‘Let’s Just Sing God’s Word’
Benjamin Vanderhyde is serving his two-year vicarage singing God’s Word with God’s people in Sri Lanka.
Benjamin Vanderhyde wants to teach music. And he is convinced that the most important words to sing are the words God has given to us in His Word.
After Vanderhyde graduated from Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon, Wis., with a degree in parish music, he enrolled at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. As the time for his vicarage year — the third year of a typical four-year seminary education — approached, Vanderhyde was in contact with recruiters from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Office of International Mission. Vanderhyde was intrigued by the possibility of serving in the foreign mission field.
Sent to Sri Lanka
When the Rev. Charles Ferry, regional director for the Synod’s work in Asia, learned of Vanderhyde’s music acumen and desire to teach, he worked to arrange a vicarage in Sri Lanka, an island nation southeast of India.
“This is what I do. This is what I love,” said Vanderhyde, describing his work as a church musician. Vanderhyde’s vicarage, which combines his love for proclaiming Christ and music, is longer than the normal vicarage. He left for Sri Lanka in May 2019 and will conclude in December 2020, after which time he will finish his fourth year at the seminary and serve where the Lord calls him.
Although the location varies vastly from most vicarages, Vanderhyde experiences many of the same things as most vicars. He is supervised by a local pastor, LCMS missionary Rev. Steven Mahlburg. He preaches regularly, with hopes that his opportunities become more frequent. He teaches Bible studies and leads Sunday school. In addition, Vanderhyde is teaching music to the people of the Ceylon Evangelical Lutheran Church (CELC), the Synod’s partner church in Sri Lanka, which consists of about 15 congregations and preaching stations.
The people of the CELC love to sing. They have a hymnal that they use regularly, which is similar to The Lutheran Hymnal. Yet, music is something people continue to want and need to learn. Most of the music during worship is accompanied by a keyboard and tabla (a percussion instrument) when available. Though some of the hymns inherited from the India Evangelical Lutheran Church were written in Tamil, much of the music used by the CELC is not reflective of their culture or heritage. Instead, the majority of the settings are western with translated texts.
While this is a blessing to the church, and something no one wants to abandon, there can also exist unintended consequences. Christian missionaries from the West brought their religion to this officially Buddhist country, and many still see the church and the Christian faith as western. The music of the church often reinforces this perception.
Music is one way to express the reality that Jesus is for all people. Though styles and music theory may differ in various locations, the church is encouraged to sing to one another. St. Paul admonished the Ephesians to make the most of every opportunity (Eph. 5:16). He continued that, instead of filling the days with evil and sin, the church should address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19–20). The church sings the Word of God, even as she confesses and trusts in His promises.
God’s Word through Song
Vanderhyde notes that music allows the words to be experienced in a way that speaking only does not naturally communicate. When words are wed with music, language and melody proclaim together. Therefore, music written around the sound of words better complements those words to proclaim the content of the message. Since Tamil is from India, the sound of Tamil fits better with music written where the language originated. In addition, noted Vanderhyde, “Carnatic music has a rich scope for the affect of the words.”
There is a burning desire among young people in Sri Lanka to learn southern India’s Carnatic music (Karnāṭaka saṃgīta or Karnāṭaka saṅgītam). They are excited about learning Indian music, since it is part of their history. Many may associate the sound of Indian music with Hinduism. But Vanderhyde wants to teach music as a means for the proclamation of God’s Word in Christ.
“If we could teach music well,” he said, “we can feed them with God’s Word as we teach them music.”
In Nuwara Eliya, in the midst of tea plantations that cover the highlands of south-central Sri Lanka, students gathered in the Lutheran center to learn music. Vanderhyde welcomed the children and taught music theory basics as well as how to sing some fundamental intervals. After over an hour of learning and singing, the students thanked Vanderhyde for teaching them.
“I love Jesus very much,” said Thilaxcy, a young lady attending Vanderhyde’s music classes. “That’s why I sing.”
