Why Matt Redman’s “Never Once” Should Be a New Hymn

The term “new hymn” may sound like an oxymoron. Certainly, an a capella hymn-singing tradition is uncommon in contemporary Christian church services. However, in conservative Mennonite churches today, four-part acapella hymn singing persists as the prominent music style of choice. You might ask: how does this tradition continue?

Mennonite churches seek to celebrate and to further this special tradition though the use of hymns in weekly services or in annual “hymn-sings,” which build in singing practice and promote familiarity with canonical hymn texts.

The newly-published purple hymnal popping up in conservative Mennonite churches
The newly-published purple hymnal popping up in conservative Mennonite churches

One important factor of this tradition is the careful selection of which hymn books will be placed in the church pews. Currently, a newly-published purple hymnal is popping up in conservative Mennonite churches (to include certain northern Indiana Mennonite congregations and schools). John D. Martin spent twenty years compiling the new Hymns of the Church, which features 65 Anabaptist composers. What sets this hymnal apart is that it features hymns that specifically cover Anabaptist themes: the Lordship of Christ, discipleship, obedience, cross-bearing, separation from the world, nonresistance, and the present Kingdom of God.

The a capella hymn-singing tradition is also promoted to Mennonite young people through choral singing opportunities at winter Bible schools. After high school, many Mennonite young people attend Bible Schools before starting a full-time job, starting college, or getting married. Most Mennonite Bible Schools have choirs in which young people practice and memorize a capella choral pieces. These newly-formed choirs then embark on tours across the U.S., visiting various Mennonite communities, churches, nursing homes, or even state prisons. It may seem unlikely, but most Mennonite young people have sung with some sort of touring choir, whether it was a church youth chorus or a Bible School choir.

(This is not to say that conservative Mennonites solely prefer acapella hymn-singing, but it is an unmistakable part of the conservative Anabaptist experience. What I mean is: my young Mennonite students still like their mainstream Christian pop and, gasp, even a little bit of country.)

Shenandoah Christian Music Camp Touring Choir 2010
Shenandoah Christian Music Camp Touring Choir 2010

Another way that Mennonites promote hymn-singing is through music education. Within conservative Anabaptist communities, there is a renewed interest in music education, and this is seen through the recently formed Shenandoah Christian Music Camp, which is held annually in Virginia and Ohio. Conservative Anabaptist music enthusiasts, song-leaders, worship leaders, and youth having been attending these summer camps since 2006. The camps feature classes in musical development, choral conducting, congregational music, and composition. Conservative Mennonites are beginning to see the need for education in order for this tradition to continue.

A capella hymn-singing is also promoted through the composition of new hymns. For one example, for the past several years, the Shenandoah Christian Music Camp has been commissioning new hymns through its annual hymn contest. The camp accepts submitted poetic texts and chooses a winning text. Then, conservative Anabaptist composers (amateur and trained alike) go to work. These composers submit their own musical version of the text, and another winning selection is made. The new hymn is sung at both the Ohio and Virginia camps.

Recently, the idea of new hymns has been on my mind, and I have thought: is it possible to arrange Christian pop songs into sing-able a capella arrangements? It’s been done before. Larry Nickel, a Canadian Mennonite composer, beautifully and effectively re-arranged the Christian worship song “In Christ Alone” to a choral acapella setting. (And where did I first hear that arrangement? Last month at a service in Nappanee featuring a Mennonite Bible school choir.)

It worked wonderfully, so I have decided that I want someone to re-set Matt Redman’s “Never Once.” Matt Redman, a Grammy-award-winning British Christian song-writer wrote the Christian pop song “Never Once” in 2011. This anthemic song is a Christian declaration of the presence and the faithfulness of God to humankind even in life’s toughest moments.

Why did I choose “Never Once” to be a new hymn?

