Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

This past May, Royce Eckhardt, Minister of Music at the Winnetka, Illinois Presbyterian Church, and I conducted a 50s Plus Conference at Pilgrim Pines on ethnic music in the Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook. The theme we chose was "Thinking Globally and Singing Locally." Thinking globally has been, and still is, central to our Christian proclamation and mission. However, with the entry into our vocabulary of the concept of globalization, it has new relevance, particularly as the term "global village" seems suddenly real and near—right at our doorstep.

New faces from different parts of the world are appearing in our congregations in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. They represent groups from different parts of the world: Sudanese, Laotians, Hmong, Somalis, and others. Faced with a new opportunity for ministry, pastors and lay people are asking: How can we offer hospitality in welcoming these new immigrants into the community of faith? There is a growing sense among Covenanters and other churches that God is doing something new. We find ourselves tested and also enriched by hearing new voices and by experiencing other traditions of the larger global church.

Thinking globally invites new singing locally. We have a new and wonderful opportunity to renew and energize our worship by connecting with brothers and sisters in Christ from around the world, as we pause in our giving and become receivers from these fellow Christians.

Furthermore, as receivers, we have the opportunity to welcome music from the neighborhood as well as from other parts of the world as a gift of the Holy Spirit. New sounds, new rhythms, new texts, and new movements invite us to recognize the Body of Christ as one with many parts. Mindful that our worship experiences, whether traditional or contemporary, can become narrow and provincial, Royce and I proceeded in the hope that, during our three-day workshop among seniors, we might open some new doors and windows in congregational singing. We proceeded in faith that the new hymnal could become an instrument for stretching, a musical workout for flabby spiritual muscles.

We both served on the Hymnal Commission so we were well acquainted with our intentions in preparing a hymnal and worship book for the 21st century, namely, setting the table for African-Americans, Hispanics, Caribbeans, Africans from Ghana, South Africans, Koreans, and many others, as well as providing for our tradition's musical needs.

What happens when we learn to sing the songs of other ethnic groups? I believe it serves the Gospel in overcoming racism. If we sing songs, let us say, of Hispanics, or African-Americans in Sunday worship, it will shape how we see and work beside these persons of a different ethnic background. In other words, by music we build bridges that enable us to meet—not as strangers, or aliens or outsiders—but as neighbors, and as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Royce and I confessed fears that by using some 26 ethnic songs that were new, some of them challenging given their diversity of styles, we might encounter some resistance, perhaps anger. Our fears were groundless. It was wonderful to hear these seniors lift their voices in a Hispanic/Brazilian hymn, Number 53, "We Worship Only You," written by Jorge Maldonado, a gifted musician, ecumenist, and Covenanter. (Mr. Maldonado is the remarkable leader of an Hispanic Covenant seminary in Los Angeles.) It was also moving to hear them sing a Russian Kyrie ("Lord, have mercy") in a responsive reading of Psalm 109.

I was especially touched by the singing of another Hispanic hymn, Number 333, "You Have Come." It's a hymn that brings us to the lake shore of Galilee where we hear the call of Jesus to the disciples to leave possessions behind-—boats, nets, labor, gold, and weapons—in order to follow him. In the refrain there is one of the most remarkable phrases, one I have never heard before in any hymns or sermons—an image of a smiling Christ.

O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
and while smiling have spoken my name;
now my boat's left on the shoreline behind me;
by your side I will seek other seas.

Those of us from a Scandinavian heritage have a great musical tradition as well. We explored that hymnody and introduced Hymn 504 "Gathered in God's Presence" written by two Norwegians, Svein Ellingsen and Egil Hovland who composed the hymn in 1993 for the Winter Olympics held in Lillehammer, Norway. They use the strong metaphor of "torch of promise" in the refrain in Verse 4: "bear the flame now kindled as light to all the nations."

We were overwhelmed by the response to the workshop. The East Coast Seniors demonstrated flexibility, zest, and eagerness to learn new things.

To conclude this report, I want to share the word from the web page of one of the finest hymnologists in America, Dr. C. Michael Hawn. He is a Southern Baptist, a passionate teacher of global song who teaches in a Methodist seminary in Texas.

If the liturgy of the church in the United States is to continue to have vitality, then we must listen to new voices and incorporate them in our worship experience. Among these voices are those from places that we considered in the past to be our "mission fields"—Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The songs, prayers and confessions from the global community can add depth and energy to worship that is too often complacent and culturally bound. What we need is a little reverse missions! (http://www.smu.edu/theology/people/hawn.html)