"If (singing) is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing."
- From John Wesley's Directions for Singing
I must have been 12 the first time I made the 100-mile journey from my central-Maine home to Mapleton, about as far north as you can go without crossing the Canadian border.
Some of the happiest memories of my youth were in attending Mapleton's Baptist School of Christian Training for a whole week of "summer camp."
Oh, the fun we had sleeping in tents, swimming in the c-o-l-d Aroostook River, annoying our counselors with after-hours giggling, and, yes, the "training."
Bible stories, speakers who knew how to fuse spiritual truths with adolescent minds, and the singing were all part of a week I couldn't wait to repeat year after year.
It was the singing I remember most, which brings me back to my last column about campmeeting time in local Methodist churches, and the promise of more hymn stories to come.
One of our favorite hymns at B.S.O.C.T is also a favorite at my church today, though I didn't know then that it was written by Charles Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church. It would be years before I recognized Wesley's recurring theme in "And Can It Be That I Should Gain," or knew the phrase in the rising melody of the refrain - "...that thou-ou-ou, my Go-o-od, shouldst die-ie-ie for me!" - was part of Wesley's life-long attempt to understand why God considered him worthy to save.
Wesley is credited with more than 6,000 hymns, and the two-word phrase "for me" or its equivalent is found in each. Consider his verse from "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing": "He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free; his blood can make the foulest clean, his blood availed for me."
We may never know how many hymns were inspired by those who overcame tragedy, including Louisa Stead's "Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus" following her husband's accidental death; Horatio Spafford's "It Is Well With My Soul" after his children all drowned at sea; and the following still popular hymn by a man whose life was consumed with sorrow.
Joseph Scriven knew what it meant to have "a friend in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear." Though favored with wealth and a fine education, the night before he was to be married his fiance drowned. Poor health then prevented his planned military career, and shortly before another planned marriage his second fiance also died.
Scriven spent the rest of his life teaching, helping the disabled, and giving away most of his possessions to the poor. But although his own life never went according to plan, "What A Friend We Have In Jesus," the hymn he wrote in 1855 to comfort his mother in her time of sorrow, has comforted thousands ever since.
I close with the somewhat non-sensical but still popular little chorus from my "training camp" days: "Do Lord, oh, do Lord, oh, do remember me...way beyond the blue," and the verse, "I took Jesus as my Savior, you take him, too." Though written at least 150 years ago by African-American slaves looking forward to heaven, this was also one of the songs that inspired a couple hundred young Christian campers those many years ago to share their faith with others. I remember the camp director's final challenge to this day:
"There are enough of you in this room to evangelize the whole world."
Stunning words, over-reaching perhaps, and quite likely unfulfilled. But I'd like to think that somewhere in our world some of us have "brightened the corner where we are," used at least one tongue "to sing our great redeemer's praise," and let folks know about the "friend in Jesus" who bears their griefs and wants to meet them someday "way beyond the blue."
Hymn singing, as they say, isn't something we do on the way to the sermon. Sometimes the hymns are the sermon.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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