The last few weeks in worship, we have sung People, Look East. This is a hymn that I have sung for years, but this was the first time I understood what the phrase “crowning of the year” means. I have always had a picture of a sparkly tiara in the dark hair of Ms. New Year in my mind.
Suddenly, as though a switch had been flipped, I realized that babies’ heads “crown” at some point in the birthing process. It is the symbolic moment when a baby settles into a more out than in status. The emergence of the baby is imminent when the head has crowned. Finally “seeing” the birth metaphor in that line, seemed to illuminate the entire rest of the hymn. It lit up and came alive in a way it never has before.Hymns can do some amazing things that other kinds of music often don’t. They have layered meanings, and difficult metaphors. They speak, like the Psalms, poetically. One of the complaints I hear is that hymns use “outdated, archaic” language. They use big, jawbreaking words which regular people do not understand. They are set to slow, boring music. Yet, even a difficult hymn to sing, like People, Look East, yields treasures of meaning and understanding for years, when a great praise chorus like Great Is the Lord, simply does not, and though a song like Bless the Broken Road yields immediate emotional content that no setting of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God can convey, the ideas born from the Martin Luther text will shape us throughout a lifetime.
To borrow from People, Look East, hymns plant seeds in us, the way that Scripture plants seeds in us. They take time, soil, light, water, nourishment, and often work to grow into the roots, stalks, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits of faith.
As you plan worship music, program music, and music for children’s ministries, I would like to challenge you to think not just about what music is immediately accessible, but also to include some music which is a step or two beyond where we are now. Faith and worship are lifelong practices, and we have many opportunities to plant seeds along the way, whose blossoms won’t appear for years.