What’s in your hymnal?

What’s in your hymnal?

Psalm 100

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
    and his courts with praise;
    give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
    his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Let us pray: O Lord uphold me, that I might uplift thee. Amen.

When I read today’s Psalm, I instantly thought of a college professor who had a profound impact on my life. His name was Mr. Earnest Mead. Sure, he was a decorated scholar. He taught music to members of the Dave Mathews band. And he could play Bach on the piano with his eyes closed. But what impressed me most was how he listened… he listened as if he were panning over our lives with a metal detector to find the gold underneath our college concerns. And it impressed me how he spoke… he spoke as if he possessed a kind of internal hymnal, this volume of sacred poetry and music tucked on the shelf of his heart that he could access at any time. I remember one time he was talking to a small group of us in a stuffy red brick classroom, and he closed his eyes and recited a poem:

             A sweet and languorous music is flowing through my brain

            And memories long forgotten are rich and warm again

            I wander through the meadows, I hear the sheep bells ringing,

            I lie there close to tears and closer still to singing.

It felt like a version of today’s Psalm. Suddenly we became part of an ancient oral tradition, tasting a kind of learning that happened in the time before technology granted us permanent recall without any effort. It felt like we were seeing something lovely that the brain was made to do – to hold songs and lyrics in the deep code of our gray matter with a staying power that science is only now starting to understand.

It made me ask myself, “What is in my hymnal? What words are there for me when I need them? Or as the Bible says it, what words are “written on your heart?” That’s the question I have for you today.

At the beginning of November, we discussed how the Psalms call us to be grateful and grounded. Then, the music festival and the rousing sermon from Rev. Jimmie Hawkins showed us what faith looks like in public. Anthems sturdy enough to lift our souls all the way to the ceiling. Countercultural practices of loving our enemies strong enough to reverse the engine of destruction in our world.

So this week, I invite you to see Psalms and hymns not as some nice thing we do together, but as the spiritual hardware that makes this kind of life possible. Psalms and hymns stimulate feelings of awe, comfort us in our deepest pain, and translate our experience of God across wildly different times and places. Though I love today’s text from Matthew 25 so much, it would be hard to sustain that kind of living without something like Psalm 100 written on your heart.

The first reason to honor your internal hymnal is because your brain naturally does. Our creator designed us with a music loving central processor. I read a lot about that this week. Our brains retain information best through rhythm, rhyme, repetition and emotion. I could tell you the tremendous brain science about “biodirectional associations between music and emotion and memory,”[1] but I suspect you already feel this when it happens. When you hear a song that suddenly takes you back to your childhood home. When you hear a hymn that makes you cry for reasons you can’t quite explain. Music and memory and emotion are intertwined inside us, so if we want to feel a certain way, if we want to remember places and language, music will get us there. And it has been this way for thousands of years.

Advertisers know the power of music to shape our thoughts. Let’s do a brain experiment:

Nationwide is… on your side.

Like a good neighbor… State Farm is there.

The second reason to honor Psalms and hymns is because our faith does. Consider what it means that at the center of the Bible is the book of Psalms. There is a hymnal in the middle of the Bible. 150 Psalms describing nearly every human emotion in relationship to God, set to music. Praise, fear, awe, disappointment, surprise, guilt, rage, determination, and overriding gratitude and sheer merriment. We might not know their original tunes, but in Greek, Ψαλμοί means instrumental music. Consider also that Jesus quoted the Psalms more than any other Old Testament writing. Not simply for teaching but for comfort. And as he hung on the cross, he called upon Psalm 22 to give language to his suffering. In the Bible, Psalms and hymns are a very special bridge, pun intended, between us and God. They are one of the most important spiritual technologies. That term comes from Krista Tippet, host of On Being, who went on to say, what we sing, we become.

