Words of Encouragement
from Rob Lehman, Organist/Choirmaster

August 17, 2020
‘Tis the season for those of us who are political junkies. When, fresh out of graduate school, Allison and I moved to Washington, DC for me to join the staff of the Washington National Cathedral, I was immediately swept up by the political culture of our nation’s capital. The potent interest in the machinations of government that swelled within me have remained to this day. I channel surf to hear opposing viewpoints offered by talking heads, watch with intense interest as left and right battle out their positions on cable television, and cheer when one pundit eviscerates another with surgical precision. I suppose I am a partisan, but I am acutely aware that my own political and moral thinking has changed dramatically over the years. Like all of creation, I am a work in progress.

As I am a church musician and the Hymnal is my handbook, it will come as no surprise that I am intrigued by overtly political hymnody. Consider these lines by the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell from his 1845 poem The Present Crisis:

.....Once to every man and nation
.....Comes the moment to decide,
.....In the strife of truth and falsehood,
.....For the good or evil side;
.....Some great cause, some great decision,
.....Offering each the bloom or blight,
.....And the choice goes by forever
.....‘Twixt that darkness and that light. 

.....Then to side with truth is noble,
.....When we share her wretched crust,
.....Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
.....And ‘tis prosperous to be just;
.....Then it is the brave man chooses
.....While the coward stands aside,
.....Till the multitude make virtue
.....Of the faith they had denied. 

.....Tho’ the cause of evil prosper,
.....Yet the truth alone is strong;
.....Tho’ her portion be the scaffold,
.....And upon the throne be wrong:
.....Yet that scaffold sways the future,
.....And, behind the dim unknown,
.....Standeth God within the shadow,
.....Keeping watch above His own.

Contained in the Hymnal 1940, these words were not included in our Hymnal 1982. I wonder why? Lowell is considered one of America’s most scholarly poets and his words will certainly hit close to home for many.

Consider also these words of G. K. Chesterton:

.....O God of earth and altar,
.....bow down and hear our cry,
.....our earthly rulers falter,
.....our people drift and die;
.....the walls of gold entomb us,
.....the swords of scorn divide,
.....take not thy thunder from us,
.....but take away our pride.

.....From all that terror teaches,
.....from lies of tongue and pen,
.....from all the easy speeches
.....that comfort cruel men,
.....from sale and profanation
.....of honour and the sword,
.....from sleep and from damnation,
.....deliver us, good Lord!

Chesterton’s politics fitted with his deep distrust of concentrated wealth and power. Like Lowell, he could have written these words just yesterday; for a large segment of our society they are as timely and pertinent today as when he penned them a century ago.

I love hymnody: theology in all its manifestations set to music.

Hymnody challenges our thinking and our emotions. It can summon up great joy and express profound grief. It helps us to understand what is happening in our world and it offers guidance to the wandering Christian soul. It understands our current situation because it has been there before. The hymnal is a living, breathing volume. 

I commend The Hymnal 1982 to you and suggest you open it and read the poetry contained therein regularly. You may find our hymnal here. Read the texts slowly and read them aloud. They are thought-provoking, insightful, and life-changing at best, interesting at worst. 

We are constantly assaulted by all the noise, noise, noise, noise (as the Grinch puts it) of our world and are unrelentingly assailed by the many crises and important decisions in our daily lives. You will be surprised at how hymn writers know us and are able to address our personal situations and concerns across time and continent. 

Be still then, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:11)

Find a quiet corner and crack open the hymnal. This timeless poetry – theology in verse – certainly helps to put my mind at ease. It will help you, too!

Rob Lehman
Organist and Choirmaster

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