I’ve made a list of just ten of my favorite hymns. It’s a list of church music that has been important to me in some way. I’ve been intentional that this list is congregational song, not organ preludes or choral anthems. It’s stuff that God’s people can sing together. I surprised myself with how many are from the green Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW)—eight. One is from the blue With One Voice (WOV), and one is from the red Libro (LLC), a Spanish-language Lutheran resource. I realize most of these are in the cranberry Evangelical Lutheran Worship, but my congregation hasn’t switched to ELW, so I’m not as familiar with the page number.
What I look for in a hymn are texts that faithfully proclaim the Gospel without being trite and tunes that are conducive for congregational singing without being maudlin or annoying. I prefer hymns that speak to God, rather than pretending that we are God speaking in the first person. (Another Lutheran pastor, who writes a wonderful column on worship and liturgy, argues much better than me for congregational singing being the primary choir in worship).
At Amazing Grace, we usually have been selecting hymns a few months at a time. I make a list of six or seven hymns that I think would be appropriate for each Sunday and send that list to our pianist and worship chair. We then get together and winnow down the list to four for each week. More often than not, my list is just a starting point; sometimes we come up with something new. My primary criteria at Amazing Grace has been singability. I would rather have us sing a good (or even OK) hymn well as a congregation than to sing a beautiful and theologically perfect hymn poorly.
When it comes down to it, sometimes it is just hard to explain why one hymn works, and another doesn’t.
Well, here’s the list (in no particular order):
Lift Every Voice and Sing (LBW 562). Though sometimes I’ve heard it argued that white people shouldn’t be singing this hymn that speaks so strongly of African American experience, I think it so beautifully address human experience—“weary years,” “silent tears,” “stormy the road we trod.” I try to have the congregation sing this when the lectionary has stories of Israel in exile.
Earth and All Stars (LBW 558). With my geography background, I’ve always liked the nature imagery in this hymn. Can you imagine boiling test tubes and limestone singing to God?
Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service (LBW 423). The line, “Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread” always haunts me. This American Sacred Harp tune also reminds me of my time singing shape note music.
For All the Saints (LBW 174). We feebly struggle. They in glory shine. Yes.
I Love to Tell the Story (LBW 390). This was the closing hymn at my ordination. What we do as Christians is storytelling as we share Good News with our neighbors.
All Praise to Thee, My God, this Night (LBW 278). I first learned this as a camp counselor in Montana. We would actually chant Compline from the LBW with middle schoolers, singing this hymn in canon. Yes, young people can do traditional liturgy.
Let us Break Bread Together (LBW 212). This was the default overflow Communion hymn when I was growing up. If the assigned hymns finished before everyone was communed, this hymn would often be played.
You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore (WOV 784). I love singing this hymn in Spanish, but I haven’t really found a good English translation for it yet.
Built on a Rock the Church Shall Stand (LBW 365). When there was scaffolding around the steeple of my internship congregation, I joked that “built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.” This hymn became even more meaningful for me as I reflect on the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, where a tornado knocked down the steeple of Central Lutheran Church. See my posting from last September. I was a bit surprised to see that this was a very unfamiliar hymn at Amazing Grace. I have tried to introduce it.
What a Friend we Have in Jesus (LBW 439). Many of the hymns on this list I first heard with flawless and beautiful performances. This is not the case here. I grew up hearing this hymn sung out of tune and with no rhythm, but it was sung with love. When I was really little, my mom would sing this as a lullaby.
Did your favorites make the list?