Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In Defense of Hymns

One thing that I've learned since I came to Japan is not only a tolerance, but a deep appreciation for fellow believers who come from a different denominational background than I do.  Perhaps this comes from the feeling of being united for the common larger purpose of missions, as a distinct minority in a country that is largely non-Christian.  In such a situation, classifications like "Pentecostal", "Baptist", "Lutheran", "Calvinist", and so many others, tend to become trivial.

Through weekly chapels, I've even learned to appreciate more contemporary praise songs.  However, I do wonder why we never sing any hymns.  I know that many who strongly prefer contemporary praise and worship songs over hymns tend to view hymns as stuffy, pretentious and not all that conducive to a passionate spirit of worship.  Certainly, there are hymns that are like this, but there's also a spirit of earnestness and passion in other hymns that, in my opinion, goes unrivaled by most contemporary music.

Critics of praise and worship may complain that it's too commercial, that contemporary Christian artists are essentially re-shuffling the same words, and repeating them over a simplistic tune more for the sake of producing another song than for legitimately worshiping.  The truth is, many hymns were written under strikingly similar circumstances.  For several centuries, "hymn-writer" was a legitimate profession, and though the diction was more complicated back then, there were some hymn-writers who would just re-shuffle words for the sake of having written a new song.

Yet, there are also deeply moving stories: instances in which people's lives changed in dramatic ways, bringing them to their knees before the Lord.  Their words in these times, written as poems, have become some of the most beloved hymns of all time, and when considered in the context of the writer's circumstances, hold a raw passion and real-ness that few songs today can capture.

Take "Abide With Me", for example.  Henry F. Lyte was a hymn-writer.  Though he is credited with writing over 80 hymns (actually a rather modest amount when compared to more prolific hymn-writers--Charles Wesley published over 6000 hymns), you have likely only heard of his most famous, "Abide With Me."  What sets this hymn apart is the situation in which it was written, and it is this situation that equip the words with an emotional punch: Lyte wrote this hymn as he was dying, tuberculosis having ravaged his lungs.  Some accounts place the specific date of writing a mere few weeks before his death while others maintain that it was written months before he died.  I don't think it matters--I think the key is the fact that Lyte was unhealthy, and that he knew he was nearing the end of his life.  With this in mind, read through these words:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell'st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Yes, the English is antiquated; yes, the text is long (most hymnals shorten the text to just four verses).  Still, this hymn is not just another stuffy installment in a dusty library of pretentious and dull works... it comes across as genuine; as a confession of weakness, as an acknowledgment of God's goodness and as a plea for His presence.

Or, consider the story behind "It is Well".  Horation Spafford, like Lyte, was a hymnist by trade.  The first major tragedy of his life struck when he lost his only son at the age of four, and unfortunately, this was only the beginning.  Several years after this loss, Spafford planned a trip to Europe with his wife and four daughters.  He sent them ahead on a ship across the Atlantic, with the intent to join them a while later.  In a horrifying accident, the ship his wife and daughters were on collided with a clipper and sunk.  His wife survived, but his daughters--all four of them--perished.  Spafford embarked to join his grieving wife, and wrote the words to this hymn as his ship passed the point of the collision:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Because of writers like Lyte and Spafford, we have fitting words of worship for times of unspeakable tragedy, uncertainty or fear.  Though there may be comfort in the simplicity of many modern praise songs, they cannot replace the sheer experience and feeling of pieces like these two.  I often advocate for middle-ground, and here, too, I believe that worship ought to contain a variety of forms, incorporating both the old and the new.  Currently, worship at CAJ seems to hold rigidly to one extreme and I sincerely hope that as time goes on, the worship teams will make more of an effort to include a wide range of music.

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