A few times over the course of this practice, I’ve talked about the work of a hymn, mostly in reference to hymns that I don’t think carry their weight. And some of you have asked me what I mean by that, and it’s important as we approach today’s hymn, which I’m not sure I like.
For me, this discussion begins with remembering the inextricable connection between worship and theater, as ancient humans began to act out their centering stories and ideas about how the world and the mysterious worked. As religions develop with their various performative elements, so does performance outside the ritual space, each growing up and changing in tandem. At some point there’s a clear delineation, yet through the millennia, liturgy learns from theater learns from liturgy learns from theater ad infinitum. It shouldn’t surprise you that one of my courses in seminary was entitled Ritual and Performance, where we explored performative arts in our deepening of ritual form and function.
Now central to theater, and subsequently to worship as well, is what we might call story arc; something shifts from the time we start to the time we finish. If we’re listening to a fairy tale, we go from ‘once upon a time’ to ‘they lived happily ever after.’ If we’re watching a play – say, Romeo and Juliet – we go from ‘Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we make our scene” to ‘For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” And in between, there’s a story. We go from point to point, each part of the performance getting us further along.
This is especially important when we talk about musical theater, as what separates the art form from others is that the music isn’t tangential but is vital to the plot. Something changes or shifts during each song, whether it’s expository information that helps us get oriented (“Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls explains the setting and general character of our characters) or working out a decision (“Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy), or making/breaking a connection between characters (“No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods). Occasionally you have a true performance piece (“Don’t Tell Mama” from Cabaret), but even there, there’s something happening about character and plot, an undercurrent even as you enjoy the number.
Through this lens, then, liturgical elements in a worship service – from introits and opening hymns to prayers, readings, sermons, and offerings to benedictions and postludes – all have a performative character and are meant to do some work to move our ‘story’ along. Sometimes our story, or arc, is hard to nail down, but whatever our worship’s intent, we are in fact telling a sacred story with words and music. Thus, thinking about each separate element in terms of this musical theater idea of the work of the songs will help create the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual journey we hope to bring people on (whether it be deepening, awakening, healing, etc.).
Which means our music – including our hymns – have work to do. They are elements that help shape the arc of our worship so that we’re not experiencing emotional or spiritual whiplash. It’s why we spend a lot of time looking for the right hymns with the right mood and feel, hymns that mean we’re a little bit changed (or have the potential to be) by the time we’ve finished singing them. And I recognize that one reason this spiritual practice of mine has become popular is that I give clues about the genre, mood, tempo, and emotional arc of these hymns, helping you place them well in the liturgical stories you’re telling each week. Whether it’s Gather the Spirit, serving as a prologue, or Find a Stillness, bringing us into prayer, or We Would Be One, bringing people together, or Wake Now My Senses, leading us to decisions about our call, or even Go Now in Peace, helping us make a transition in the story – these hymns do some work to serve the arc of worship.
Which brings me back to today’s hymn, a jazzy number by one of my favorite UU composers, Tom Benjamin.
When I first started today, I was sure my response would be one of pure disappointment, because on first singing, it’s simply a ‘yay nature’ song, and god knows we had plenty of those a year ago. Yet as I think about the things I’ve written above, I understand now that it’s not so much a ‘move the story along’ hymn but a ‘set the stage’ hymn – much like “Fugue for Tinhorns” – it tell us where we are and the character of the worship we are about to experience. And it sets a tone (upbeat and jazzy) that hopefully tells us more about what’s coming.
Praise to God and thanks we bring,
hearts rejoice and voices sing;
praises to the Glorious One;
for a year of wonder done.
Praise now for the budding green,
April’s Resurrection scene;
Praise now for the shining hours
starring all the land with flowers.
Praise now for the summer rain;
feeding day and night with grain;
praise now for the tiny seed;
holding all the word shall need;
Praise now for the garden root,
meadow grass and orchard fruit;
and for hills and valleys broad;
bring we now our thanks to God.
Praise now for the snowy rest,
falling soft on nature’s breast;
for the happy dreams of birth,
brooding in the quiet earth,
For this year of wonder done,
praise to the All glorious One;
hearts rejoice and voices sing;
praise and love and thanks we bring.
I was set to not like this hymn much and I’m still not sold on its surprisingly simple form that makes it feel (to me) a little boring, but even in my writing I have turned myself around a bit on its use. I’m not sure I would use it, but I can see how it could be used. What I hope is that what follows fits the mood as well as the theme – the service that would follow, if I were to design it, would use more upbeat, jazzy songs, maybe involve a story that feels improvised in parts, or a sermon that a conversation between music and words, perhaps include many places for voices to join together, and certainly explore the reasons why we sing praise to spring (even if it’s not actual resurrection) and what it does for our spiritual growth. If we don’t let the hymn’s work come to fruition, then it’s a weird ‘yay spring’ song and I’m not sure why it was used at all.
Thus endeth the lesson.
For readers in the US, may your Thanksgiving celebration be all you hope it will be and none of what you dread.