GIVE ME THAT OLD TIME RELIGION

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few years ago I attended a banquet honoring clergy or pastors as we were designated, given by the Gideons in our part of Missouri. It was a very lovely evening, and the food was superb. The main speaker, a physician from Sheffield, England, was very inspiring. I think he had his audience in his sway. However the part of the evening I enjoyed the most was singing a pair of old fashioned hymns.

The hymn I enjoyed the most was “Bringing in the Sheaves.” I remember this hymn from youth. When I first heard it sung, I thought we were bringing in the “sheep.” Soon one of the men in the congregation corrected me when he heard me sing, “Bringing in the sheep.” The kind 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 a sheave was. However, I was happy to bring them in.

Finally, a few months later, I think, 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 isn’t actually correct. 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 willing to hear the word of God.

Fields of Normandy

Fields Ready for Harvest – by William Frank Bellais, 2009 -acrylic on canvas board, 12×14

 

Those old hymns are stirring. They build up in the singer and in the listener an appreciation of the drive, purpose, or mission of the Church as well as the individual. 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 real 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 for Jesus, to be soldiers of the cross, and to be disciples willing to learn about God’s mighty act in history. There was a feeling of majesty about that kind of faith. There was also a sense of mystery about our connection with God and a sense of joy of the shared kinship with Jesus.

As I was sorting through some books in my office, I ran across a paper back song book published in the 1940s (don’t recall how I came into possession of it, but there it was). I glanced through it and realized that every hymn in that little book had a place in my memories and I suppose a place in my heart. It was a great surprise and blessing for me to have found it again. It seems, however, that maybe the little book of old time hymns found me.

The one I enjoyed as a young person was the hymn “Jesus Saves.” The hymn reminds us that “We have heard the joyful sound, Jesus saves” Then we find as while singing that we have a mission to “Spread the tidings around…” And to “Bear the news to every land, Climb the steeps and cross the waves, Onward!—‘tis our Lord’s Command, Jesus Saves…”

That’s stirring. That’s moving. That’s a truly joyful sound to make to the Lord.

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 ourselves and lift us to a higher plane. The singing at the Gideons banquet was a reminder 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 several diverse congregations; most of them were what is termed “charismatic,” or “Pentecostal.” The Sunday worship there was not a typical Anglican service. There was a small band in the front, and two overhead projectors put the words up on screens in 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 screen—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.

As we went through the hour and half of the service, I was more and more deflated. My hope of being in the presence of God was never realized (now, understand this is my feeling I don’t think any others held these thoughts). However, at the end of the worship service, the rector announced that we would sing an old hymn, and it would be out of season, which didn’t make any difference, I thought if it was good to sing.  The rector announced that we would sing the Advent hymn “Lo, He Comes on Clouds Descending.” The pipe organ and the band began the melody, and then the congregation of nearly a 1000 people began to sing this old hymn. It was stirring, the music seemed to echo off the walls, and it seemed to me that something dramatically important was occurring. We had finally got in touch with God.

So, I said to myself at that moment, “Give me the old time religion.”

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