Sundays during the coronavirus pandemic isolation often seemed little different than other days. I baked sourdough, cooked meals, cleaned up the kitchen, and read. But listening to Hymns Old and New on Spotify gave the day a bit more of a Sabbath feel.
Often, I stopped simply to listen. So many of the tunes brought me back to a sweet moment, a loved face, or a poignant memory. And as I reflected, other hymns floated to the surface and stirred memories.
When I was a child, we attended afternoon services at church much of the year. Our Sunday nights at home were more leisurely than other nights. One tradition we followed was singing around the table after eating. We each picked a song. Dad often chose “This is My Father’s World.” No one described him as a great singer, but when he sang “his hand the wonders wrought,” I imagined him early mornings sitting on the tractor looking over the fields and giving thanks to God.
Mom often chose “My God How Wonderful Thou Art” and she believed it. For years she led the Willing Workers, a women’s Bible study and service group. Her knowledge of scripture and deep faith gave no doubt that Mom feared her “Living God, with deepest tend’rest fears.” We sang this song at her funeral and I could sweetly recall her soprano voice around the table on Sunday nights.
I often chose the chorus “Safe Am I.” There are many days during COVID 19 when I’ve needed to feel “Sheltered o’er” where “no ill can harm me.” These days, I don’t actually agree with the theology of this song. As an older adult, I know ill can harm me, but I also know God will not desert me.
Some of the hymns I’ve heard reminded me of the Sunday School papers of my childhood that included a stanza from a hymn. On Sunday mornings, I had to recite my Bible memory work and that stanza before eating. Some stanzas were definitely easier than others. I am not surprised that I struggled with the one that started with “O Lord, How Manifold the works in wisdom wrought by Thee.” I still don’t use the words manifold or wrought much. And the sentence structure is just plain awkward.
One Sunday I listened to the whole song “Sweet Hour of Prayer” before I remembered why the tune felt so familiar. In my only moderately successful piano lesson days, I learned to play this hymn first. No sharps, no flats, no fancy stuff with the left hand. I played it many times. Now I am thankful that prayer does “call me from a world of care.”
When I graduated from a small Christian school, my eighth grade class chose “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee” as the class song. We used chicken wire on a wood frame, stuffing lavender and white tissue paper in the holes, to form those words on a sign to hang in church for the ceremony. We believed all would be well if we promised to walk with our Master.
A few hymns reminded me of how Mom filtered the words of hymns through her theological screen. Anything suggesting we chose God before he chose us just did not make it past her biblical standards. Mom is gone now and I felt a bit of joy that I can now admit I kind of like “In the Garden” and like to imagine coming to the “garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses” and talking and walking with God.
Not all the hymns stir gentle memories. My uncle liked “I Know Not Why God’s Wondrous Grace” and my Aunt Hattie chose it for his funeral. He made choices in our family that hurt others. I could understand why he might sing, “Nor why, unworthy as I am, he claimed me for his own.” Time, perspective, and grace have helped me forgive, but I also remember my bitter tears falling while singing that song at his funeral.
The Good Friday songs made me weep. In a high school chapel, my English teacher — who knew how to sing as well as teach — sang “Were You There?” I cried and felt embarrassed, but that song still opens my heart. One of my daughter’s short-term boyfriends could sing and entice. He sang “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” at a chapel when I was teaching and I forgave all his other faults just like that. Anyone can sing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and I need tissues.
As a German immigrant who always preferred his native language, my father-in-law wasn’t much of a conversationalist or singer, but he liked to hum. When I hear “Rock of Ages,” I remember how that soft hum told me he was walking through the kitchen or waiting for tea at the table.
I like all the verses of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” After our second daughter chose it as a song for guests to sing at her wedding, the younger two chose it too. Now it feels like the Luhrs family wedding song. A wedding truly is an event where “streams of mercy sing God’s praise” and the whole day seems like a “melodious sonnet.”
One Sunday, when I heard “Give Me Jesus,” I told my husband to come and listen. “Play that at my funeral,” he said. I will because I know he really does believe “you can have all this world, just give me Jesus.” For a moment, I grieved just knowing our funerals are closer than our births now.
Some hymns make a full circle. When our third daughter was born, a friend sang “Children of the Heavenly Father,” the same song my nephew sang at Mom’s funeral and a song I have requested for mine. I want all those I love to “safely in his bosom gather’ and I believe “Neither life nor death shall ever, from the Lord his children sever.”
I feel as if I have only just begun. Every hymn stirred a memory in my heart and turned a page somewhere in my book of life experiences. Like old friends, these hymns reminded me of where I have been and who I have known. I will keep listening.