The Songs We Sing, and What They Say

Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Drew Bratcher recalls:

Among the first songs I remember hearing are the hymns my great-grandmother sang: “I’ll Fly Away,” “Do Lord,” “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.” Doubtless I had heard other hymns before these, and still others with greater frequency, but to this day when I think of hymns, it is my great-grandmother who comes to mind.

He asks, “What did hymns mean to my great-grandmother? How did they figure into her hard life? Was it nostalgia that endeared them to her memory? Was singing them just one of many mindless ways to while away the time?”

He answers:

It wasn’t mainly aesthetics, sentimentality, or wonder for wonder’s sake, that made hymns about heaven so dear to her. It was the hope they articulated, the future they described. It was their promise of a better life than the one she deserved or had endured. It was their assurance of a final judgment and of an eternal rest, one that she believed awaited her—as it awaited all those who’d placed their trust in Christ—on, as one of her favorite hymns put it, “the farther shore.”

Imagine nearing the end of a long life. Think of children or grandchildren or nieces or nephews or neighbors who happen to have shared your orbit.

Will they have heard a song escape your lips? Is there an anthem that will have carried you along? Is there any song that will have had enough staying power, enough longevity, to carry with it some cultural resonance and meaning, a song someone might recall as being among the first songs they can ever recall hearing?

And what will those songs say? What will they say about you? What will they convey about what captured your imagination, your hope?

Something good, I hope.

In the Secret of His Presence

This week I’ve been reading J. Hudson Taylor’s commentary on The Song of Songs, a little book called Union and Communion. In the early pages of that little book, he quotes the first verse of the hymn “In the Secret of His Presence,” performed above by Sandra McCracken. That verse says:

In the secret of His presence
How my soul delights to hide!
Oh, how precious are the lessons
Which I learn at Jesus’ side!
Earthly cares can never vex me,
Neither trials lay me low;
For when Satan comes to tempt me,
To the secret place I go.

Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) was a missionary, and in 1865 founded the China Inland Mission (now the Overseas Missionary Fellowship) in partnership with William Berger. His parents, James and Amelia Taylor were Methodists, and when their son was born prayed, “Grant that he may work for you in China.”

The hymn Taylor cited was written by Ellen Lakshimi Goreh (1853-1937), daughter of the Rev. Nehemiah Goreh, an Indian convert to Christianity. Miss Goreh was later adopted by an Englishman, Rev. W. T. Storrs. In 1880, Miss Goreh returned to her native India as a Christian missionary. She published a collection of hymns, From India’s Coral Strand: Hymns of Christian Faith, in 1883.

The theme of “In the Secret of His Presence” is experience of Christ. In Colossians 3:1-17 Paul writes, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Paul instructs his hearers to put off the old self and the old ways in the same way one casts off an old garment, and to now clothe oneself in Christ, to let the peace of Christ rule the heart and the Word of Christ dwell in the inmost being, and to do so in order that the body as whole might do all things unto God. “Whatever you do,” Paul writes, “whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

The hymn, in all four of its verses, testifies to the richness of this kind of experience. It is an experience all are invited to share. The final verse makes that most clear.

Would you like to know that sweetness
Of the secret of the Lord?
Go and hide beneath His shadow;
This shall then be your reward;
And whene’er you leave the silence
Of that happy meeting-place,
By the Spirit bear the image
Of the Master in your face.

Christ beckons us all. The invitation is given. The commission is clear. If you know him, if you have taken shelter in him, if he now dwells in you as you have hidden your life in him, may you then testify to this reality. May you, “by the Spirit, bear the image, of the Master in your face.”

The Chiming of the Hour

When my family lived on Wabash Avenue in Fort Worth, right across the street from University Baptist Church, the hours were sounded by the nearby carillones of Carr Chapel and University Christian Church. When walking to and fro across the TCU campus or while jogging in the surrounding neighborhood the bells made me cognizant of the time. All I had to do was listen.

I was also occasionally made aware of death. When the UCC congregation gathered to mourn together, declare their hope, and to offer words of comfort, the bells informed the neighborhood. Funerals began with a slow, clear, and steady bell, tolling for us all.

There was one particular afternoon when I was home alone, standing in my  small, cold bedroom, being warmed mostly by sunshine passing through the window panes, when the carillon of UCC rang out a series of hymns, songs I recalled having sung in my younger years. Words flooded my mind, songs of praise, some long forgotten and now freshly remembered, and my heart was warmed. I was glad. Some may have considered the bells an intrusion, an unwelcome clamor. But I found them to be a comfort, a welcome call to prayer, a moment of joy and celebration.

I no longer remember which hymns were sounded. But I remember the moment. And I think of it often, anytime I hear the sound of bells.