Tuesday, May 11, 2021

When Hymns Come In Handy

Me, age 3 1/2, leading music in my Sunday School class.
Note that no one is paying attention to me.
In January 2015 I was looking out over the ocean, thinking (and praying) about my father's decline in health, his admission to a nursing home, getting him and my mother on the right Medicare supplemental insurance, getting their finances in order, and working with an attorney's office on setting up the right legal paperwork so I could help meet their needs in the coming years. I was plagued by anxiety and confusion and fear that things would not work out right. Through a whipping rain (but behind the shield of a pair of sliding glass doors), I watched waves fighting each other and pounding the beach. I was reminded of the hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul":

    When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
    When sorrows like sea billows roll;
    Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
    It is well, it is well with my soul.

I did not feel like all was well with my soul. And peace did not "attendeth my way." Far from it. Instead, I felt buffeted by relentless forces standing in the way of caring for my parents. But in those times of distress, I prayed for peace, and wisdom to make the right choices as I upheld the Fifth Commandment.

Growing up with hymns

In my formative years I was -- thanks to my parents and several Baptist churches -- introduced to a great deal of church hymns. In Sunday School we learned the old standards, "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children." (See Matt. 19:13-15). As a three-year old I stood on a little chair in my Sunday School class to lead the music for us. (See photo above.) And whenever I see a sycamore tree I'm reminded of another song we learned as children in Sunday School (see Luke 19:1-10):

    Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he!
    He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see ...

One of my earliest memories is of my mother doing a solo at church of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." She sang in the church choir. My father could have been part of the choir. He had a good voice, but we could never get him to join. Perhaps he was too self-conscious.

There was only one hymn I was told my father didn't like: "The Old Rugged Cross," because he considered it idolatrous. Philosophers refer to this as confusing the map [the representation] with the territory [what is being represented]. The lyrics of this hymn don't say we should worship the cross. The cross, as it says in the first verse, is "the emblem of suffering and shame." It is a representation of Christ's death and what it means to Christians.

As I sang in church, growing up, I realized I had a knack for picking up harmony while the congregation sang hymns. But it was not until I joined our church's youth choir that my harmonizing found the structure it needed as I started learning to read music and sing tenor alongside my choir friend Bob DuBois.

Nowadays, hymns are something I seldom hear, but they remain in my heart. They frequently come in handy, as when I contemplate a never-ending list of chores and responsibilities and hear in my mind the refrain of the hymn, "We'll Work Till Jesus Comes":

    We'll work till Jesus comes,
    We'll work till Jesus comes!
    We'll work till Jesus comes
    And we'll be gathered home.

I just hope He comes soon so I can get some rest!

What hymns and contemporary Christian music mean for me today

In the past fifty years Christian music has changed radically. In many churches where hymns are still sung, hymnals are a thing of the past. The lyrics are projected on a screen for all to see, but for those of us who read notes while singing harmony, we have no notes to guide us. I have to fall back on improvising, and not singing too loud in case I pick a discordant note by accident.

Twenty-five years ago my wife and I joined a church that had a "blended" traditional/contemporary service. We felt like we were getting the best of both worlds. (I made the "mistake" of singing tenor where the choir director could hear me, and soon I was drafted!) But blended services are increasingly difficult to find in our part of Ohio. And "praise bands" leading music in contemporary non-denominational churches, at least in our region, stick strictly to a repertoire of contemporary Christian music (CCM). This may be an important part of attracting younger families. Older church members are dying out, and that may also contribute to the shift from hymns to CCM.

I like and I appreciate CCM. I enjoy the "rock" feel to it. I've even attempted solos of a couple of pieces of CCM in church, with backing tracks, and I've enjoyed playing guitar and bass in a few praise bands. But CCM does not easily lend itself to congregational singing. There is a much greater variety to draw on, compared to the old hymns, but unless you listen to CCM on the radio/Spotify, you probably won't know how to sing the melody, let alone some kind of harmony.

A related problem, in my mind, is this. Too often, it feels like the praise band leading CCM is putting on a performance instead of gathering voices from all over the church in praise to God. Darkened auditoriums with spots on the praise band only bolster that impression. Congregational singing consequently falls by the wayside. Without a strong participation by the congregation, the church misses out on "the fellowship of kindred minds" who together proclaim the glory of God in song.

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