I was eight years old when our church building burned to the ground. While the church was undergoing reconstruction, our family worshiped at another congregation. This second congregation was further away from our home, so our drive time for Sunday worship became 30 minutes each way. How to keep an eight-year-old occupied on this drive in an era when tablets were paper, not electronic?
A few good hymns did the trick.
During what seemed to me a long, boring sermon (remember, I was only eight!), I would find a good hymn in our hymnal and copy out its verses onto the back of the bulletin. This kept me both occupied and quiet. I was also practicing my penmanship. Then on that 30-minute drive back home, I would belt out the hymn. Sometimes my dad would join in as he drove the family car. God bless my parents. They never complained about me singing those hymns over and over.
I recalled that weekly commute and those hymns on a recent Sunday when my current congregation sang that grand hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, one of the hymns I remember copying.
I always imagined some glorious tune like that playing as one approached the throne of the Most High, didn’t you? Phrases like “around the glassy sea” and “which, wert and art” sounded magical. Long before I would study literature and language at a good Lutheran college, I fell in love with words and phrases, many found in hymn texts.
It’s no surprise that many of my musical memories come from worship, and many of those memories also carry with them strong emotions.
Remembering with music
Research has shown that we recall text better with music. It was the words of the Nunc Dimittis (“create in me a clean heart O God …” that I would turn to when I wanted to or needed to pray, and other words were alluding me. We sang that Nunc Dimittis every Sunday, of course, and it became part of who I was.
It’s no surprise that many of my musical memories come from worship, and many of those memories also carry with them strong emotions. I can’t hear or sing Just As I Am without thinking how an elevator-style-version of the hymn played in the background in the funeral home when one of my grandmothers died. The hymn, one of her favorites, and her death are always connected in my memory. And, Lift High the Cross always makes me think of three weddings where we sang that hymn. I remember the love expressed in those weddings when I sing it now.
Consider this your invitation to pause today, identify a hymn that has special meaning in your life and reflect on the hymn and all it means to you. Some say that to sing is to pray twice. May you have many prayers this day!
Linda Post Bushkofsky is executive director of Women of the ELCA.
Photo by Jim Veneman: About 300 people joined in singing hymns in the choir at the Tenth Triennial Gathering (2017) in Minneapolis.