hymnals and the way of faith in the story of church

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Thee, Thine, Thou never felt natural in my ears or on my tongue and the slow, few instruments that played had a way of boring me to sleep as a kid. Some Sunday mornings, I’d sneak a look at the back wall where a red digital clock hung. And by the time the sermon closed, I was lethargic, but straight up relieved.

 

At a certain point, my parents, seeing us kids in our shared listlessness, having noticed the slow blinking of our eyes, decided to take us to the later, contemporary service. And it was there that my faith was forged. Songs like “Light the Fire” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord” and “In the Secret” seemed to inject me with a spiritual oomph I had not felt. I was moved to tears. I was dancing. Every chorus of those power ballads made me stretch my hands in the air as if to brush the Holy Spirit’s fingers.

 

Several years later now, with my heart weathered and worn, I’m at a kind of of standstill with church. Having been hit a hundred thousand times by evangelicalism, having become a survivor of the place that initially swept me off my feet, I am instinctively suspicious of all of it. All of Church. And also, wanting so badly to be a part of it.

 

But all the pop Christian jams still ring shrill in my ears. I am very annoyed by the use of music as a means of emotional manipulation when the pastor prays. And goodness, it takes every ounce of strength in my being to stay on the ground when I hear a secular pop song, sung by the worship band, sometimes with words changed. Stop the sale’s pitch! Stop your need to be Cool! I want to scream. I want to walk out. 

 

One such song was played last night at the Easter service and at the start, when I recognized it, I started shaking my head in a very obvious, take-note-of-my-disapproval way. I turned around to my family hoping to find solidarity but No. They were feeling it. Loving it. They were clapping joyfully and crooning out the catchy song from the radio. And I. was. appalled.

 

These little triggers, sensitivities, chinks in my armor are really all it takes to dirty up an entire church service for me. One cringe-worthy thing lingers in the back of my mind like a leaky faucet and it is Game Over. And I hate this about me. I wish I could roll it off my shoulders and just gel in with everyone else, but my heart is weathered and worn. Once I sense the evangelical spirit, with all it’s wrongness and past crimes against me, the dominos effect begins within. Everything is called into question. Every. Last. Thing.

 

And I don’t know why I keep coming back to this form of faith. The Evangelical. The bubble-gum joy. The cheap sentimentality. Because it’s all I know, but still. I wish I knew more.

 

The music slowed down for the next song. The electric guitar was set aside and a soft ripple of piano began. A steady, functional, reliable chord. I looked up. I felt a centering. A simplicity that made me want to cry with relief. And then the words:

 

I hear the Savior say

“Thy strength indeed is small

Child of weakness, watch and pray,

Find in me Thine all in all”

 

These are the songs I once hated, but they are meeting me right now with a precision and truth I cannot explain. In the midst of my own cynicism and sensitivity and anger, in the mess of all the wrong and unkindness of the Church, these plain and poetic words arrive standing before me, unadorned and beautiful, like peace, like Jesus out on the water.

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They don’t push me into an exclamation. They don’t pressure me to feel when I don’t. They don’t carry the slushiness, schmaltziness that transfixes everyone into a moment of emotional intoxication. They come wearing no mask, blowing no incense, dangling no carrot before me.

 

I speak them and I know what they’re saying: Jesus Paid it All. I feel a rush of gratitude at that lyric. I wonder why we feel the need to sing any other line. Then I heart Come Thou Fount, It is Well, and There is a Fountain and I know why. This the fabric of Church. This is her story.

 

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There is a timeworn dependability to them, too. I hold the hymnal in my hands and it’s crinkled, the paper, thin, the crush of a thousand fingers opening and closing and folding and leaving and returning, week after week, year after year. And there’s something about that history. I can trace these works through generations that have come before me, that have endured their own battles here, and maybe, for them, it was just this, this small little book with its’ crinkled up pages, that gave them the grit to come back week after week after week.

 

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And maybe it’s not about fitting back into something. Maybe it’s about being aware of the new shape of my faith. I’ve grown and changed and it’s different now, maybe better. In this season, I can’t hear the electric zest of an era that is still too raw, that left me high and dry and bitter and cold. Maybe I can only be with the old songs. The simple ones. I can lean into the sturdiness of lyrics long-lived.

 

As I return in my own battle regalia, week after week, searching for my own Sunday Morning, I am finding that for now, this is enough to hang onto. It’s a small raft, but it is mine, and it’s holding me up.

  • T Guthe

    My sweet brother. Keep walking, keep breathing, keep singing! I have come to love the old songs recently. And have been blessed by the new hymns of Keith and Kristen Getty. You may be as well. They are a balm for the wounded and full of Irish joy!

  • Abby Norman

    yes. yesyesyes. Leanne Penny has a print out of her favorite hymns once a month that I love.

