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Christians sing hymns in the Escomb Church, one of the oldest one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon churches in England.
Photo by Cheryl Mann Bacon

The soundtrack of my life

A Christian reflects on the memories and importance of hymns.

NORTHAMPTON, England — “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So reads Ephesians 5:19-20 in the New International Version.

The King James Version says “making melody in your heart,” but I like the NIV better, because music from the heart is music shared.  

About 25 years ago, a gifted friend and colleague, the late Sally Reid, asked me to write the lyrics for a composition she submitted to a competition sponsored by the Vatican Jubilee 2000 celebration.

A hymnal opened to "Sun of My Soul," one of the many songs tourists sang on the Hymns and Heritage tour in Europe.

A hymnal opened to “Sun of My Soul,” one of the many songs tourists sang on the Hymns and Heritage tour.

“The music comes first, then the lyric,” she told me.  

I’d never heard that before. I’m a word person, obviously. I just assumed that after a lyric was written, a composer set it to music. But Sally had been invited, not me, based on her international reputation as a composer, so I did as I was told. And “Jesus, Redeemer, Messiah” was performed six times in Rome, including once at the Vatican.  

I learned a lot from Sally.

Recently, I thought about her words often as I learned a lot from Jerry Rushford on his final Hymns and Heritage tour through England, Scotland and Wales. 

So much of our time was spent hearing stories about the lives and words of great hymn writers — stories I’ll never forget, words often sung to more than one tune. 

Who knew — besides Jerry — that “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” was written by a teacher, James Milton Black, to honor the memory of a dying child who no longer answered the roll in his class.  I’ll understand those words differently next time I sing them.

 “On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise …

“Amazing Grace” took on new meaning when I learned that John Newton was once a slave trader and sea captain who became an ardent abolitionist.

 “How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

Newton spent his latter decades serving the church and collaborating with his friend William Cowper, who fought depression his whole life. Knowing of that sadness makes “Oh for a Closer Walk with God” much more poignant.

So shall my walk be close with God, calm and serene my frame.”

Tourists on the Hymns and Heritage tour worship in the Hursely Church in England.

Tourists on the Hymns and Heritage tour worship in the Hursely Church in England.

Few of the 300-plus songs we sang were new to me. My dad was a song leader, and I spent my childhood harmonizing to his bass lead from the back seat of his blue Chevy on summer road trips through the Mountain West. That’s probably why I seldom used the personally embossed hymnal Jerry had given each of us for the tour.  

Thanks to Daddy, I usually even remembered the oft-overlooked third verses. And what’s with the Church of Christ compulsion to only sing the first, second and last verse anyway?

The music of my heart always has words. Two weeks traversing the United Kingdom on a bus with 38 other song lovers reminded me of that. 

“Come ye that love the Lord and let your joy be known!”

I know “ye” is antiquated, but get over it and let your joy be known.

“Sing to me of heaven.”

“O happy day that fixed my choice on thee, my savior and my God.”

“Shall we gather at the river?”

“Nearer my God to thee.”

Christians sing hymns in the Escomb Church, one of the oldest one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon churches in England.

Christians sing hymns in the Escomb Church, one of the oldest Saxon churches in England.

I knew Fanny Crosby, the great American hymn writer, was blind. But Jerry taught me about the trans-Atlantic friendship between her and Frances Ridley Havergal, the greatest and most prolific woman hymn writer from England, and her poetic tribute to Crosby that concludes:

Sister! what will our meeting be,

When our hearts shall sing and our eyes shall see!”

“When our hearts shall sing.” Travel, like music, is life changing — at least it should be. Singing in Saxon churches where believers have worshiped for more than 1,600 years writes lyrics on the soul.

Steve Lockwood, a fellow traveler from Bothell, Wash., called it “the soundtrack of my life.” Mine, too. And my soundtrack came with my father’s voice in my ear, clear and strong as it sounded from my childhood until it fell silent at 95. I don’t understand that phenomenon, but I’m not the only one who was touched by it.

Worship leader D.J. Bulls said he heard the voices of many people in his life who inspired him to be who he is.  

Related: After leading 20 tours since 1985, Jerry Rushford retires from Hymns and Heritage

“For those who get to do worship ministry every week — worship is highly emotional,” Bulls said on the last night of the tour. “It’s tied to the deepest memories that form our faith.”  

He’s right. And it’s not just true for those who lead worship but for all of us who share the music from our hearts.

CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle contributing editor who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].

Filed under: A Cappella Hymns Christian hymns Classic hymns Fanny Crosby Hymns and Heritage tour Insight John Newton Opinion Perspective Views

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