Text: Herbert Brokering (1926-2009). Tune: David Johnson (1922-1987)
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The first time I sang this with a congregation, people burst out laughing. “Classrooms and labs? Loud boiling test tubes?" What? Did these things belong in a hymn? It was a breakthrough, really. At least for American Lutheran hymn writers. Even in the 1960s, we had a rather staid notion of what belonged in a hymn and certainly not the things of this contemporary world so concretely stated.
I was among those who found it strange. Which was, for me, the beginning of a long life of learning about Lutheran hymnody. Herb Brokering wrote the hymn in 1964 for the 90th anniversary of St. Olaf College and it was set to a tune by David Johnson, Professor of Music and chair of the department at the college.
Herb Brokering was a force to be reckoned with in the post WWII world of Lutheran teaching and writing. Whenever he appeared he always left people wanting to do what he did, but they could not. Something about his personality made it possible for him to get whole groups of people pushing oranges around the floor with their chins. When they tried to do the same thing with other groups, it didn’t work. But he could and that was part of his power.
He was a guru who had his fans and his detractors. His appearances brought people by the hundreds to hear him. He was a popular writer of spiritual poetry. He worked with photographers who illustrated his poetry. For ten years he served in the education department of the ALC. His specialty was confirmation. He taught in seminaries, usually education, and he worked with Roland Bainton on a tour celebrating Martin Luther. He wrote texts for cantatas, he worked with Dave Brubeck on an oratorio “Beloved Son” which was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. He spent many a summer at Holden Village writing and teaching and collaborating with other artists. He led countless tours to Germany and Luther Land. He was really everywhere.
This hymn, his first to become well known, is of course very much like a psalm. One can hear Psalm 96:1 and 98 in it. The notion of a new song is fundamental to our faith. Our songs praising God are really all paradigmatically new. Christ makes all things new. Brokering shows what a new song is like in this text. Using the language of Scripture, but then adding new things never before found in hymns in this country, made the song do what it said, sing a new song
The refrain is probably the best thing about the hymn—He has done marvelous things/I too will praise him with a new song. A direct quote from the psalms.
Brokering was also fortunate in his tune writer. David Johnson’s tune, especially the refrain’s dwelling on the word marvelous, with such an attractive melody, made it an instant hit. People came to love it, even adding things that spoke from their world—loud chugging tractors, etc. It was easy to do.
In a way, Brokering was a pioneer, discovering his tradition bit by bit. Although he had grown up in a strong German parsonage where he heard the language and knew the German tradition of hymns well, he had to learn how to make the Lutheran hymn speak English. Lutherans, when they came to this country, seemed to forget their tradition of hymnody and were taken over by the Calvinists' paraphrasing of psalms or Isaac Watts. It was the dominant hymn tradition in America, for many good reasons.
Brokering may well have learned from Paul Gerhardt who preached in his hymns and used the things of the world around him. As did those who followed in his path. Brokering, as Luther would have commended, preached in this hymn It was based on the psalms, but not a paraphrase.
Brokering here is addressing the congregation telling it to sing. He is preaching so he can use everything around him to picture what praising God in the new day looks like.
We do not need fancy language when we pray; God is not expecting poetic prayers, but it is also true that preachers struggle every week to come up with creative ways to open the Scripture and give it a clear application to our time and place. They do that so that somehow through their language people will hear this new song. Augustine in his great book On Christian Doctrine/de doctrina christiana, makes an argument that communication does not go from one person to another like seeds into a funnel. People do not hear exactly what you say. But as they are listening, they can be fascinated by something, some piece of what you have said, and make something out of it. So then Augustine says, we are called to send out an abundance of signs so people can be persuaded or moved to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit and something in our words.
I think that is what Brokering was trying to do. As he said, “I tried to gather into a hymn of praise the many facets of life which emerge in the life of community. So there are the references to building, nature, learning, family, war, festivity. Seasons, emotions, death and resurrection, bread, wine, water, wind, sun, spirit. . . have made great impressions on my imagination.“ He was a preacher and teacher urgent to get the good news out to people who had not been hearing it. For that alone, he deserves praise.
David Johnson, the composer, taught at St. Olaf and chaired the Music Department. His setting of this text was first published in 1968 in a book Twelve Folksongs and Spirituals. This was just when the efforts for what became the LBW were beginning. Johnson, a native of Texas, got his masters and doctoral degrees at Syracuse University. He served as organist in several congregations, taught at several colleges, wrote books on organ playing and composed over three hundred works, among them "Trumpet Tune in D," and "The Lone, Wild Bird."
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St. Olaf Choir and American Boychoir
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