|AVE YOU EVER SEEN THE WORDS OF A FAMILIAR SONG IN PRINT, OR HEARD them sung very clearly, only to realize you’ve been singing them wrong for years?
I love Jesus, and words, and music, and singing, so the more congregational singing in a service, the happier I am. Still, once in a while, I have to stop singing and really concentrate on the words, or I’m capable of mindlessly enjoying the melody. This may be OK for some kinds of music, but when the song is a vehicle for conversing with or offering praise to God, I sure don’t want to go about it mindlessly.
Yet how very easy it can be to do this, to sing the words of a familiar hymn or praise song without thinking of its deeper meaning. Once in a while I’ve been known to intentionally pause a residence hall song service to ask the congregation if they know what they’ve just sung: as in “what’s an Ebenezer?” or “who’s Michael, and why is he rowing?” And don’t get me started on Father Abraham. Yes, there are messages behind these verses, but have we thought them through? And do we think of them as we sing?
All of which got me to thinking about what it might be like if, instead of mouthing empty words, we actually sang out loud the words our hearts would truly compose.
For example, beautiful as are the words to the hymn “All to Jesus I Surrender,” whose life is not occasionally more accurately reflected in the words “Some to Jesus I surrender, some to Him I freely give. Though I find I often trust Him, does it show in how I live?”
And the classic “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like she! He saved me too, though that’s not hard for such a prince as me.”
Or how about “Have My Own Way, Lord”? I bet a lot of us could join in on the rewrite of those precious strains:
“Have my own way,
I’ll have my own way.
I am the potter
And I am the clay.”
Oh, doesn’t it just bring tears to the eyes?
What about “Blessed Assurance”?
I’ll be just fine.”
Or the ever popular “What a Friend We Have in Facebook,” or “His Eye Is on the Spartans,” or “Sweet Minute and a Half of Prayer.” I could go on.
I am a firm believer in the value of the theological lessons carried in our hymns and in the opportunity to praise that a chorus can provide. Holy songs can be lesson book, mission story, weapon, encouragement, testimony. But as with any other kind of recitation even the most powerful of words and thoughts can be worthless if recited numbly, disconnected from head and heart.
In Letters to the Earth Mark Twain (Samuel Clemmens) penned a scathing story about those whose hearts’ desires don’t match up to their public prayers, and suggested that the recording angels have learned, despite the poetic power of the public prayer, to record as true prayer only the secret supplications of the heart. I imagine the same could be said of the songs that we sing.
So what to do? We can study the stories behind the hymns. We can incorporate music into our morning devotions, meditating on the meaning. We can occasionally listen to the congregation singing around us as we thoughtfully read through the words of the morning hymn. If God truly inhabits the praises of His people (Ps. 22:3), let us offer Him joyous and sincere praise, the intentional public sharing of our private hearts.
Valerie N. Phillips is associate director of the women’s residence hall at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, where she has ministered to collegiate and graduate women for more than 25 years.