Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hymns...Praise Songs or What?

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and ultimately executed by the Nazis, wrote in his "prison diary" March 27, 1944 that it "is a year now since I have heard a hymn sung. But it is strange how the music that we hear inwardly can almost surpass, if we really concentrate on it, what we hear physically...There are only a few pieces that I know well enough to be able to hear them inwardly, but I get on particularly well with the Easter hymns."
     -Quoted from Bill Leonard, "Prison Songs"

Bill Leonard recently wrote a piece where he told the story of losing his mother who was 95. The family discovered Alzheimer’s eleven years before her death. But Bill writes, “Lavelle lost her memory but not her personality which remained strong , even defiant to the end, evident in her continuing ability to recall the words to many of her favorite hymns...” One of our church’s caregivers told Bill she could get his mother to sing the old hymn, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” from memory when she remembered nothing else.

There is something powerful about music that reaches way down in our souls and stays there. One of the saddest stories I ever heard was a relative who said, “You know I have not heard a single hymn in our church in a long, long time. I miss them so much.” That church had put aside the hymn books, put screens on their walls and sang only praise songs every Sunday.

It’s a new age and I am trying to understand what is going on in many churches. Technology has walked down the center aisle and is sitting on the front row. Some of this is good and some of it is bad. I have nothing against trying to reach this new generation who view life different from many of us. But I do know there are some things we cannot shed without terrible consequences. Someone called the Hymn Book the most theological book we have outside the Bible. Many of the hymns go way back.

To scrap the hymn book and ignore the songs that have lifted the church through the ages—is a sad thing. Choruses may enhance worship if they are theologically sound. But they cannot replace the Hymn book. Remember our state funerals? In hard times we lean on: “O God Our Hope in Ages Past”, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”, and “Holy, Holy Holy.”

Some professionally trained musicians sneer at Gospel songs. Some want only the best hymns with proper texts. This is understandable. Without these hymns our lives and worship would be poorer. But why choose between hymns and gospel songs?  In my own tradition, many of the gospel songs take us back, back to another time and another place. We remember the night we walked down the aisle to “Where He Leads Me I will Follow.” “Just as I am” brings a lump to many throats. “Amazing Grace” still lifts us up.

I remember Tex Sample telling the story of preaching one Sunday and saying that “In the Garden” was so individualistic and sentimental that it should be scrapped. After that service a young woman came up to him and said, “Let me tell you a story.  When I was a teenager—my father came into my room at night and sexually abused me over and over. It was terrible and I wondered if I could live through those awful times. But the only thing that kept me going was the song, “In the Garden.” Through those moments of agony I would say the words to myself over and over. Don’t you ever make fun of that song again. It saved my life.”

I cannot imagine someone in a nursing home who remembers little, singing praise songs. No. They remember instead another time and another place when God was close and their loved ones were near and home was close at hand. And they could hear once again their Savior calling...going with them, with them all the way.



  1. At revival time in our little country church south of Sweetwater, Texas, adults and teenagers had prayer sessions before the service: Women gathered in the parsonage, the men went across the fence into the pasture and knelt on the ground, and teenagers sat on the church steps.
    Meanwhile, those of us in grade school were in the Booster Band. We met under the revival tent (owned by the church). We didn't play instruments. We were a band of singers. We sang "Rolled Away, Rolled Away" and "Deep and Wide." But I don't remember the song leader explaining much about how our sins rolled away or exactly what that fountain was that flowed "deep and wide." We also sang "I Have the Joy, Joy, Joy. Where? Down in My Heart." Those were songs for kids at revival time.
    Later in college, at Baptist Student Union retreats and Morning Watch, we sang "Let Go and Let God Have His Way" and "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," a bit more sophisticated than "Deep and Wide," but still mostly choruses.
    Nowadays, in "the music wars," it often seems "the winning side" is leading us captive back to the revival tent or the BSU campfire, while the hymns and gospel songs with theological depth are mostly -- you should pardon the expression -- left behind. Thin soup leads to spiritual anorexia.
    I'm hungry for a dish of "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," "This is My Father's World," "Great is Thy Faithfulness" and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." When do we eat? Please pass the hymnbook.

    1. Thanks Lawrence...your comments take me back too. I love your phrase: think soup leads to spiritual anorexia. So does cotton candy.Roger

    2. this makes me think of tom hall, and he's got the whole world in his hands.... but our hearts soar to different songs.. i absolutely love being in a church that sings the old hymns (with a gospel band) and people standing up and clapping... it feeds my spirit.... but we don't all eat the same food... god can bless it all... she is so creative