When you find yourself staring death in the face, something special happens. I shifted in my chair as I felt the tired and calloused hands from years behind a piano. I turned around to see CDs filled with hymns and gospel music stacked next to the CD player in my grandmother’s room. Ironically, those CDs were more of her line holding to life than the oxygen tubes strapped around her nose.
My grandmother, Ella, was the textbook definition of joy. She loved music, she loved singing, and she always had some tune she was humming. She was a church musician and led the choir. She also had four sons she wrangled together to create a traveling quartet, singing in churches around their hometown of Detroit, Michigan. It’s no shock that all her sons and their families are now in ministry. Extended family gatherings for us always have some type of song sung together. Singing is a way of life for our family, and singing hymns is purely essential to our family DNA.
Ella loved hymns and knew every alto line to any hymn in her hymnal. When she was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago and her mind started failing, music remained her only constant. She would forget who her family was, but she remembered her hymns. in her last days when Ella was lethargic from her medicine, someone would play a hymn to redirect her mind. She straightened up in her chair, sang her alto line, and did not miss a word. Being with her in those moments, are moments I will never forget. What peace she must have felt in those moments.
As a worship leader, the more I lead worship the more I am convinced that the songs I sing matter. Maybe one day too, those songs will be the only thing that wakes my mind up. As a result, I’ve found myself entranced by the hymns that Ella sang. In a way, I feel a connection with her and the saints before me when I sing them. The songs we sing and the words we recite together in corporate worship are important because they will indeed carry us to our last day. They give us a language that goes further than the body can control, and they will continue to carry our voices to future generations of Christians as an encouragement and exhortation to keep pressing on in faith. In an attempt to preserve the past, I created a hymns project called Pillars. It intentionally keeps the same melodies, structure, and form of the hymns while updating the music programmatically in modern musical forms. They are an expansion of what is currently on a hymnal page without losing their original intent and penmanship. I hope these hymns sink their roots deeper into my heart and into the hearts of those who listen. Most importantly, I hope these melodies and words wake our hearts up now until our final breath.
Worship Leader, Mountain Brook Community Church and Beeson Divinity School