I Don’t Have a Hammer, But I Have a Mennonite Hymnal

Guest post by Bobby Switzer, student at Goshen College, Goshen, Ind.

Speech made at Laurelville Worship and Song Leaders’ Retreat — 10 January 2015

If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land, I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out a warning, I’d hammer out love between my brother and my sister, all over this land!

(Pete Seeger and Lee Hays).

I don’t have a hammer, but I have a Mennonite hymnal.

I did not grow up Mennonite or singing, and now I cannot imagine my life without either. I distinctly remember the first time I heard a congregation sing. It was on the way back from a work weekend at Camp Friedenswald. I had made some friends from Bluffton, Ohio, and they invited me to join them for the weekend. We stopped in Goshen on Sunday morning to attend church, and I remember feeling nervous because I hadn’t brought proper church attire. All nervousness fell away when I heard the congregation sing You are Salt for the Earth (HWB 226). Immediately upon hearing the verse, I thought, “Wow, this congregation can sing!” But when the congregation got to the refrain and sang its harmony, something in the world shifted. Something in me shifted, and the world seemed illumined. The profound beauty of voices joining together creating this harmonious music struck me then, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

HymnClubGoshenCollege

The Goshen Hymn Club in front of an old Goshen College sign. 

As a senior at Goshen College I’ve had the privilege of singing from Mennonite hymnals in Goshen’s Hymn Club for almost four years. At this stage in my college career, I often look back and think about the moments that have shaped who I am, and many of the most meaningful experiences have been because of these hymnals and the songs contained therein.

At Goshen these hymnals do not gather dust in pews or remain stagnant on students’ shelves as forgotten gifts from congregations; they are used.

Hymnal: A Worship Book, Sing the Journey, and Sing the Story are not hammers, but rather entire toolkits.

Each hymn held in these books has a story and serves a purpose. Hymns do work. I’ve seen college students in the last four years use hymns in many and varied ways outside of the traditional church setting. They’ve sung in the morning, they’ve sung in the evening, they’ve sung all over campus; they’ve sung out warnings, dangers, justice, and freedom. And most significantly, they’ve sung love between their brothers and their sisters, all over the land.

GoshenHymnSingForPeaceWhen gun violence touched close to home with a local shooting at Elkhart’s Martins (grocery chain), we turned to our hymnals. When news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson highlighting systemic oppression and racism reached our ears, we turned to our hymnals.

And when stories of drones and new wars in the Middle East appeared on every news station, we turned to our hymnals. If the war goes on and children die…who will keep the score (STJ 66)?

We sang our frustration and lament; we sang our sorrow and weariness. And yet, we sang our hope: Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow, give us peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow (HWB 377).

These hymnals gave us words when they were so hard for us to form. They gave us voice when we struggled to speak. They helped us to acknowledge real pain, to lament as a community, and they enabled us to cling to the hope that our faith gives us: death does not have the final word.

Beyond naming our hurt, expressing our anguish, and granting us hope, the songs in these books have been used to create. We’ve sung with folks at Greencroft retirement communities in Goshen and formed intergenerational relationships through stories, shared experiences, and song. We’ve facilitated a mid-day hymn sing at Indiana-Michigan’s Mennonite Relief Sale. We’ve said no to divisive political polarization by singing our commitment to community through love by having an Election Day Communion hymn sing.

We are people of Gods peace as a new creation; Love unites and strengthens us at this celebration (HWB 407).

goshen-hymn-marathon1Sing for Peace Hymn Marathon. Photo by Brett Conrad, used by permission of Goshen College Communications and Marketing Office.

Most recently, we’ve used hymns creatively for peacemaking by singing every verse of every hymn in Hymnal: a Worship Book, in our student initiated and led Sing for Peace: A Hymn Marathon. Over 4000 people in more than 40 different countries viewed our singing on the live stream, with people singing along as they cleaned, and cooked, or worked at their computers. Our 30 hours of singing were multiplied nearly 50 times for a total view time of over 1500 hours. A group of over 350 students, faculty, and community members of vastly different backgrounds and theology came together, sang, and raised more than $15,000 for Christian Peacemaker Teams. We sat in a circle, with a Christ lamp at our center and joined our voices despite our differences; we forged relationships with each verse of each hymn.

Hymns truly are the instruments of peacemaking.

Let woe and waste of warfare cease, that useful labor yet may build its homes with love and laughter filled! God give thy wayward children peace (HWB 371).

 

O day of peace that dimly shines through all our hopes and prayers and dreams, guide us to justice, truth and love, delivered from our selfish schemes. May swords of hate fall from our hands, our hearts from envy find release, till by God’s grace our warring world shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace (HWB 408).

GoshenHymnClubWithBobbySwitzerInMiddleThe Goshen Hymn Club; Bobby Switzer is in the center with a plaid jacket and blue shirt.

