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One of my favorite books on my shelf at home is a stolen hymnal.
I stole it probably 15 or 16 years ago from church and about 12 years ago I told my pastor about it. That was after our church had already gotten rid of all the old hymnals and started putting the lyrics to the songs we sing in the weekly bulletin and on the video screen in the sanctuary during the service.
Even though that’s much more convenient and technologically advanced, I still love my stolen hymnal. Titled “Hymns for the Living Church,” it has the word “Hope” stamped in gold on its dark green spine.
The binding is loose and the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty” is about to fall out, which would be tragic because that’s a great hymn.
When we lived in California we attended a church that didn’t use hymnals nor used hymns during worship. We sang worship choruses that were heavy on sentimentality and emotion but lacking in sound, or at least substantive, theology.
For the longest time I thought Christianity was about singing love songs to Jesus, which, of course, has its place in worship. But the songs left me wanting more. Not more of the same, but of something else, something deeper.
When I discovered hymns, songs that had been written centuries earlier, I discovered depth and richness and lyrics that made me think.
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
What’s a bulwark? I had to look it up. (It’s a defensive wall.)
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.”
That’s stuff I can sink my teeth into and hold on to nearly 500 year after Martin Luther wrote these words in 1529.
“There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”
Where do I go with my guilt? This hymn and others point me to the blood of Christ. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus,” wrote Robert Lowry in 1876.
My all-time favorite hymn, “Before the Throne of God Above,” written by Charitie Bancroft in 1863, I’ve memorized and recite or sing often to myself, especially the verse that goes: “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see him there, who made an end to all my sin. Because the sinless savior died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the just is satisfied to look on him (Jesus) and pardon me.”
That’s the gospel in a nutshell, and the hymn has weight and substance. It points me to Jesus, but not in a fluffy, ooey-gooey, love songish way. I have trouble with songs that tempt me to confuse Jesus with a boyfriend.
Within the pages of my stolen hymnal God is immortal, invisible, unresting, unhasting. He’s hid from our eyes, silent as night. He “ruleth in might” and his justice “like mountains high soaring above (the) clouds” are “fountains of goodness and love.”
Hymns tell of God’s justice and mercy, power and bigness. They tell of his majesty and glory in a way that sets him apart. God is not our homeboy in hymns. Even the love songs are less about how much I love him and more about how he loves me.
“What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul;” “O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free” and “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how he could love me, a sinner condemned, unclean.”
I confess that while I love hymns, I prefer them sung to contemporary music with modern instrumentation. I prefer keyboards and drums and guitars to tinny pianos and ominous-sounding organs.
However, it’s the words of the hymns that keep me returning to the stolen green hymnal on my bookshelf, reading and rereading of the foundations of the same faith I share with Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, John and Charles Wesley, John Newton and others throughout history — the Irish hymn “Be Thou My Vision” was written as long ago as the 8th century.
Now I’m in no way advocating going out and stealing a hymnal of your own, but I do encourage you to pick one up sometime and read through it.
It will give you something to sing about.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria — I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org