So much of life is like the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, isn’t it? Our world is full of this tension-filled, “Saturday” space: between grievous injustice and death on one side, and the hope of justice and resurrection on the other. It’s the between-ness of life after the “already” of Christ’s coming and before the “not yet” of his coming again. It’s where we live.
This Easter the tension is especially pronounced. The agony of prolonged social distancing, coupled with COVID-19’s rising death toll and economic fallout, leave us in a state of lament and longing. The victory and hope of resurrection has never felt sweeter, even as (in our darkest moments) it has never felt more distant.
But that’s why we sing. That’s why the beloved hymns of the church—songs of comfort for generations of saints who endured similar plagues, pestilences, wars, and hardships—are so crucial. We need to rediscover and re-embrace the church’s enduring songbook, and thankfully many contemporary artists—from Shane & Shane to Sara Groves to lesser-known artists like Claire Holley—are helping us do that.
Nashville-based traditional worship artist Greg LaFollette is the latest Christian musician to release an album of updated old hymns. Featuring collaborators like Jason Gray, Mission House, and Alisa Turner, the album, I’ll Wait For You, My Love, released last week.
I spoke with LaFollette about the album, the importance of hymns in anxious times, and what congregational worship looks like in quarantine.
Why are the hymns of the church especially valuable in uncertain, anxious times like now?
Hymns bind us to pilgrims who came before us, reminding us that we aren’t the first to embark on the mysterious adventure of faith. Many saints have gone before us. Jesus Christ himself has gone before us, and we are not alone; not in our feelings, desires, worship, or questioning. While there are many singers and melodies, the song is the same.
Hymns bind us to pilgrims who came before us, reminding us that we aren’t the first to embark upon the mysterious adventure of faith.
In making this music for the church, I want to interject fresh vitality into well-used (but still viable) songs that have fallen out of fashion. Not unlike my creative process for Songs of Common Prayer (an album based on the 16th-century prayerbook), I want to give people an opportunity to create new experiences with familiar texts. I overlaid my perspective on the songs by creating new melodies, adding sections, and bringing my emotional presence to the production and performances; while leaving hospitable space for the church to fill. I hope that these songs will, as Victor Hugo wrote, “express that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
What does congregational worship look like right now for churches that only meet virtually? Any ideas or suggestions for how churches can retain the musical aspect of church in this season?
There are myriad limitations of virtual or prerecorded meetings. Rather than trying to overcome the inherent obstacles, I would suggest leaning into the obstruction. Simplify services. Simplify songs. Equip families. Maybe share silence over Zoom?
I actually think this is an opportunity for music ministers, arts pastors, and directors of liturgy to lean into their calling as helpers, shepherds, and hospitality-providers. These vocations bear the responsibility of being aware of the needs of our people and addressing them. Sometimes that helping employs music, but not always.
How did you select the hymn texts to include on this album?
The songs revealed themselves during a long period of grief. Over the past few years depression seized me. I’ve wholeheartedly (and admittedly sometimes out of a basic fidelity) devoted myself to prayer, journaling, practicing gratitude, confession, silence, and waiting for God; but the peace that passes understanding remains elusive. I have grown envious of those who can genuinely sing, “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” I wish it were easier for me, but I’m more in tune with Leonard Cohen’s “cold and broken hallelujah.”
One of my lifelines in this time has been hymn writing. Like a hungry man desperate for bread, I thumbed through the pages of piles of hymnals, looking for something to feed my relationship with God. It should be said, while the writing was an intimate and inward endeavor, I was consistently aware that this record wasn’t just for me. There was always an outward intention for these songs to be sung congregationally. As I considered my community, I was reminded that I belong and, am thus responsible to, the family of God. Ultimately, I want the comfort that I was offered to permeate the record and anoint the church.
What role should old hymns play in the worship life of a contemporary evangelical church?
Without being prescriptive, there are some things that hymns do well and that set them apart from much contemporary worship music.
First, they often include corporate communication. This is amply displayed in this set of songs: “we have heard the joyful sound,” “watching for you and for me,” and the prompt to “just remember he is near.” Most notably, in the title track (listen below), there is a shift in the last chorus of the song toward a corporate consciousness, from “I’ll wait for you, my love,” to “we’ll wait for you, our love.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with directly addressing God in worship, but there is significance in gathering, exhorting, and encouraging one another.
Second, hymns often reflect a long-suffering eschatology; one that portrays a narrative or journey. As someone who eagerly anticipates the promised day when all things will be made new, this perspective gives credence to my earthly experience. To be clear, I’m not advocating an escapist view. Rather, I’m welcoming one that dignifies the “not yet” in the “already.” While Jesus definitively inaugurated the kingdom of God, a long road of relationship and redemption remains. And as immediacy of fulfillment is delayed, patience becomes a virtue beside passion. (For these thoughts, I’m indebted to the research of Lester Ruth, research professor of Christian worship at Duke Divinity School.)