Encouraging a higher standard for Christian music

A transcript of a discussion on hymns taken from Back To The Bible’s program Gateway To Joy. ~Editor

Lisa Barry: Elisabeth, let’s start with you. I know that music was an important part of your home life growing up. Can you give us a bird’s-eye view of what that was like?

Elisabeth Elliot: We had family prayers every morning and the first thing was to be herded into the living room where either my father or my mother would sit down at the piano and would play usually the next hymn in the book. We went through hymnbooks. It was just taken for granted that all of us would sing. So, whether the children knew how to read the words, it didn’t make any difference, because little children can learn the words just by hearing them. So, we would generally sing one hymn, but we didn’t skip any of the stanzas as many churches do (we’ll sing stanzas 1, 2 and 5 or something). We had all the verses.

Neither of my parents was a virtuoso on the piano, by any means. But they both knew how to play plain, ordinary hymns. I can remember my older brother, Phil, taking piano lessons and about as far as he got was Hop up, hop up, o grasshopper spry (or something like that); and he gave up. I am number two in the family so I had a variety of piano teachers one after another and never really got very far other than just to be able to play hymns. And to this day, I love to sit down to the piano and play hymns by myself. I do it frequently after supper when Lars is upstairs and I’ve finished the dishes.

Lisa Barry: I think I remember a story of your mother when she was nearing the end of her life and she was having difficulty remembering things. And yet she was always able to play the piano, wasn’t she? And you were surprised by that.

Elisabeth Elliot: Yes, she was staying in a retirement home in Pennsylvania and when I visited her, we were just walking through the place and there was a piano there and I said, “Mother, why don’t you sit down there and play the piano?”

And she said, “Oh, I can’t play the piano.”

And I said, “What do you mean you can’t? You’ve always played the piano.”

So she said, “All right, I’ll try.” And she sat down and she didn’t have any trouble at all. It was all in her head. She didn’t need a book. So, each time I would go there to visit, I would always make sure that she sat down at the piano and played.

Lisa Barry: Elisabeth, what are some of your favorite hymns?

Elisabeth Elliot: I have a long list right here in my book on my favorite quotations, my favorite hymns. And it is a long list. I won’t read them all but I can show it to you. Nobody that is listening can see it, but it is in alphabetical order so I started with “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “And Can It Be?” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” “Be Still My Soul,” “Crown Him With Many Crowns”…how far do you want me to go?

Lisa Barry: Hearing that “Be Still My Soul,” you’ve heard the story probably of Eric Liddle who as he was dying of a brain tumor in a Chinese prison camp, he loved hymns as well–had grown up in a family that loved hymns–and apparently, as I understand the story, he sent a nurse out to the front of the hospital where there was a Salvation Army band that had gathered together in that prison camp (a makeshift band) and asked if they would play for him “Be Still, My Soul.” And apparently just days, perhaps weeks, before he went to be with the Lord, that was the hymn that they played so he could hear it inside the hospital.

Elisabeth Elliot: I hadn’t heard that story.

Lisa Barry: I can remember going through a very difficult time in my life around age 20. I would take my hymnbook, sit in front of the fire, and just read the words. I didn’t know a lot of the tunes; I just read the words. And they are so powerful. Hymns can minister to us in so many ways. Can you think of a time when a particular hymn really ministered to you, Nancy?

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: Why, hymns have ministered deeply to me my whole life. I came actually from a family that was musical on one side much more than on the other. My mother was a wonderful musician, had a great gift with the piano, but also as an accomplished singer. None of us inherited her vocal ability.

But my dad, who really had no ear for music at all, but a great love for praising and worshiping the Lord, had it in his mind that somehow we should be a musical family. He would ask us to sing a table grace for guests that we would have in the home. Or even I can remember taking part of our family on a vacation–a ministry vacation to Korea–and my dad making us little girls sing and play for soldiers on a military base there where he was preaching but he wanted us to sing for them. We could be as off-key as possible and he would not know the difference.

I can remember my parents marching us to what seemed like it was always the front row of church and lining us up and we would sing songs, some of my dad’s favorites. What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. Hear him kind of clapping his hands together, this is not because the audience was clapping, but just because he was so caught up in the wonder of what God had done for him.