First, it’s anthemic, musically.
Its simple tune and repetitiveness qualify it for the serious tone and chant-like treatment of anthems in contemporary classical music. (Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli and all that.) Personally, I think there’s tons of room for Eric Whitacre cluster chords. (Don’t laugh. It will work.) Its declaration of an aspect of Christian belief (the existence of God) defines it as a credo and also qualifies it as an anthem. Mixing all these elements means that “Never Once” qualifies for new hymn material.

Second, it’s accessible (textually).
One of the problems of hymn texts can be accessibility. The antiquated language and difficult (culturally irrelevant?) metaphors are obstacles to enjoying beautiful hymn poetry. (For instance, in old hymns, there are a lot of “anchors,” “billows,” and “stormy seas”. Personally, as a Midwesterner who happens not to own a yacht, these aquatic word pictures are a little vague as best. But as Emily Dickinson would say: a good imagination can fix that: “I never saw a moor / I never saw the sea; / Yet know I how the heather looks, /And what a wave must be.”) What I’m arguing: unless a congregation is filled with singularly imaginative folk, hymn texts can be hard to relate to. I run into this problem with my junior high students during hymn-singing time. (Oh, that’s another place that Mennonites sing. Elementary school.) Sometimes, these students lack the critical thinking skills to access the complex poetry. However, this would never be a problem with adults because we all learned to love the study of poetry in high school, right? (Ahem.) Understanding poetry, then, is necessary for the accessibility of hymns. However, while “Never Once” uses poetic metaphor, the metaphors are not obscure. Life is compared to a mountaintop and a battleground, and those metaphors are accepted generally. Thus, the “Never Once” text is accessible and congregation-friendly.

And finally, it’s communal (textually).
The diction of the personal pronouns is communal. “Never once did we ever walk alone.” This communal diction works for an a cappela choral arrangement; a hymn is meant to be sung in community. Redman’s piece, then, once rearranged, is conducive to be sung in a group, at least textually.

And perhaps that is why Mennonites prefer hymn-singing in the first place. A capella hymn-singing is community. And in our swipe-screen, social-networking solitariness, isn’t community what we all long for?

Beethoven and Football

*waves hand. Hello! I’m still here!
Due to Pertinent University Demands, I’ve been noticeably absent, but here is a little update of a few of my recent shenanigans.

I had the particularly unique experience of attending the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth one night and going to a Buckeye football game the next.
(Ahem.) Quite the juxtaposition.

Ohio Theatre’s twenty-foot chandelier

I was privileged to have my mom join me for CSO’s season-opener. The symphony and chorus performed Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus. K.618,” and Beethoven’s Ninth.
The chorus entered powerfully on “Zadok,” and the dark tones of “Ave” were full of artistic integrity. (I love that Mozart piece!) (*fist to mouth. *MUAH.)
And conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni danced for the entire length of Beethoven’s Ninth. The audience could barely contain themselves in eager expectation of the familiar tune, “Ode to Joy,” and the feather-soft introduction of the celli and double bass was, I thought, highly effective.

This was all followed closely by: THE college football experience, which I can sum up in one word: MEH.

Okay, so OSU football is a really big deal (or, rather, more like a SINCERE HOLY RELIGION) to A LOT of people. Whatever. I grew up listening to the Saturday football games on the radio while my mom made cinnamon rolls and I did the dishes. For a while I was really caught up in the Buckeye fever. (If you’re not from Ohio, you wouldn’t understand.)  Then I moved to Kansas, and I was like, wait, what? You guys don’t care about football? You play what…? What is this… this basketball?

Now I could really care less about football, but since I’m an official Buckeye now, I felt that the college football game was an experience I just had to have.

Observations:
1. I just don’t have time in my life to waste a combined five hours on parking, walking, waiting, and transportation to and from the game. (This does not count the four hour game time).

2. Buckeyes are pretty generous. We stopped by a “free” tailgate and delved into the vats of hotdogs and barrels of potato chips. And, lucky for me, they had bottled water! (instead of only bottomless open containers).

