Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bruises & Ice Cream

Heartbreaker #3: old hymns in a Mennonite church.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth: this Christly bromide isn't just something the Mennonites take to heart -- they actually believe Jesus is speaking about them. If you think I'm kidding, go ahead and ask the first Mennonite you meet if that's what they believe. He will likely chuckle (or she will roll her eyes) and say, "Well ... some Mennonites probably do!" They'll wink, or give you a little nudge in the ribs, and try to imply they're not one of those Mennonites, and you'll know: these assholes actually think they'll inherit the earth.

Mennonites should know better. They're anything but meek, and you don't have to look far for the evidence. Go to a Mennonite church some Sunday night, when they're all singing from the old green hymnal. If you can, get the music director to start the evening with This Is My Father's World. The pristine eruption of four-part choral harmonies -- from every member of the congregation -- will settle the question. You can't be meek and sing like that.

Mennonite congregations are the best choirs in the world, and their choirs are something else altogether. Like Muhammad Ali said, "It ain't bragging if it's true." Children hear their parents and grandparents sing like this, and think, Oh man, this is just a little scary! But eventually they learn how to sing like that, too, and then it's not such a big deal. They even start to take it for granted. There dawns a Sunday in their early adulthood when they tag along with a friend who attends an Episcopalian or Anglican church. At the appointed time they reach for the Psalter, open it up, and wonder, Where are the notes?! The congregation clears its throat and starts singing, and our earnest young Mennonites think, Oh dear Lord! These people sing like shit! The post-sermon trip to The Olive Garden is simultaneously grim and giddy, because the penny drops: if Mennonites were truly meek, they'd be singing like that sorry bunch.

There are Sunday mornings when I wonder if I'm living in the wrong acre of Ontario. The closest Mennonite congregation is over an hour's drive away, and to my thinking there isn't a church in the world worth an hour's drive. If you're in a psychoanalytic frame of mind, you are free to speculate that this distance is in some way personally desirable. But man, I miss that singing! The church we attend is on the other side of our back yard hedge. It's a terrific bunch of folks -- Scottish descendants, most of them. Musically (and in many other regards) some of them are freakishly talented. But when it comes to singing, the congregation mostly just ... sings.

So if you want to see me dab at my eyes and honk my nose, insert me into a Mennonite congregation singing old standards like the one above. When Peace Like A River is good, too. So is And Can It Be. But the saddest hymn I can think of is probably Joseph Scriven's What A Friend We Have In Jesus. That man's entire life was one sad and sorry spectacle. So much of his misery was openly invited out of a cussed sense of piety: the second(!) fiance to die on him just days before they could make it to the altar was consumed by pneumonia -- after he'd given her a full-immersion, river-baptism in the middle of winter. This, and other glum facts from his life hit me anew, every time our family makes an ice-cream drive to Port Perry. It's a lovely little town (appearing frequently in Hollywood movies as a lovely little American town), and it's where Scriven was beaten to a bloody pulp by a couple of drunkards, after he'd done a little street-corner preaching.

But there you have it: the life of a True Believer. Bruises and ice-cream.

Heartbreaker #2


DarkoV said...

Though I am not familiar with the Mennonite chorus version of What a Friend We Have in Jesus (and I take your afiirmation that that version is the best), I recall a version sung without instrumentation by Doc Watson that sent shivers up this sinner's primal core.

Whisky Prajer said...

I think it best if I concede superiority to the bluesman - particularly that song, which nicely accomodates harmonies, but seems to have a special power when sung solo who knows the Blues (something Scriven surely did).

Trent Reimer said...

One of the most powerful such moments I experienced was at the centenial celebration of the incorporation of the Town of Steinbach (now a city) on the grounds of the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum. A huge, open tent was set up to provide shade over a massive choir, a pulpit, and a congregation of several hundred. As one would expect, the congregation over-compassed the *hundreds* mark within minutes and a huge field of folding chairs was provided within sight and sound of the procedings.

A Reverend Travis James Reimer had been asked to return from California to preach at this event and I was fortunate enough to steal a ride with him and his lovely wife to this venue.

All the songs were English translations of traditional German hymns and as you indicated, the throng of thousands lifted them up as one great choir. The effect was at once both joyfully exuberant and profoundly solemn.

blueskybrightson said...

I enjoyed your toying with the meek Menno theme. My Catholic turned Anglican wife is always intimidated by the meekness of my Menno turned Anglican singing. Not so meek, I would agree. Still, doesn't excuse the poor singing in those Anglican churches, huh! God demands more!!! More meekness to contend with. One of my favourite hymns is the My Hope is built on nothing less from the blue Menno hymnal. The way to make it really lift it is to go slightly Celtic/Irish/Van Morrison and let it rock! No Menno need apply!

Whisky Prajer said...

TR - that would indeed have been a treat (can't help thinking, though, that it would have sounded better in the old wooden church on site).

brightson (and TR for that matter) - my family had a fun end-of-summer visit with another Mennonite friend. It was mostly farmer sausage and beer, and horseplay in the pool, but as the evening drew nigh she asked if we'd care to do a hymn sing around her piano. Well, sure!

So she trotted out the old green hymnal - I'm talking Deutsche, now - and we culled through a few familiar tunes. What we discovered, to our amusement, was that these hymns which we'd always assumed were German originals were in fact first presented in the King's English, as penned by His Majesty's Loyal Subjects! Bit of an eye-opener, that!