Monday, December 29, 2014

The Faith We Sing (2000)

As my first post was on The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), I felt it only appropriate to post next on The Faith We Sing (2000), its supplement. I remember when I was about 13 and my home church added this book to its repertoire. At first, I was excited since it meant new material to sing in church, and to sightread downstairs on the piano. But over time, particularly as I've become more of a collector, I find The Faith We Sing quite weak even in its role as a supplementary. (As an aside, the book was re-released and re-branded in 2003 for use by the Presbyterian church as Sing the Faith, with only a few minor alterations.)

Newer material

The book starts off decently with one of Gracia Grindal's better texts, "We Sing to You, O God", which flows much more nicely than her usual output (cf. "To a Maid Engaged to Joseph"), even if "The Rock who gave us birth" seems like a mixed metaphor.

Also quite effective is Thomas Troeger's "Praise the Source of Faith and Learning", a very sturdy text about the balance of faith and education set to "Hyfrydol", one of my favorite tunes. Troeger's knack for evocative words is in full force, with phrases such as "sparked and stoked the mind". Troeger also alters and expands John Milton's "Let Us With a Gladsome Mind" into "Let Us With a Joyful Mind", and the Transfiguration text "Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory".

Troeger is not the only returning "newer" name from the 1989 book. Fred Pratt Green shows up with one of his more direct texts: "Now Praise the Hidden God of Love", set to "O Waly Waly". I like such lines as "Who bids us never lose our zest, though age is urging us to rest", and actually wish that Green had put a little more meat on this text. (Also, I find that "O Waly Waly" sounds better in 4/4, as was done on Hal Hopson's "The Gift of Love". Oddly, that version is used for Susan Palo Cherwien's "O Blessed Spring", but the more "traditional" 3/4 version shows up twice elsewhere.)

John Thornburg also shows a lyrical proficiency and a desire not to polish rough edges of God's nature, as terms like "God, the table-turning prophet" and "God, the pillar in the darkness" give color to "God the Sculptor of the Mountains" to make it feel like much more than a string of "God, the X of the Y" phrases over and over. However, he misfires with "Within the Day to Day (A Hymn for Deacons)", by trying to say too much in too few words: what do palaces and museums have to do with each other? Why did you bring up a plumber?… Okay, "excavating God unearths new hope each day" is a good line. But why did you let Jane Marshall write the melody and make it sound like a nursery tune?

Also rather stark is Carl P. Daw's take on the promised coming of our Lord in "Wild and Lone the Prophet's Voice", while his Transfiguration-based "We Have Come at Christ's Own Bidding" (also set to "Hyfrydol") isn't quite as stark but still has winning lines such as "We, like Peter, find it tempting to remain and build a shrine / But true worship gives us courage to proclaim what we profess…").

Ruth Duck, who has at least one entry in the older hymnal, makes several appearances here too. Her texts are usually fine, taking images such as "Womb of Life" and crafting well-done images of life and rebirth from that title, or "As a Fire Is Meant for Burning" — how often is fire used as a religious image? — as a metaphor for mission. Speaking of fire, Julian Rush mentions a "blazing phoenix spirit" in the hymn "In the Midst of New Dimensions", which I admit is a very inspired image.

Brian Wren's "Bring Many Names" also baffled me at first: how does one "bring" a name? Why are you referring to God as a mother? But the more that I look at it, the more I see that it's a well-balanced text, using contradictory images (mother/father, young/old) to, at least from my interpretation, show God's breadth. (Someone on Facebook told me that when Wren first wrote the text, it started at the "Strong Mother God" verse, verse 2, and was turned down from the 1989 hymnal. He then added more to it and it showed up here.) He also touches on the history of "for all the writings that survived" and formed the Bible as we know it in "Deep in the Shadows of the Past".

Also using a maternal image is "Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth", Jean Janzen's paraphrase of Julianna of Norwich. (Another paraphrase shows up at "O Holy Spirit, Root of Life", this time of Hildegard of Bingen, but this one has an actual rhyme scheme and no motherly images.)

John Ylvisaker's "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry" (fun fact: my spell-check doesn't recognize "borning") could strike some as sappy, but I somehow find it rather tender sounding. On the other hand, I find its first-person framing a bit of an awkward fit for a congregation. Likewise I find "We Were Baptized in Christ Jesus" to have a tenderness to its melody.

And yes, there's Herbert Brokering. No, it's not "Earth and All Stars", the "loud boiling test tubes" that some people like to make fun of. Instead, it's "Stay with Us", a surprisingly staid text (outside "Jesus, be our great surprise") about companionship with Jesus that also changes rhyme schemes between verses: AABB on verse 1, AABC on the rest.

Bishop Gordon Light, a former folk singer, offers "She Comes Sailing on the Wind", which sounds not unlike a 50's or 60's folk song. I hear a bit of "Puff the Magic Dragon" in it. Its use of feminine imagery for the Spirit is, at this point, unsurprising after so many such texts using feminine images, but I do recall one Facebook colleague saying once that it seemed more to be about the Flying Nun than anything else.