3. During the game, I was mostly bored because I really don’t understand football. I’d rather listen to the radio because the announcers describe the plays and the calls in detail.

4. If I hear the theme to the Buckeye Bounce cheer, one more time, I will throw pounds of litter at you. (The only good thing about this cheer, I guess, is that it gets freezing fans moving.)

5. Now that my ears have been exchanged for an atomic explosion of explicit vulgarities so that me, you, your mother, the world, Nebraskans, and all football teams ever have had their anatomy cursed and sent to hell and back, and, now that all language proceeding into my ears is just one entire f-word, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, I’M GOING HOME.

Not. My. Scene. I can’t really think of a reason why I’d ever go again. Maybe it was extra-raunchy due to sitting in the student section, but, I just… I guess I just don’t ever see the need to… have to step around so much barf again.

6. The marching band at half-time was AHMAZING! And I’m not the only one who thinks so! TWELVE MILLION other people have been checking out the show on Youtube!

Anyway, that’s the difference between Friday nights and Saturday nights. The only link I could find between the two events was that Zeitouni showed up to conduct the band for the “Star Spangled Banner.” Other than that, there was no comparison.
At least not much.
The end.

A Victorian Christmas

It’s time for “A Victorian Christmas!” My sisters and I have been practicing for several weeks now. We ride in the minivan to Jenny’s house in London where we rehearse our lines. Jenny teaches us how to say our lines with what Mom calls, “expression.” I like Jenny’s house. I think her house is Victorian. In the parlor there are big rose-colored drapes made out of silky wood-grain fabric that youth group girls use for bridesmaid dresses. The ceiling are extra-tall, and the wallpaper has little flowers on it. We sit on a white rug in the parlor. The white rug is how big it is on the loft on the stage. We practice staying on the rug. And we sing in the music room. Jenny plays the piano, and we practiced staying “in tune.” Sometimes we are out of tune. We try to sing better. It’s kind of hard because the boys sing different parts. Sometimes, on Saturdays, we go with Mom to practice with the choir. We get to play with the other kids. There are babies, but they are never fun, and they always cry. We have to be quiet when they adults are singing. The Saturdays are really very merry.

Abigail is hoity-toity, and she sits and listens to the adults practice.

“I love ‘And the Glory of the Lord,’” Abigail says, “It’s from the Messiah.”
“What is the Messiah?” I ask.

“It’s Handel’s Messiah,” Abigail explains.

“Well, I like when they sing ‘Jingle Bells!’” I announce. It’s really fast. And it’s pretty, too, because the men sing low, and the women sing high. In one part, the men sing a line… “Now the ground is white, Go it while you’re young, Take the girls tonight, and sing this sleighing song; Just get a bobtailed bay, Two forty as his speed, Hitch him to an open sleigh, and crack! You’ll take the lead!” I think it is about a guy who likes a girl, because the men sing it, and they say “take the girls tonight.”

The best part about the “A Victorian Christmas” is that we get to wear make-up. And not just lipstick! We put on, “the works.” The ladies have to put on our make-up for us. (Mom doesn’t know how to put it on.) First they put on foundation. It smells funny. Like sweet medicine. Then they do the blush. They use pink because we are little children. We have to close our eyes. And then they use those “brushy-thingies” on our eyelashes. Sometimes I get tears. They also put red dots near our eyes. It makes our eyes look brighter on stage under the lights.

“You have beautiful skin!” they say, as they slowly apply the eyeliner.

“Don’t ruin it,” they warn.

I wonder how I could ruin my skin.

“What do you mean?” I ask. The two ladies look at each other and smile knowingly.

“Just don’t mess it up.”

I was seven. I didn’t know about pimple scars and the drying effects of cheap make-up.


