By: Dennis Bates
In a recent blog I talked about my difficulties with some contemporary Christian music in a worship setting. There are a lot of qualifiers in that sentence, so read them all. I am not opposed to contemporary Christian music. I have trouble understanding the words sometimes; I dislike the 7-11 songs which consist of seven words repeated eleven times; and I don’t like substituting these songs for some of the more traditional hymns that I grew up with.
Okay, so I’m getting older; what can I say?
All songs, including the great hymns were new once, so we shouldn’t knock something just because it’s new. Some of the great hymns written by the Wesley brothers to convert thousands were nothing more than tavern song melodies with Christian lyrics. The common person already knew the tunes, so all they had to do was learn the words. Imagine what we would have lost if people in Wesley’s era would have rejected the hymns because the tunes were too modern and too secular.
I am merely stating a preference for hymns and songs that don’t insult my musical interests. As I’ve said before, I come from a generation that learned how to read music and appreciate parts like soprano, alto, tenor and bass. We had classes in school that taught these things, something that many educational systems have eliminated for cost cutting purposes. I’ll save my ranting about the myopia of discarding music and art classes for another day.
Let’s just say for now, I think we as a society suffer when those programs are excluded from an educational curriculum. By eliminating the arts we continue to add to the dumbing down of our society. There is much more to life than technology that continues to exalt itself above all else. But, that too is another rant for another day.
I guess when it comes right down to it, I hope I never see the day when the great hymns are totally replaced by music that was never written to be sung in congregational settings. To me, that would be like replacing music programs in schools. We lose some much needed texture when we do that.
The first time I heard “It is Well with My Soul,” I was at a men’s retreat many years ago. I didn’t just hear it, I joined with about 200 men singing the song in a worship service. I still get shivers thinking about that many male voices joining together to sing the song. The refrain is particularly haunting, especially if you’re a bass like I am. While the melody sustains the words “it is well,” the alto, tenor and bass lines repeat those three words in an upward counter melody that brings all four parts to the dramatic ending which resounds triumphantly, “It is well with my soul.”
Years later, when my father died, my mother asked what songs we should sing at his funeral service. I requested that song because it was written in a time of intense grief by a man who had lost his entire family at sea. I thought it fit perfectly.
Since then we have repeated the song at my grandfather’s funeral and my mother’s funeral. I hope someone will use it at mine. It says something we as Christians need to remember, and it says it with a tune that buttresses the majesty of the song’s words. That is worship music to me. I can imagine the angel choir singing it. I can hear the harmonies and feel the worship there.
Again, maybe I’m just getting older, but I don’t get that kind of feeling from other types of music. I don’t feel it stir my soul.
Another hymn that I heard the first time when I got a chance to sing it is “Here I Am, Lord.” It is based on the words found in Isaiah 6:8. Each of the verses ends with God asking the question, “Whom shall I send?” The refrain answers:
Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord,
If You lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
We sang this at the end of my uncle’s funeral Mass, as the people attending the Mass filed out. When you think about it, what could be a more powerful statement of the Christian faith than that?
“Here I am, Lord….I will go, Lord.” It connects the passing of one individual with those who remain better than any Homily ever could. Again, that is worship to me.