Hymns sung in church teach theology, as I wrote almost 10 years ago in this blog post.
And sometimes the theology contained in hymns can be misleading or in some way troublesome, as I wrote in this Presbyterian Outlook column early in 2020.
So it's important for pastors, choir directors and others who choose hymnals and the hymns printed in them to take care so that the theology espoused by the hymn isn't wildly out of sync with the theology espoused from the pulpit.
One of the important sources of new Christian hymns these days is a Presbyterian pastor who, with her husband, helps lead a small church in upstate New York. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette seems to turn out lovely new hymns about every half hour, though I know that can't be right. And she makes those hymns available, sometimes for little or nothing, on her Carolynshymns website.
She has just published a new collection of her hymns in a book called I Sing to My Savior: New Hymns from the Stories in the Gospel of Luke.
"Hymns," she writes, "are prayers that are sung, often in the community of a congregation, but also during personal times of prayer, Bible reading and reflection. Many hymns are directly based on specific scripture readings, and quite a few of mine are based on the stories found in Luke's gospel.
"At the same time, these hymns include the joys and sorrows of the world we live in. They are prayers to God -- to the One who continues to love, nudge, call, guide, challenge, strengthen and forgive us in our world today."
Carolyn's hymns, which she began writing in 1998, are set to familiar hymn tunes. But, of course, they have new words that in some ways give new life to those old tunes.
What this new book offers besides the hymns themselves is the scripture passage on which each is based and a short personal reflection on what the words or tune mean to Carolyn (pictured here).
The book's title comes from the name of one of her hymns that's based on Luke 1:46-55 and is sung to the tune of "Let All Things Now Living." Here are the first four lines:
I sing to my Savior, for God has shown favor/on one who is lowly, of humble degree./Now each generation, with great celebration,/will speak of God's mercy to people like me.
I sent Carolyn an email with a few questions about writing hymns. Here are some of her responses:
Can you tell me about a time when someone told you that one of your hymns made a major difference in her/his life? Or helped him/her understand a point of theology in a new way?
One time, a woman came up to me at a hymn workshop I was doing and said that she had sung my hymn, “Abraham Journeyed to a New Country,” at a conference the year before, and it had changed her mind about immigration,
In singing the hymn, she had become much more aware of the many stories of immigrants in the Bible — people like Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Jesus and his parents, who traveled across borders for a variety of reasons. In looking at biblical stories of immigration, she came to understand the real and compelling stories of immigrants today — people who are also deeply loved by God.
I wrote several hymns during the pandemic that reached thousands and, in one case, tens of thousands of people on Facebook and on my hymn newsletter email list. Many people wrote to me saying how my words had helped them through that period of great isolation, providing comfort in a very difficult time.
Have you ever, after hearing one of your hymns sung in a church, realized that it needed revision and called it back out of circulation?
I try to think through each hymn pretty carefully before I send it out. Often, when I am writing a hymn, especially one that is about a justice concern, I consult with others who have specific experiences or perspectives that I need to hear. I try to listen to “the voices of peoples long silenced”. . .before I write a hymn. I also share my hymn drafts with a couple of family members, including my husband Bruce (also a pastor), and we get into some good theological and biblical discussions about my hymns before I send them out.
Do you have a favorite or model hymn writer? If so, do you find yourself copying his or her style or merely at times adapting that style into something that's uniquely yours?
I have enjoyed singing the hymns of Ruth Duck and Jane Parker Huber, who both wrote new hymn texts to old, familiar hymn tunes that are in the public domain. Early on, in 1998, I attended a hymn writers’ workshop that was sponsored by the Presbyterian Writers Guild. It was led by pastor and hymn writer John Dallas, and it was very helpful to me to be part of that small group of writers for an intense week of writing together.
I love writing hymns and sharing them with churches. I have been writing hymns since 1998; I have written over 400 new hymn texts to old, familiar hymn tunes.
Next time you sing a hymn, check to see who wrote it and when. Maybe you'll find it's one that Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote just a month or two ago.
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THE PANDEMIC ALREADY HAS CHANGED MINISTRY
It's going to take a long time to figure out how the Covid pandemic has affected religious life in the U.S. (and elsewhere), but when it comes to being a pastor, a researcher says we've already entered a "new era of ministry." And, believe it or not, some of this new world involves good stuff.