A note from Angela: I grew up a church girl. It was expected where I came from in Ariton, Alabama. Unless you had a fever of 110 and were too delirious to walk and talk, you were going to be sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, and in the case of my church, Mt. Olive Baptist Church, some Sunday afternoons too. Not to mention Wednesday nights and those long revival meetings during the summer. Oh, I whined about having to sit and listen to our minister go on and on about God and family and community. But really, I didn’t mind, and to be honest, so many of those heartfelt sermons preached by upstanding men and women still live within me today. And anyway, for all of us “church girls and boys,” our church was an extension of home. Going to church every Sunday was like having a weekly family reunion. I got to catch up with my classmates. I got to see my aunts and uncles and cousins. And I got to visit with the Godly women and men who taught me to love everyone – from the person sitting next to me in the pew, to that “wayward sinner” who was one kind word away from becoming a “saint.” I will confess. I have never found what I experienced at my home church all those years ago. And I’ve looked. But I have found a friend who shares similar memories of her time when she too was a “church girl” in a little rural town in Southern Illinois. So, read her story. Even if you’ve never spent a second in church, you would be hard pressed not to feel a sense of longing for the rural American experience she shares in her essay below. Thank you, Lauren, for taking us back to a time that for many of us was as close to idyllic as it gets.
The Education of Lauren: One Hymn at a Time
by Lauren Bishop-Weidner
I remember sitting in “our” pew in the Rosiclare United Methodist Church (third from the front on the right), pretending to be good. I’d fidget in my seat, swing my legs one at a time, then both at once, count ceiling tiles, look out the stained glass windows, annoy my siblings. My sister Joanie and I would play complicated games, hiding our mischief under innocent expressions. We’d write coded notes and stifle our giggles, or see how many words we could make out of the sermon title. I’ve heard that some of God’s little pirates managed to smuggle in books to read, but I never got away with it. My book would be routinely confiscated, and I would have to listen—again—to the tedious lecture about respectful attention in church. One preacher’s son, older than I, openly read comic books, but this did not impact my parents’ judgment—if he jumped off a cliff, would I follow? Eventually, I accepted defeat and turned to the two books that were allowed, the Bible and the hymnal. The hymnal was easier.
My first forays into the Methodist songbook involved the faded brown ones, worn on the edges, copyright 1935, with old timey hymns like “Revive Us Again,” “Bringing in the Sheaves,” “Power in the Blood”—hymns with simple tunes, simple harmonies, simple messages. I would thumb through and look for the ones I knew. Sometimes I’d discover to my great surprise that I’d been singing them wrong. “Rescue the parachute, care for the lifeboat” was really “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;” and “Par, par, par in the blood” had nothing to do with golf. Who knew?
Sometime in the mid-1960s, we got new hymnals, bright red, with a lot more stuff in them—new creeds, new rituals, new songs. The “first lines” index in the red hymnal didn’t always include the more common names of hymns, plus I didn’t see those foot-stompin’ melodies I recognized. Another index showed who wrote what, and the sheer number of hymns next to certain names gave a lesson in miniature about poetry, history, music, and the connections among them. Certain names stood out: Fanny J. Crosby, William Bradbury, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts. Sunday by Sunday I grew up immersed in the liturgy and hymnody of the United Methodist Church.
The hymns breathed new life into old Bible stories, cautioned against sin, celebrated salvation, preached social action. The poetry mesmerized me long before my vocabulary caught up, with lofty, ethereal words you don’t hear every day: “mighty fortress;” “healing stream;” “Calvary’s mountain;” “visions of rapture;” “balm in Gilead;” “sore distressed.” Truly, “words with heavenly comfort fraught.” There were exhortations to repent, to give, to share, to help, “touched by the lodestone of thy love.”
The poetic words settled into my bones, and thanks to a comprehensive music program in our school, the music did, too. Through the efforts of both classroom teachers and music teachers, I was able to hear the songs in my head as I whiled away the boring sermon time. As my knowledge grew, I put the harmonies in, and despite the fact that I’m not all that musical, I understood how the hymns sounded.
By the time I was into harmony-reading, I was also into folk music. The protest era marched across the sound waves accompanied by a motley mix of rockers and troubadours—Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary; the Doors, the Stones, Janis Joplin; Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples. In church, I checked out their inspiration, filed under “Folk Hymns.” There weren’t many, and they were all lumped together: spirituals, Native American songs, immigrant tunes, mountain melodies. Printed in the middle of the bleakest, bloodiest years of the Civil Rights struggle and the protest against the Vietnam War, the red hymnal—and the United Methodist Church—took a quiet stand for justice. Granted, the arrangements of the folk tunes tended to look a lot like those of the Wesley or Watts hymns. Still, their inclusion represented a deliberate statement.
The newest update to the United Methodist Hymnal (1989) reflects assiduous attention to retaining what never changes and revising what does. In some hymns, gender-neutral language replaces the now-archaic use of “mankind” and masculine pronouns, changing words and rhythms in ways I’m not sure I like. But I do like the philosophy that says sexist language is wrong. The spirituals and work songs from the African-American tradition are more authentic and harder to sing. There are languages and folksongs from around the globe, giving the casual hymnal reader a multicultural education steeped in the church’s devotion to inclusiveness, a philosophy surely shared by the Jesus who dined with both Nicodemus and Zacchaeus, the Jesus who spoke kindly to loose women and sharply to church leaders.
You really can learn a lot from reading the hymnal.
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