What hymns know

By Thomas Becknell
posted 11.15.11

In my church, and in many evangelical churches across the nation, we have stopped singing hymns. We chant praise songs instead. We lift our hands, our hearts, our voices with an exuberance unknown in the churches of my childhood.

But what have we lost?

The hymns of my childhood were clogged with cleft rocks, harvest fields, lost sheep, and bloody fountains. Not everyone liked these troublesome, coarse metaphors of the Christian faith, but their raw physicality captured me as a child. I could not sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” without gazing at the mighty arms of Doris, our school cook, who lifted great pots and kneaded mountains of dough. Her cinnamon rolls were legendary.

Life, the old hymns taught me, was harsh and lonely. They called out plaintively: “Are you weary … ?” “Earthly friends may prove untrue,” began a familiar hymn that consoled me more than once. Young and old, we sang with heads thrown back, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” not needing the hymnal, for the words were familiar and the melody caressing. Jesus of the old hymns was one who knew “our every weakness,” who socketed into life’s disappointments, who would not fail.

I went to church with the workers of the fields—farmers of corn, wheat, and soybeans in western Nebraska, roustabouts from the oilfields of Wyoming, and ranchers who drove cattle and sheep across the high plains. These were practical folks who worked from sunup to sundown. What private longing drew them back into town on a sultry Sunday evening to sing old hymns in a musty sanctuary, I’ll never know. Some relished the vocal agility required by “Wonderful Grace of Jesus”; others preferred the smooth modulations of “The Old Rugged Cross.” And a good number of the older folk clearly yearned for Beulah Land, for the open pearly gates, for the mansion over the hilltop.

As for me, those old hymns created a world, a familiar landscape of melody and words, a spiritual and emotional topography in which I could move and rest and feel at home. And it is this solacing world for which I ache. Old hymns imagined life as a geography of oceans and tempests, shadowy vales and wandering roads in which we all were travelers, journeying toward home. I want to sing an elegy to this lost world of shadows, seas, and journeys.

“Lead me through the vale of shadows”
“Now the day is over; night is drawing nigh.” Throughout human history, night signaled a putting away of the tools and the toys, a time of turning inward, of retrospection, of lighting lamps, of rest, of closure, of waiting. “We grow accustomed to the dark,” wrote Emily Dickinson in the bleak years of the Civil War. But no one really needed a poet to explain the metaphor of darkness. Everyone was acquainted with the night. Today, however, we live in a world in which darkness does not deepen, and eventide does not fall fast. We’ve grown accustomed to light.

Since the end of the Second World War, when the mercury vapor lamp began to illuminate our streets and was in turn replaced by the pink-orange glow of sodium vapor lamps, night has steadily retreated. The stars have fled from our cities. Where once a thousand could be seen, now barely a hundred stars are visible. Millions of children grow up never having seen the night sky. “With the creep of light pollution,” explains astronomer Arthur Upgren, “has come a far wider, perhaps more profound, loss to the human spirit.” Our earthly lights are putting out the heavenly lights. We are losing a sense of holiness and beauty and mystery.

Out on those plains, we sang hymns, then went out and stood behind the church under the vast, open sky and wordlessly watched the heavens. One by one, the cars would swing away from the church, raising red, glowing clouds of dust.

The gospels tell us that the disciples sang a hymn and went out, into the night of Gethsemane, into a night of betrayal and abandonment. Those hymns of the night strengthened us to go out and face the shadows of our own lives. But we don’t sing of the night anymore. The cheerful chants of worship and praise songs never assure me that the stumbling night of the soul is unavoidable, that the valley of shadows and uncertain paths are natural features in the topography of faith. Old hymns of the night, sung in the night, made real the presence of that Kindly Light which leads me on “amid the encircling gloom.”

“Bear me o’er life’s fitful sea”
My father had been a sailor before he sold all that he had to go preach the gospel. He remembered a shipmate who had been swept overboard in a storm. Out on the plains, a thousand miles from the sight of any sea, he threw out the lifeline for lost drifters. He warned us not to shipwreck our faith. He told the story of the wreck on Lake Erie that had inspired Philip Bliss to write, “Let the lower lights be burning.” From the depths of his tempest-driven soul, he would belt out: “My anchor holds, it firmly holds.”

Years would pass before I ever saw the sea, but those hymns stirred my imagination. Permeated with an awareness of life’s perils, they called to me from a distant age, the expressions of a fierce, 19th-century faith, where fires of revival swept up and down the New England coast, and where American whalers had once sailed the oceans.

“Consider the sea,” wrote the great seafaring novelist, Herman Melville, “and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?” Most of us have known life’s tumultuous waves; we feel, perhaps more keenly than ever, the oceans that separate us from each other. Some of us have known what it is to be tempest driven and to watch our compasses falter.

But we rarely go down to the sea in ships, and we never sing of the sea anymore. The holy terror experienced by earlier believers has gone the way of old lighthouses and harpoons. We establish comfortable lives of faith near the shore, or further inland, basking in the sunshine of God’s benevolence. But the old hymns of the sea still call me to launch out, to pursue hard after God into uncharted regions.

“All along my pilgrim journey”
Across the nation, Americans are rediscovering J. R. R. Tolkien’s great modern myth, The Lord of the Rings. This work taps a deep, spiritual hunger. Most readers or viewers, I imagine, are captivated first by the sheer adventure and the fantasy of Tolkien’s world. But at a deeper level, I think we are drawn to the ordinary Frodo, who says with a wonderful mixture of confidence and uncertainty, “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.” Each of us yearns to be the hero of our own life’s journey. We want to have a story we can tell—with a clear direction, a purpose, and a plot—for story is what gives order to the events of our lives.

Old hymns portrayed salvation as a process in time, with a beginning, middle and end:

“I once was lost …”
“Since I have been redeemed …”
“Years I spent in vanity and pride …”
“One day He’s coming …”

Such hymns are saturated with an awareness of time’s passing and of the world to come.

Contemporary praise songs, in contrast, seem oddly disconnected from time. We chant the lines in any order and repeat them any number of times. They seem to lack a narrative force to connect what has happened with what will happen. They exist in the eternal now, in the actual moment of praising. And while praise songs surely strengthen faith, the old hymns sought to nourish hope, that confident expectation that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

Real presence
Looking back, I find that old hymns enlarged, rather than constricted, my world. They were evocations more than invocations. That is, they called me out into God’s world more than they called God into mine. Those great hymns of the night, of the sea, of time, and of the journey onward, evoked a very real world, singing it into existence, as it were. They made real the presence of death, and of life, and of angels, and of things to come, and of amazing heights and depths . . .

And then, in some marvelous way, they continued calling me on, beyond that world, into the real presence of the Savior. This, as I now understand it, was the experience of God’s love from which, Paul reminds us, nothing ever separates us. This love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, was made real to me through the evocation of these old hymns, which still call to me faintly, tenderly, and distinctly.

Thomas Becknell is a professor of English at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. This essay originally appeared in Moody magazine. Reprinted with permission.

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