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Devotions - Thank You

This devotion was given by Ryan Luhrs, a member of our choir, prior to the last performance of the 2011-12 Season — a hymn festival, the culminating event of the 2012 Chorus America national conference, at Central Lutheran Church (Minneapolis MN).

I am a bit hesitant to give a devotion because the last time I did, I was later asked – without warning and during a concert – to publicly recall information about Jean Berger’s original last name.  I’m assuming and hoping that won’t happen today.

Since this is likely my only chance to do so, I want to take a minute and thank David and the choir for impact you’ve had in my life, and the past two years, that Sarah and I have been able to share in this experience together.   This choir profoundly influenced my life – and did so even before I joined.

During the first two and half years out of college I was a band director, but also a closet choral music addict.  I often drove up from Iowa into the Twin Cities for choir concerts, especially those of the National Lutheran Choir.  I was one of your biggest fans and didn’t miss very many.  While I already had an attraction to choral music, I can remember a handful of profoundly moving moments at NLC events where I recall thinking, “I need to be more involved with sacred choral music…I have to somehow be a part of this.”  I had no expectation of actually singing in this choir, but I knew a change of career path was necessary.

NLC has changed my life – literally.  I find it a bit ironic that the inspiration through NLC that led me to choral music and eventually into this choir, is the same inspiration that’s driving me to continue studying choral across the country, and therefore, making us leave the choir.

NLC has truly been a blessing in our lives, especially recently because Sarah and I have been able to sing together the past two years.  We’ve talked and there are things that that we will both miss about being in Minnesota, but few rival this.

Since this is a hymn festival, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about hymns, starting with the personal connection Sarah and I have to them.  Even though Sarah and I met because we played keyboards in a show choir-like group that toured Wisconsin and specialized in pop, musical theater, and show music, hymns have come to play a vital and central role in our relationship, especially in our worshipping together.  As a practicing Roman Catholic and a Lutheran we adhere our church’s particular teachings and do not commune when attending church with each other.   Yet, hymns and liturgy still allow us to worship.

Furthermore, they have taken on a greater role because the Gospel message is often elusive in the preaching we often here.  It is frequently infected with political discourse and what I would call a seemingly endless supply of worldly and inwardly-focused concerns.  (Going to seminary has given me all sorts of opinions…) Quite often there is what I believe is a more relevant and truthful theology in a verse of a well-crafted hymn than the entirety of one of these sermons.  It’s almost jarring.  Hymns, along with the liturgy, protect us, and provide the message of God’s saving grace when it’s absent elsewhere in the service.

In the hymnody class at Luther Seminary taught by Susan Cherwien, she explained that the Bible is full of beautiful words/poetry, full of mystery, full of metaphor.  Problems arise when we Westerners want everything explained, and try to flatten out the wrinkles. God cannot be totally known. St. Augustine:  “If you think you understand, it isn’t God.”  Well-crafted poems and hymns help us worship because they—like the Bible are full of mystery, are often ambiguous, but at the same time draw us closer to truth and reality.

I believe this is important today because of the trend among Christians to draw lines of division, on what I would argue are mostly politically motivated theological viewpoints.  Perhaps this might not be your experience with the Church, and I don’t claim to have an all-encompassing perspective on such matters, but I’ve been exposed to enough to be troubled and saddened by the current state of affairs.  As someone who has is intimately tied to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the ELCA as well as Roman Catholicism, I’m exposed to some diversity of opinions and beliefs, usually on a weekly basis.

I would argue that much of this diversity, by itself, can be healthy for the Church.  However, it becomes toxic when the strong convictions and beliefs are accompanied by or the result of ignorance and arrogance.

To me, this is not a liberal or a conservative problem, but rather a human problem.   Certainly there are exceptions, but one thing all these groups of people seem to have in common is that we don’t very much like other Christians who think differently than we do.  So often, we hold those who have different beliefs than us in the worst possible light without interest in learning more, reducing and simplifying arguments to calling people bigots or elitists.   The mystery of our faith is often removed in favor of making a stronger argument against the other.  Such arguments lack humility, and, if following St. Augustine’s logic, we’re not really talking about God anymore.  In the end, it keeps us from being the church Christ calls us to be and the Church that the world needs.

Hymns and liturgy help us heal these divisions.  Not only are many of them shared across denominational lines, so often they help us ALL to focus on something greater than the current issues that divide us.

Conflict in the church is nothing new.  Evidently St. Francis wrote verse five of  “All Creatures of Our God and King” to quell a quarrel between the civil and religious leaders of Assisi and, therefore, the text focuses on forgiveness.

O ev’ryone of tender heart, Forgiving others take your part
All you who pain and sorrow bear, Praise God and lay on him your care.

With the exception, perhaps, of the distraction due to the masculine pronoun for God for some of us, is this text not just as relevant 1000 years after it was written?

The work and mission of most hymn writers and this choir transcends political difference.  Now I’m generalizing, but I’ll bet the collective theological beliefs and politics of this choir are a bit different from that of our audiences in St. Louis.  Yet, as someone who will often greet people as they leave our concerts, based on what was said to and looks on people’s faces, I don’t know if there was an audience this year more impacted my our message than those who attended in St. Louis.

In conclusion, something else all Christians share – and all people, including every single person attending today –  is the reality of being troubled and having brokenness, sin, and death in our lives.   Although we often try to free ourselves from these sorrows with an array human-created concoctions, hymns help us find the freedom found in God’s saving grace and the pledge of resurrection.

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast.
Let us all in thee inherit;
Let us find thy promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning.
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith as its beginning.
Set our hearts at liberty.