I’m in the process of relocating to a new office on a different floor of the church where I serve as the scholar in residence. At first, I was hesitant to agree to move. I wanted to be closer to the rest of the staff, and, let’s be honest, the microwave. But, I’ve warmed up to the new office that has four windows (my former office has one), is three times the size of my current office (so I can buy more books), and is right next to the sanctuary where various musicians (including my wife) frequently play beautiful music that finds its way upstairs and into my office.
While searching the other rooms on this floor—just to see what was here—I discovered a shelf with old hymnals. These are one of the older iterations of my denomination’s official song and liturgy text. I took a copy of this hymnal and placed it on a shelf with my other worship and music resources. Flipping through it brought back memories of the church that raised me. The very same day, I asked a colleague her thoughts on how one might allow rural communities to dig into their history and heritage and use that to create new futures. She shared several thoughts, and then said, or actually, typed: hymnals.
With the word hymnal, several stories came rushing back to me. I can tell you my parents’ and grandparents’ favorite hymns. I can tell you what hymns were important to me at different times in my life. I know the page numbers to several hymns that matter, or at least mattered to me at some point in my faith formation. I remember laughing about certain provocative hymn titles and whimsically bouncing to the pieces which marches or show tunes.
Numerous texts explore the value of hymn and song. Yolanda Smith writes of the triple heritage found in the spirituals and the value these hold in Christian education for the African American Church. In Radical Grace, S.T. Kimbrough explores the power of Charles Wesley’s hymns as calls to action and love. There are other texts on hymns and theology, hymns and spirituality, and hymns as history. Each hymn and song has layers of experiences we attach to them.
Then, on my various social media accounts, I asked people to share their favorite hymns and why. The comments brought a variety of responses. Hymns for strength in trying times including: “On Eagle’s Wings,” “Hymn of Promise,” and “Amazing Grace,” were among the top comments. Some comments attach “Be Thou My Vision,” and “I was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” to various practices of Christian life, such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Other post name songs they sang weekly in the church they attend or attended at some point in their life. “Old Hundredth/The Doxology,” “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy” are named here. Songs of joy appeared quite a bit as well, “Joyful Joyful,” and “Come Thou Fount” were mentioned regularly.
By the way, my mother’s favorite hymn is “In the Garden,” a song often labeled as a tacky romance hymn. Yet, I don’t think she sees it that way. I think its her favorite, because it was her mother’s favorite. I think it was her mother’s favorite because it was a song that reminded her, not of a cheesy love song, but of Christ walking alongside her in the midst of pain and struggle. So as much grief as that song gets, it helped an elderly woman feel safe in the midst of aging and dying, and that’s what matters.
My favorite hymn has become “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown.” Lyrics lifting up the holy mystery, the call of to wrestle with love, and the history of Charles Wesley and John Wesley’s relationship all speak to me. But, really, it’s my favorite for another reason. I attended a small gathering of United Methodist Scholars in Christian Education as doctoral student. The leadership tasked me with planning a worship service. Being in school, and having learned quite a bit about Charles Wesley that semester, I selected two Charles Wesley hymns to bookend the service. This hymn closed the worship service. After we were done, a senior scholar came up to me, and asked, “Is that in our hymnal? I’ve never heard it! That’s beautiful. Thank you.” The feeling of elation and validation that I experienced in this encounter is now attached to this hymn. An obscure Methodist hymn we sang in a Presbyterian retreat center in rural Colorado.
I could go on about hymns. I could share how people with severe dementia and people who are non responsive in their last moments of life sometimes sing along with their beloved hymns. About how “He Touched Me” makes me giggle because of a game we played in high school while bored in church. But, instead, I want to explore the value these hymns have in faith formation and imagination.
Many argue that the while obviously the most important text in any Christian church is the Bible, the second most important text is the hymnal. The hymnal is a collection of songs selected usually by a denominational body or publishing body to best convey the beliefs of a particular tradition. Often they include, alongside hymns, the creeds, prayers, Psalters, and orders of worship for various rituals and sacraments of the church. We could leave the bound collection of sheet music on onion leaf paper at that, and understand it’s value for the life of the church. However, beyond the intended theological education the hymns are used for, our stories and experiences are tied up in these texts. We attach our heritage, culture, and experiences of God to these songs, the music, the lyrics, and the memories interweave to tell faith stories beyond the original intent of the writers and curators.
For rural churches, the use hymns for faith formation can be seen most readily in Sunday school classes that sing before they have their lesson. Youth groups also often sing as well (not always hymns, but the idea is still there). Even without intentional planning, the music and the experiences they attach to it influences peoples faith and they sing their beliefs. However, intentional engagement with hymns as locations of heritage, emotion, and theology might lead to introspective spiritual work. More importantly, I see the possibility for these interactions to utilize what Julia Kristeva might call a Christian genius. That is, a pushing past self to creatively engage the suffering of the world and move it toward a future of hope and joy.
I don’t yet know what this pedagogical model could look like. I’ve tried something like this in past times, but not really hashed it out fully. But I have a hunch that it involves singing, story sharing, and an encouragement to allow for their love of these songs and the stories they represent to lead them into a collaborative work grounded heritage and led by hope.