I attend a Tuesday morning Men's Bible Study group here in Franklin. It has pretty much become my weekly church service. These men have been meeting for 28 years now. There is a core group within the roughly 50 guys who have been there since the very beginning. There are few ground rules: No asking for money. No passing out business cards or networking until after the meeting is over. They are there to pray, study the Bible and encourage each other in their Faith. Period.
The group is fairly "seasoned". I am probably one of the younger guys there and I'll be fifty in a few weeks. But I like the wisdom that seems to flow in that room and I enjoy the friendships I've made there.
We usually have a song leader. He is a very nice guy and a supremely talented man with a great gift. I count him as a friend. His song choices typically fall into the modern praise and worship category. They're nice. They're sweet. He is unquestionably sincere when he sings them. And every single week when he leads us in the singing, I could swear we sang the same songs the week before.
This past week he wasn't at the group. He travels a lot singing with a ministry and occasionally misses our study. So one of the long-timers was asked to lead us. Perry is a great guy with the uncanny ability to mimic a train whistle perfectly. Absolutely perfectly. Perry isn't really a singer, but he was more than willing to help and so he got up and he and our prayer leader, Leonard, lead us in the songs. These are older guys and they chose classic hymns. When I was a boy, I used to vary between rolling my eyes when we stood up to sing yet another of these dusty old choruses, and watching in reverence as tears would come to the eyes of the great old saints singing them in the church of my childhood. Tuesday morning I was remembering those faces as we sang "Victory in Jesus" "Amazing Grace", "What a Friend we Have in Jesus" and a few others.
Faces that brought tears to my own eyes on Tuesday. Harry Flohr, perhaps the Godliest man I ever met. Pastor E.L. Britton, the first pastor I ever had. I grew up in his church and with his family. I am a Christian because of this man's ministry. Harold Alexander whose children were and are dear friends and who I always thought was one of the best dads I ever saw. Dad Stanley, Harry Flohr's wife Lucille, Jane Britton. The list is long.
Tuesday morning I understood why they cried when they sang those songs. Maybe I'm just getting old, or maybe it's the miles I've trod in my life or maybe it's all that and then some. But as I stood there singing with my friends, I was seeing faces I loved and missed...and needed a little bit. I wish I could talk to those folks right now, because I sure miss them. Some -like Harry Flohr and Mrs. Britton- are gone now. Some remain. But they all meant something very special to me in the early part of my life. I didn't have the appreciation for them then...that comes only with years. But I appreciate them now. When they sang those classic hymns, they were singing about themselves and their lives before and after the Cross. They wept often. Maybe they were weeping back then for the same reason I wept on Tuesday. Maybe they were reminiscing back then as well. Maybe those hymns were connecting them to someone they loved in a time they missed, in a place long gone...just like I was this week.
I don't like modern praise and worship. I've certainly made that point before. I liked it when it first came out but then -like almost everything else in Church these days- it became trendy and then it became profitable. I used to stand in the church I used to attend and listen to what was essentially one long, 45 minutes song. I can't tell the difference between Matt Redmond or Chris Tomlin or Louis Giglio or whomever else writes these formulaic nursery rhymes. I thought it was just me getting old and cranky but I realized it's more. There is no depth and no substance. Most of these songs elevate me to God. That's unscriptural. Worship isn't about me. Not at all. Praise and Worship songs are written with an emotional response in mind. It's the same formula I came to detest in Southern Gospel music. Write about momma, write about someone dying and going to Heaven, write about seeing JAY-zus-uh and then seeing grandma by His side. Make people cry. That's a hit. Praise and worship seems to have the goal of making people sway, raise their hands and "feel the spirit". It's the EXACT same thinking that is in play when they score a movie. Make the music match the scene and create the mood.
The Hymns -the ones I once thought dusty and ancient- don't play that game. They didn't come as part of a genre. There was no style evident when "Amazing Grace" was penned. Or "Oh for a Thousand Tongues to Sing". There was theology. It was taught in the churches and the songs came from them.
That's only part of it, though. The real issue to me is that I simply can't see my daughter standing as a 50 year old woman one day, singing "Revelation Song" or and of the other mindless, vacuous praise songs being sung today and being brought to tears by memories built around those lyrics. She won't attach those songs to great moments in her life as a believer or great people whose spiritual influence she felt. She won't run through an all-star lineup of saints whom she saw singing those tunes when she was a kid. Because I doubt those songs will be remembered by then.
I miss the classics now. I guess that makes me old. It's not that I want to eliminate modern praise and worship. I don't. I just wish it wasn't so obviously being written for profit and sung for effect. Open a hymn book and you'll find songs that the writers largely never got paid for. They wrote simply because they experienced something and they wanted to convey God's work in it. That's why those songs have lasted for literally multiple centuries in most cases. That's why they connect generations.
I guess getting older means coming to understand some of what the previous generation was saying back then. I understand something a little better now. I understand how a long hard road can make you appreciate things you took for granted. Make you miss folks who blazed this trail before you. Make you wish you had them to talk to now. But you can't go back there and they are gone until eternity. So you seek connection in memory and sometimes those memories are prompted by something as simple as a song.