The Hymnal in a Time of Persecution

lu_wormsI didn’t even notice it missing. But then I wasn’t looking for it. For the first Ten years, I didn’t need it. When I did, I looked only to discover it wasn’t there. Well, technically, it’s there. But, not really.

Let me try this another  way.

Imagine going shopping for a new couch. The salesman shows you a hard wooden bench, with no back. This used to be standard fair in most households (before 1700 or so). But you want an overstuffed cozy couch, or reclining chairs. Something you can rest in. Of course, if you were camping, a hard unfinished log would be great. If you were in a foxhole in a war, a log would be a luxury. But we live in comfortable times. Hard stumps are not what we want.

Maybe that helps explain what was missing. I was looking in the hymnal for resources in times of persecution. I’d never really needed it before. Sure, for people far across the see. But never for a member in my own district, persecuted solely because she made the hateful claim that God created them male and female. I looked for prayers or other resources. There is one prayer. Yes, the Prayer (singular) of a righteous man is effective. But there are actually two prayers for going on vacation. This is a hymnal with overstuffed padded cushions. It’s not a hard stump.

I love a good reclining chair. But a reclining chair is heavy to carry. It’s impractical, even dangerous, in a war zone. That hard stump is a place to rest the bottom, no frills, but that’s what you need.

When Lutheran Service Book came out I was very impressed. I still am. But as the tide has quickly turned against the church, LSB seems like a Lazy-Boy chair on the front lines of a war. It was made for fat comfortable people. Not for times of war. I don’t blame it for that. I never noticed. If you had given me a hard, stumpy hymnal a decade ago, I would have asked to see a new salesman. One who could guide me to a hymnal for out-of-shape, middle-aged, slightly paunchy folks like myself. Because that was where we were ministering back then. God gave us levels of comfort entirely unknown to previous generations. It’s where we were. But like expanding soldiers at a reunion, we weren’t really in fighting shape anymore.

Now, we enter a time of confession. A time of persecution. And the things missing from our hymnal start to show themselves ever more clearly. There really is not much for a church being persecuted. Hymns that are too militaristic in tone are either re-edited, or removed. (TLH 260) The Psalter is a happy book – because the imprecatory psalms have been excised.

And once you notice these things, lots of things about our synod fall into place.

Our Synod President has said that as a synod, our preaching of the Law is toothless. He is correct. But really, that is to be expected from a cozy, comfortable church. How do we change that? Removing the imprecatory psalms from the hymnal certainly doesn’t help. And then you notice other things.

The new catechism revision says that to fear God is “to take God seriously as our creator and judge. He means what He says when He threatens to punish those who disobey.” This sounds like a parent whining that his children do not listen to him. “I am serious now! I mean it! 1… 2…” It just does not have the ring of truth to it. Compare that to Stoekhardt’s explanation: “God hears; God sees; God punishes.”

That’s Law. Our confessions say that we are to repent. The first part of that is “terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin.” Which of the above statements is more likely to inspire terror? “He means what He says…” or “God sees; God hears; God punishes”?

I don’t blame the people who made the hymnal, any more than I blame previous catechism revisions, that offer almost equally toothless law. LSB was a hymnal made in a comfortable time. There was no war, no plague, no famine, no persecution. Aside from some small foreign wars, there really hadn’t been any of those for two generations. Persecution was a thing that happened elsewhere – Islamic nations, or Soviet Russia. We were blessed. Liberty and justice for all as far as the eye could see.

And doctrinally, our synod has sort of the same attitude. False teaching is a thing over there. Rome, Geneva, etc. Not Wittenberg and Saint Louis. Roofing tiles and Koinonia as far as the eye can see. That’s fine as far as it goes. But that will not produce a generation of churchmen who are ready for combat. Those who teach falsely operate with impunity, and those who call attention to it are chastised for their ungentlemanly attitudes. That’s all part of the life of the soft church. The couch potato church.

But we are quickly entering a period when that will not do. I know of pastors with young congregations that are going back to TLH. The hymns of TLH are being taught in grade schools, to wild applause from the students. They may be young, but even at their tender age they can see the storm clouds of persecution on the horizon. They want hard hymns that can handle the rigors of persecution. Now, TLH is far from a perfect hymnal. It was produced not in a time of persecution. But it was a time of war. It is just a little bit more hardened, a bit more stumpy, than what we have now. If things continue along their present path – that is, unless we as a nation repent and return to the Lord, and hope it is not so late that he hardens our hearts so we can not hear, I expect the next hymnal to be a much harder product. It will bear the beautiful scars of those who have suffered. It will be lean. Twila Paris will likely not be among the authors. But Psalm 69 or 137 might reappear at long last.

In other words, it will be a hymnal to comfort a church in distress. It will be less elegant, but of more utility. It will have the hard edges of God’s Word on each page. No blunt edges. No softened language. But it will be potent. It will be powerful.

That’s what the church needs, and will need in the years to come. I expect that in such a time, the inability to preach the law will fade. The tolerance for false doctrine will decline. Those extra flourishes don’t really belong in a time of suffering. The church will demand that her leaders speak the truth in plain, unvarnished language. The loquacious eloquence of the experienced and respected churchman will be replaced by the hard truths of the prophet.

For now, we pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send workers into the fields. And pray that they be strong enough, brave enough, bold enough, and faithful enough to do the job.

We’ve gotten out of shape. That time is over. It’s Time to get off the couch.

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