Music is powerful. The songs we sing shape our worldview, and guide our relationship with God. We remember their messages much more readily in times of need.
The musical messages of my childhood were provided by hymns. I love hymns. Just singing the words of a hymn is like praying. The words are already there, I don’t have to formulate them — but they express my heart nonetheless. The struggles, the yearnings, the assurances, they are the same for me today as they were for the believers who have gone before me. Hymns connect me with the great cloud of witnesses like nothing else, and this is such a comfort to me.
As a Protestant, I don’t have many practices that connect me with past believers. But the rich meaning of these hymns tells me I am not alone on my spiritual journey. There is something about knowing I’m in the company of the saints, in their joys and in their sorrows, in their questions and in their confidences, that makes me feel less alone: I walk an ancient path, I live an ancient faith.
Nowadays, though, Sundays find me singing modern worship songs almost exclusively. And while it’s true that modern worship music ministers to my soul in unspeakable ways, and I cannot possibly give it up, it’s also true that my children are not hearing my beloved, old hymns. I woke up one day and realized that if I don’t teach my children the hymns I love so much, they will miss out on an incredible heritage of faith.
But. . . I am not musically skilled. I only took a year of piano lessons, and that was more than 20 years ago. During our time in the United States last fall, however, I picked it up again. I brought sheet music back with me to Cambodia so I could play simplified arrangements of my favorite hymns, and now my children can hear both the music and the words as I sing and play.
Sometimes when I sit down at the piano, I don’t even know what I’m feeling. But as I read the words, as I sing them, as I pray them, the songs actually teach me what I am feeling. Singing each successive verse of a song leads me back to God. The words reorient my thoughts towards His majesty and glory, and realign my thinking with His victory and sovereignty.
The songs let me feel what I’m feeling – and strongly so — and then direct my thinking back to the unchangeable Truth. Along with the hymn writer, I can cry out that life is unfair. But along with the hymn writer, I can also proclaim that God is God, that He is almighty, eternal, creator, and worthy of my praise.
I can receive hope in the midst of pain. When I’m overcome by the suffering of this world, I can pour out my heart, and then be reminded that He is the One who bears our burdens and our griefs, and gives us rest. I can remember again that all will be made right someday, that someday all lips will praise Him.
As I sing with my children, I pray that the hymn lyrics will lay a sturdy theological foundation for their lives and plant a perennial faith in their hearts. Sometimes we Americans boldly wear our political beliefs on our sleeves, but I find that we keep so much of our actual spiritual life locked up and private. Singing hymns together is just one of the ways we can live a communal spiritual life. It’s a way of life I can pass on to my children, as we share in the prayers of the hymn itself, and as I model a lifestyle of worship for them.