The Tangible Memory of God’s Work (i.e. my Hymnal)

By Paul Koch

Back in 2006, our church body released a new hymnal for use in all congregations under the title Lutheran Service Book. As far as hymnbooks go, and within my limited experience, I think this is one a real gem. The resources bound into this one book are invaluable. As soon as it was in print, my congregation ordered enough to replace all our old hymnals. When the first box showed up, I eagerly opened it up and took one of the first copies for myself. The church’s hymnbook became my hymnbook.

Every Sunday for the past eleven years, I have used the same hymnal week in and week out. Like a well-read book that falls open to your favorite pages, this hymnal has become a reliable extension of my vocation as a pastor. It is far more than the hymns we sing together. It is a crucial source of lectionary readings, liturgical rites, prayers, and confessions. But when the church’s hymnal became my hymnal, it began to carry the marks of a life where God’s gifts are continually given.

I can pick out my hymnal from a stack in an instant, as there are telltale signs that are easy to spot. To begin with, the gold lettering on the spine is completely worn off. All those times I have cradled it in my hand when I lead service or sing with the congregation has worn the title clean off the book. The gold and maroon colored bookmarks that came with the hymnal are still there, but they are stained with the oil of my fingers and look more black these days. The same can be said for the pages around where the different settings of the Divine Service can be found. You can see the marks of constant use on my hymnal from almost any side.

But what looks worn and stained and perhaps a little ragged to others is of great comfort to me. Sure, it may just be a hymnal, but to me it is a reminder that God’s work continues to go on. Those marks are tangible cues that the gifts haven’t ceased, that the blessings are still handed over. This old hymnal tells a story of God’s work, something that has happened in the past over and again. It even provides the direction to cause it all to happen again.

My favorite part of my hymnal is the rite of Holy Baptism. It is easy to find because the pages are all crinkly and warped from all the water that has been dripped on it over the years. See, it turns out that when our artisans craft baptismal fonts for our churches, they don’t often think about where the pastor will lay his hymnal while holding a baby in one arm and pouring water with the other. As a result, there has been a lot of water spilled on those pages.

And this is the joy of it. These crinkly pages remind me of the water that accompanied the words spoken on the page. There was something real, something tangible that happened. There was a moment in time when God drove Satan out of the heart of one of his children as he claimed them as his own in Christ. Because of this, there is confidence on the proclamation of life everlasting. There is boldness in declaring one forgiven and free. There is hope in the promises of God.

It may just look like an old hymnal, but for me it is so much more. It is a reminder of events that happened. It is a declaration that our God is not just a God far off, but a God who has come down, who has gotten his hands dirty, washed, fed, and spoken life into His children.