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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Morsels of joy amid ashes of gloom

Tribute to the hymnal, a rich devotional treasury

We use it at every service without giving it much thought. We seldom follow the pages since we already know the words of the liturgy. Only when it comes time to sing a hymn do we check out the number and then mutter, “I don’t believe it, the pastor/cantor finally picked one I know.”

Our church hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, represents an incredible treasury of world spirituality. While so much religious news reported by both public media and church periodicals can be depressing (church splits, doctrinal conflicts, declining memberships), we can turn to this worship resource and at least momentarily recover some morsels of joy from these otherwise ashes of gloom.

Renowned scholar Huston Smith often referred to world religions as the “distilled wisdom of the human spirit.” The book we hold in our hands each worship service contains, in a real sense, the distilled musical response of the world Christian experience.

I cannot enjoy using it without being reminded of the magnificent variety of contributors who have made it possible. So, right from the start, let’s hear it for the men and women in our church who have organized the contributions into this rich devotional treasury. We need something to cheer us on.

While older Lutheran hymnals often reflected the dominant ethnic background of the church, ELW contains a much broader scope of musical selections. Of course, the ELWhas not forgotten our roots — there are still about 35 Scandinavian origin hymns and about 100 from German sources. But compilers have challenged us to appreciate musical responses from such diverse sources as Brazil, the Philippines and the Dakota American Indians.

So our hymnal invites us to experience the haunting tones of a Hebrew melody (“The God of Abraham Praise”) and the pain of an African-American spiritual (“There Is a Balm in Gilead”) plus the joyful beat of a Hispanic melody (“¡Aleluya! Cristo resicitó”), to cite but a few examples. If indeed music is, as the 17th-century English writer Joseph Addison described it, “all of heaven we have below,” then we search for a part of that tranquility on our earthly scene.


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