Vanderhyde’s other students in Nuwara Eliya, including Sweetly Medona, Akshon, Joyal, Julie, Dorin and Paveena all agreed with Thilaxcy: “We love God, and we love to sing.” When asked about their teacher, they all smiled and said they really like him.
‘The Point Is to Proclaim Christ’
In his free time, Vanderhyde is learning Tamil and composing tunes using Indian Carnatic theory. His focus is setting Scripture to Carnatic music so that the people of God can sing the Word of God. He is starting with the people, especially the children, of the CELC. But anyone who wants to join his music classes is welcome.
Not many visitors to Sri Lanka learn Tamil, since it is not the dominant language, so people are curious when they hear him sing or speak in Tamil. And when he sings, and when he teaches them to sing, it sounds like music from India. But the words are God’s Words. And now, in the high country of Sri Lanka, Indian Carnatic music is praising the God who keeps His promises in Christ Jesus.
“Ben is doing Carnatic music. That is interesting for us,” said the Rev. P. Gnanakumar, a pastor in the CELC who serves at Good Shepherd, Westward Ho, and Good Samaritan, Norwood. He also supervises Lutheran congregations in Patana and Kotogala. “We are learning church music. … This is very beneficial for the CELC. We have had the liturgy and hymnal, but Ben is teaching us what church music is and how to sing it correctly.”
“It starts at the theoretical level for me — at the basic premise that in whatever culture and whatever language, the point is to proclaim Christ,” said Vanderhyde. “And if Christ is Lord of the whole world, there is no surprise when you hear God’s Word proclaimed and Christ praised in another language or with music that sounds weird to our ears.”
For this reason, Vanderhyde has composed two pieces of music in Tamil crafted out of an Indian Carnatic framework: the Magnificat (from Luke 1) and the Venite (Psalm 95). These compositions result from many attempts to compose using Carnatic theory and Raga (scale). As he wrote and practiced Carnatic singing, he asked for people to listen to ensure his compositions accurately reflected Tamil pronunciation and feel. Though not every composition succeeded, he kept honing his skills. With learning and practice, Vanderhyde now offers both the Magnificat and the Venite in Carnatic style to the CELC and the larger church wherever Tamil is spoken.
Building a Foundation
Since his time is limited, Vanderhyde is focusing on vocal music. Although he uses a keyboard to teach, his desire is for people to love to sing the words of Scripture even when an instrument is unavailable. As with many of the principles he treasures, this view of music fits well with Indian music, which is focused on the vocal melody more than the instrumentation — often a single tone accompanied by percussion.
“The idea for Ben is to come and raise up future parish musicians focusing on the youth so that the church has musicians for years to come,” said Mahlburg. “He is focusing on vocal skills so that they can teach the congregation.” The children who are learning to sing the church’s songs will grow up in the CELC and, Lord willing, lead the church in singing those songs.
In addition to offering music instruction, Vanderhyde supports the current music needs in the CELC. When this issue went to press, he was preparing choirs for the Christmas program, helping refurbish the hymnal so that more copies could be printed, and organizing tabla lessons for the children so that they could accompany both the western and Tamil hymns in church.
Whether the tune was written decades ago in Germany using western music theory or composed using the Carnatic style, Vanderhyde encouraged, “Let’s just sing God’s Word.”
- About Sri Lanka: international.lcms.org/asia/sri-lanka
- Meet missionary Ben Vanderhyde: lcms.org/vanderhyde
- Meet missionary Rev. Steven Mahlburg: lcms.org/mahlburg
Pray with Us
In the Psalms, Your Holy Spirit teaches us to sing a new song in praise for all that You do. Let all of our songs thus repeat the story of Your love and mercy in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Join our voices with those of the church in Sri Lanka, that we might — together with angels and archangels — laud and magnify Your glorious name. Bless the work of the missionaries and pastors in Sri Lanka, that all might hear of Your grace in Jesus Christ and believe by the power of Your Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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Dr. Kevin Armbrust
Director of Editorial for LCMS Communications.