I grew up surrounded by hymns. We sang at church and Sabbath School, at family worship and school devotionals, at prayer meetings, MV gatherings, vespers, and summer camp. Then we sang more at junior choir practice.
By fourth grade, I knew the name and number of almost every hymn in Singing Youth, the dark green songbook favored at the time. Some still stick in my mind: number 2 was “Living for Jesus,” number 81 was “Redeemed.” The last song in the book, number 222, was a chorus called “Sailing.” I’m not sure how or why that aging ditty made the cut, but there it was, bringing up the rear in the secular section.
For a while, number 4, “The Captain Calls for You,” with its aggressive, martial tone, was a particular favorite at my school. Some of the lyrics were puzzling to a pre-teen, such as, “Who can dally in the dale? Who can doff his unstained mail?” But the rhyme was tight, and the alliteration was a nice touch.
Amid all this music, my peers and I seldom thought about the words we were singing or the meaning behind them. We were kids, and the songs were just a part of our lives. That was true for me, at least. While I knew I didn’t wish to be dallying in the dale or doffing my mail, I wasn’t really aware of any power or vitality in these hymns.
That changed one summer evening in 1961, after my freshman year at Far Eastern Academy. I was home with my parents in the Philippines, living in a small compound next to the Manila Sanitarium and Hospital with eight to ten other families. In these circumstances, the missionaries were a rather close-knit group.
The occasion was a farewell potluck for one of the younger families who were returning to the States. After dinner, there were some goodbye speeches and tributes. At the end, as the custom was, we came together to sing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”
By the end of the first verse, I was unsurprised to notice that many of the women were crying. But when we reached the third verse, I was stunned to see that the men had begun weeping as well. The words of that verse, you may recall, are particularly apropos: “We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear, and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.”
I had never seen my father cry, even in private. Yet here he was, openly shedding tears with his medical colleagues and the mission president. My sister and I seemed to have the only dry eyes; we didn’t really know this family. But when the song ended, a sense of its depth and substance had begun to awaken in me. It wasn’t just the words or the music. It was the whole experience: the warm fellowship, the shared sadness of separation, the common hope.
Over the six-plus decades since that experience, I can say that these childhood hymns have moved me to joy, tears, hope, or calm more times than I can count. Even though I’m no longer part of that community, hymns have not lost their power. In hard times, facing grief, loss, loneliness, or some existential angst, I sit down at my piano to play and sing some of the solid old standbys. And unfailingly, as I do, my heart is lifted and my cares are lessened.
When I’ve mentioned this practice to others, I’ve found common ground with other folks raised in churches where hymn-singing is ubiquitous. And that holds true whatever their current state of belief—or nonbelief—may be.
One of my favorite CDs is a collection of gospel music by singer-songwriter Iris DeMent, titled “Lifeline.” In the liner notes she explains the title, saying that when she “hit hard times . . . about the only thing that helped was sitting at the piano singing these songs to myself.” For her, they were “about something bigger than [religion].” They were about home, about a caring community, about reaching for something beyond ordinary understanding.
The same power touched poet (and lapsed Catholic) Robert Lowell, even when carried by mediocre hymns. In his superb “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” written in the 1960s during the grim days of the Vietnam War, he speaks of hearing nearby church bells chiming “Faith of Our Fathers.” Then, he writes this stanza:
O Bible chopped and crucified
in hymns we hear but do not read,
none of the milder subtleties
of grace or art will sweeten these
stiff quatrains shoveled out four-square—
they sing of peace, and preach despair;
yet they gave darkness some control,
and left a loophole for the soul.
For me, these songs, artful or not, continue to lighten the darkness that touches us all in hard times. I hope they do the same for you. And perhaps, if Lowell is right, they leave a loophole—a touch of grace—for our troubled souls.
Thomas Dybdahl, who has degrees in theology, journalism, and law, is a former Spectrum journalist, Adventist pastor, and former staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where he worked in both the trial and appellate divisions and tried twenty-five homicide cases. His book, When Innocence Is Not Enough: Hidden Evidence and the Failed Promise of the Brady Rule (The New Press, 2023), tells gripping tales of crime and the wrongs done to the falsely accused when prosecutors don’t share evidence.
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