-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.