Thursday, December 15, 2005

Hymns and True Community

I read an article in the December edition of Presbyterians Today. The entire issue was about worship music, and the worship wars which are prevalent in congregation. Eva Stimson, the editor of Presbyterians Today, shared a story about “Archie.”

“One Sunday morning an elderly member of my congregation -- I’ll call him ‘Archie’ -- stood up in the sanctuary and said he really wished we could sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ in worship. Why, asked Archie in a plaintive voice, was this song no longer welcome in our Presbyterian hymnal…But I do remember the awkward silence that followed the outburst. It was painfully obvious that most of the rest of us in the church did not share his taste in hymns.”
I certainly hope that we are not calling this man, Archie, as an allusion to Archie Bunker--the backward thinking bigot. Reducing this elderly man to a caricature really isn’t fair. Apparently, members of the church are offended by the use of militaristic imagery in “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Back before the term, “politically correct,” was in vogue, mainline hymnals were purged of sexist, militaristic, and insensitive lyrics. Many “Archies” are still hurting from being told that their beloved hymns are immoral. In fact, truth be told, I am an “Archie.” I see nothing wrong in the hymn.

But the story doesn’t end here. Archie is diagnosed with cancer. He is dying. One of the last Sundays that he is able to attend church, the congregation sings, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
“Even the committed pacifists in our pews belted out lyrics about the church being ‘like a mighty army’ and ‘marching as to war.’ For a moment those of us who normally cringe when militaristic images are applied to faith were experiencing the hymn as our friend Archie did -- not as a throwback to the Crusades, but as a rallying cry to discipleship in a time of fear and danger. Archie’s face shone. It was a moment of true community.”
I hate to argue with a moment of true community, but on a certain level this troubles me. If the hymn is inherently immoral, why sing it at all? If it is not, which is one implication of the story, why do we have to wait until Archie is in the final stages of cancer before we can sing it? I know these people were being gracious and loving, but indulging a dying man like this seems patronizing. What would be so wrong singing the song once a year while the man was living? What about singing it now that Archie is gone as we remember the communion of saints? Could a moment of true community be expanded or extended?

I thought that the hymn has always been meant to be a “rallying cry to discipleship.” If it has been taken as otherwise, the wiser course would be to correct misunderstandings, not ban the hymn.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Newsletter: Christmas in Narnia

In the book, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis tells the wonderful story of four children from our world entering the magical world of Narnia. The problem is that Narnia is being held hostage by a horrible witch. By her magic, she has made it winter in Narnia. As one of the characters says, "always winter but never Christmas." Under the snow, Narnia remains frightened and lifeless. One of the first signs that the witch’s power is breaking is a visit by Father Christmas. C.S. Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, the author the Lord of the Rings, advised Lewis not to include the scene with Father Christmas. He felt that it would create confusion. Nonetheless, Lewis rejected the advice of his friend. Christmas would come to Narnia.

We don’t live in Narnia, but we are experienced with winter. Snow may not be very common, but we understand chilling temperatures and a wind that cuts like a knife. The plants and trees become dormant, and a dreary brown dominates the landscape. We also recognize that winter is not dependent on the calendar. We have all experienced chilling seasons in our own lives. Those are the times when we are blown about by events and a dreary melancholy dominates our moral, spiritual, and emotional landscape. Who wouldn’t welcome a visit from Father Christmas during these times?

That’s what the Christmas season is about. The people of Israel understood winter. They understood slavery and domination as they waited pensively for the Messiah. Christmas comes and demonstrates that winter is only for a season. The tyranny of winter is temporary. The birth, life, death, resurrection, and eventual return of Jesus assures us that our winters will break into spring. The White Witch of Narnia knows that if Christmas never comes, her rule will be permanent. But Christmas cannot be stopped.

Our God is on the move. Merry Christmas.