Several years ago, I was driving through Utah on my way to a family reunion. Having never been in the state, I was awestruck by the beauty and the majesty of the landscape. Mountains and canyons and old bridges and blue, blue skies on a sunny July day. Over and over, only half aware of it, I would start to sing the first verse of a song that I sometimes sing when I encounter grandeur in nature.
Oh Lord my God
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds
Thy hands have made
I see the stars
I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout
The universe displayed
The truth is, How Great Thou Art isn’t really even one of my favorite hymns. I don’t hate it but I don’t think of it as a song that resonates for me. And yet, here I was driving through Utah and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I also couldn’t get it out of my head when I saw snow capped Mt. Shasta for the first time. Or sometimes when I walk through Central Park.
At that particular time in my life, church and God and religion were something that I felt very far removed from. It was almost vexing that an old-fashioned country church hymn would be so fixated in my subconscious. While I grew up in the church, it was not who I was in my adulthood. But as I drove through Utah, I tried to give myself some grace. I tried to just enjoy the song and the singing of the song, sung at the top of my lungs, no less.
I’ve written about it before but a couple of years ago, I embarked on a journey back to church. Not the same faith of my youth, I don’t think anyone ever holds on to that, exactly. But I found a church that accepted the LGBTQ community and preached about social issues that I care about and told me that all those questions and doubts I’ve always had about God and Jesus and the Bible and Christianity were welcome too.
So I joined that church and then about a year later I stopped going. Somewhere down the road I might write about it but, put succinctly, I stopped going to that church because even after a year, no one knew my name.
I share that, not to ask for anyone’s sympathy, but only to illustrate that many people have any number of reasons for going to church and any number of reasons for leaving it.
Yesterday, in an effort to take a break from getting into political fights on Facebook, I asked the question, “What is your favorite hymn?” And I asked people to elaborate if they were inclined to do so.
While I was slightly surprised by how many people responded to the question, I was not shocked by the answers themselves. The classics like In the Garden, The Old Rugged Cross, Amazing Grace, Great is Thy Faithfulness, Ave Maria and of course, How Great Thou Art all made multiple showings.
As I imagined, so many favorite songs had memory tied to its resonance. Beautiful stories of grandmothers and grandfathers, weddings, funerals, parents, siblings, children. I know this sounds corny, but it was an honor to read these paragraphs about some of my friends’ most indelible memories.
I wondered why I had even posted this question, was I trying to write a blog? If so, what was it that I wanted to say? I didn’t know.
But, then, tonight, a friend of mine, I’ll call him Scott, weighed in. (I pray he forgives me for sharing this.) “*sigh* It’s been so long since I’ve invested any thoughts to anything ‘Christ-ey.’ That said, “Abide with Me” has always held a secure spot in my gay soul because it speaks of the promise of love & support when the rest of the world has abandoned me.”
I feel like I understand where Scott is coming from. We both grew up in conservative evangelical homes. We both tried to be straight but came out eventually. We both spent so much time in churches singing songs and listening to sermons and participating in classes and these experiences, in part, have molded the men we are today.
Not everybody goes to church. Not everybody that grew up going to church still goes to church. Church is responsible for many good things and also responsible for some bad things too. I am not here to make a case for religion. But I do want to say something, and I must confess, it’s a lesson that took me a few decades to learn. If you have a song, whether it’s Sia or George Jones or Tchaikovsky or a song about Jesus that you sang when you were a child, if you love it, that song is yours and it will always be yours. Nothing can change that.
Inspired by Scott, I have posted a YouTube video of a British (I think) boys’ choir. A quick search led me to many renditions, even one by Elton John, but this is the one that moved me most. Young children singing about the promise of love and support. I pray that they will grow into adults who always, their entire lives, know that Love.