The Melancholy Ones

Each year, I grow a little bit more convinced that I’m not alone—that there are others, many others, I think, who prefer the melancholy Christmas songs over the rambunctiously joyful ones. My completely non-scientific research has led me to this conclusion. For what other reason would there be eleven different renditions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in my Christmas playlist? Or nine versions of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”?

Photo: REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

Photo: REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas

There’s something in this, I think. Something more than just the beauty of the minor key or the nostalgic lyrics. For some reason, our hearts are drawn toward sorrow in this season of joy.

I wrote a blog post a year ago that I shared again at the beginning of December this year. It is the most-read blog post on my site—by a lot. And I think one reason is that it’s about the hard task of being joyful at Christmas when so many of our lives are swamped in sorrow, so much of the world bearing pain. And guess what? It has a melancholy song in it.

There’s something about the melancholy ones.

Perhaps it is that First Christmas (more another time on how I’m defining that this season) is, in one way, an inherently sad event. God left all the wonders of glory to live in dirt. He sent His son—to live as a human, yes—but knowing He would have to die. It is, as Selah puts it, a mystery: that God chose to create man knowing that man would rebel; and not only that, God sent His son to save the traitors.

So we wonder as we wander in the bleak midwinter and we live in this tension of celebration. As we ache in the agony of waiting for God With Us, we still rejoice. We push our troubles far away by hanging a star upon the highest bough. We listen to the bells on Christmas day, looking about at hate of man against man, and hear them tell us that God is not dead—nor does He sleep.

My favorites of the melancholy ones are those that seek out the joy in the midst of the darkness. Most of them do. Because that’s another thing about First Christmas: it is all about light entering darkness—and the inability of darkness to overcome it.

There’s a Drought in My Hymnal

This morning, on Facebook, I posted the following as a status update:

So, I always feel a bit perturbed when we sing hymns of the early 20th Century in Church. It is not that I dislike singing hymns, just that I’ve never thought the first half of the 20th Century particularly fertile soil for hymn-writers. I think to myself, “There are so many great old hymns of the church, why are we singing this or that one?”

I had to laugh, then, when I came across this line, written by Helen Gardner in The Art of T.S. Eliot published in 1949, describing the Modern Era: “An age which has hardly produced a hymn which can be sung without embarrassment…”

I know just what you mean, Helen.

Image from Church Music Today
It started a surprisingly long thread of comments, one of which was my own further thoughts on the matter. As I wrote it, and its length grew, I thought, “I should turn this into a post.” (And now you know how I come up for material for this blog.)
But it began with a friend asking for some examples of early 20th Century hymns that I found lacking. I was in the midst of a phone conversation with mi madre when I read it and we got going on the topic.
Her comments: “That whole period was very internally focused. There’s a lot of ‘I, I, I’: ‘I Come to the Garden Alone,’ ‘I Love to Tell the Story,’ ‘I Will Sing the Wondrous Story.’ Others: ‘Showers of Blessing,’ [perhaps myleast favorite] ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ There’s another one that goes, ‘Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth and song?’ Many are the hymns of the late 19th Century tent meetings and gospel awakenings and the early 20th Century modernist/fundamentalist controversy.
“Often you have what was at that time a rather daring rhythm; they have syncopation and swing to them – so they are very singable. They are the songs that built the Sunday night Gospel meetings in churches – often they were evangelistic meetings because the church had gaslights or electricity when individuals didn’t. The services were lighter, the preaching evangelistic, and there was lots of music. Even as late as when I was a child [1950s] the evening service was called the ‘Evangel’ or the ‘Gospel’ service. But by then the people who came because it was a novelty were gone. By then the Sunday evening service was full of those who came regularly on Sunday morning.”

Mom got me thinking about my Grandma Givens’ stories about her courtship with my grandfather. They met as Mennonite teenagers in 1936 and all of their “dates” were Sunday evening gatherings at all the various Mennonite churches in Lancaster County for singing nights. My mom reminded me that in the later Little House on the Prairie books (1890s), they start up an evening “singing club” at the schoolhouse and it’s where all the young people go. Even today that is the tradition among the Amish.

