"--my own eyes--will see Jesus's own face.

This morning, however, I was wondering if singing this hymn so many times put the thrill at the end at risk of seeming old. The prelude to the service, on this tune, covered the crescendo thing, pouring forth lots of sound at that part of the tune. We'd have to do it again when we sang it, and stanzas one and two, long ones, had to be gotten through first. Just the week before, singing at that funeral, despite closing the hymn book and singing that last stanza from memory, loud and hearty at the end, I wasn't feeling it so much. My thoughts were more like, yeah, another Lutheran funeral. Do we have to sing this every time?

Surprising then, that this morning, thinking about the many times I've sung this hymn lately became the key to singing it in faith and hope. The repetition made the text and tune more powerful, made the resurrection seem almost imminent. Doggone it, I thought, we keep singing about this thing--upstairs, downstairs, morning, noon and night. With children's voices, with the feeble voices of a congregation of mourners gathered for a funeral, or sometimes with a hundred or so full-throated church musicians who glory in singing out. And this isn't the only church building where this happens. What if the resurrection of the dead came right now? Right here in the sanctuary.

Nobody knows exactly when, much less how God's kingdom will come to complete fruition. I don't think--quite--that an almost-perfect unison can sing it into being. But that great love of God for his creatures--for us. the love that inspired the tender passion of the first stanza of this hymn, has great things in store for us.