A JOYFUL NOISE
By Christine Burton
I heard a lay reflection on Scripture recently that included an extract from a children’s hymn. It was simplistic and somewhat evangelical in nature, and not really what I would have expected to hear in my parish. My first reaction was to be a bit disconcerted and even a bit dismayed. We’re a community of well-educated, “advanced” thinkers with a fairly sophisticated understanding of the Word. And while we speak of embracing a child-like spirit in our stance before an almighty, all powerful and all-loving Creator, the reality is we are pretty much accustomed to being able to make the world run the way we want. We don’t much like to be reminded of our own hubris, even in the music we hear and sing in worship.
Children’s music and some “traditional” songs — sometimes evangelical, gospel or folk — tend to be simple. Simplistic in form — the old “four-square” hymns with simple rhythms and harmonies — and simple in message — recognize God in all that is; praise and thank God for all we have received; trust that God will give us infinite grace, mercy, love.
Simple, indeed. Far from needing many sophisticated words to explain these most basic messages, some of our most respected leaders in faith have spent their whole lives trying to find ways to make the message simple enough that we can hear and understand it.
And music has a role in this. I have written before about how music can seep into your heart and mind and soul in a way that prose cannot. While there are many hymns that I cherish for the strength of their words and the directness of their messages, I have also talked to members of the assembly who decry their over-weaning cleverness that makes it hard to fit in all the words, uses odd syntax to make the message fit and which takes so much time to figure out the words that you never actually “sing” the hymn. And if I don’t really sing it, I don’t really embrace that oh-so-well-put message. Not quite the composer’s intent, I wager.
I work in a world where we spend much of our time working on “plain language” — on ensuring we put out messages in a way that can be understood by as many people as possible. And yet, I seem to put so much emphasis on musical worship that could be part of the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” debate. And I will and do enter into such debates with gusto, hoisted by the petard of my own self-righteous insistence on inclusiveness.
It can be hard to step outside of myself, outside of my need to be and do things “right,” as envisioned in all the hymns of perfect social justice.
By contrast, I can sing “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so; little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong . . .” without a moment’s hesitation. And I do, sometimes, in my head as I’m driving, walking, falling asleep. . . .
It is a truism to say that everyone loves to listen to children’s choirs. Perhaps it is not just their sweet voices we love, but the truth of the simple messages so often contained in “children’s” hymns. Is the message any less true, any less profound, for being wrapped up in an easy melody and easy lyrics? Can we hear and accept that most fundamental of Christian messages — Jesus loves me?
A Saskatchewan soprano, Burton has sung praises to the Lord in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and now at St. Joe’s in Ottawa, where she is a chorister and cantor at two masses.