What I consider most significant, though, is not a 30-hour hymn marathon, but rather a four-year history of gathering in a circle to sing every Tuesday night. For four years on Tuesdays at 9 p.m., Hymn Club has gathered in the choir room, pulled chairs into a circle and grabbed our hymnals. For an hour, we sing hymns, one after another. Hymn Club started with 15-20 people regularly attending my first year, and now our attendance is averaging 40-60 with over 120 attending our larger, campus-wide hymn sings. We’re doing something right, and people can feel it. I believe that each time we gather and sing we form a type of God’s reconciled community, where each person can know and be known by one another. When we sing, we say no to a society that continually seems to drive us apart and say yes to forming community. Hymn singing allows each voice to be held as beautiful and unique, and even more beautiful when joined with others’ uniqueness to create harmony.

I believe this is a radical act of peacemaking: being in a circle singing, and looking on each face as a beloved child of God made in God’s image. When sharing a hymnal while singing, it is hard to harbor hate, and walls of division begin to break down. Hearts that are cold melt, and a community forms. This is what I’ve experienced these last few years because of this hymnal, and this is what I pray we can experience in Kansas City this summer. I pray that we can use our songs, our voices, and our hymnals to sing past our differences and to see each other as beloved children of God.

When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony. Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too. (HWB 307)

 

GoshenHymnClubBobbySwitzer

Bobby Switzer, Goshen, Ind. 2015

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The Goshen College Hymn Club posts many wonderful hymns on You Tube, such as this one, “Praise, I Will Praise you Lord.”

For Mennonites singing #606 “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” at this same Laurellville Music and Worship Leaders retreat several years ago, check this YouTube video.

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For all these hymnals and more, visit the MennoMedia store under “Hymnals and Songbooks.”

16 thoughts on “I Don’t Have a Hammer, But I Have a Mennonite Hymnal

  1. My favorite in the Hymnal is For God So Loved Us. I’ve heard it in German and English and it’s great no matter what language. The message is great. Due to surgical complications, I can barely sing any longer but I still love to hear it.

  2. Preach it, Bobby! Thank you for articulating, with thoughtful clarity, something of what is happening we we gather to sing.

  3. Having attended a Mennonite church for several years while living in the upper peninsula of Michigan. This music brings back floods of memories. Beautiful. Wonderful. Touches my heart. Thank you.

  4. Thanks, Bobby, for this remarkable reflection. I’m delighted to read of how you came under the spell of Hymnal: A Worship Book and the song supplements and of how you’ve inspired others to sing. You’ve discovered the transforming power of music, surely one of the most powerful tools for bringing healing and making peace. Like you, I’m hoping we can sing our way to the promised land in Kansas City.
    Wishing you rich blessings,
    Marlene Kropf (member of the Hymnal Council and the Hymnal Supplement Committee)

    • Thank you, Marlene, especially for your work on something that’s been so formational for me and many others. Music truly is transformative, and I think it underscores the responsibility and care that we must take as song leaders. The songs we choose to include in hymnals and to sing on Sundays are quite affective.

  5. Thank you, Bobby, for sharing your story and helping revive in my spirit the joy of singing! May you continue to sing and gently bring change to the world!

  6. Thank you for this beautiful, well-written article. Hymn singing has been a vital part of my life. Even reading this article seemed to lower my blood pressure and calm me! Listening to “606” brought tears to my eyes. Thanks again.

  7. Great speech Bobby. Thanks for posting it Melodie.
    Do you, the readers of this blog, think it’s time for a new song collection? It’s hard to believe HWB was issued in 1992 almost a quarter century ago.

  8. Thank you all for the positive comments. I appreciate your taking time to read the article. Many blessings as you continue to carry the song every onward.

  9. Bobby- Thanks so much for these words I heard you speak to us at the Laurelville Worship & Music Leader’s Retreat 2 weekends ago. I was especially touched when you asked us to turn to the row behind us and sing HWB #307 “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” to the people we were now facing. What a humbling, moving experience to sing these words to strangers, but also to people who I knew were singing to me from the very depths of their hearts. Many tears fell during that hymn. It was such a meaningful experience that, when I returned home to my church, I had my choir stand in a circle (which we often do) and sing this hymn to each other. Again, a precious, holy moment as we asked each other to allow us to be servants to one another. God spoke to me through you, Bobby, and I’ll be forever grateful to you for being willing to share your heart!

  10. My father was a Mennonite minister for 25 years. I have been away from the Mennonite church since I left Goshen in 1987. My heart still resides with the old Mennonite Hymnal, but I must say that the itch to sing and see becomes more persistent with each passing year. Thank You!

  11. Well done, Sir!! My journey is the opposite of yours – I was brought up Mennonite, but left about half a century ago, but the legacy of the hymns and four part congregational singing, and 4 years in choirs at GC will be with me forever, and offers comfort, strength, and hope. That legacy still lives – recently helped a young friend overcome his fear of flying (“Because He lives I can face tomorrow; Because He lives all fear is gone …”). Thank You, – and may your prayers for peace among the Mennonites in Kansas City be answered!

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