“They’re playing our song!” What does the speaker mean by “our song”?
Usually, it means that the tune is one heard repeatedly during earlier moments of great tenderness or romance. “Our song” has become a symbol of a special time. When the first chords are struck, the past rushes into the present to recreate that special time.
“Our song” translates into “our hymn” when it comes to church life. Hymns also become symbols of shared or individual experiences. They often chart the inner journey. They etch theology more deeply into the soul than a stonecutter working with marble.
When I was a child I learned “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me.” That little song still evokes memories of vacation Bible school, sword drills, and flannel graph lessons and a simple childlike faith.
As a young adult I sang choruses such as “For God so loved the world.” To sing “Dare to be a Daniel” inspired me to charge into life with courage. Later on, specific hymns became important. “How great thou art” still speaks hope and courage. At night when sleep eludes me I say the words of “Abide with me” to quiet my soul.
“Our hymn(s)” were once referred to as the core hymns of the faith, or Kernlieder. These were hymns sung again and again during a specific period in the history of the church. The singers knew them by heart. They were “their songs.”
The small church our family attended when I was a child included many new immigrants, including my parents and older sisters, recently arrived from a stressful time of revolution, famine and pestilence in Russia. They arrived with next-to-nothing and a huge travel debt. But these people sang Heimatlieder, songs of heaven. These were their core hymns.
Today, some 80 years later, I can still sing some to myself because I heard them again and again. During times of bloodshed, hunger, death and starvation, these hymns became soul nourishment as they thought of another place where children didn’t die of hunger, where heartless men didn’t storm into a house and hack the innocent to death without cause.
They had memorized these hymns. Singing without hymnbooks was common during my childhood. If people were lingering too long in the foyers or outside talking, the song leader began a lively hymn, and as the people strolled in, singing.
One of the first Canadian Mennonite Brethren hymnbooks contains 34 such Heimatlieder which the hymnal committee deemed had melodies unique to the Mennonite Brethren and expressed feelings of suffering with hope.
I am reminded of another incident. The place was Novisibirsk in Kazakhstan. The year 1989. Our tour group of about 35 had gathered in a small church to hear from its leaders about the origins of this congregation, born out of persecution during the Stalinist years in Siberia. They had all been exiled to labor camps in this mining area.
As I usually do, I examined the few books in the book rack in front of me. What did these people sing?
I picked up a good-sized book of about 300 pages, all words and music hand-copied. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Without funds or means to buy hymnbooks, older men in particular, had taken it upon themselves to copy about two-thirds of the Dreiband, a compilation of three hymnals, so that at least the choir had music to sing from. Congregational singing was either from memory or the song leader lined the hymns. Without hymns, they felt impoverished.
I have lots of questions about hymn-singing today. Which hymns would we identify as Kernlieder, core hymns of the faith, hymns that belong to us, a people for this particular time in history?
Which hymns would be the core group of hymns of a truly Anabaptist/Mennonite congregation? Which hymns draw newcomers to us? Even more, would a congregation today survive musically without hymnbooks, something to hold in our hands or watch on a screen?
Mennonite Encyclopedia states that the early martyr hymns were the “strongest attractive force” for the newly developing Anabaptist congregations. They were often clothed in popular tunes, not strongly didactic or doctrinal.
I’ve been wondering recently how we would respond if suddenly all hymnbooks (and screens and other means of projection or reproduction) disappeared from our book racks, what would we sing from memory? Real hymns, not choruses or campfire songs either. All five verses.
Hymns sung from the heart represent the core repertory from which we nourish our souls, especially in times of crisis. I sense a great need to sanitize hymns by making the language more politically correct and to remove offensive words like “blood” that might make the singer think this congregation was edging into fundamentalism. Experience-based hymns are also taboo yet I still love to hear a congregation sing “Marvellous grace of our loving Lord” in harmony.
When we elders hear only praise choruses, sometimes with a loud beat that threatens to split eardrums, we feel disoriented. Here, in this sacred place, where we once met God in the power of his holiness, we encounter what seems like chaos. We have lost powerful symbols of our faith. Our Kernlieder, the glue and sometimes the glory that holds a congregation together, have left the scene.
Every congregation, yes, every denomination, needs a core repertory of hymns they can sing without a book in front of them that will transport them out of themselves into the realm of love and praise of God, their Maker. Some will be dropped and new ones introduced, but some, like our daily bread, need to remain.