Old Hymns, Timeless Truths

He left his Father’s throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!

~C Wesley, 1739

These words were recently posted by a fellow third culture kid and friend from Murree. Despite generational gaps one simple verse evoked distinct memories from many of us who attended Murree. It was a reminder that there are those distinctly “Murree” memories that don’t respect place or time, but rise up and must be acknowledged –  sometimes with tears, other times with anger, still others with laughter, but mostly with gratefulness and joy for a heritage, not perfect but lasting.

A distinctly Murree memory comes through old hymns and memories of singing these hymns with our clear voices of childhood.We sang them in chapel held every Friday at Murree Christian School, we sang them at Sunday night “Singspiration” and we sang them on summer Sundays at Holy Trinity Church.

Holy Trinity Church on the winding Mall Road in Murree was our place of worship during the summer months in Pakistan. It was at Holy Trinity where missionaries and more would congregate from all over the country, sharing communion despite doctrinal differences over sprinkling or immersion, predestination and free will. While the outside mall road had all the noises of a busy commercial area in Pakistan from vendors selling seasonal flowers to small children hawking their wares, inside the gates of Holy Trinity we were a culture removed. For a child the inside of the church seemed huge with its enormous vaulted ceilings and tall stained glass windows. Plaques lined the walls in memory of people who had come before us. Men who had served in the British Army and had lost their lives were forever memorialized through the walls of Holy Trinity. Occasionally there was a plaque that in just a few words told the story of a small child dying far before their time. Holy Trinity was a church that was steeped in tradition and memory.

On Sundays the entire community would gather and sing out of old hymnals while being led in worship by any of a number of the well-qualified missionaries who were escaping the heat of the southern parts of Pakistan through a break in the beauty that was Murree Hills. What amazes me in all the years since that time is the power of the words in these hymns. The theological truths proclaimed are life-sustaining and the words never grow old.

Consider this song, written in 1917 by Frederick M. Lehman:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

Or this, written in 1864 by a 16-year-old named William Featherstone:

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

And so many more…Great is Thy Faithfulness, I am not Skilled to Understand, A Mighty Fortress is Our God….the words would resonate to the rafters, heard even during thunderous monsoon rains that came like clockwork every summer.

During the times in my life when I have been farthest from acknowledging or understanding any truth, these words were still in my memory. When words are in your memory, they have a greater chance of winding their way into your heart. I am convinced that these words, sung at one time with innocence, gusto, and minimal understanding find their way into a capsule of grace in our minds, a capsule that opens later in life as we sit, spent, knowing that we can’t do it on our own, but the One spoken of in these hymns can do it.

A comment from an old friend from Murree expressed my feelings particularly well:

“I don’t know what it is about the 5th decade of life, but I find the old words often coming to mind as I take my long drive along Pacific Coast Highway each day… Do you remember when we were young – I think it was particularly during the “preparing for evacuation years” we heard stories about how it was important to memorize verses incase we were ever captured and held prisoner. I wonder if other children heard such stories, and I don’t know the source. But it is true, those songs are coded into our brains. The words are rich. The memories strong.” (Susan Pietsch-Escueta)

What is coded into your brain in a capsule of grace providing rich memories, theological grounding, and reminders of truth? 

Bloggers Note: Holy Trinity also held some not so sacred memories: sneaking out of the service on Sunday nights to go to buy soft serve ice cream cones at a machine nearby (we had just enough time to sneak, eat, enjoy, and come back – missing the sermon but loudly participating in the hymns) and finding marijuana in the church yard during junior high. But those memories are for a not so sacred blog post!

20 thoughts on “Old Hymns, Timeless Truths

  1. I love this! I love hymns. I’ve been realizing lately that my children are growing up mostly hearing praise songs and worship anthems, and though I love them as well, and depend on them throughout my week, hymns are like an anchor for the soul. I cannot play the piano very much at all, but I can play simple hymn arrangements. And I love that time alone, singing. I once heard Amy Grant talk about hymns and how that’s what she grew up on, and even in her dad’s later years when he had dementia and couldn’t remember any of the words, he could still hum the tunes. What a legacy.

