Sometimes in the early morning a snippet of an old hymn flits through my consciousness. It shows up during that precious time between sleep and wakefulness, leaving me feeling refreshed and whole.
The snippet may comfort me when I’ve botched it, as in “O Lord, take up the tangled strands where I have wrought in vain.” It may remind me to Take time to be holy when I’m feeling frazzled. It may give energy for the upcoming day, as in Forth in Thy name, O Lord I go. It may reassure me when the way ahead is unclear, as in “Can I doubt his tender mercies, who through life has been my guide?” It may express my gratitude for the simple blessings of loving family and basic needs met, as in v. 1 of I thank the Lord my Maker.
Sometimes I only receive a phrase or two, and identify the song via an Internet search. Sometimes I find that the song uses a theological language I no longer espouse. But almost always the spirituality of the piece still works for me (even if the expression of it may be a bit sappy). Almost always the Spirit and my subconscious offer a word I crave for my life right now.
Consider that first verse of I thank the Lord my Maker. Through it I still receive the positive warmth of my family of origin. I had a father and a mother who did give me clothes and food and much more. My connection with my brother’s family remains life-giving for me. I do not have a biological sister. The sisters for whom I give thanks include women in my family, women in various sharing groups over the years, and the nuns of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto, where I have gone on retreat for the last 25 years. In these relationships of belonging and support, past and present, I still receive bounties rich and free.
Growing up in the (Old) Mennonite Church in North America in the 1950’s, the hymnal was my prayer book. Actually we had two prayer books – the rather staid black Church Hymnal (1927) and the livelier brown Life Songs #2 (1938).
I thank the Lord my Maker is not in the red hymnal of my young adulthood (The Mennonite Hymnal 1969), nor in the blue Hymnal: A Worship Book of the last 25 years. I have not sung it in church for 47 years. But that first verse continues to restore my soul. In fact the whole song conveys for me the spirit of God’s grace, and for that I give thanks, even though I now express it in somewhat different language.
I’m also finding that some old hymns I’d more or less rejected due to painful associations are returning to me with new life. Just as I am is a prime example. I had set it aside for many years due to the manipulative way it was employed in revival services of my youth.
But I’m reclaiming it after seeing how this hymn expresses the welcoming love of God and churches for LBGTQ folks and others: “Just as I am,/thy love unknown /hath broken ev’ry barrier down./Now to be thine, yea, thine alone,/ O Lamb of God, I come, I come!”
Questions for reflection:
- In what ways (if at all) do you find spiritual nourishment in the worship music from earlier periods of your life?
- How do you deal with hymn language which you no longer espouse?
- What new insights or experiences (if any) have helped you reclaim some old hymns you had set aside?
Next Week: Balthasar, Augustine and other cats