Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Life * and then you die.......?"

A pastor I once worked for used the following statement to sum up (in his opinion) the nature of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?" His assessment was as follows: “This hymn basically says, 'life sucks*, then you die, but you get to go to heaven so it’s all OK.'” After my complete shock and utter disappointment that a Lutheran pastor could speak so superficially about this great hymn, I really got to thinking even more deeply about what this hymn means.

We’re studying the book of Job in Bible class at my parish. There’s a great deal of richness in that book, but I want to focus on one thing: God sends suffering. God uses suffering. The problem is that we want to know how and why he does it. Therefore, we offer excuses for God, telling the sufferer that everything will work out just fine and that God works all for good. In reality, though, we do not know how God will use that suffering, do we? The only thing we know is that he sends our trials, pain, and crosses. He does so for his own reasons to help up grow and trust in him. I think this to be a very valuable thing for all people to know. Hymns like, “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?” express this very notion. There’s a lot of richness in the hymn but spend a little time contemplating the second and third stanzas:

1. Why should cross and trial grieve me?
Christ is near
With his cheer;
They will not defeat me.
Who can rob me of the heaven
That God’s Son
For me won
When his life was given?

2. When life’s troubles rise to meet me,
Though their weight
May be great
They will not defeat me.
God, my loving shepherd sends them;
He who knows
All my woes
Knows how best to end them.

3. God gives me my days of gladness,
And I will
Trust Him still
When He sends me sadness.
God is good; His love attends me
Day by day,
Come what may,
Guides me and defends me.

4. From God’s joy can nothing sever,
For I am
His dear lamb,
He, my Shepherd ever.
I am his because He gave me
His own blood
For my good
By His death to save me.

5. Now in Christ, death cannot slay me,
Though it might,
Day and night,
Trouble and dismay me.
Christ has made my death a portal
From the strife
Of this life
To His joy immortal!

The pastor I mentioned earlier, at core, really has contempt for the theology of the cross and for his peoples’ need to understand it. This hymn would be forever banned from use at that parish because of its serious text (however comforting it may be) and because of its musical “remoteness,” even though it is no more remote that any other hymn in the hymnal.

I contend that our people need to sing hymns like this one. If they do not know any really strong theology of the cross hymns, this should be first on the list. How it will aid them in their lives, only God will know. But we are told to consider it joy when we encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance. Knowing this hymn will go a long way to helping us find that joy.

*Putting the best construction on things, we are confident that the pastor used this colloquialism in the athletic sense of "suck wind" (as in "easily winded/out of shape"), rather than something else.


Cindy R. said...

That pastor's appraisal of this hymn is essentially about what's happening to me, what's going to happen to me, and what I'm going to get out of it. It's all about me.

Gerhardt's hymns are all about Christ. While they are introspective and insightful regarding the human heart, they turn quickly to Christ and let the gospel predominate. One can count on the rich gospel in a Gerhardt hymn text to unwind the deluded, inward-turned human nature and turn it toward the Savior to receive truth and comfort.

Thank you for reminding us of this outstanding hymn. You are right that we need to sing such things.

Dr. Luther in the 21st Century said...

I can't comment about the Pastor's mindset, however, I think regarding his comment it is an oversimplification. His summary of the hymn does not do it justice. Gerhardt's hymns do acknowledge that life can and does at time "suck", often times you can see in his hymns pain that he himself is suffering. I think this is great! Why? Because one of the beauties of the Theology of the Cross is that we can acknowledge the life of a Christian is not always happy-clappy. And yet while we grieve and suffer, we do not do so as others because we have hope and Gerhardt points us to that hope. A wonderful and true movement because it is only outside of ourselves in Christ Alone can we find peace in trying times and in joyous times.

I do enjoy contemporary Christian music, but boy I wish more contemporary songs were as deep as Gerhardt's hymns. Maybe we could get some good Lutheran song writers to write some deeper and better contemporary pieces.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

Thanks for the great comments. The only reason I can comment on the pastor's mindset was because of the context of the conversation. If these words were used in a positive way to pithily (if a bit crudely) sum up the hymn, there would have been no offense on my part. Sadly, that was not the case.

But your posted comments so far really go a long way in describing the value and examining the TRUE content of our great hymns, which is ultimately one of the most important goals of "Fine Tuning." Thank you for your thoughtfulness.