I don’t have a hammer, but I have a Mennonite hymnal
This is the text of a speech made by Bobby Switzer at the Laurelville Worship and Song Leaders’ Retreat held Jan. 10.
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 in Cassopolis, Mich. 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” (Hymnal: A Worship Book, 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.
As a senior at Goshen (Ind.) 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.
When gun violence touched close to home with a local shooting at Elkhart’s Martin’s (grocery chain), we turned to our hymnals. When news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., 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 midday 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 God’s peace as a new creation; Love unites and strengthens us at this celebration” (HWB 407).
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 4,000 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 1,500 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).
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., Goshen’s 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).
Bobby Switzer, from Berne, Ind., is a senior molecular biology/biochemistry and peace, justice and conflict studies double major at Goshen College. This first appeared on MennoBytes, the MennoMedia blog.
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