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    1. My piano skills sound exactly the same – and I LOVE doing that as well – just playing by thump thump thumps and singing when I’m alone. It’s funny – we are doing a Pakistan reunion this summer in Colorado for around 200 people all associated with Pakistan and on the first night we are doing a ‘singspiration’ — seems that no matter what faith traditions we have adopted in adulthood, we are all excited about singing these hymns! Thanks for getting it!

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  2. Ah, I love old hymns! Once in Jr Hi my best friend and I went thru most of a hymn book on a bus trip and sang all the ones we knew! Then a few yrs ago I was invited to a Women of Faith conference by a friend…she couldn’t make it, but her 2 daughters were singing hymns on the bus in front of me most of the trip!

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    1. There words are so timeless. I always like looking at the date they were written – it gives me courage and encouragement to press on. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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  3. Enjoyed this post so much. When I think of hymns outside the normal worship service I think of how we sat around our kitchen table after dinner and helped the kids memorize hymns so that, even not reading yet, could participate in our church services. And then the most dear was when I had the opportunity to nurse a dear friend her last 10 days of life. Other friends had also traveled in to help in the care and we would gather around her bed and sing old hymns. Once she opened her eyes and said “Don’t stop. I feel like I am in heaven hearing the angels sing” The words brought each of us comfort to our aching souls. I vividly recall being on the night watch with a friend and the hymnal opened to “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” and we sang and she breathed her last. Such a tender moment in my memory. I am enjoying being lazy this morning and reading through some of your old posts. Thanks for putting all these thoughts and experiences into words that paint pictures.

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    1. Thanks for sharing this story – what a poignant memory. I am struck by how many have been comforted by truth through old hymns that are founded on strong theology. Thanks so much for reading through posts today! I feel like I am getting to know you better through these comments.

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  4. Six months after my return from Pakistan I went to work in the North of Scotland. There in a little cottage in a pine forest I went to a prayer meeting hosted by a couple who, wait for it, had been married in Holy Trinity Church in Murree. It was amazing in that remote place to encounter people who knew what I knew!!

    I love old hymns!!

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    1. Wilma – what a small world we live in! Especially the international world. I remember going to a wedding at Holy Trinity when I was younger – couldn’t tell you who it was now but it was pretty magical then!

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  5. You mentioned marijuana growing in the churchyard. Were you aware that that’s what it was? We had it growing profusely in our backyard at Mt. Pleasant Cottage on Lawrence College Road. We thought it was just a common weed. common weeds – until Bob Montgomery came to us one day and asked permission to cut a stalk or two. He took it to Murree Christian School to talk about it to you stiudents. Did you students already know? Perhaps we parents were naive.

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    1. Hu – We were aware but only because somehow it leaked out that this was what it was. Otherwise we would NEVER have known! Without internet to help us look things up we were pretty naive as well! I think this would have been after Bob Montgomery went to the school – the funny thing is that had he not gone to the school, maybe we still would have been clueless! Oh the memories and the things that you parents all had to deal with as we lived between worlds.

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  6. The times you forgot to mention — singing “grace” before almost every day. Those are encoded deep. They come to me at different times, but this one came to me now:
    When Morning Gilds the Skies.

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    1. I can’t believe that I forgot to mention this Susan – This was three times a day, everyday “For Health and Strength and Daily Food we give thee thanks oh Lord” and more…When Morning gilds the skies was going through my head all day yesterday.

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  7. Great post, Marilyn, well stated, The words of the hymns seem fixed within their melody and tunes. While reading them their long unheard tunes just reappear along with the lovely (full throated harmonious) voices of our elders. A marvelous memory.

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    1. Paul – thank you for this lovely comment, I was taken back in time and place just reading the comment and picturing your dad’s lovely tenor (I think it was!) voice and your mom’s soprano! Thank you for this.

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    2. Paul, there are a number of hymns that i never sing without hearing your parents’ voices in my head singing them. Thanks for the comment. Polly Brown

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