I remember several years ago as a very young pastor making an aside during my sermon to talk about old hymns. Anyone who knows me knows that I love hymns and never want to disparage the good ones. But in this particular aside I was warning the older folks in the congregation against loving all the memories associated with their beloved hymns more than the actual words of the hymn itself. I was trying to make the point that it’s possible you love What a Friend We Have in Jesus because you sang it around the piano growing up, or because it takes you back fifty years to when you were first married, without really fixing your heart on Jesus during the song.
A kind and delightfully feisty old lady came through the line after the service and smiled at me in a slightly disgruntled sort of way: “You know what you said about those hymns? Someday you’ll understand.” I imagine she thought I was being too simplistic about the important role memory plays for our faith. She was right.
I still think I had a good point I was trying to make. Our love for the traditions of the church can eclipse our love for the Christ of the church. But I was too quick to parcel out “loving Jesus” in the old hymns from “familiar memories and good feelings” produced by the hymn. The human heart can’t be so neatly divided. Nor can the power of memory be expunged.
And it shouldn’t. To the contrary, we could love each other better if we took seriously the significance of memory and were more aware of the trauma that comes when those memories seem to be under attack and the joy that comes when other memories are kindled or fulfilled.
Hope Deferred, And Fulfilled
Let me illustrate with another memory. I remember watching the election coverage in 2008 as it became clear Barack Obama was going to win handily. Whether you voted for him or not, how could you not be moved to see students at some of our historically black colleges rejoicing with tears. Even if you disagreed with Obama’s positions, you had to respect (and honor and appreciate) the flood of emotions so many felt–especially the African American community–as the first black man was elected President. This was not just a “first” to commemorate. It brought to the surface a multitude of personal and corporate memories–about racism, about prejudice, about how many thought they would never see this day.
We are not just individuals experiencing life atomistically. We have memories. Especially as we get older, we have a sense within us (whether it is always accurate or not) of how things used to be. We carry with us a constellation of feelings, thoughts, remembrances, and nostalgia about the people, places, events, and values that have shaped us. So as much as younger evangelicals cringe at the language of “taking back America” (and I don’t care for the language either), we should sympathize with those who mourn the passing of an America that isn’t coming back. Older (mostly conservative) Americans aren’t silly fuddy-duddies pining for the good old days. They are trying to make sense of a world that seems so different, and often so much worse, than they remember. What happened to clean sitcoms? What happened to being proud of your country? What happened to kids riding their bikes carefree on the streets at night? What happened to the world of my memory?
Singing Our Old Songs
The worship wars could have been mitigated greatly if younger generations wanting newer songs had taken the time to remember memory. Church leaders may say, “It’s about reaching young people.” Or, “We need music that resonates with the culture.” These may even be good reasons to change some things. But we have to realize that those who grew up with hymns don’t just lose the songs they prefer, they lose continuity with their past. They lose a whole lifetime worth of experiences–happy times, sad times, birth, marriage, death–a thousand bits of life that get embedded in the songs we’ve always sung.
None of this means we can’t sing new songs. Praise God that we can have new songs to be filled with new memories for a new generation. But we have to do more than honor the past. We have to sympathize with those who lose their connections to the past, in church of all places. More than that, we have to remember the past and make an effort to preserve what is best from it. We forget at our own peril. For the Church’s memories should be our memories. And our memories are not just our own, but belong to those who come after us. We must not hide them from our children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders he has done (Ps. 78:4).