December 8, 2021
“Those who sing pray twice.” This quote is attributed to St. Augustine. What a marvelous sentiment! Especially for someone like me, who loves music.
From the early teenage years of my walk with God, the deeply meaningful lyrics of so many hymns have drawn me in. They have spoken to my heart and soul. At the Lutheran church of my childhood and teen years as well as the sawdust trail Revival hymns and gospel songs of my late teens and early 20’s, the greatly theological lyrics (paired with gorgeous, uplifting hymn tunes) have held me fast. They’ve been one of the major foundations, the underpinnings of my belief.
Fast forward a few years. Imagine how my heart sang when I discovered some spiritual writers on prayer (whom I respected very much) stating that singing was a marvelous way to pray!
During Epiphany and Lent 2021, I taught a weekly Bible study that was out of the ordinary – for me. Instead of focusing on a Bible passage, or book of the Bible, or Bible character, I focused on the familiar hymns of the Church. One excellent resource I used for this study had the wry name 28 Hymns to Sing Before You Die. Written by two lifelong Presbyterians, John M. Mulder and F. Morgan Roberts, this marvelous book delved into the history behind the hymn texts, and the history of the authors.
Eugene Peterson wrote the foreword of this book. I was as moved by his words as I was by the stories behind the hymns. Particularly this paragraph, in light of our Advent contemplative prayer focus: “Each of these hymns is an act of worship that brings us into an awareness and receptivity to the life of the Trinity – the operations of all the persons of the Trinity in a participatory way. But the conditions in which [the hymn texts] were composed and sung were more often than not pain and devastation, sickness and poverty. And yet, somehow beauty and elegance were distilled out of conditions of doubt and hopelessness.” 
Oh, my. Eugene Peterson has hit on exactly what I have been feeling all these years. I felt the deep emotions of the authors of these hymns, without knowing exactly what their circumstance were when writing. Over the years, I have wept over these hymn texts, and rejoiced, too.
Although many people today do enjoy modern worship songs – and I have found some I enjoy, too – I am thinking of the traditional hymns of the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. These hymn texts may have older or archaic wording, yet at the same time so theological. Giants of hymn texts, like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby come to mind.
I also love the written word. The words of hymns strike a balance between the dry, dusty theological tomes and the sometimes warm, sometimes striking experience of the heart. I pray you might consider these words from the marvelous hymn “He Leadeth Me, by Joseph H. Gilmore.
He leadeth me, O blessed thought!
O words with heav’nly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
God continues to hold my hand (and, your hand, too.)—”since God through Jordan leadeth me.” Until the end of our days; and finally as trusting children, we cross that river Jordan, too.
Dear Lord, thank You for such marvelous words. Thank You for such wonderful opportunities to sing in congregations, with choirs, and to hear anthems in worship. Thank You for those times when the line from a hymn came to mind, and expressed exactly what I wanted to say to You. And, thank You for the gift of these words, crafted out of pain and heartache, as well as joy and praise and the whole gamut of emotions. Thank You for such a treasure within our hymnbooks. May we never lose the wonder and the worship that comes from these prayers in song. Amen.
Thanks to the website www.contemplativemind.org for their excellent image the Tree of Contemplative Practices.
 Mulder, John M. and Roberts, F. Morgan, 28 Hymns to Sing Before You Die (Cascade Books: Eugene, OR, 2014), xii.