When we were teenagers, being brought up with lots of Methodist hymns, we became adept at making fun of some of the words that seemed to us to ‘schmaltzy’ or contradicted our experience. I remember once, when being ‘sensual’ was high on the agenda having a great time with the line ‘a peace to sensual minds unknown a joy unspeakable’ The hymn has lots of other good things in it, but at that particular time of life, when we were exploring what it meant to have ‘senses’, and did not understand the meaning of ‘sensual’ in the way that Charles Wesley used it, then this hymn, as part of our heritage, was a good place to begin to express our difference.
On the other hand, I’ve been on the ‘explaining’ end of hymns too. Once at a parish Church in Richmond, where I was a member in 2004, a person came up to me complaining about the hymns. ‘How Irrelevant’ He said. I forget the actual hymn now, but it was full of Common Testament allusions, and it spoke to me because of the resonance of the Common Testament. Once I explained the connections to him, the hymn of course made more sense.
Hymns represent a powerful combination of emotion and thought in one package. That is what gives them their power.
Another hymn that we often made fun of was ‘As the Deer Pants for the Water so my Soul Longeth after You’. There are a couple of lines in this hymn that are particularly striking. They go ‘You alone are my strength and shield, to you alone my may my spirit yield. You alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship You.’
Once I was at a church where I did not know anyone, and they were singing this. I felt as though everyone was taking off their ‘spiritual clothes’ and because I hardly knew them, I thought that this kind of intimacy was improper in that context. I also thought that this set of words was more proper to a person who was about sixteen, and in the process of falling in love with God: Not such a bad thing for a sixteen year old, but not the kind of thing that would sustain an adult male. So for most of my adult life I have under-valued this hymn.
But then I was on holidays. I was in the Church of my friend at their Sunday Eucharist, when they sang this song during communion. My context had changed. It was Lent, and I was examining my life. There were a couple of areas where I was saying intentionally ‘God, I can’t to this on my own. I need to give over to you to deal with because I can’t deal with them myself.’
Now in that context with that hymn, I was moved to tears. In the face of assaults from without and a sense of coming to the end of my own strength within I could feel how God alone is my strength and shield, and how yielding to God alone was a way forward in dealing with the issues in Lent, about which I needed to repent.
Just this week I had another conversation about the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.’ The most contentious lines in this hymn for me are ‘Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm, let sense be dumb let flesh retire speak through the earthquake wind and fire, O still small voice of calm, O Still small voice of calm’ First of all, this still small vice that spoke to the prophet Elijah in the cave was not a voice of ‘calm’ but a voice that prompted him to action. Read 1 Kings 19:15 – 19 as the consequence of this still small voice.
And also, I think that this verse of the hymn is theologically weak. Emotions provide the energy for action. It is in our ‘flesh’ and ‘senses’ that God has chosen to act. That is the meaning of the incarnation. If ‘calm’ were the highest good and sign of God’s presence, then nothing would get done. For the sake of ‘calm’ the status quo would prevail. It is strange to think about it now, but the Oxford Movement, in order to make room for the form of worship that we value here, either in the form that we do it now, or in the form that it was done previously the congregations who introduced this ‘innovation’ in the 19th Century suffered riots outside their doors, and were accused of ‘ritualism’ by their opponents. People were deprived of their livings on account of it. The same is true of the reformation that gave us the 1662 Prayer Book.
I don’t want to identify with ‘calm’ as the highest good. Our times are like those of the Reformation and the Oxford Movement, I think, because there is again a great internal contest afoot about where the future of Christianity lies for the next period of time.
But in the conversation about this hymn, my conversation partner put it in another context. This person was expressing a desire for some calm in a life that is just too turbulent. There can be just too much ‘engagement’ and we become overloaded. That situation needs calm. I heard this expression of a need for some ‘calm’ and so in the next period of time we will sing this hymn, not against the backdrop of ‘peace at any price’ or against the backdrop of denying emotion or the flesh (heir to the thousand shocks to which it is subject notwithstanding). But against the background of a need to withdraw sometimes from the battle of life to regroup, to regain our strength. Then we can serve God in ‘purer lives’ and ‘deeper reverence’ as the hymn invites us. We can ‘in simple trust rise up and follow Thee’
There was a time too when my life was not very ‘ordered’. Thanks to God’s gradual shaping of me I can now live an ‘ordered life’ as this hymn also suggests that we can confess God’s beauty, even though now, I need sometimes to experience a little less ‘calm’ when others want to draw me away from the ‘order’ I have established to go partying!
The maxim is ‘difference leads to reflection’. The first step in ‘reflection’ is ‘projection’. Our immediate responses to life, in order to get a look at what is going on is to reject what is foreign. If one has the power to make that rejection stick, then no reflection happens. But as this reflection on some hymns shows, I hope, change and growth and appreciation of others grows when one takes the next step from ‘projection’ and ‘rejection’ to ‘reflection.’ How and when this happens is a matter for God’s grace, in need of which we all stand.