  • Katie Miles

    Ben, you have articulated your thoughts and feelings so beautifully in this post…such honesty and vulnerability that it takes my breath away. I am in a similar place with church, but have stopped going…and have felt very weary and alone. Thank you for the reminder that the old and steady things of our faith can be a life raft of sorts…I’m getting out my old Lutheran hymnal today. Thank you for the beam of light!

    • I’m glad!! The hymns do provide a beautiful, poetic ground we can root ourselves too. And for those of us who have been burned by evangelicalism, they feel completely free of that speak, making them a powerful way we can connect in worship and prayer. And I love that you’re a lutheran! (trying to find a lutheran church myself.)

  • Stephanie

    I know EXACTLY how you feel about this music thing. As a kid I hated the hymnal music. Sooooo boring. In college I discovered the praise and worship churches and thought “yes, this is where it’s at. This is hip and cool and still Christian.” I swayed and raised my hands w/ the best of them. Then I grew up and revisited the hymnal. All of a sudden the praise and worship felt shallow.
    For me the difference is the maturity level. In order to understand and appreciate the hymns you have to concentrate and really listen to the words and actually think about them. As a child that is nearly impossible. Praise and worship doesn’t take a lot of deep thought. Not that there is anything wrong w/ it, it can be moving, but it’s so easy. We grow up and life molds and changes us and our hearts have been broken and finally we are ready to hear the words that so many before us have heard.
    Sometimes I look to see what year it was written and am amazed that something that was written 100 years ago can still ring true. Poetry never dies.
    Oh, and hearing the classical composers (Beethoven, Bach, Handel, etc) in a service. Wow. It’s like hearing God talk directly to me.

    • Absolutely. Those echo my thoughts about why I couldn’t appreciate these songs as a kid, why I adored the hip and cool music. And when it comes to art, poetry, that realm has been gospel to me when I couldn’t go into a church. When I couldn’t touch a bible. (only to later realize, there is so art and poetry in the Bible!) And what interests me is when art becomes kitschy, simply marketing (like a lot of music in general today), and when it reflects deeper truths. I think the Church struggles with deeper truths, turning instead to the cute and kitsch.

  • Logan81

    I think it’s no coincidence that you posted that last hymn. Having spent the majority of my Christianity in Evangelical churches, we only ever sang verses 1, 3, and 4 of hymns. I went to an Episcopalian service with my parents yesterday, where lo and behold, we sang all 4 verses of “How Great Thou Art!” As a serious outdoorsy guy, that verse is me all over! I may not agree with the theology of most worship songs and hymns these days, but I feel that one got it right on an epic scale.

    • Kim Campbell

      Also dying over this comment – grew up in a Mennonite church and we sang verses 1, 2 and 4. My dad (the worship leader) never filled me in on the mathematics behind the verse selection. 🙂

      • Wendy

        OK, is there some secret rule about verse 3 that I don’t know about?…

        • Kim Campbell

          I know, right?! So funny – this would make a hysterical infographic (which denominations skip which verses and possible musings as to why). 🙂

    • We are kindred spirits. I love the outdoors. I love today, Earth Day, and I adore that hymn. Growing up in a house where we all played piano, it was the first we learned to play, with all they lyrics. It’s connected to me in a really powerful way!

      • Logan81

        Yeah, my parents actually went on their first date on the first Earth Day, so it has a pretty big significance for all of us too. My dad’s always been a big outdoorsman, and my mom is a serious animal lover, so I picked up a lot of my love of nature from them. 🙂

  • Kim Campbell

    Took the breath right out of me reading this. The crushing truth of those thousand year old songs can be so real. Slow and steady wins the race? How ’bout simple and sturdy. Heart this post.

  • Rick Montgomery

    Ben, I can’t express how much I appreciate your blog. Insight and eloquence are a rare combination. Thank you.

  • RachaelTMickel

    This…is the most beautiful post of yours that I have read and the only one that has put to words what is in my heart. Thank you!!

  • Roo James Wilson

    Oh Ben, the things I could say about this whole topic and issue, but it would take up way to much space. I agree whole heartedly with what you have to say and I find it incredibly sad that we have lost the true beauty of music and musicality within our churches. Like I said, I could go on but won’t. Thanks again for your great words!! 🙂

    • Me too, Roo. Especially these songs that have endured for so long, and seem to speak to us all, conservative, liberal, gay, straight whatever. There is a power in them that’s hard to ignore. Thank you for your kind words again, friend. I always appreciate seeing you here!

      • Roo James Wilson

        I imagine you and I would probably have a very long, cuppa tea filled conversation someday maybe! 🙂

        • Absolutely, I think so too, Roo!

          • Roo James Wilson

            I posted my email address in a previous post…don’t remember which 😛 but feel free to drop me a line for that cuppa! 🙂

  • Jacob Wrestled (Danielle G.)

