Sadly, many of our conversations about the church’s hymnody these days take place in sour-spirited debates about worship styles and liturgical formats. In such debates, Christian hymnody is frequently treated as little more than an expendable liturgical component, the antiquity of which has made it anachronistic in light of current liturgical developments.
Personally, I have remained a staunch pacifist in the worship wars. Having been called upon to facilitate both “contemporary” and “traditional” worship over the last fifteen years (and, believe me, I don’t know what those adjectives mean any more than you do), I have had no choice but to craft a personal ecclesiology that makes room for both the ancient and the modern (or postmodern).
Last week, however, I experienced something that brought me back to the preciousness and power of the church’s historical hymnody. Pull up a chair, because I’d like to share the experience with you.
As some of you know, my father, who is a retired United Methodist pastor in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, is in the midst of an Alzheimer’s journey. I describe it as a journey because that is precisely what it is. To make reference to it only as a “disease” would be to truncate what my father and my entire family have experienced over the last eight or nine years.
As I have said many times, my dad is my hero. Beyond that, he’s the man I want to be when I grow up. He taught me how to live and love, how to worship and pray, how to throw a baseball and stop the bleeding after a bad shaving experience. Most of all, through his discipleship, he taught me about the urgency of maintaining consistency between who I am in church and who I am everyplace else. To put it as simply as I can put it, my dad is the best man I know. Not being able to talk with him the way I used to is one of the most difficult and painful things that I have ever had to face.
That said, I’m still very grateful to God that Dad’s still here. Still laughing. Still loving. Still giving to us the chance to love him back, albeit in a different way and with a different kind of care.
Having experienced a recent stay in the hospital, Dad is currently undergoing a two-week time of physical rehabilitation at a nursing home. On Friday of last week, I spent the day with him there. Interestingly, in the nursing home setting, Dad goes into what I like to call “pastoral mode,” no doubt hearkening back to familiar patterns of pastoral care that are woven into the very fabric of his spiritual and vocational DNA.
Case in point, when I walked into the nursing home on Friday, I found Dad sitting beside a non-responsive and wheelchair-bound man, holding his hand and assuring him of God’s love and care. It made me wonder if Dad, in his mind’s current configuration, experiences regular glimpses of the thousands of nursing home visits that he made throughout his 42-year ministry.
Dad and I had lunch together on Friday. Then we took a long walk. Then we went back to his room for some rest and conversation. Something (or, perhaps more appropriately, someONE) inspired me to take a hymnal to the nursing home that day. I had no plans to use the hymnal. Something just felt right about bringing it with me.
The hymnal that I carried that day had a certain sentimental value to it. It was a commemorative hymnal from United Methodism’s 1980 General Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. Dad, who was a member of Western Pennsylvania’s delegation for that general conference, purchased the hymnal and had all the members of the delegation sign it. I felt like I had a significant piece of history in my hands that day.
As we sat in Dad’s room, an impulse suddenly formed within me when I saw the hymnal lying on his dresser.
“Dad,” I said, “do you want to make some music together for a little while?”
“Yeah. I brought a hymnal, and I thought it might do us both some good to spend some time singing the faith together. I remember how you used to love to sing the hymns in church and even at home. You remember that, don’t you?”
“Sure I do. Those were great days of singing.”
“Well then, let’s make some music together this afternoon.”
We started with a hymn (written by Fanny Crosby) that I remember hearing Dad sing hundreds of times as he showered, shaved, and got dressed in the morning:
To God be the glory great things he has done
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son
Who yielded his life an atonement for sin
And opened the lifegate that all may go in
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear his voice.
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father through Jesus the Son
And give him the glory, great things he has done
I sang the hymn quietly, and Dad did an interesting thing: Because it is difficult for him to process large collections of words, he began to whistle. Sweetly and perfectly, he whistled every note of the hymn. In a sense, I provided the vocals and Dad provided the instrumentation! We chuckled at the thought of what people must have thought as they walked by the room. The Park boys were holding an impromptu father-son hymn sing, and all was right in the world.
From there, we moved to a more regal and majestic selection: “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” (Dad stood up as he whistled that one, as though he sensed that the worship of God occasionally demands the inconvenient reverence of standing.) As I sang the third verse of that hymn, I could not help but think about Dad’s current journey:
To all, life thou givest, to both great and small
In all life thou livest, the true life of all
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree
And wither and perish but naught changeth thee
For nearly forty-five minutes, we leafed through the pages of that hymnal, singing and whistling our way through a good portion of the church’s rich hymnody. We sang hymns that are vibrantly doxological (“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation…”); hymns that are poetically soteriological (“What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms…”); hymns that are deeply penitential and confessional (”Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me…); and hymns that give expression to the steadfastness of God’s presence in days of hardship and suffering (“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”)
After a long while, Dad became very sleepy, as he often does in the afternoons.
“Dad,” I said, “if you want to take a nap, go ahead and climb into bed. I won’t be offended at all. I’ll just keep singing for a while.”
“I think I might do that,” he said.
I helped him out of his shoes and into his slippers. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
As my father slept, I sang these words as tears began to stream down my cheeks:
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
It was one of the most tender moments of my life—a kairotic intersection of the eternal and the everyday, as a grateful son sang and prayed a hymn of faith over the man who had taught him that faith.
The hymns became something more than liturgy to me that day. They became language. MY language. OUR language. A language that I am able to share with my father, even when spoken communication is difficult to render. It is a language to be cherished, sung, prayed, and even whistled.
The church’s hymnody has never meant more to me than it did on Friday afternoon. As I type these words, I am looking at Dad’s hymnal which is currently on my desk.
And I am whistling.