Mary Nelson Keithahn also gives a few texts, the standouts in my opinion being the Holy Week-themed "We Sang Our Glad Hosannas" (I like the minor-to-major modulation!) and another mother-themed text, "A Mother Lined a Basket". All but one of her texts is set to a beautiful melody by John D. Horman. (The odd one out, "When We Are Called to Sing Your Praise", uses "Kingsfold" instead.) Her texts have a simplicity and mostly avoid the "overly modern" edges that drag down some of the newer texts in both this book and its predecessor.

Rae E. Whitney also gets major points for originality by highlighting a little-known fact about the Christian calendar: the fact that "Sunday's Palms Are Wednesday's Ashes", or as the footnote elucidates, the custom of burning unused Palm Sunday palms to create Ash Wednesday ashes.

Easily the worst of the newer writers with repeat appearances in this book is Shirley Erena Murray. Her first appearance is "God Weeps", which is actually not her worst by a long shot, although it has a couple faults such as saying that God "bleeds at" something (This text also is the first of many to handle the topic of abused women, one of many more "modern" topics that didn't show up even in the 1989 book.) Murray also recalls the "worldly troubles" of the predecessor book by writing about "through our nation's spent frustration" and "tax and tithe are for a purpose" (not a rhyme, not even close) in "Wounded World That Cries for Healing". Similarly, "Who Is My Mother, Who Is My Brother" has "crutches and stigmas" (good name for a rock band?) and "family failings, human derailings" (my spell-check doesn't recognize "derailings", either). She also gives the "save the earth" messages that children of my generation grew so weary of in "I Am Your Mother (Earth Prayer)", which, if not for mentioning "God is our maker" in the last verse, could very well have been written for a PSA in 1990.

But even her nadir seems to be "For One Great Piece". Set to a monotone melody by Jim Strathdee, it's an insultingly simple text: three verses, two-and-a-half of which are "This [noun] I [verb]", and the last half of the third verse is "This is small part, in one small place / Of one heart's beat for one great Peace." The meaning is fine, but the childish writing (not one word is more than one syllable!) is downright laughable. (However, not all of Murray's work is bad: "Star-Child" fares decently as a simple Christmas text — bonus points for the word "stupendous" — and "Loving Spirit" is fine other than the redundant "up upon your shoulder".)

Handt Hanson and Paul Murakami offer a handful of lightweight material: the title of "Clap Your Hands" is literally one fourth of the entire song, and good luck clapping on 2 and 4 with a melody that syncopated. (Oh well, at least it's not in 7/4 like "Waterlife".) 

The continuing modernity of the hymnal supplement is reflected in the inclusion of such names as Twila Paris ("Honor and Praise", "We Will Glorify the King of Kings", "He Is Exalted", "Lamb of God"), Michael W. Smith ("Great Is the Lord" and "How Majestic Is Your Name" — has any hymnal ever not put these two back-to-back?), Rich Mullins ("Awesome God"), Darlene Zschech ("Shout to the Lord"), Rick Founds ("Lord, I Lift Your Name on High"), Kurt Kaiser ("O How He Loves You and Me"),  Graham Kendrick ("O Lord, Your Tenderness", "Shine, Jesus, Shine", "Here Is Bread, Here Is Wine"), etc. A couple older names like Andraé Crouch also sneak back in (turns out "Bless His Holy Name" really is that short), and even an older name that didn't show up previously (Jimmy Owens, with "Holy, Holy.")

And if it seems like I'm speeding through a lot of the praise chorus stuff, that's mainly because there's just so little to say about it. The number of modern praise choruses in this book is overwhelming. The vast majority of them are the typical "repeat a phrase 900 times, then repeat another phrase 900 times", or "Repeat this verse a bunch of times, only with one or two words changed on each repeat". If it seems like I'm speeding through a lot of this, then that's mainly due to how alike most of them are, particularly with their mismatches of oversimplified lyrics (Clinton Utterbach's "Blessed Be the Name of the Lord" repeats each line SIX TIMES) and overcomplicated melodies (thus frustrating not only congregations who probably aren't skilled at counting out beats, never mind accompanists such as I who actually are!). Some are also out of range for congregations: a shining example is "Please Enter My Heart, Hosanna" by Cathy Townley, which has a ton of low A's in it. The highest note is only an octave higher than that, so the song could have easily been moved up from D to F major to put it in a more singable key. (But that still wouldn't fix the syncopation.) I could go on, but so much has been written on the faults of modern praise choruses that I would add no new insight other than my own displeasure from behind the piano whenever such a song is slotted at one of the churches I play for now.

But probably the most congregation-unfriendly piece I've seen in a hymnal is Al Oppenheimer's setting of the Lord's Prayer. Not only does it require a lot of low A's, but it is also heavily laden with repeat bars, and would be nothing but a confusing mess to those who can't read music. I can read music and I'm still having a dickens of a time following it. (All that just to repeat the same three notes ad nauseam, too?!)