What we sing, we become. Anyone who knows me knows that 98% of my brain is full of song lyrics. From Garth Brooks to Def Leopard, Indigo Girls to Salt n Peppa, from Elton John to Ella Fitzgerald, my brain is like the dentist office. There is always some music playing even if it’s not advisable to sing along. But when something is too wonderful or too horrible for normal words, I grab for the hymns and Psalms I have memorized. For our wedding, Dave and I stood together and looked out on all the people we knew and loved who for that brief moment in time were in the same room, and the only words big enough to capture that feeling were in the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness. When I was waiting at the ER, my finger throbbing in pain from an infected cut, I recited Psalm 121 in my head like a mantra, “My help, my help, my help, all of my help cometh from the Lord.” My internal hymnal made me faithful even when I didn’t feel like it. Once when my sister, mom and I spent many agonizing hours at Duke Hospital waiting while my Dad underwent a scary lung surgery, hours full of foot tapping and bad coffee, pacing around, jumpy with every beeper sound, it was only when I heard the faintest sound of Be Thou My Vision playing on the grand piano in the lobby that my mind settled down into a state of peace and deep trust. A kind of holy override had taken place way down deep in my mind, and my heart shifted from terror to praise.

What we sing, we become. Ruby Sales is a public theologian. She was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement and has been on the circumference of the Black Lives Matter movement. She described to Krista Tippet on the show On Being how many young leaders had come to her recently feeling very depleted. Burned out. Exhausted. In speaking with them, she honored the complicated relationship they had with the black church. She herself had walked away from church for some time. But she remembered how the hymns had given her an internal language of essentiality even when the world treated her with disposability. She said, “As a 7-year-old, I could sing 50 songs without missing a line, and everybody in the community had access to the theological microphone.” The music taught her a healing justice able to bring together different generations, races, and experiences. It was where we “harmonized the “I” with the “we” and the “we” with the “I.”’[2]

 Hymns teach us essentiality, how to harmonize the we and the I. In seminary, every Sunday of my 2nd year, I preached at the assisted living facility in Princeton, NJ. Many of the people who came to the services were hearing impaired, so in order to be heard, I would make my voice as loud as I possible. One gentleman said loudly to his friend next to him, “She’s a good little Baptist preacher.” But many of the attendees in the worship service were non-verbal. It was like dementia had created a high wall in their brains so that they could no longer connect their thoughts with language. “This is Ms. Betty,” an aid would say. “She’s 102 years old. Never misses church! But she doesn’t speak anymore. She’s here but she isn’t all there.” And they parked her at the end of the room. Mr. Betty seemed to sleep through the entire sermon, which is always humbling for a preacher but for all she was facing, I didn’t take it too hard. But then something amazing happened. I concluded my sermon with Amazing Grace. I had to sing it capella because the gentleman who was supposed to play the hymns that day had taken a fall. And from the corner of the room came a loud voice. Ms. Betty began to sing every word. And oh how sweet the sound! I kept on going, belting it out and she kept on singing with me, as if this hymn were a rope sturdy enough to pull her over that dementia wall for a moment. She once was lost but now was found. We were blind to her, but now she was seen. As the song concluded, Ms. Betty drifted off to sleep again, but from then on, her friends continued to sing to her, using that sacred chord, hymns, that ropey language between her and the Lord.

 What’s in your hymnal? You can love indie rock and Taylor Swift, the Beatles and the Bangles, and my invitation to you is to memorize a Psalm or a hymn all the way through so that you know it by heart. Literally so your heart knows it. You may think, “Oh, I am no good at memorization.” But even if you get a word wrong here or there, your heart will know the meaning. Advent is a perfect time to do this, because it is the only time of the year when hymns are playing in the mall and on the radio. Lately I have been calling some hymns “Punch Pieces,” the hymns that make people punch the person next to them, as if to say, “Remember this one for my funeral.” What are your “punch pieces”? With no offense to Gary Chapman, Psalms and hymns are our original love language. The ancient song that which binds us to God and one another in love, harmonizing the I and the we in the deepest part of who we are, and helping us become that in the world.

I want to conclude with one of the most beloved Gospel songs. I learned this one in seminary when I was in the Gospel choir, which was one of the most worshipful experiences of my life and it wrote Psalm 100 onto my heart with a Sharpie.

Lord you good and your mercy endureth forever. Lord you are good and your mercy endureth forever. People from every nation and tongue from generation to generation, we will worship you! Hallelujah Hallelujah. We worship you, for who you are… and you are good.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776393/

[2] https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/