Even with my doubts about God, I love going to church.
I try to arrive early. I like watching the pews fill up. I love listening to the choir warming up. I love the singing. And even though I am tone deaf, I love belting out the hymns from my childhood.
“Praise him! Praise him!”
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, wrote directions for singing. I take them to heart every time I’m in church.
He wrote: Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.
“To Thee with heart and mouth I sing.”
John Wesley should know about singing. He and his brother, Charles, published fifty-six collections of hymns over five decades. Charles alone wrote an astonishing 8,989 hymns.
Regardless of where I stand with God, hymns move me. Literally bringing tears to my eyes.
As the writer, Tom Ehrich, once said, who can fail to be moved by “How Great Thou Art.”
Look at the passion in these words:
And when I think of God,
His son not sparing,
Sent Him to die,
I scarce can take it in;
That on the cross,
my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died
to take away my sin.
There was one occasion though, when a hymn moved me to tears and I was troubled by it.
It wasn’t until weeks later that I seemed to understand why.
It was a Sunday late in 2014 and the choir at the Presbyterian church I had started attending sang “In the Garden” as the chorale offering that day.
I had heard the hymn before of course, but it wasn’t one I counted as a favorite. As they sang—it was a lovely arrangement—I suddenly was aware that tears were streaming down. A lump came to my throat. But there wasn’t the usual awe or joy in these tears.
Instead, I was agitated. Unsettled.
And that uneasiness stayed with me all day. I even called a minister friend the next morning to chat about the experience.
In February 2015, my sister died.
Only she and her husband had known the seriousness of her illness until the very end—she was always a very private person and never wanted to worry others.
I later learned that her illness had been diagnosed late in 2014. Right around the time I had been upset by the hymn in church that Sunday.
My brother-in-law asked me to speak at the funeral. I flew to England.
The opening hymn my nieces had picked was “In the Garden.”
I had forgotten until that moment, until seeing the order of service, that the hymn might not have been my favorite but it wasmy sister’s.
I gave the eulogy. Just barely.
The gathering of our family afterwards was a wonderful experience. We are a large family, living great distances from each other, and don’t get together often.
It was like a final gift from my sister.
I eventually returned to America on a Saturday in March. I went to church the next morning.
The opening hymn was “In the Garden.”
The great Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, said: “Every human being should know two languages; the language of society and the language of signs. One serves to communicate with other people, the other serves to understand God’s messages.”
I can’t help thinking to this day: If only I had understood the sign that previous year—that that hymn “In the Garden”was telling me something. I might have got to my sister’s side before she died.
I’m not sure about God available now
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