11 June 2007

Paul Gerhardt on His Worst Day Is Better than Twila Paris

My point is not to pick on Twila Paris. The one hymn of hers that has been included in the Lutheran Service Book is textually not so bad, even if the tune is rather weak and schmaltzy. But it is another case of trading birthrights for porridge when we let go of solid Lutheran hymnody to make room for the thin and passing fads of the present. Not that LSB has done so badly in this regard. It’s actually quite good, and arguably the best collection, overall, of Lutheran and other hymns in English ever published. Given the choice, I’d gladly swap a hundred of its weaker hymns for a hundred historic hymns that were left out (or relegated to the electronic edition). Still, that’s only fifteen percent of the hymnal, and there’s more other hymns in the book than any congregation can use with any consistent frequency. So, there’s a need for pastoral discretion, and the next hymnal project can have a go at doing even better than LSB. In the meantime, I’m sincerely grateful for the beautiful job that my good friend, Dr. Paul Grime, has done in shepherding this project to such a satisfying and salutary conclusion. Thanks!

When I comment that Paul Gerhardt on his worst day is better than Twila Paris, I’m not being cynical or sarcastic. I mean it just the way it reads. Paul Gerhardt on his better days was pretty good, too, but I am convinced it was the crosses that he bore throughout his life that taught his heart to sing repentance and faith. The theology of the cross has been a steady drumbeat of mine since I first began to learn of it, from Dr. Luther, in my studies at the seminary. But it was this past December, following the birth of my own little Gerhardt, as I was studying his namesake, that I was given a deepened sense of this theology of the cross.

It is not in spite of the cross, but precisely by the way and the means of the cross, that God accomplishes His purposes for us. That is preeminently true of the Cross of Christ. But His Holy Cross is the paradigm for the way in which the Lord God continues to reveal Himself and give Himself to us, and to deal with us in love, unto repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, unto the life everlasting. Thus, I have often encouraged myself and others that the crosses we are given to bear are laid upon us for our own good, as a blessing, not a curse, for the strengthening of faith. Our Lord is not far from us, but nearest of all to us, in and with the Cross. C.S. Lewis grappled with that, following the death of his wife, in his book, A Grief Observed. Paul Gerhardt grappled with it in his hymns.

It is especially in this case of Gerhardt that it dawned on me, that the crosses we bear are a blessing, not only to our own Christian faith and life, but also to our neighbor, perhaps to many neighbors in the world that we may never even know. St. Paul the Apostle writes of this, as well, in his Epistles: the way in which the Ministers of the Gospel bear the Cross and Passion of Christ in their own bodies and lives, for the sake and benefit of those to whom they are called and sent. In Paul Gerhardt’s hymnody, I have personally benefitted from the crosses that faithful man of God bore throughout his life.

Gerhardt did not write from a place of abstract contemplation, but from within the crucible of suffering. From childhood on, everyone around him was dying: his parents, his siblings, his wife and children. He also suffered in his office, for his faithfulness in teaching and practice. He lived more or less in poverty, in the midst of real hardship round about. And all of this that he experienced has breathed a pathos into his hymns, even in translation, that speaks to the very heart of anyone who suffers the hurts and heartaches of this life on earth. Not only the temporal hardships of the body, but the struggles of faith through the proverbial long dark nights of the soul. That is where the cross is heaviest and hardest of all, where the devil attacks with his vile accusations of guilt and sin, and his nagging questions of God’s faithfulness and love. There Jacob must persist in wrestling with the Angel of the Lord, refusing to let go of His Word of the Gospel. There the Canaanite woman prays for the "Yea and Amen" of Christ Jesus, even in the face of the Law’s ferocious "No!" There the Sweet Singer of Germany sings.

What never ceases to amaze me is the way that Gerhardt’s hymns cry out, from the heart, with such an honest awareness of suffering and sorrow, but for all of that, with such a soaring hope and confidence in the sure and certain Word of God in Christ. I am humbled, even as I am greatly comforted, by this confession of faith, by the joy and thanksgiving that burst from out of the very mire unto the Lord our Savior. The Cross does not destroy Gerhardt, but brings him through death and the grave into the faith and life which are in Christ Jesus. It cuts me to the quick and staggers me each time I sing his hymns, all the more so knowing the difficult circumstances in which Gerhardt was writing and singing such words. It is a healing wound, however, for which I am profoundly thankful.

Last week was one of those times when I spent my days in the doldrums, marinating in the melancholy blues. There were some irritations early on, but nothing tragic, no tremendous hardships. I wasn’t on the verge of despair, but I was down and depressed. I hate it when I fall into such a funk, not only because it’s miserable to feel that way, but especially because it gives the devil such an easy opening and foothold. So I skated along that precarious ledge of sullen crankiness, ready to plunge headlong at any moment into the abyss. Then it dawned on me, and it seemed so obvious, so simple, that I could not fathom why I had not thought of it sooner. I turned to Gerhardt in the hymnal, and I sang. In fact, I had family and friends to sing with me, as well, which is all the better.

Everyone is different, I suppose, but I find it almost impossible to remain in a funk when I sing with Gerhardt. If nothing else, I’m too ashamed to keep on fussing and moaning about my troubles while Pastor Gerhardt sings with such faith and hope and joyful confidence in the midst of his far greater trials and tribulations. Yet, shame does not bring the healing of the Gospel. It is not my embarrassment, but Gerhardt’s confession of Christ that renews the right Spirit within me and lifts my countenance. I can sing with Gerhardt, even before I feel like singing, because I know that what he sings is the Word of God. And singing the Word of God, like praying the Psalms, teaches my heart to believe and my mouth to confess what is true, come hell or high water against me.

I thank God for the crosses that He laid upon His servant, Paul Gerhardt, and for bearing him up under those crosses. It was Christ and His Cross that sustained that faithful hymnwriter, and He sustains me, as well. But our dear Lord Jesus Christ works through the ways and the means of His Cross, and Gerhardt is a case in point. Paul Gerhardt on his worst day was taught by the Word and Spirit of Christ the Crucified to fear, love and trust in God, and to rejoice in his sufferings. What a pastor learns from the Cross in such a way, he is able to use in caring for the souls of others. Several centuries after his death, in this 400th anniversary of his birth, Pastor Gerhardt is still caring for souls, including mine, with words that he was taught by the Holy Spirit, no doubt. Christ be praised!

1 comment:

Zaripest said...

I wish I had my LSB with me here! There have been plenty of times when I could have used a Gerhardt hymn or two...
Please remember to bring it with you in July!