- Jodie Castellani
Before the Hymnal Died
Original post: April 17, 2016 and reposted by Levi Lowrey on April 19, 2016
Grammy Award-winning Singer-songerwriter, Levi Lowrey was a church worship leader before he (long story) wasn't one anymore. Because of his past he is very attuned to religious issues in many of his songs. One of my favorites is Before the Hymnal died (co-written with Fester Hagood) which is a poignantly nostalgic song about the death of the hymnal in many of our church communities today. Contemporary services, praise bands, and videos, have replaced the hymnal in many churches. Levi and I had similar Southern Baptist upbringings and as a kid I was brought to church "every time the doors opened" which was a bare minimum of three times per week before we moved overseas. My mom was extremely strict so while my young friends colored in church to stay occupied, I had to sit absolutely still at age 3--I would get pinched if I talked or squirmed. It was therefore adaptive to learn exceptions so I quickly learned that I could get away with two things without my mother inflicting pain: I could flip through the Bible or I could flip through the hymnal -- both were considered holy enough for my mom. I chose the hymnal.
Because I was an early reader (apparently out of necessity!), I poured over the Baptist hymnal during the sermon and before long I was absorbing the words and message of these classic songs. I also learned about wonderful hymn writers such as Fanny Crosby who quickly became a favorite. Before long, I began noticing that the music varied with the lyrics and that the notes moved a certain way as the notes got higher. Using my time wisely, I taught myself music and harmony well before Julie Andrews taught me Do-Re-Mi two years later or before I had my first formal music lesson in kindergarten. Based upon all those hours spent in church, the words of these classic hymns became deeply embedded in my soul, just as Bible verses are to be hidden in your heart.
Today, at age 54, these hymns are still there deep inside me, alive, and ready to come to immediate action for any hour of need. It amazes me that I can rattle off every verse of many of these hymns even though I often forget what I did yesterday. When I hear them, they immediately transport me back in time for comfort--their words can be armor or salve as needed for the demands of life. Each time I face serious sadness or anxiety, I guarantee you a classic hymn will rescue me.
One clear memory of this was the night when my son's surgeon told me that my 3-year old child, Michael, could very well die that hour in surgery. His prior surgery had ruptured and the surgeon was going to attempt to save his life but he warned me that it was to be a "life saving" attempt not a done deal. I will never forget the tidal wave of dread that came over me as the surgeon walked away, knowing that the next time I heard those same footsteps would likely be because my son had died. I was powerless. A "fixer" by nature, this situation was well beyond my control and all I could do was "let go and let God." I prayed.
And then this hymn came to me: "Whatever my lot...thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul...." Whatever my lot? I'm supposed to say "Whatever my lot? Even the impending death of my child?" I clearly remembering discerning the matter-of-fact response: "Yes, even then." So I "trusted an obeyed" (another hymn!!) and I prayed and silently sang that hymn in a loop for several hours until the words "it is well with my soul" became part of my DNA. I sang it to myself with intensity and intention until the words swept over me and through me. Then I noticed, almost observing myself as an outsider, that I was at peace. I intellectually knew that was unusual given the circumstances, but I also immediately recognized it was a gift from God delivered by the vehicle of this hymn. I truly felt peace that "whatever my lot," whatever the outcome would be, it would be well, with my soul. Now, this didn't at all mean that I was okay with my son's death as I was still begging and praying that God would save my youngest and last child. Yet, despite these desperate prayers and petitions, I felt peace rather than agony. It was well with my soul.
In that moment of release, I heard the surgeon's footsteps. I remember "thinking" I should be anxious, but yet I wasn't. I was consumed with peace. I remember marveling at that observation in the moment because, trust me, being calm is about as far from my anxious personality as possible. It was nothing I did, and that is for sure. It was only God who gave me this peace -- the kind of peace that passeth all understanding. It was first time I truly understood what that Scripture meant for it was such strange and powerful peace that I knew it was only of God. The surgeon arrived, appearing exhausted, and briefly reported, "He's very ill, he's going to PICU, and we'll go from there... but he's alive." Whatever my lot...
The ensuing weeks in PICU were rough, and there were several more years of hospitalizations and surgeries, but today my kid is on the eve, not of his return to heaven, but of his 16th birthday. It is well with my soul.
And so I believe. I believe that these hymns have profound power. They have power because they reflect the most powerful message and the most powerful messenger. It is good to know them and, like Levi, I'm saddened that my kids have been raised during an age where they will never learn them like I did. Levi references Mrs. Crosby in this song and I guarantee you my kids won't know who she is. Will the contemporary songs and songwriters of today carry such power for good?
I'm lucky. It was a far gentler, simpler time in the days of the hymnal and I'm grateful I was allowed to live during that time. I, for one, miss the days before the hymnal died. Thanks, Levi, for articulating this so well through your music.
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