GIA Publications has a lot of its writers and composers in here. John Bell (little of his own other than "The Summons", but a few arrangements), Marty Haugen ("Shepherd Me, O God", "Bring Forth the Kingdom", "Healer of Our Every Ill", "Gather Us In"), and David Haas ("Blest Are They", "We Are Called"). While I know folks whose blood begins to boil at the mention of the latter two names, I merely find Haugen average. Haugen can write halfway enjoyable material in my opinion ("Shepherd Me, O God" is probably his best), and his melodies I find enjoyable, but he tends to overwrite at times. Haas, both in text and melody, seems to be so unflinchingly bland as to defy comment. One GIA piece I do like is "Taste and See" by James E. Moore, which is also present.

As this is a supplementary hymnal, it doesn't have any really liturgical context, so I find the inclusion of a single communion setting (by Mark A. Miller) quite out of place, never mind incredibly monotonous.

And ending this section: why is a song titled "Joy in the Morning" in minor key? Just asking. Joy and minor key don't usually go together.

Older material

By the frequent use of the word "new" above, it's clear that "forgotten classics" is not this hymnal's selling point. However, there is a handful of material in here, outside the traditional sing-alongs, that is significantly older than my own mother.

One of the first is "The Lily of the Valley" by Charles W. Fry, the kind of 19th century gospel standard that I have a soft spot for. Likewise, "Since Jesus Came into My Heart", "His Eye Is on the Sparrow", "Living for Jesus", and "I'll Fly Away". "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" is also a worthwhile addition.

Also present are "My Song Is Love Unknown" by Samuel Crossman and "Come, Let Us With Our Lord Arise" by Charles Wesley; as these are back-to-back, I could show you a picture of them and probably have you believe they were from a totally different hymnal. Wesley's "Victim Divine" is also here (as is his favorite slant rhyme, claim/Lamb), but it's set to the monotone "Selena" by Isaac Woodbury.

The English "The Snow Lay on the Ground", a jaunty little Christmas piece, is also a welcome addition. (And I wish that the Episcopal church I play for now knew the darn thing!) Also rounding out the older Christmas texts are "Joseph Lieber, Joseph Mein" and "Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne".

William Farley Smith is, surprisingly, not tasked with arranging the spirituals. Instead, they are scattered among various other composers for arrangement, or just given no credited arranger at all. (For a real culture shock, "Over My Head" and "O Freedom" are arranged by John Bell, who is Scottish!) Perhaps they disliked Smith's complex jazz chords, as the arrangements here are much more subdued and simple. However, that didn't stop J Jefferson Cleveland and Verolga Nix from stretching "Blessed Quietness" out to 4/4 and giving it a gospel swing.

International material

Also returning are the Taizé chants. Having looked at a few more of these, I find that a lot of them are unnaturally dreary sounding, so "Come, Rejoice in God" stands out if only for finally being in a major key!

Even most of the international pieces, mostly Spanish or African in origin, are extremely brief in nature, as opposed to the actual hymns of the previous book. Most of the time, this is at least excused by being short traditional songs (better suited for maybe a camp or a Sunday school than a congregation, in my opinion). But on the far other end of the spectrum is Guillermo Cuéllar's "Santo", which has a meter of 87.87 D 87.87 D. This is the only time I've ever seen a meter doubled twice. 

One problem I had with many of the Asian texts in the previous hymnal is that many of them seemed to scan horribly when translated into English. That problem isn't present with "Why Has God Forsaken Me?", which scans reasonably well, although I wonder why the second half of each verse is put in quotation marks and not just separated by a colon.

Omissions and additions

Unlike in the previous hymnal, many songs now feature notes indicating "stanzas included in other editions". This is probably because many of the newer tunes feature verses to be sung only by a song leader and refrains by the congregation.

However, there are still some glaring omissions not excused by the above. "As the Deer" has only its first verse, for instance, instead of the usual three. "Awesome God" by Rich Mullins is also devoid of its verses, without even a note that they exist in other books — I wonder if this was due to the "judgement and wrath He poured out on Sodom" verse that some congregations may not feel comfortable singing?

Rev. Willard Jabusch's "The King of Glory Comes" usually has five or more verses, but here, it's pared to three. (Perhaps they felt it overwritten?)

"The Lone, Wild Bird", an old text set to a tune from Walker's Southern Harmony, has two extra verses tacked on by Marty Haugen, which do nothing to enhance the text and just seem dull.


Handt Hanson and Paul Murakami's "Clap Your Hands" has a run-on: "God is great we praise our God with song!" which is corrected the second time around.

V. Earle Copes' tune "Kingdom" shows up twice as a tune. This is actually a slight reworking of his earlier "For the Bread" tune, with all but the next-to-last measure re-harmonized, and the first note in the third measure changed from G to E. (The "Kingdom" version appears with the "For the Bread" text in at least the 1983 hymnal Rejoice in the Lord, just to further the confusion.)

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