By Jeni Miller
The Rev. Dr. Wilfred Karsten, pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Moline, Ill., is the winner of a hymn-writing competition held by LutheranReformation.org — the official website for the Synodwide celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The lyrics of Karsten’s original hymn, “Though All Our Life Is Like a Scroll,” along with two musical settings of the hymn (including accompaniment and congregational pages), are available on LutheranReformation.org.
Judges for the competition included the Rev. Dr. Stephen P. Starke, pastor at St. John Lutheran Church, Amelith, Bay City, Mich.; the Rev. Dr. Jon Vieker, senior assistant to the LCMS president; and Peter Reske, senior editor of music/worship at Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis.
The announcement came June 17 that Karsten was the winner of the hymn for the Synod’s anniversary celebration, which has the theme of “It’s Still All About Jesus.”
“Hymns needed to be centered on themes of the Lutheran Reformation, but specifically embodying the theme ‘It’s Still All About Jesus’ was not a requirement,” said Reske. “However, Karsten’s hymn did both. He incorporated the word ‘still’ in four of the stanzas, each focusing on the work that God in Christ still does for his people. Further, more than a few of the competition entries emphasized the Reformation ‘solas,’ but Karsten’s hymn did it with elegance and nuance.”
A seasoned hymn writer
“Half a millennium later, the truths of the Reformation continue to apply,” explained Karsten. “I was moved to submit a hymn for the competition because I have written hymns ever since I became a pastor 32 years ago. While I have written some hymns for special occasions, most of my hymns were to be used in the congregation as a ‘sermon in song’ to amplify the points I was making from the pulpit.”
Karsten developed his hymn over a span of about three months. After he was announced as the winner, the committee commissioned a new tune to be specifically composed for the text.
“I want to express my special thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Blersch of Concordia University, Nebraska, who composed the tune ‘SOLA’ for this text,” said Karsten. “It is strong, reflective, and confident in nature. It fits the text perfectly, in my opinion.”
“With vivid and fresh imagery, Rev. Karsten has written stanzas beautifully balanced with Law and Gospel,” noted Starke. “The first four lines of the first four stanzas present the malady of sin; the last three lines of the first four stanzas show how Jesus and His saving work address sin’s malady. Here are just a few of my favorite images: blemished pages, costumes of our making, fig leaves of self righteousness, bells of doom are tolling, peaceful fortitude, scalpels of suspicion, symphony of grateful praise. It is a winning text in every way and by every standard of measure!”
Details of the hymn competition were announced in 2015 via LutheranReformation.org and various other Lutheran outlets, as well as through hymn-writing groups such as the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians.
The competition began last Oct. 13, and hymn writers from around the world submitted 232 entries for consideration in the competition, which closed Feb. 29.
The competition’s criteria
“The hymn competition sought original texts that were theologically strong (grounded in Scripture and Christological), poetically sound, filled with fresh imagery, fitting for liturgical use and congregational singing, and centered on themes of the Lutheran Reformation,” shared Starke. “Such themes might include … the proclamation of Christ and His saving work, the primacy of Scripture, justification by grace alone, salvation through faith alone, the Gospel, the Sacraments and new life in Christ.”
The winner of the competition received a $500 award and retains the copyright to the hymn’s text. According to Reske, “In addition to a clear proclamation of the Gospel, [Karsten’s hymn] has a beauty of language and form with a boldness of imagery that the judges believe will make for a memorable and enduring contribution to the hymnody of the Lutheran Church and beyond.”
The Rev. Randall Golter, special assistant to the LCMS president and director of the Synod’s 2017 Reformation-celebration planning, also considers Karsten’s hymn to be a welcomed contribution to the 500th anniversary celebration.
“Pastor Karsten’s text and Dr. Blersch’s tune provide the Church with a marvelous hymn: invitatory, reflective and full of the proclamation of Law and Gospel,” said Golter. “What a wonderful way to highlight the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! I pray congregations will use this often throughout the 2017 year.”
“A Lutheran hymn is one that clearly proclaims Christ and His saving work,” added Starke. “It is a hymn that is theologically strong because it is grounded in Holy Scripture. It is not man-centered, but rather Christ-centered. It is designed for proclamation and teaching the faith so that the truths of the faith are sung into the hearts of the worshipers. A Lutheran hymn is not empty-calorie, sweet, syrupy marshmallow fluff but rather nourishing meat that feeds the faith. I know I am not objective about this, but Lutheran hymns are the best!”
Deaconess Jeni Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and member of Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta.
Posted June 23, 2016 / Updated June 24, 2016 / Updated June 29, 2016, with correction: In the fourth paragraph, “The announcement came June 17” not July 17 as previously reported.