There’s this lovely lady at the Assisted Living Center named Mary. Mary shows up an hour early for every meal, asks “Do you think I should…?” as a preface to everything she’s about to do (including things like putting jelly on toast), sleeps with a contented smile on her face, and says the Wisconsin “ohhh” at least once a sentence. As she walks slooooowly down the hallway, she’s always humming something. And often, it’s a hymn.
In case you didn’t know, I’m kind of a fan of hymns.
Ok, that’s an understatement. I like to sing hymns, arrange hymns, research about hymns and hymn-writers, preach on hymns, rant about hymns, wax theologically about hymns, collect hymnals, and am even writing my PhD application statement about the need to read history through hymnology.
What can I say? I’m Methodist.
And on Saturday, it was I who was walking down the hallways humming. After our Friday night surrounded by reminders of dear friends, my good mood was manifest and proclaimed by the hymn “Love Lifted Me” as I served breakfast and pushed wheelchairs. So when one activity went much quicker than anticipated and I had an hour to fill, I decided to turn to hymn-humming Mary, who was sitting, eyes closed, smiling contentedly, in the corner of the room. After discussing whether or not she should wear the scarf she was wearing (“ohh, do you think it’s ok? I just don’t know, ohhh…”), we had a little conversation.
“Mary, I was just thinking of you!”
“ohhh, you were? What did I forget to do today?”
“Nothing at all! You’re wonderful. You’re always humming as you come down these hallways, and that’s what I was doing today!”
“Well, it’s what my mother always did, ohhhh! She was always humming church songs. Did your mother hum, too?”
(I thought about BHoff, dancing in the kitchen either to the “Green Acres” theme song or the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I go.” Probably not what Mary’s talking about.) “Well, my mom would sing, (ohhhhh) but my grandmother would hum hymns a lot.”
“Ohhh, that’s lovely. Mothers should always hum, ohhh.”
“Mary, do you have a favorite hymn?”
“Ohhh, I don’t know. All of those good old ones, you know, ohhhh.”
“Well, ‘Love Lifted Me’ has been in my head all morning!”
at this point, Thelma, who’s nearby working on a puzzle, starts singing the hymn. You can tell that, even though she’s now 94, she had a beautiful singing voice when she was younger.
“Thelma! I didn’t know you could sing!”
“Ohhh, she has such a lovely voice. Whenever the pastor comes for church, ohhhh, she’s always singing. Do you think I should sing when they come?”
“Mary, you can always sing! (ohhhh, do you think so?) Yes, I do. You want to sing some now?”
“Ohhhh, really? Ohhhh, do you think we should?’
And with that, I was headed over to the piano, pulling out the old EUB hymnal and searching through for the “good old hymns.” You know, the ones written in the 25 years around the turn of the 20th century–hymns like “In the Garden,” “Trust and Obey,” “What a Friend we Have in Jesus,” “Just as I am,” and so on. What’s funny, though, is that I railed on these hymns in seminary, and yet was so willing to play them here. Many of the “good old hymns” are neither that old, nor particularly good. As my hymnology professor once said, “In the Garden” might as well have been written by a lovestruck, overly sentimental 14-year-old. When the only hymns we sing are about how comfortable we are hugging ourselves and our God, we forget the charges to keep we have, the voices that need to be lifted up and sung, and the perishing that needs to be rescued. As a blind mother of the church said to a white preacher visiting Atlanta in the 1960’s,
“No slavery; can’t sing about freedom. No hunger; can’t sing about the Lord’s supper. Never driven from your home; can’t sing about the Promised Land. Never had no cross burning in your yard, no lynchings in your family; can’t sing about deliverance. Always wondered what white folks sing about. I guess when you’re on top there’s nowhere to go but down. They sing about bein’ across the river on the other shore…But they left some of us behind. How do you sing about that?”
But on Saturday, I saw how these hymns matter. As the number of singers around the piano grew, I looked into the faces of those who had lived full lives; faces who had seen more people cross the river than they knew still on this side. To know the assurance of God was what kept them going. To know that, just as they are, they are loved. In their pain, their weakness, their loneliness, God will bear it all–the same God who was there as they sang these hymns as little children. Tears glistened in my eyes as together we all sang prayers of comfort, deliverance, and mercy. Surrounded by women who couldn’t remember 5 minutes ago or were recently transferred permanently to wheelchairs or who could barely see, I blinked back tears as we sang the refrain of our final hymn:I need thee, O I need thee, Every hour I need thee; O bless me now my Savior, I come to thee.
What we sing matters. It frames what we believe. And for my congregation of 15 that day, these extraordinary women had reminded me that even the “good old hymns” can have as much theological depth as any other. And for them, I am eternally grateful.