Last Sunday we closed with a hymn that I’m sure was unfamiliar to most. Lonely the Boat was written by Helen Kim in 1921 and is based on the story of Jesus’ stilling of the storm found in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). But, more importantly it tells the story of suffering that many Koreans, especially women, were facing at the time it was written, and reminds us of “the abiding support, love, and peace afforded by God in Christ for the Christian on ‘life’s cruel sea.’” Although an older hymn, it did not appear in a hymnal in English until 1983. Its subject matched the theme of Stephen Ministry Sunday very well, but its Asian tune marked it as very different from our normal hymns.
We pastors usually hear more about our hymn selections on Sunday than just about anything else we do. When we sing hymns that people love, we receive thanks. And when we sing hymns that people are unfamiliar with then we hear about it as well. Usually the refrain goes something like this: “There are so many good tradition hymns, why do we have to sing ones we don’t know.” While we do take these comments seriously and keep them in mind when we are choosing hymns, there are also sometimes puzzling to me.
For example, another hymn we sang on Sunday was Here I Am, Lord. This hymn is certainly on many people’s short list of favorites, including mine. But, as hymns go, it is very new. It was only written in 1981, and was not included in the United Methodist Hymnal until the last version was published in 1989. That means this hymn, now considered one of the “good traditional hymns” has only been sung in most congregations for, at most, twenty years. At some point in the life of nearly everyone who is reading this, this hymn was sung for the first time. Did everyone love it immediately? Possibly, but my guess would be that many people came to love it more every time it was sung.
Other “traditional” songs include Lord of the Dance, which, although it uses an older tune, was not written until 1963. Hymn of Promise which is becoming a standard at funeral and memorial services, and which we will sing on June 6, was written in 1986. We Are the Church was written in 1972, and I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry, another of my favorites, was written in 1985. I could keep going, but I think you can see the pattern.
The simple fact is, at one point every song in the hymnal was new. At the time they were written, the hymns of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts were viewed with disdain by many people. People said they were not as good as the old hymns, and didn’t want to sing them. Now there would be near riots if anyone even considered removing them from the hymnal.
While there are times that we are going to sing hymns that are tough because they are unfamiliar, I ask first for your forgiveness and second for your patience. Who is to say that the new hymn we sing next week won’t be one of your favorites in a few years? Sometimes they need to have the space and time to grow in order to flower in our hearts.