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Words matter

Routley Lecturer Tom Trenney offers up a master class in interpreting the hymnal during PAM’s Worship and Music Conference

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, North Carolina, is the home for the second week of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship and Music Conference. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — To prove his assertion that, in music and in other life pursuits, words matter, Tom Trenney led off his Routley lecture Wednesday with examples of paraprosedokians — sentences that begin innocently enough, then veer off in unexpected directions.

Trenney’s droll examples included, “Where there’s a will, I want to be in it” and “You don’t need a parachute to skydive; you do to skydive twice” and “I used to be indecisive; now I’m not so sure.”

“Words matter,” Trenney told his in-person and online listeners during the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship and Music Conference. “Today we’ll contemplate the possibilities of the words we are privileged to give voice to in worship.”

Trenney is minister of music at First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he also teaches choral music and conducting at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

He took his listeners through an exercise of singing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (sung to the tune HYFRYDOL) after they’d spent a bit of time thinking about what the first verse might mean.

“Don’t think everyone knows. Everyone carries their own hymnal in their head,” Trenney said. “We have to imagine someone in the room is singing it for the first time. If we sing it like it’s our first time, a lot can change for us.”

For example: the terms “pure” and “unbounded” are sung very differently, as Trenney demonstrated. “Pure” is sung, well, purely. “Unbounded” has a magisterial connotation. When “thou” follows “Jesus,” we’re reminded it’s a personal pronoun and a term of endearment.

Tom Trenney

“For too many decades, we have picked up the hymnal and plodded, verse by verse, note by note,” Trenney said. “We have to take the time to help people experience what they’re singing and why it matters. It becomes a wonderful place of storytelling and a love language between everyone and the One we are worshiping.”

Then there’s “fix in us thy humble dwelling.”

“We don’t sing, ‘Fix in Mary and Joseph thy humble dwelling,’” Trenney noted. Time spent with choirs and congregations working on interpreting selections out of the hymnbook is time better spent, Trenney said, than “preparing an anthem you’ll use once” and then not again for decades. “Once you invite them into the exercise, they will start to take ownership in that. They are human, and they’re born to be expressive.”

“We have the ability to help people encounter meaning just like a preacher can,” Trenney said to the choir directors in the room. “But you also get melody, harmony and instruments, and it takes more than one person to take part. What a powerful witness that can become!”

Especially following the pandemic, “We have forgotten we belong to each other,” Trenney said, quoting Mother Teresa. “Music can help remind us of that.”

Think about who the hymns are ultimately for, Trenney suggested.

“God’s heard all the hymns. I’m not sure God is more tired of one over the other,” Trenney said. “But if they have meaning for us, they will be more authentically offered to God.”

During his first Sunday at Plymouth-First Church, Trenney suggested the congregation sing one rather heavy hymn and “This Little Light of Mine,” which, as it turned out that Sunday, followed a child’s baptism. A few days later, the child’s mother sent Trenney a note thanking him for the musical selection.

“Our baby was in the neonatal intensive care unit for four months. I sang him that hymn every day when I got to go visit him,” the mother wrote. Then Trenney added a personal note of his own: “God had a context in mind that had nothing to do with my intention. It created a space where the Spirit could flow even more freely. Grace will get us whether we know it or not. How good that is!”

Trenney recalled the time when he and the rest of his high school choir sang “Soon I will be Done with the Troubles of the World.” The problem, he said, was “nobody stopped to tell us what the troubles of the world were, and why we wanted the troubles to stop soon. We were using the song to rev up the crowd.” Trenney then demonstrated a more mature interpretation, singing a few lines of the classic spiritual slowly and hopefully.

“When we allow ourselves to think there are contexts in the world other than our own, it can transform the way we receive and give the gift of music and ministry,” Trenney said. “What a privilege that is!”

The Worship and Music conferences continues at Montreat Conference Center through Friday.

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