April 29, 2013

Why Don’t We Do It in the Hymnal?

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In a grumpy mood on Sunday morning, I realized that I seldom project my gray side at church.  I am a one-woman side show whom everyone knows because I play the piano, direct the choir and occasionally sing.  I am always smiling, always say hello to everyone, and always listen to what people tell me even when I don’t know who the hell they are and in the case of a few, can’t understand what they are saying.

On my way out the door, I grabbed a book of Beatles tunes.  Jerry M. once asked me if I was going to play something jazzy instead of “that hymn crap.”  It was news to me that anyone paid attention to what the bulletin grandly calls the “Gathering” music.  Since then I have tried to remember to take some Brubeck or Bach –who I consider “jazzy.”  One Sunday, just after the benediction had been pronounced, I launched into “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”  This past Sunday was definitely a morning for doing it in the road.  Something to jolt me out of my mood at least enough to be civil to people.

The church was over-heated so I wasn’t going to need the hot coffee that I spilled on the rug under the piano bench.  The rug is coffee-colored so unless it instantly mildewed there in the tropics I should be safer than the time I messed up the altar during an OK Chorale rehearsal.  But I still wanted that coffee and spilling it didn’t help my mood.

Nor did the hymns I had to play.  Here’s my dirty little secret:  I enjoy some of the old hymns.  They are great tunes.  They have some of the same nostalgic associations as Christmas carols.  They are a thread back to an earlier part of my life, much of which I might like to forget but I have learned that it’s often better to not forget because even the wretched years are part of who I am today.  I have passed many a church service sorting through the hymns in the hymnbook picking out the lines I loved and giving a thumbs-down to some of the more sadistic phrases. So I resent that a UCC committee did the same thing and eventually came out with an abysmal hymnbook: politically correct, gender neutral, and utterly lacking in poetry.  Much as I hate the gruesome imagery in some of the old hymns, at least the lines scan.  That makes them easier to parody.

Sunday I had to play a hymn I don’t care for: “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”  Let’s enumerate all the things I disliked about it even before the UCC committee got a hold of it: The use of the word hail for anything other than tiny lumps of ice is too archaic for an institution that is already past its sell date. “Let angels prostrate fall, bring forth the royal diadem.”  Who talks like this? Other than scholars, do people even understand what this means?  Does it mean anything?

Sadly enough, these particular phrases made the cut.  The Committee inexcusably added ones like “Attend the savior’s sovereign claim” and “Extol the wounded one foretold.”   Try saying them quickly because the tempo of this hymn is fast.  Try making meaning out of them.  The only positive thing I can come up with is that the word extol is good to know for Scrabble.

More offensive to my sensibilities, though, is the contortions the Committee went through to pretend that Christianity is not a male dominated belief system and Jesus was not a male.   (I personally believe Jesus was the first transgendered person: a female in a male body but that’s the subject of another post.) So they’ve changed this albeit stupid line “And crown Him Lord of all” which already has no relevancy in the 21st century to “Crown Christ servant of all.”  It comes up eight times.  Try saying it fast: Crown Christ, Crown Christ, Crown Christ.  Have we forgotten that The Christ was male? No? Can we just go back to singing “Him?” And incidentally did The Committee think they were being clever with the image of crowning a servant?  I don’t think they were capable of expressing paradox. Seriously, there couldn’t have been an English major on this Committee or if there was, she wasn’t left standing at the end.

At this point in the service –5 minutes in– I had zoned into my happy place. This is where I see if I can read the little descriptive paragraph at the bottom of the hymn at the same time I am playing and not make any mistakes.  I see that the tune to “All Hail the Power” was written by Oliver Holden, an early American carpenter, legislator, musician and hymnal editor.  Hmmm.  He had every skill set missing on that hymnal committee.



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