We have an incredible tradition within the Christian church of singing. I don’t want to put that down in any way. I think our contemporary culture is reaping the blessing of this tradition in the music that is being produced by contemporary pop and folk artists. Look at the participants in and winners of singing competitions on television in recent years; across the board, the majority of the stand-outs were raised in church. Bands like The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, The Last Bison (who you should seriously check out), The Fray, OneRepublic, Owl City – heck, even Katy Perry – grew up singing in church.

I love the moments around the piano that my family would gather and sing together. I love the times for singing in a worship service. I love that we sing in times of joy and in times of sorrow This is not just the American church – it is universal, it is historical. Dr. Brian Toews, Provost at Cairn University, pointed out once that, “What became very clear [to me] teaching the wisdom literature is that one thing unique about Christianity is that in the midst of trouble, Christians sing.”

I love the tradition of song in the Christian church. My issue is with the musical and lyrical mundanity and shallowness of the early 20th Century. The richness of the truly old hymns – both musically and lyrically – and the beauty of some more contemporary works far outweigh that period in my mind.

In the course of the commentary on my Facebook page, another friend mentioned her frustration with hymns written after 1960: “Apparently, people forgot how to sing in harmony ‘cause it feels like everything was written in unison.” Another was frustrated with the musicality of mid-19th Century American hymn tunes. There’s probably quite a bit more to be said on the topic, and I would by no means consider myself an authority on the subject. What are your thoughts?

 

Starry Nite

The evening’s activities put me in mind of the event a year earlier. The tone both similar and worlds apart – a celebration of the start of the Christmas season, but this year without the aching heart and scratchy eyes of the day’s grief. As I walked away, the voices, amplified by microphones, echoed off the trees, the strains of the violin soaring above them.

I walked toward my car, alone in the deserted lot at the far end of campus. The tenor, the alto, and the violin together, haunting echoes of the originals, rode the chilly, crisp air: “O night, O Holy night, O night divine!”

And alone, I wept at the beauty of it all, that the Conqueror came in peace1, on a quiet, holy night, to be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; to take upon Himself the chastisement that brought us peace, to turn our sorrow into joy and our mourning into dancing. The power of Death was undone by an Infant born of glory2.

1 Jason Gray. “Easier.” Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy.
2 Andrew Peterson. “Gather ‘Round Ye Children, Come.” Behold the Lamb of God.

When change and tears are past

This past week or so have been difficult. My Grandma Givens was in the hospital. She’s out now, and back in the skilled care area of the village where she lives, but we know she’s not well and we don’t know if she’ll be with us ten more days or ten more years. There’s not much more wrong with her than age – her body is simply wearing out. After 93 years, I suppose it has the right.

But it’s been hard. It’s hard to think about my life without Grandma as a part of it – she’s been an institution for 30 years of it so far. I know grandparents die – I lost both my grandfathers when I was very young, and my other grandmother when I was in high school – but somehow I never really thought about the idea that Grandma Givens would die.
I still can’t quite imagine a world without Grandma praying for me.
When I heard she wasn’t doing well, I panicked at first. Then I prayed. Then I got a chance to call her and tell her I love her. All of those things needed to be done.
And God gave me His comfort, and He gave me His grace, and He gave me His love. And all those things were good.
But yesterday He gave me one thing more. During our start of semester hour of prayer we sang, as we always do. Dr. Toews got up to read the opening passage of Scripture and he said that he had just finished teaching a course on the Wisdom Literature. And he said something that stuck out to me in a new way: “What became very clear teaching the wisdom literature is that one thing unique about Christianity is that in the midst of trouble, Christians sing.”
In an instant I was standing around a piano at Grandma’s house in my memory, singing with the whole family. Grandma was playing at the piano and working her way through the hymnal from favorite to favorite. We sang some of those hymns yesterday, and I needed to hear them.
Near the end of the service we sang one that I’ve known for a long time. It’s one that I can sing without paying a whole lot of attention to the words, because I’ve done so many times. But suddenly it was new and fresh to me, and I realized it was the story of Grandma Givens.
From a childhood without a father, to stepping away in faith from the Mennonite church, to raising six boys, to losing Grandpa fairly young, to dealing with fractious church members and family members, there have been griefs, pains, changes, and thorny ways. But Grandma’s best friend has always been Jesus. And He has always been faithful.
The second verse we sang targeted me. My turbulent fears of losing Grandma calmed as I thought of all the ways God has guided her through her life, and I remembered that He will do the same for me.
And as we sang a final verse, I began to cry the good kind of tears. Because I remembered that while I will be left without her, when Grandma goes to heaven, she will be with her Lord. Sorrow will be forgotten, love will be restored.
And one day, when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet again at last.
Be Still, My Soul
by Katharina A. von Schlegel, 1752
translated to English by Jane L. Borthwick, 1855
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.

