I am officially an old geezer. I think. One of the reasons I say that is that I still like a lot of the old hymns of the Church. Yes, I learned to play guitar in youth group in the late 60s. “Kum by yah, my Lord.” Yes, I listened to the best hard rock on the planet as we rolled into the 70s. Yes, I went to a few concerts with questionable smoke-filled auditoriums. I had Black Sabbath albums that, we were told, if you played backwards had Satanic messages hidden in the lyrics.
But somewhere deep inside of this old guy, the old hymns still live. Words and tunes entrenched in my memory that have never faded.
I am not saying that I’m anti-contemporary Christian music. I play every week with the band at NCC. Some of the songs we do from the last 20 years are incredibly good. Some of the messages are way more in tune with biblical truth than some of John Wesley’s best. Besides, we still use a good bit of the oldies. So, I’m not advocating a return to hymn books and plunky piano and organ music.
I’m just saying that the hymns have a way of bringing back a lot of good memories. The same thing happens when I hear “Blessed Assurance” by Fanny Crosby as it does when I hear “Locomotive Breath” by Jethro Tull. Well, almost the same. I go back to another place in time. The feel and smell of old church pews. Plus, I always thought Fanny and Jethro were funny names.
Anyways. We have recently started a new tradition in the pandemic age of Wednesday night Bible study. The group is small. There is mask wearing. We don’t eat together anymore. We listen to a few prayer requests. Then, the new thing is the old thing. We pull out the old hymn books for a few songs.
I’m not sure if it was planned or not. It could have been the impromptu notion of our preacher. It could have been Spirit inspired. But about a month ago he handed out the old hymnals. My granddaughter is the only child in a group of adults. She has become the Vanna White of hymnals, handing them out down the rows.
These ancient books hit the pews in 1937. I looked at the publication date. They were hand-me-downs from some other church in town that upgraded to new hymnals. A red stamp inside the front cover reads “Property of First Christian Church”, or something like it. Scuff marks and dog-eared pages. Loose bindings. These books have been in storage so long, no one knew they still existed.
The singing is not that great. We’ve gone old-school acapella just because it’s fun. It took three runs at one song before any of us could get the melody right. Who knows what key we were in? “Low” is all I can tell you. But some of those old songs have a few high notes in them that no one has a chance of hitting anyway. So, I’m good with low.
It reminds me so much of Sunday nights at Berea in Hampton. Marvin Daniel would stand up front of our small crowd. He wabbled on his bad hip. He couldn’t carry a tune, but he always led the Sunday night singing.
“Good to see you folks tonight. Somebody call out a number to get us started.”
Miss Peggy would roll through an intro to Victory in Jesus on the piano, and off we’d go. Singing the songs that we were raised on. We didn’t need the books for stanzas one and four, but if Mr. Marvin threw in a “now everybody on the 3rd” the books came in handy.
When we were kids, the words to hymns seemed complicated. There’s a line in the Christmas hymn, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, that says “from prophets bard foretold.” It was like singing a foreign language. I had then and have now no clue what that means. More modern versions have changed those words. I always heard Bringing in the Sheaves as Bringing in the Sheets, which was at a time when folks had clothes lines in their back yards, and it made sense to me.
We finished up a few songs on Wednesday. My granddaughter collected all the books and skipped across the room to put them away. I love that she’s hearing these old songs.
Aaron, our preacher, says to us, “Any of you get confused with some of the words to any of the hymns when you were kids? My Dad used to make fun and we’d sing, “Just as I am without one flea.”
We joked about old hymns that we sang to death. One guy sang a line about just a bowl of butter beans to the tune of Just A Closer Walk. I wasn’t sure if we’d ever sing the right words to any hymn again.
“Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me.” A reference to walking through Aunt Bee’s garden with Andy Taylor.
“While shepherds washed their socks by night.” I mean, you can’t watch sheep with dirty socks.
My Dad never sang much. If he did, it was something funny and short. He whistled mostly. But there was this one version of The Old Rugged Cross we’d sing together riding down the road in his faded blue International pickup truck.
On a hill far away, stood an old Chevrolet
The tires were all tattered and torn
It had no gas in the tank
The tires were flat as a plank
But I’ll never trade for a Ford.
So, I’ll cherish the old Chevrolet
Til my keys at last I lay down
I will cling to the old Chevrolet
But I’ll never trade for a Ford.
We do church different these days. And for the most part, that’s just fine with me. I’m not interested in theater lights and fog machines, but I do like the band. I don’t really miss the organ music. Some of you will send me ugly letters for that one. And even though we might drive the bass and crank out a little crunch on the guitar on some songs, there’s still room for a little blue grass on I’ll Fly Away every now and then.
I’m glad we pulled the hymnals out of the closet. It’s been, I don’t know, an old soul experience for me. I’ve been surprised how giving life again to some of the old hymns on Wednesday nights has given me a sense of delight that I didn’t expect.
I guess old sinners still need saving and Amazing Grace still gets the job done.