Boxed up Hymnals

By Paul Koch

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The other day I was helping my wife clear out some unused space at the church so we could make room to set up another classroom. She asked if I wouldn’t mind moving the boxes of old hymnals down to the storage closet. So I loaded up box after box on a cart and wheeled them down to storage. Along the way this task began to bother me. Not that it was too physically demanding and not because I would rather be at home working on a nap than moving boxes around the church. Rather, what began to bother me about the whole endeavor was that it seemed to work as an unfolding metaphor for a longstanding temptation of the church.

As I lifted each box I knew that they contained near pristine copies of The Lutheran Hymnal. This hymnal, first published in 1941, had been the backbone of our congregation for 47 years. As other hymnals were published the saints at Grace Lutheran chose to stay with what they already knew and loved. As more and more contemporary options became available for worship they trusted in what they already had. And this was more than simply saying, “If it aint broke, don’t fix it,” this hymnal was beautiful, a true treasure of the church, something that should not easily be given up. It preserved the eloquence of the King James language and in confessing the Creed said things like, “And He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.” It established for generations a flow of worship that was simple, clear and easy to follow.

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Eventually, and I’m sure with much consternation, they made the move to the most recently published hymnal of the LC-MS, the Lutheran Service Book. For the first time ever they had a hymnal which had hymns written by people who are still alive! This hymnal preserved much of what they had always loved and treasured but certainly brought some changes they would slowly warm to. But all this raised the question of what to do with the old hymnals. What do you do with the traditions and sentiments and beauty of those old faithful hymnals?

Well, whatever their plans were what ended up happening was that they were boxed up and stored in an unused space. This is the temptation that faces our congregations; we take what we treasure, what we’ve been blessed with, what we love and cherish, and when we are unsure of what to do with it we box it up and store it away for a rainy day. I mean who knows? Maybe someone will steal the current hymnals out of our pews, or perhaps one day we will realize that these new hymnals aren’t working out all that well and won’t we be happy that we have a stockpile of old ones to dust off and put back into circulation.

I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that our churches are fantastic and vibrant places filled with incredible gifts. There is rich tradition, life and beauty within their walls. They have the resources, creativity and passion to change this world in profound ways. The problem is, for most of them, they’ve boxed up these blessings and forgotten all about them. The troubling reality is they can box up everything from old hymnals and children’s Christmas pageant costumes to the proclamation of the Gospel itself.

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Back when they were younger, when they were new mission plants, they lived a little more fearlessly and they used every last drop of resource that they had. They didn’t box up anything because there wasn’t anything left over. They couldn’t store it for a rainy day because they had no place to keep it. But over time we build buildings and settle into well-oiled bureaucratic systems that keep things moving along. Perhaps we didn’t realize that there would be such a strong connection between our “success” and the accumulation of excess.

And so we found that there was an economy to our life together as the children of God. Sure the church is a place full of God’s rich blessings, but now they were to be prioritized and systematized and dispersed without the recklessness that once defined us. Instead of facing a world bound in sin and without hope, we began to wonder if perhaps they were too free. After all there were bills to be paid and programs to run, and the fellowship didn’t always behave as we once hoped it would. What we had to offer, then, wasn’t the excess of forgiveness but the order of guidance and responsibility.

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We would box up the good stuff that defined us for so long and put it away in case we needed it at some later date. Like old hymnals, too often the blessings given by God remain locked away behind closed doors where time and old age erodes them from our memories.

I wish we would remember the radical proclamation that once drove the church into the streets.

I wish we would empty our storehouses and hand over the goods without looking back.

I wish I wouldn’t have left those boxes of hymnals in yet another storage closet.

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