Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sentimental Fantasies

Some time ago, I watched a funeral on television, during which a military band played Nearer, My God, to Thee.

Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee,
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.

And with incredulity I remembered, as a teenager, singing those words many, many times with great ardor. What was I thinking? Was I mad? Or was it all a bunch of romantic-sounding words, a lot of naïve, over-eager piety?

“Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow.” Sure, I’ll follow You, dear Lord, through the Garden of Gethsemane; of course I’ll follow You to the Judgment Hall; just show me the way to Calvary. I’ll follow You to death and the grave, no problem. (Didn’t Peter say something to that effect on that Night, before the cock crowed?)

Yes, all that bravado, as long as one’s cross is only imaginary. But then our actual cross appears and immediately we change our tune. We don’t want it. And rightly so, for the correct attitude is obviously that of Jesus, who sweated blood as His cross approached, who prayed, “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, Thy will be done.”

So nowadays, rather than aspire to any cross, it seems far wiser to pray, as God Himself taught us, “Lead us not into temptation,” or as some translations have it, “Put us not to the test” – lest we flunk and thereby harm our souls. That is by far the more likely outcome.

It is with the same astonishment I review a number of other hymns I used to sing all the time without batting an eyelash.

When morning gilds the skies,
My heart, awaking, cries:
“May Jesus Christ be praised!”

How blithely I used to sing that, oblivious to the fact that it was totally false! Has that ever been my heart’s awakening cry, in living memory? Here is how I would sing it if I were being honest:

When morning gilds the skies
And my alarm clock cries,
My panicked heart doth quake.
I tell my clock it’s cursed.
Yes, that’s what I do first;
Then I lie there and shake.

My feet hit the cold floor;
I wish I could sleep more!
“The bathroom,” I think next.
My nasty teeth I brush,
Put on lipstick and blush,
Still groggy, cross, and vexed.

I brush and comb my hair,
And never think of prayer,
I’m hungry, rushed, and dazed.
Not ‘til I eat and dress,
This thought can I express:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

Through all our nights and days,
Lord, help us sing Thy praise:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Then from the whole world ‘round
This ceaseless song shall sound:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

It makes me wonder if similar things might not be true for most of the people who – in all sincerity! – sing some of these hymns. Is it as untrue for them as for me, all without their quite realizing it? How many people who sing In the Garden ever really go to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses? If they do go pray in their garden first thing in the morning, do they really get this oh-so-exclusive thing going with Jesus, such as none other in the whole history of the world has ever known? Did you ever, when God was speaking to you, notice a single bird hush its singing because His voice was so sweet?

It could cause a person to wonder how much of what goes on in a Sunday service is pure sentimental fantasy.


Ezekiel said...

Your thoughts reminded me of the fact that as a Lutheran pastor, "worship" was the topic of one or two courses in four years of Seminary training (one of those years was spent in a parish doing whatever the pastor there did). Whether it is intended or not, "worship" is treated as one of those side things that one can do with as one pleases.

Hymnody chamges, too, with each generation and each hymnbook -- and unfortunately, in western churches, the ancient hymnody treasured in Orthodoxy gets very little representation.

Divine Liturgy, as well as other services are of the essence of our life in Christ. And hymnody must be very carefully managed -- as it is in the Divine Liturgy, where the faith is sung, taught, confessed.

I've always (even as a Lutheran pastor) wondered at TV funerals and even many in the congregation: in my years, at least for the last decade, the funeral was the liturgy appointed, without lots of other things going on or people speaking. No shows, no endless eulogies.

Some Wednesday thoughts ....


William Weedon said...

About the hymn "Awake my soul" - how it is different than taking up the words of Psalm 34 onto your lips and proclaiming: "I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be in my mouth!"? There are times God's people sing FROM the life to which they are headed and which is only theirs in fraction now as though it were wholly theirs. It's not so much being sentimental as being eschatological. That's where we're headed in Christ!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

I do not understand. Are there going to be mornings in the eschaton, and skies, and work as distinct from prayer?

The Psalm can be understood as resolve or aspiration not needing to await the end of days. The hymn, I don't know...could be, doesn't *sound* much like it.


William Weedon said...

No, I meant that the condition of continual praise which will be our life at the eschaton and in which we are called to live even now and to grow in constantly, is the perspective from which this hymn is written. A life that is praise - or as another hymn in our hymnal expresses it:

Each life a high doxology to Father, Son, and unto Thee.

So "Awake my soul" speaks out from that realized eschatological perspective, if you will. Where praise simply is the fabric of one's day. May He grant us to grow into it more and more!