a.k.a. “There’s something wrong with traditional hymns and I just figured out what it was.”
It was a Wednesday evening service. It was late – towards the end of the very last hymn-singing services that they would ever hold. The youth group was in the sanctuary flipping through the hymnals for songs that the praise band would play so we could all sing them together. #10 – ‘How Great Thou Art’, #317 – ‘Only Trust Him’ and #410 – ‘It Is Well’ had already been sung. “Why are there around 650 hymns in this book if we only ever sing about two dozen or so of them at the most – counting seasonal Christmas hymns?” I asked myself as I started at the last hymn and worked backwards looking through the lyrics for something meaningful. When I found the perfect hymn, I raised my hymn and confidently requested number 500 something. The praise band shook their heads when they realized that I had chosen one of the hymns they had never heard of in all of their life-times combined. They gave me another chance to choose a different hymn; #187 – ‘In the Garden’ was the one that we compromised on.
Some years later, singing hymns reached an all new low for me when we ended up at a church where we had no choice but to sing hymns a Capella for a few Sundays in a row. I couldn’t understand why everyone else had warm, fuzzy, happy feelings about singing these same old hymns over and over again when within me there was a growing sense of frustration, of dread, and while I was smiling on the outside, I was crying deep inside. I was desperately crying out for something, anything to fix what was wrong.
Contemporary Music proved to be as refreshing as an ice cold bottle of water in the middle of the desert, as restorative as Aloe Vera gel on burnt skin, and as wonderful as an evening spent gazing at the most starry sky I’d ever seen all wrapped into one experience. It helped me to learn that while I can’t read sheet music, I can still sing the notes even if I don’t know what they are. That I can actually sound good when I sing even if I don’t know how. That songs can be in words I understand because I use them day in and day out. (Granted, I like the word thither, but there’s not a lot of opportunity to use it daily.)
My current church is a hymn-only church. They do contemporary songs as a choir special on occasion. Since I’m expected to quietly sit and listen, I don’t get to join in and that takes some of the fun out of it for me. So I’ll be the one listening to my MP3 player with my favorite contemporary music on it. You don’t have to like my music and that’s okay with me.
I’m not asking that you completely get rid of hymns – I’m just asking you to get rid of certain expectations. I’m asking you to get rid of the expectation that I know the hymns that you know, that I grew up singing the hymns that you grew up singing, that your favorite hymn happens to be my favorite hymn, and that I once sang Kumbayah around a campfire at summer camp because that’s something you did.
I’m not the only one – on a scale of 1 to 10, my brother’s dislike of hymns was an 8 because they were old. My mother said that they were terrible musically, terrible vocally, and that they were old too – she gave them a 9.5. As for me, I’d have to say I’m at 9, I dislike them with the fiery burning passion of a thousand suns. Between the repetitive devotion to a handful of hymns, inclusion of hundreds of hymns only to ignore them, the difficulty of singing songs given an inability to read music, and then there’s that something wrong.
I don’t feel it so much at the current church, but the old church was worse about it. It was the primary reason I was happy to get out of there. It feels like being the person who is wearing the wrong thing at the wrong time and the wrong place. Like everyone can see that you just don’t belong and wondering how you could have possibly missed the memo. It feels like being a person who talks the wrong way. Like everyone thinks that every word you say is too slow or mispronounced. It feels like being a person who shows up at a party they weren’t invited to. Like there’s an awkward silence and a palpable tension in the air. All of this is felt in my core when the dusty old hymnals are pulled up from the pews and they creak open to the creases where the same song is sung so often that the book naturally opens up to that page. I look around and see joyful anticipation and happy exhilaration and glad elation. I feel none of those things. That something wrong is something I don’t think hymns can fix. Neither is pulling up stakes and going to another church an option. The ones that offer contemporary music feature the wrong sort of theology that we are trying to flee. The ones with the theology that we like feature old fashioned hymns. There is nowhere we can go – hence the MP3 player.
Listening to these songs at church is my way of trying to capture that same sacred experience – if only in part – that others seem to get from hymns that I don’t. I wish that I could share that experience – like the part of Winter Jam where there’s a stillness while thousands of believers all put their collective effort to praising God in the midst of such music. Hymns do not work for me, I doubt that my contemporary songs will work for everyone. I just can’t help but feel thirsty for more on Sunday mornings. More than unsung hymns. More than difficult to sing hymns. More than musically awkward hymns. More than old hymns. More than the same hymns over and over again. More than frustration. More than disappointment. I don’t want to be thirsty anymore.