Missing Uncle Sam

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

“Christmas is a time of joy,” my boss said yesterday. “I have to keep reminding myself of that.”

It is. A joy tinged with sorrow, as the Man of Sorrows left his throne and came to be born in a manger, knowing he would be the sacrifice that redeemed the world. But a joy nonetheless, because the end result of that sacrifice was resurrection – not just once, but for all who believe.

I’m holding onto the hope of resurrection right now. Holding on to the hope that the Day-spring will put death’s dark shadows to flight. Because they are dark. And they are present. And I ache in the missing him.

“I’m okay,” I keep hearing myself say. “At the moment.”

On the one hand, day-to-day, I didn’t see Uncle Sam much – certainly not compared to his students or his fellow professors of music. But sporadic lunches, quick conversations in hallways or offices, greetings at concerts and events were enough to keep that long-seated friendship fresh, one that had grown from years upon years of relationship with my grandparents, my parents, my sisters, his brothers, his nephews, our shared friends. And now I am left with them all, aching.

He was a musician. I know that. But it’s not like that stood out to me in a unique way – saying Sam Hsu was a musician would be like saying any other person had eyes. It’s a given. His music was so much a part of him that I sometimes didn’t even take note of it.

I know that must seem strange to those who knew him from the world of music. But that wasn’t the world where we overlapped so much. We met more frequently over meals, at family celebrations, or academic discussions. He was my friend, my “uncle”; and my friend came with music in his blood.

He was a friend I was privileged to sit under as a student, enjoying the breadth and depth his knowledge gave to a class that could have been routine. And in between the insights into the music, art, and literature of the western world, were tidbits of great beauty and depth that would flow from him: “He’s experienced a little of me and I’ve experienced a little of him. That’s what friendship is, isn’t it?”

He was a friend who may have been thought somber by those who did not know him well. But they never got to experience the moments of humor that would come from around side – hilariously unexpected. I’ll never forget the day he sat at the keyboard to introduce us to a Russian Romantic composer and paused with his fingers hovering above the keys: “I’m going to show you how the Russians loved,” he said. Then he lowered his hands to the first chord; it struck and faded as he paused again: “I’m not a Russian. I hope you know that.”

I stood at the hospital on Thursday afternoon, looking about me at Uncle Sam’s students who were there, and thinking of those, former and present, who were not. Men and women of God whose passion for music is fueled by their passion for Christ. And I thought: that is what they learned from their teacher. More than fingering, more than history, more than style. They learned Christ-following from one who was, preeminently, a Christ-follower.

I have allowed my mind to swim freely in the lyrics and music of hymns and carols for the past few days, knowing that it is a place he would have loved to be with me. And the joy of Christmas, the beauty of this world, the grandeur and faithfulness of God, the great truths – all of them have resounded over and over to me.

And I will rejoice. For God is with us.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

To read more about Dr. Samuel Hsu, click here.