So we grew up hearing my mother sing beautifully and then my dad having a great appreciation for it. In fact, my mother many years ago recorded two–they were called “albums” in those days–one an Easter collection and one a Thanksgiving collection with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Paul Mickelson orchestrating the arrangements. And to this day one of the traditions in my own walk is on Thanksgiving and on Easter, I pull those tapes out (we’ve transferred them to cassette tape). And as old as they are, and not great–certainly not broadcast–quality today, but I listen to those and am so reminded of those songs and hymns and texts that were so much a part of our learning doctrine and theology and the ways of God as children.

Lisa Barry: Which brings us to the present. Not too many people are singing the hymns the way they used to.

Elisabeth Elliot: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get people to recognize the tremendous blessing that there is in the theology of the old hymns! It doesn’t bother me that people sing praise songs, but it bothers me if that’s all they sing. The praise songs generally have a lot of repetition and very thin theology. Whereas as I look at this list that I have, I wonder how many people in today’s churches would know “God Moves In A Mysterious Way,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” “Jesus Thou Joy of Loving Hearts,” “Loved With Everlasting Love,” “A Mighty Fortress,” and on and on.

I’ve got probably 40 or 50 hymns here in this little booklet. We learned them by heart and children learn them without any effort whatsoever. You don’t have to sit down and memorize, you just sing. And so we learned them and we learned all the stanzas. In my dark times, of which I have had many, I haven’t had this little book along with me by any means, but I can sing them in my head if I’m in a place where I don’t want to be bothering other people. But I know virtually every line of every hymn.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: Just outside the studio here, moments ago we were on a break and I heard the instrumental music playing over the sound system “He Hideth My Soul.” And even in the midst of this day of recording sessions, the thought of the words that go with that just so ministered grace and assurance and confidence to my heart. And I think that for those who have not grown up experiencing and learning and singing these hymns, there is a real loss.

I have made a habit, over many years, of traveling with a hymnal. I travel a great deal but one of the things I manage to slip into my suitcase is a hymnal. I enjoy singing through a hymnal and often dating when I have sung that hymn (of course, all stanzas). There are so many of those we miss when we do sing hymns in our churches today. But then I can go back and have, in a sense, in those hymnals a record of God’s dealing with me and how He has ministered to my life with those truths over many years.

Elisabeth Elliot: When I was speaking at a church someplace where I’ve forgotten, they were singing praise songs and choruses. I said something to the lady that was sitting next to me on the platform, I said, “Do they sing hymns here?”

And she said, “I don’t think so. What is a hymn?”

And so I told her what I thought a hymn was. So she went to somebody else and said, “You know, Elisabeth can play the piano. She can play these hymns. Why don’t you ask her to do this?”

So they did ask me and those people were just swept away. They gave me a standing ovation and wanted me to teach them a hymn right then and there before I even had a chance to get up to give the talk on whatever it was I was supposed to give. My heart just went out to them. I thought, surely somebody must know something about hymns. But it appeared that nobody had until then, and they just were swept away. They were just delighted. So it’s a great loss in so many places

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: I think people who are not comfortable with hymns and singing to the Lord generally are probably not going to be as comfortable in Heaven, because we know that hymns and praise will be the language–part of the language–of Heaven. You go back to the Old Testament and you have the hymn of Moses. And you come to the book of Revelation and you have the hymn of Moses. How many times through the Scripture we are told to “sing to the Lord.” I really believe not just for our public worship as we gather corporately, but that individually there is something very restorative and healing and deepening in our walk with the Lord through singing.

I have women frequently today who talk with me about the area of depression and living with these emotions controlling their lives. And the two things I have said practically to women–two questions I ask are–Are you memorizing Scripture? and Are you singing to the Lord?

I find that in those times of sorrow or confusion or difficulty in my own life, that to quote Scripture back to the Lord and to sing to the Lord–and sometimes it is just sing until the cloud lifts, however long it takes. There is something, I believe very…as we lift our hearts up to the Lord by faith, and singing praise to the Lord sometimes is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, that faith pleases God. And I believe He comes and meets with us; He inhabits the praises of His people. So it’s not really an optional thing in the Christian life. We might quibble about what style, but to sing to the Lord is really the heart of what we are talking about.


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