by Kim Plummer Krull
While his name may not ring a bell, the words of the Rev. Stephen P. Starke (STAR-kee) sound familiar to many who enjoy singing from Lutheran Service Book (LSB), the Synods hymnal. The Michigan pastor has penned more than 175 hymns, including 32 in LSB. Scripture and music often inspire his work.
So, Starke says, does the occasional deadline. Over the years, he has written for many special occasions, including the 125th anniversary of Concordia University Wisconsin (“Great Is the Lord!”) and the 2011 nuptials of his daughter Stephanie and Justin Peterson (“When God Made Earth”). Another Starke hymn, “God’s Redeemed, Beloved and Holy,” written originally in 2005 for the 50th anniversary of Cheshire Lutheran Church, Cheshire, Conn., is featured in the Bible study for the LCMS church emphasis, Witness, Mercy, Life Together.
Starke served as chairman of the Hymnody Committee for the Lutheran Hymnal Project that led to the 2006 release of LSB. He calls that eight-year task a daunting but rewarding challenge. “A hymnal is truly a treasure chest of the best of the past as well as what is considered worthy from the present time,” Starke says. Since 2000, Starke, 56, has served as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church–Amelith in Bay City, Mich. In addition to the newly-weds, his family includes wife, Pat, and three children: Paul (Paulette) Starke, Sarah (Justin) Bobick, Peter, and one granddaughter.
Last year, Concordia Publishing House released We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O Lord, the first CD collection of Starkes hymns. The disc includes what is probably his best-known hymn in LCMS circles, “The Tree of Life.” (Visit www.cph.org.)
The following is an edited Lutheran Witness (LW) interview with Starke (SS):
LW: What sparked your interest in hymn writing?
SS: I have loved hymns since my childhood, and I recall playing hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal on our piano when I was a young boy. I attempted writing my first hymn text when I was in my final year at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. I was encouraged by those with whom I shared that text, and so I kept working at the craft.
LW: What makes a good hymn, theologically and musically?
SS: Theologically, a good hymn from a Lutheran perspective is Christ-centered, biblically grounded, doctrinally precise and rightly distinguishes Law and Gospel. Other linguistic issues also help make a good hymn, issues pertaining to the integrity of the poetry itself: proper rhyme and meter, freshness of expression, easily understood language and imagery while retaining the corporate nature of a hymn text. Musically, a good hymn is one in which the music serves the text and does not overwhelm the text. Luther once wrote that music is the handmaiden of theology, and his words still ring true today. A good hymn tune is one in which the music is churchly in character and singable by a group of people, both melodically and rhythmically, music that is congregational in nature and not soloistic.
LW: What kind of foundation does our Lutheran theology provide for a hymnist?
SS: Lutheran theology provides a unique foundation due to it’s Christ-centered focus. One may also add to this our Lutheran understanding that the justification of the sinner by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone is the central theological truth of Holy Scripture. These two points are like two eyes that help provide vision and focus for a Lutheran hymnist.
LW: Describe the challenge of leading the Hymnody Committee that produced LSB, a hymnal that has sold more than 1 million copies.
SS: Looking back on the Lutheran Hymnal Project, it is now hard to believe how much work was accomplished by the men and women who were a part of not only my committee but also the other committees. The challenge was daunting, but the leadership provided by Dr. Paul Grime, project director, and the support provided by all those connected to the Commission on Worship helped keep all the committees coordinated. The Hymnody Committee’s chief objective was merging the streams of our Synods’ hymnal history represented by The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941, Lutheran Worship of 1982 and incorporating some of the best of the Hymnal Supplement 98. We also reviewed additional hymn collections and submissions. Our goal was to produce a hymnal that would be the most helpful to the worship life of the LCMS, and hopefully be embraced by the largest possible number of congregations.
LW: Everyone has a favorite hymn. What’s yours?
SS: There are so many beloved hymns, but I guess I would have to say my favorite is Paul Gerhardt’s “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” set to the tune An Wasserflssen Babylon. Gerhardt does an amazing job of writing in a very personal way about Isaiah 53 and the atonement. I love the dialogue that takes place between the Father and the Son and then Gerhardt’s reflection on what Christ’s death means for us and for all. What joy for each person, individually, to be robed in Christ’s blood-bought righteousness! I believe this hymn is also a great example of how a tune can support a text, as this tune has an understated strength and a broad range of feeling that underscore Gerhardt’s marvelous words.
LW: LSB includes hymns by Martin Luther as well as contemporary hymnists like you. Will the hymns sung by our great-grandchildren differ from those we love today?
SS: Hymnody has changed over the years. Yet in spite of all the changes, time has served as the great sifter, sifting out texts and tunes of enduring value. These gems have been preserved for the Church of our present day. I recognize that the passage of time eventually will sift through my hymn texts, and I can only hope that those that are considered worthy will remain to help teach the faith to future generations. In that sense, some of the hymns our great-grandchildren will be singing may indeed be different hymns, written by future hymnists with tunes by future composers. But, prayerfully, the Christ-centered textual content of the hymns and the churchly and congregational character of the tunes will still be the standards of measure.
> Go to www.cph.org to order We Praise You and Acknowledge You, O God, the first-ever CD collection of the hymns of the Rev. Stephen P. Starke.
>Click here to read Rev. Starke’s hymn “When God Made Earth,” written for his daughter’s wedding.
About the Author: Kim Plummer Krull is a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.