Music is an important part of the gathering of the Body of Christ around the words and gifts of Christ. We instinctively know this, as it would be hard for us to imagine a Divine Service without singing or music. Further, throughout the Scriptures, there is always music and singing when the people of God are in His presence.
Music can serve a variety of ends and purposes. In our every-day lives, we realize that music can accompany any number of emotions. This is why we listen to particular kinds of music that we associate with particular moods, or we listen to music to change our moods. So it is almost subconsciously that we associate certain music with certain places and times. When we hear certain songs, it is striking how we are transported to a particular place when we heard that song, or an emotion with which we associate it.
Not only do we realize that certain kinds of music fit with particular places and times and emotions, we also realize that certain kinds of music do not fit with particular places and times and emotions. So (most of the time!) we would find it strange to walk into a funeral home for a funeral and hear loud rock music. And (most of the time) we would find it strange to go to a stadium to hear a rock band [does anyone do that anymore?] and, instead, we hear quiet, instrumental music that hardly can be heard in the back rows.
It makes sense, then, that certain kinds of music are appropriate for the services of the Lord’s House, and certain kinds are not. Some music is too individualized for it to serve well as the song of a whole congregation. Some music is associated too closely with its lyrics for it to be edifying or helpful to worshiping God. When you take certain music out of its natural context, it becomes jarring or simply inappropriate. The best of Lutheran hymns (not all of which are written by Lutherans!) have certain characteristics. For example, the music is meant to accompany the singing, which means that if it overwhelms the singing, or becomes a performance by the musician, then it is not helpful or appropriate for congregational singing. Lutherans sing together as a congregation, as active participants—indeed, even as preachers of the Gospel to themselves and each other—not as observers who may or not participate if they are entertained (though it is certainly true that we can be and are edified by individual performances). There are indeed melodies that are, in themselves, hard to sing. But often our difficulties in singing certain melodies boil down to simple unfamiliarity. There are other aspects of the best Lutheran hymns that are necessary most of the time: focusing on Christ and His death and resurrection for sinners; focusing on concrete actions of God, rather than on His characteristics; a definite and specific sacramental focus which highlights and upholds the particular ways God has promised to deliver our salvation; and hymns that can apply to every sinner, whether that particular day finds a person happy or sad, burdened or freely rejoicing, suffering or free from suffering. If a song can only apply to particular people at particular times, then it is hard for every member of the congregation to sing.
But I want to focus for now on building our knowledge of the best Lutheran hymns, even if some of them are unfamiliar. To that end (among other things), I am going to be selecting a “Hymn of the Month,” that showcases the best of what we confess and believe as singing Lutherans, and which we will sing as the sermon hymn each Sunday during the month. For May, that hymn is 708, “Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart.”
There is certainly strong emotion and feeling in this hymn, but it is all grounded in the specific and concrete work of God in Christ. Heaven itself has no appeal apart from the One who comes near to us. The hymn confesses Jesus as God and Lord, as Thomas did, and directs our trust to His Word alone. It identifies the struggles of this life, and the gifts that God gives us for the support of this body and life, and prays that we might glorify God’s grace to us, even as we serve our neighbors whom God has given to us. It echoes the Lord’s Prayer as we pray against temptation and the evil one, who tries to tear us from Christ with false teaching, and it teaches us to hold to Christ who will be our comfort not only in life but also in death. And, finally, it is one of the handful of hymns in our hymnal that clearly and unashamedly confesses our bodily resurrection (which makes it an excellent choice for a funeral hymn): “And in its narrow chamber keep/My body safe in peaceful sleep/Until Thy reappearing./ And then from death awaken me,/That these mine 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” (Lutheran Service Book 708:3).
I pray that the Hymn of the Month will serve the practical purpose of bringing out some of the perhaps unfamiliar treasures of those who have gone before us in the Faith, as well as being a blessing in your own Christian life.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”