Sunday, March 06, 2016

Dying of thirst

I want you to think about the thirstiest you've ever been.

In March 2010 I returned to Haiti to assist at the Quisqueya Crisis Relief Center with its efforts following the earthquake. I'd been up all night the night before, on an airplane with its dry, air-conditioned cabins. After that I stood in a crowded tropical airport so hot that the shirt on my back was plastered to my skin within minutes. All I'd had to drink since leaving home was about a quarter-cup of water given to me on the plane. I should have known better. But I didn't.

I'd been standing in the sun for 30 minutes, looking for the ride I was told might be able to come get me, when I noticed my head was hammering at me. My skin was red and starting to ache. And my stomach wanted to revolt, but there was nothing in it.

 I was dehydrated, and I needed a drink of water — badly.

This was just poor planning on my part. The adult body sheds about a quart of water every day just through run-of-the-mill perspiration and breathing. We lose another one to three quarts each day through urination. Think about that. Your body is roughly 60 percent water, and in the course of a day you can lose a gallon of it just by living.

As dehydration sets in, the body begins to move water from its cells into the bloodstream. As the water leaves, cells begin to shrink. The throat parches. The tongue becomes a clumsy, inarticulate piece of meat. Fine and even gross motor skills decline, sharply. Your head starts to hurt and it gets harder to think clearly.

Let it go too long, and the kidneys can start to fail, which lets the body's toxins build up in the bloodstream. Soon the organs begin to fail, and then death follows. People can survive weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Water is life.

It's no wonder then that in ancient times it was considered an act of war to fill someone's well with stones. And it's no wonder that the psalmist compares worship to thirst:
As a hart longs
    for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
    for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
— Psalm 42:1-2
It's Sunday morning and I've come to church to worship, but I'm dying of thirst. Think about the sort of song you're likely to hear on Sunday morning at church. If you go to a church like the one I attend, chances are good you'll hear songs about how wonderful it is to be saved, or how we much we love Jesus. There's nothing wrong with appreciating salvation or loving Jesus, but there's something essential missing in both songs: a sense of adoration.

Think about those songs, and then listen to this. It is one of the most beautiful recordings of "Holy, Holy, Holy," one of the most beautiful songs ever written for corporate worship. The entire focus of this song is not on we feel, it is not on what Christ did for us on the Cross, and it is not about how we desire to know God better. It is a song about the holiness and majesty of God. Who wouldn't love to hear music like this in church?

Older worship songs like "Holy Holy Holy" have fallen out of favor in recent years among worship bands, which is a shame. These were songs that had a lot of thought put into them. They contain solid doctrine, and often possessed some good melodies too. We still sing them hundreds of years later, because they were that good.

There are any number of reasons why older songs, particularly hymns, have fallen out of favor. For many of us the word hymn is enough to send us cowering under the seats in whatever space our church rents. It conjures unpleasant childhood memories of attending a church we didn't enjoy, and enduring the uninspired singing of the entire congregation as they were accompanied by an organ played at the same tempo by the same woman every week, year after year. For many of us, hymn denotes boredom and irrelevance, the exact opposite of what we require church and particularly worship to be.

This is, of course, due a complete lack of imagination on our part. Back when I was in college, Word Records published an album called "Our Hymns," a collection of classic hymns rearranged along then-contemporary sensibilities by Christian bands like Petra and singers like Amy Grant. Far from organ music, these songs sounded like they could have been written in the 1980s.

One of the songs included on the album was "O God Our Help in Ages Past," published in 1719 by Isaac Watts. Phil Keaggy gave it a hauntingly beautiful intro. Keaggy trimmed it to the first and final verses, threw in a Bach composition and made it possible to appreciate the soft, meditative sound of the song and its lyrics.


The same album included "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus," as recorded by Amy Grant. The song was written in 1882 by Louisa Stead after she and her daughter witnessed her husband die in an attempt to rescue a boy from drowning, and soon fell into financial destitution without his income.  I've heard worship leaders dismiss older songs as irrelevant because of their age, but I confess that is an argument I've never understood. The joys and the sorrows that birthed these songs in the first place are just as meaningful today, and with some effort any song can be arranged to any other genre.


Forty years ago, it was difficult to find a church where songs such as these were not in currency. It didn't matter if you were Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist or Catholic. You could walk into any church of any other denomination, and the chances were good that you would find the familiar hymns of your own church contained with that denominational hymn book.

That's a power to music that we often don't appreciate. Studies have shown that when a choir, a congregation or even a stadium full of people begins to sing the same song together, the experience produces a measurable physiological effect on them. Singers' heartbeats and respiration begin to synchronize, and the group forms a cohesive collective identity through the shared experience.

Now stop and think how this approach to worship can mend some of the splits fracturing the church.

Consider "Just A Closer Walk with Thee," as recorded by folk musician Joan Baez. It starts off a little slow, but just wait until she hits her stride, around the 1:20 mark. (There's no one else like Joan.)

Because these worship songs were so common, they often became woven into the identity not just of the church but of the larger community itself. A lot of churches lament the declining spiritual influence of Christianity in America. Small wonder when we've abandoned the music that once helped to knit us together, regardless of age, denomination and region, in favor of music written only within the past few years — especially when the selection changes every few weeks.

Worship is meant to be a congregational experience. Too often that is not what happens. Rather than one person or even a group leading the congregation in worship, what is happening in our churches is a shift of our focus to the band and its performance, We crank the volume up like we would for the radio or at a concert, and the band plays the songs it has rehearsed for that week. This isn't a bad thing, but with the volume pounding, worship ceases to be an active, participatory experience because we're listening to the music instead. New songs are never bad, but in order for the congregation as a whole to join in on the worship, they need a chance to learn the song. That doesn't happen if the songs change to a new set before the congregation can learn them.

There is power in singing familiar worship music, just as there is in telling familiar Bible stories. While we should never close ourselves to innovation and new music, we're wrong to ignore the much greater participation that comes when we invite the congregation to sing familiar songs.

We're dying of thirst out here, and these are familiar channels where the water flows.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Still reading? I based this on something I wrote earlier. You can read it here.


Dean Zimmerman said...

I agree with you David, we should definitely bring back some of these classics (we did do one this morning, that Zila picked, "Jesus Paid it All"; I didn't do it justice on piano, but there you go...). And also I am in really strong agreement about this: "New songs are never bad, but in order for the congregation as a whole to join in on the worship, they need a chance to learn the song. That doesn't happen if the songs change to a new set before the congregation can learn them." Well except for the "new songs are never bad", cuz many of them are! I'm not sure about the proportion of good to bad among old and new, though; it may be about the same. In my church, growing up, we sang tons of songs from a hymnal that had the old classics (the Wesleys and Watt, for example), but then tons of songs that were super popular in the late 19th and early 20th century (nothing later than the 30s), and many of them were pretty bad. But the best of them survived. And we shouldn't forget them. Nice post.

David Learn said...

Well, OK, you've got me there. Many new songs *are* bad, but that's also because many of the old songs were bad too. For ever John Wesley song that's still in the Methodist hymnal, there are probably another hundred that no one alive has heard of.

My point there, which I'm sure you recognize and accede to, is that it's wrong to rule out new things just because of their novelty. I can think of a number of worship songs from the past three decades that I'm quite fond of. Some even from the past few years.

A few people have taken away the message "Eh, Learn wants us to sing hymns." What I want for worship is intelligent songs, songs that we know and can sing along with, and worship that we are led in rather than worship that is performed in front of us.

Which means I probably will need to rewrite this at some point in the future.