“The Victorian Christmas” is a musical dinner theatre performed at a local restaurant every two years. Emily’s mom and sister got to be in it last time. This year Emily gets to be in it! She gets to wear make-up, and curlers in her hair, a big white night-gown, and a night-cap. The play is set in the 1800s, and it’s about the Madison Choral Singers, Hiram P. Wilkins, his children: a brother, Emily’s sisters, Emily, and Mrs. Bristol, who’s loud and obnoxious, and an old lady who dances to “Fa La La La La,” (except that she’s not old, they just use make-up to make her look that way), and Mr. Miller, an Amish neighbor, and his grandson Tommy. And a sheep. A real live sheep. And there is beautiful singing. Emily wrote down what each of the songs sound like:

“Jingle Bells” arr. David Willcocks: “This is my favorite. It’s very fun!”

“Jesu, Word of God Incarnate” W. A. Mozart: “This song is kind of sleepy, like a cello.”

“As Lately We Watched” Arr. Charles Black: “This is fast, like wind-shield wipers. And my mommy has a solo!”

“Sons Day Carol” Arr. James McKelvy: “Why can’t they stop saying ‘Holly’?”

“In the Bleak Mid-Winter” Gustav Holst: “An old man has a boring solo.”

“He is Born” Arr. David Willcocks: “This is a surprise!”

“Angels We Have Heard on High” Arr. Roger Wagner: “The ladies can sing really high.”

“And the Glory of the Lord” G. F. Handel: “I learned what alto is.”

“Still, Still, Still,” Arr. Norman Luboff: “This is the prettiest, sleepiest, baby Jesus song.”

“The Shepherd’s Carol” William Billings: “We giggle methinks!”

“Deck the Halls” Arr. David Willcocks: “Merry Christmas!”

“Sir Christemas” William Mathias: “It sounds like they drop an organ.”

Emily was ready for dress rehearsal. She had practiced her lines, taken out her curlers, and applied her make-up. Now she was ready to climb the small ladder to the stage loft.

“Okay, children!” Jenny said, “You can go up now.” Emily climbed up with her sisters to the loft.

Since it was just rehearsal, the stage lights were up, and Emily could see out into the audience. Except for a couple of seats, the chairs in the audience were empty. Emily saw one of her friends sitting there with her parents. Emily smiled and waved. Emily’s friend looked surprised, but waved back. Then Emily lowered her hand as she noticed Jenny watching her from stage left.

Dumb! Dumb, Emily!

Emily usually prided herself in following all of the rules. And the first stage rule that everyone learns (in kindergarten, even) is NEVER wave to anyone in the audience! Emily knew it was only rehearsal, and it might not matter, but still. She couldn’t believe she had forgotten the rule.

“Where did you get that?!” Emily lunged at her sister Rachel. Rachel was holding a piece of white bread. She pulled her hand out of Emily’s reach.

“A waitress gave it to me!” Rachel announced, “If you go in the kitchen, you can get some! There’s a lot of it. It’s in a drawer where they keep all the bread. They were giving it to us.”

“I want some!” Emily said.

“Go get some!”

“Will you come with me?” Emily asked shyly.

“No. Get it yourself.”

“But Rachel! I don’t know where anything is! Please come with me.”

“Uhh! No, Emily! I’m not going with you.”

Emily humphed off.

“Hey, Emily,” Rachel said.

Emily turned around.

“When you bite the bread, you can see your lipstick on it. It comes off onto the bread.”

They both laughed.

“Please come with me?” Emily begged again.

“Nope,” Rachel said, as she smiled righteously and walked away.

Emily sighed. She turned around and walked toward the doorway into the special banquet kitchen. She peeked around the corner, but didn’t see anyone. Emily wasn’t sure if she was allowed to be in there or not. No one was in the kitchen. No one was behind her in the backstage area either. The cast was probably practicing in a back room. Should she go in and get the bread?

“Well?!”

Emily jumped when she heard a voice behind her. She turned around. It was Rachel.

“Aren’t you going to get any?”

“Just wait, Rachel!” Emily snapped. She turned her nose in the air and walked straight into the kitchen. Now. Where was the bread?

“It’s over there,” Rachel pointed to a large silver-metal cabinet. Emily really wished Rachel would go away.