    I do not mean this as a put down of CCM, but I too became perturbed with it as I left my youth. Clearly, the contemporary tunes speak to many people and I don’t like to knock anything that speaks powerfully to others. But to me the music dwells so much on the on the emotional, the individual, and the upbeat, that it irks me after a while. It seems designed to
    inspire, manufacture, or otherwise produce “highs.” This is a strength: but it’s a weakness as well. It requires the singer to be good at agreeing, to expressing herself, to climbing the emotional ladder into ecstasy, right on cue.

    When doubt, and pain, and the complexity of life became more a part of my daily experience, I just didn’t climb the ladder that well anymore. Instead, I found myself taking refuge in hymns, in liturgy, and the Psalms. They seemed to call out to the wider experiences of life, to give me words to express them, and to integrate them into my understanding of what it means to be Christian, and to find faith within the grittiness of daily life (rather than despite it). Perhaps because the hymns hail from such a wide span of time, and the liturgy and church seasons to roots deeper still, they are sensitive to realities in human experience that our contemporary culture doesn’t handle particularly well.

  • Keri Miller Detter

    …i grew up lutheran and now attend a seeker sensitive church with their hip hop rock pop music and volunteer in their mountain dew high fructose corn syrup hyped up youth program……and almost every sunday i wonder if i have sold out to the advertising/corporate jesus machine……this easter my husband and i took our kids on a hike and read the bible to them in the middle of a small clearing…..best easter i ever had…..you are not alone in your wandering heart…………………….

  • Sara Himm

    I think there is a place for both hymns and good modern songs in worship. That said it does seem that people, at least the people in my congregation, tend to relate more to the hymns.

    Also, I can’t be the only one who wants to know what secular song was played in your church on Easter.

    • Me too. And, the song was from the Fray, which is rumored to be Christian. It was their song: Love Don’t Die. Which I suppose is fitting, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. Agitated my inner cynic.

      • Sara Himm

        I totally know what you mean. I remember visiting a church several years ago and they played a Snow Patrol song called You’re all I Have. While the lyrics coincided with the overall theme of the service, I felt there was something a little “off”. There were probably a hundred other songs that could have been just as fitting and maybe a little more theologically sound.

  • Jacob Brandenburg

    I grew up with these hymns and never truly left them, but over the past couple of years there has been some kind of spiritual awakening within me that finds those that were written at the beginning of the 1900s seem to have such simplicity and honesty that speak to me. Maybe it is the fact that even if the words are not completely common the truth and power within them keep them in our hearts and souls. They have the ability to change something within us because they are not looking for popularity or praise; they were only looking to praise God and encourage.

    Stay strong and keep writing.

  • Katie Stewart

    This piece could only have been written out of natural talent coupled with spiritual sorrow, Ben. While I’m sorry you’ve had to feel this way [ as I have so many times] I am grateful we reap the benefit of your spot on power of description and command of the language. No need for you to feel the newcomer over at Deeper Story. I’m sure they will be pleased to read and enjoy everything you submit.

  • I love the old hymns. I can worship to about anything. But to declare “it is well with my soul,” I need these comfort tunes. Glad you are finding a place for them in your faith.

  • I relate to this so much.
    Love to you, friend.

  • fireflyeyes

    I can very much relate to this! I love love loved our contemporary worship music with Chris Tomlin and Sonic Flood and high production values in the service and extended worship jam sessions with people crying and lifting up their hands. But my later church experience became so soured that to hear those songs makes me cringe. They’ve become an emblem of hypocrisy in my ears. I have come to use “modern” worship and cool hipster worship leader as marks of a church to be avoided at all cost. The “cooler” the music, I’ve found, the more conservative and misogynistic and unforgiving the theology. Give me an organ and a hymn and I feel safer. Maybe this is unfair, but it’s a visceral reaction. And I am only too well aware how any group participation event with music can easily manipulate the emotions of crowd and produce whatever response is desired. The whole modern worship service is calculated specifically to produce a spiritual high that doesn’t seem to require the presence of God. They credit God for the experience, but I’ve seen similar effects at secular concerts. It makes it hard to tell when or if God actually IS reaching out to you or if you’re just being manipulated by the music.

    • hymnia

      Your comment brings to mind this U2 lyric: “Jesus never let me down/You know Jesus used to show me the score/Then they put Jesus in show business/Now it’s hard to get in the door.”

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  • acousticmom

    Thank you for this, Ben. I’ve had to move away from evangelicalism (love my gay kid, couldn’t stay and let my head and heart explode from the dissonance)–and it’s taken a year before I can sing during worship at our new church without crying. Music is so very intimate, and it lifts up all my conflict, pain, and disappointment before God, no hiding. Like you, I find the old hymns untainted and healing. Your suspicion, your weathered and worn heart, and your stubborn hanging onto grace–I’m on that road with you, and I appreciate your voice.

  • Leah Guy

    Check out Page CXVI. Beautiful covers of old hymns. 🙂

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