Hymn

Hymn: A song, praise, or poem directed to God. Associated with a religious service with connotations of traditional (rather than contemporary) worship.

It went in phases. First went the wooden pews with their thin red cushions, old and sturdy and uncomfortable. Then went the hymnals, stacked into great heaping piles at the back of the sanctuary. Big projection screens went up, flanking the pipes of an organ from a bygone era.

Someone suggested that “sanctuary” was an antiquated term; we started calling it the “worship center.” The church choir disbanded in favor of a worship team.

During the last of the responsive readings, I was old enough to read along in the program. “It sounds so boring,” I moaned to my parents on the way home from church. I was fifteen: smoldering in my fire for Jesus. “Why can’t they put a little feeling into it?”

I liked my worship loud against electric guitars. I wanted my heart to quicken with the drums, to lift my hands with the crescendos of a repeating chorus.

I wanted prayer to be impromptu, a spontaneous bursting forth of my whole, full heart to God. Good riddance to the Lord’s Prayer and the other tired lines in the hymn books; they were too old and frail to convey my passion.

The changes suited me just fine.

I didn’t understand that there would be a day when I would have no emotion left, no passion, no overflow of my tired heart. In that desperate moment, the praise songs began to sound tinny and hollow to my ear. The evangelical-speak that once sounded so fresh and new began to sound like marketing.

But at Christmas, we take them out: our hymns, our liturgies. We dust them off, speed them up, add a drumbeat. Or we alter them artfully, adding acoustic rifts, new phrases.

We leave the words untouched for the most part, complete with their Thees and Thous, their old phrasing, odd vocabulary. There is something timeless about them; something eternally beautiful, endlessly relevant.

I read them now and find that they are not frail, but strong, full of mystery, full of hope:

O come Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here

And it’s not about nostalgia, but rather a sense of ancient community, a long, wide heritage of faith. A thousand Christmases in a hundred thousand cities, churches, homes. All those people, holding all those tiny candles, singing the old words:

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

The world is new, changing, moving, and we move along with it. We upgrade, replace, move forward. We create. We use the new technology available to enter into the mystery of God’s love in different, beautiful ways. We try to say it differently, stack together new metaphors and similes to describe it all.

But someone is posting the Evening Prayer in my Twitter feed. Liturgy colliding with technology. And it is so old and beautiful and sturdy and true, and it feels like a hand-me-down sweater worn by so many before me.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, oh Israel!

I wrap the words around my cold places. I let them warm me as I move on toward Christmas.

8 thoughts on “Hymn

  1. It was at Promise Keepers in Atlanta about three years ago that I became rather terrified at how little all that awesome worship music did for me. The whole idea of forcing 10,000 men into worship with loud and skillful music did nothing for me. I felt as dead as a mid-day moon on a sunny day.

    The fiery moments that Third Day, Matt Redmon, Kutless, and many others once ignited in me has died. I still love those guys and what they do. I’m not anti-worship music. But what it once did for me is GONE. I simply don’t find it. I don’t trust it, and the reasons are myriad.

    I find myself straying further and further from a worshipful spirit. I find myself inspired more by the Thees and the Thous than by Awesome God. I find King James English feels more holy than Holman Christian Standard, and to some degree I’m comforted by that.

    Liturgy terrifies many evangelicals, and understandably so. We are evangelicals partly because we believe that our worship of our Saviour should evoke some emotions, although our denominationalism usually defines the allowed emotions quite restrictively.

    Christmas this year has not evoked the power and the emotion that it once did in me. I’m “afeared” because of that, too. Something has died in me and I truly do not know what.

    Yet, once again, you somehow read my mind and write the things that are in my head. Are there thousands of other Christians out there with the same fearful, hopeless feelings that sometimes enslave me? Is this the core of why Christianity in America feels so hopeless? Are we being commanded from the pulpit to evangelize a world with a Gospel, with a Good News, that we are continually fighting to even believe ourselves? Do we come to Christ in a powerful flurry of emotions and then feel we are left with worse struggles than those which brought us to Him in the first place? Do we really believe that the Saviour in the manger brought hope to a world that had none, while we often battle on with no true hope, only a few emotional highs and moments of mild victory to look back on? How do we tell our friends that they need Jesus when we fight every day for even the small victories over the same sins, struggles, and issues that they battle?

    I bet you hate it when I comment longer than your original post, sorry.

    Thanks.

    1. I can relate to that feeling of having lost something. I think it comes back. Not maybe in the same recognizable way. What liturgy and hymns do for me is to separate truth from emotion in a way that allows me to engage with God even when I can’t feel him. It’s hard for me to sing those new choruses that say things like, “You’re all I want; you’re all I’ve ever needed” when that doesn’t feel true. Hymns and liturgies, however, tend to focus more on the bigness and mystery of God and less on how I feel about him at any given moment. That helps me to approach holy ground in a way that feels true to my journey.

  2. I think this said everything I have been trying to say about hymns over the past decade. It is beautiful. Thank you.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve always been quick to toss aside tradition for the vitality of whatever is new. (I wear one wedding ring because why wear two.) But I’ve found myself creeping back to tradition. I crave the history. The richness. The rhythm it gives to my everyday life. But only after I challenge the necessity of it which is why I love reading your blog so much. It’s raw and still grounded. Please keep writing! You are good for my soul!

  4. I struggle with how to explain how important liturgy is to me (reared a Lutheran, and not in the midwest) to all my Okie evangelical friends who find it dry and hollow, who think you can’t “feel God” (whatever that means) that way and that somehow I’m therefore less Christian because my worship is less rambunctious. I think I’ll just point them to this post in the future.

    Interesting side note. Back when English used thees as well as yous, the “thee” was the informal mode of address, while the “you” was the formal one (a lot of other languages have formal/informal yous: German, Spanish, Latin, but English has dropped them). So all those thees and thous that sound so stiff and formal to us were intended to be a familiar address, comforting, bringing God closer rather than distancing him. Like the difference between how you speak to a friend or family member (thee) versus your boss (you).

    It’s interesting that, nowadays, the thees and thous do exactly the opposite of what they were intended to do. They should take the edge off the Divine Mystery: yes, you’re the All-Powerful Majestic Mysterious God but you are also my father, who is a close enough friend that I can address you casually, because you are dear to my heart as I am dear to yours. Now, because the form of address is archaic, it distances Him, makes Him seem more remote and mysterious, this Being we speak to in a strange language that isn’t quite ours. And yet for you it seems it has come full circle.

    I love language. Thank you for this post, which I know is old, but I rabbit-trailed here from some of your other posts and couldn’t resist commenting. ^_^

    1. Thanks for reading and for commenting Katie! I think that the evangelical world misses out when it removes liturgy from worship. For me, this past year, it has been like a doorway leading me back to communication with God. There’s something about focusing on what’s True instead of what I feel. From there, I am able to springboard into more spontaneous kinds of worship and prayer, but this is my pathway. All of these beautiful intimate thees and thous that you speak of. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

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