“Are we allowed to just help ourselves?” Emily asked.

“I don’t know,” Rachel said as she bit into her own piece again.

Emily glared at her.

Suddenly the waitresses came pouring back into the kitchen.

“Do you want something?” asked a hurried waitress.

Emily started to feel silly. Rachel had made it sound like they were all nice… giving bread to little girls in dress-up costumes.

“Um,” Emily stammered, “My sister got some bread… And I didn’t know…”

“It’s in here,” she said as she opened the drawer of the big metal cabinet. The smell of freshly-made warm bread wafted into Emily’s nose.

“Do you want wheat or white?” the waitress asked mechanically.

“WHITE!” Emily said a little too abruptly. Emily took a piece of white bread and ran out of the kitchen.

She found her sisters and the other two boys backstage. They all had pieces of bread. Emily bit into her piece. She stared at the pink half-circle that her lipstick made on the white bread.

“Look at my lipstick!” Emily announced. Her sisters examined her bread, and they all laughed.

The blue lights came up. Before, Emily and the children were quietly playing in their loft “bed.” Now they leaned over the loft railing,their adorable curls falling in their faces, and sleepily, dreamily, watched the singers prepare for “Still, Still, Still.” The piano began playing softly. The children, as instructed, began to yawn as the lullaby melody was sung. Emily loved this part. She stared out into the blue stage lights and exaggerated several yawns. Soon, she and her sisters and the two boys were laying down on their pillows, their white night-caps visible through the rose-colored railing. The children “slept” as the flurry of stage activity continued.

“What time is it?” Emily anxiously asked her sister Abigail who was lying beside her. Abigail stealthily retrieved the small clip-on watch the girls had previously hidden under the covers.

“It’s almost seven,” Abigail said gravely.

“No!” Emily thought. “I’m going to be to be late!” she whimpered to her bigger sister. Emily had to be rushed off to her elementary school after the performance to make it in time for her school Christmas program. She and two other girls had a special part: a trio, and they were to wear special choir girl outfits. The program began at 7:30, and Emily’s performance was near the beginning. She would never make it on time.

“I’m going to be laaaaate,” Emily began to sob uncontrollably. Her sobs were silent, but she began hiccupping.

“Emily, it will be okay. You’ll make it,” Abigail whispered.

“Nnnnoooo, I wwon’t,” Emily sobbed. She was grateful, though, to her older sister. Abigail had consented to be “the middle man” in the loft, the girl to lay beside the boy who was not their brother. To Emily, that would have been the awfullest of fates.

“Emily, stop crying!” Abigial reasoned, “You have to! Your make-up is starting to run.”

“It is?!” Emily wailed. She began crying even harder.

“Shhh, Emily!”

Emily wiped her eyes on the gray blanket and stared at the flesh-colored residue. She tried to stop crying but couldn’t. This was the worst thing that could happen, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Emily stared at her plate. There was one cherry tomato on the side of her starter salad.

“Do you like cherry tomatoes?” Emily looked up at the actor, Brenda, who took her place beside Emily at the after-banquet.

“Why, yes, I do,” said Brenda.

“Oh.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Well, I was hoping you didn’t,” Emily said, “Because if you didn’t like cherry tomatoes, I was going to eat yours for you.”

Brenda, the actor, laughed.

Emily was excited. She was going to Jenny’s house for “A Victorian Christmas” party! Emily’s family stepped into the warm house that was full of food, festivities, and laughter. Emily’s sister joined the other children, but Emily found herself standing by the big Christmas tree in the front-room. The Christmas lights reflected in the dark windows and on the glossy wood floor. Emily wanted to touch the shiny ornaments, but didn’t.

Some of the actors helped Emily and her sisters get some snacks. They soon settled in with the other children who were watching an animated Disney movie called “Beauty and the Beast.” Tommy and his friend Austin started howling because the Beast took his shirt off. Emily disapproved.