Give me that Old-Time Religion

 W.F. Bellais II

Once at a gathering of evangelicals and-or fundamentalists I had an ecstatic experience, or maybe a nice experience. I describe the gathering as either evangelical or fundamental mainly because I cannot tell the difference but I know there is a difference. My excuse for being there can only be laid to the offer of food; as it turned out, very good food. The main preacher from England inspired the others around me; they felt his charisma and he had his audience in his sway. Thwarting my hope of disappearing after eating the person who invited me stood at my shoulder and said, “Isn’t he great?”, meaning the preacher.  I said, “Yes, great.” Stuck there watching people raise their hands in praise and responding to the call to be “saved.” I did not want to be saved as the preacher meant, I wanted to leave and save myself from any more of the overheated environment.

 However, singing old-fashioned hymns I remembered from my childhood did warm my heart. The hymn I enjoyed the most “Bringing in the Sheaves” even got me to singing. When I first heard it sung, so long ago, I thought we were bringing in the “sheep”. Soon someone corrected my childish confusion when they heard me sing, “Bringing in the sheep”. The kindly voice said, “Its sheaves, son, not sheep.” Looking up at the gentleman I indicated I understood and began singing it the right way. Of course, I didn’t have the faintest clue what “sheave” meant. Nevertheless, I wanted to bring them in.

A few months later the connection was made. The hymn had something to do with harvesting. Having grown up in a navy household where we sang “Anchors Aweigh,” I had never experienced or seen a harvest of any kind. Well, that’s not exactly true. I did help harvest blackberries in the backyard of our Maryland home, and now that I think of it, I harvested cherries from a neighbor’s cherry tree. But I never harvested a sheave. The hymn is about the harvest of our Lord. He has said that the harvest is ready for reaping but the laborers are few. The sheaves we are to bring in are people ready to hear the word of God.

Those old hymns are stirring. They build up in the singer and in the listener an appreciation of the drive, purpose, or mission of people who shaped the United States. Current religious music seems shallow and banal to me. In fact, I hear in most contemporary Christian “hit” music a narcissistic quality; that is the music is “all about me”. Of course, I could be wrong; possibly I don’t hear enough of it to make a good and unbiased judgment, but there does seem to be an egocentric quality about the music.

The old-time religion, as I recall it, challenged people to stand up to be soldiers of the cross and disciples willing to learn to serve and sacrifice as well as a feeling of majesty.

Once, sorting through some books, I ran across a paperback song book published in the 1940s. I glanced through the little book and realized that many of the hymns in the little paperback had a place in my memory and I suppose a place in my heart. I thought that instead of me finding the little book of old-time hymns it found me.

Maybe my memory is not as keen as I believe it is, but when I think of those old hymns they seem to have drawn us out of our selves and lift us to a higher plane. The singing at the dinner where I wanted to escape reminded me of an event experienced in Jerusalem in 1996. The group I was traveling with finished our tour of Israel at All Saints Anglican Church in Jerusalem at the Joppa Gate and near the Tower of David. The church was the meeting place for a number of diverse congregations; most of them were what is termed “charismatic,” or “Pentecostal.” The Sunday service there was not a typical Anglicanism. A small brass band in the front and two overhead projectors to put the words up on screens filled the right front of the nave. I had the misfortune of being placed right next to the band and far too forward to comfortably read off the screens—I had to strain my neck. Besides, I didn’t feel much like singing, the band was too loud and it didn’t matter much if I sang or not.

Feeling trapped by the band and again wanting escape as the service extended past and hour and half I realized there was no way out. However, redemption did come at the end of the service. The rector announced that we would sing an out of season old Advent hymn “Lo, He Comes on Clouds Descending.” The pipe organ for the first time swallowing up the band, and then the congregation of nearly a 1000 people sang so beautifully and powerfully the music echoed off the walls and grabbed me as if being awakened from a coma.  

The old hymns of my youth have spiritual and intellectual integrity and actually teach as the worshipper sings and listens. That is the old-time religion that gives spiritual and intellectual integrity to life.

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