I have been thinking with great affection lately of the hymns that I sang as a child. My youngest is just beginning to learn the great hymnody which school impresses on the primary age mind and heart, and as he bellows out “All things bright and beautiful” it leads me to wonder whether I chose hymns that reflect my spirituality, or whether my spirituality was formed under their influence? Would I have been a different sort of Christian if I had sung different hymns?
We went swimming weekly in junior school, and as I was often ill, I would stay behind alone or with 2 or 3 others. To entertain us, the teacher would teach us hymns, and help us understand their meanings. I remember well the revelation that in “Lord of all hopefulness” balm did not mean the same as barmy! I loved the universalism of “In Christ there is no east nor west”, and the romantic valiance of the knight who won his spurs in stories of old. For many childhood years, I was that knight, gallant and brave, noble and true (though perhaps less strong on the gentle part!).
Of all the hymns that I loved as a child, it was “He who would valiant be” and “O Jesus I have promised” that really stirred me and made my eyes shine. To be honest they still do. If you know me, then you’ll know that these hymns epitomise my ideals of faith – hard work, honesty, truth, loyalty and courage. Did these hymns choose me, already a conscientious child, or did I choose them and model my life around them?
We need to be careful about the diet of hymnody we offer children. Whether they choose me or I chose them, those childhood hymns are an integral part of my adult faith. We must not dumb our faith down in our sung worship, and leave future adults bereft of hymnody which feeds the soul, inspires the heart, and challenges the mind.
The news tells us today that life in the UK is not good for children. Having just returned from mainland Europe I can only agree. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by raising families out of poverty (though that will help); it isn’t going to be solved by improved schooling (though of course education is vital to every child); this is a problem of attitude.
In Spain last week a number of complete strangers, usually men, ruffled the top of my youngest son’s head. Each time it happens I expect him to go ballistic – he hates people touching him! But somehow they seem to get away with it. Why? Because they did it unthinkingly, with confident love of a child, any child, and without any need for reaction. And youngest tolerates it quite happily.
Not many men in England would confidently touch a child they didn’t know – we have robbed them of a natural relationship with children, by suspicion and ridiculous, (almost always) unfounded fear. And we behave as though children were a problem, not a joy. The two elderly ladies who muscled in front of a family with two young children getting off the flight had tutted about the noise from the children through the journey. Then they didn’t even have the common sense to let them off a crowded plane. How daft was that?
Jesus was the exemplar of behaviour with children. The child brought into the midst of the crowd by Jesus was not humiliated, not made to answer adult questions, just placed near to a safe man, and looked at in love. It was clearly a good place to be, or the kid would have kicked up a fuss.
Have you been to church lately – too many children kicking up a fuss, because church is often not a good place to be! I’m sure your church is wonderful with children – I wish more people in some places acted as though they valued children. It could change our churches. It could even change society’s attitude to children. Showing children that we like them could make all the difference.
Youngest son threw me into confusion on Wednesday by having a ?fit?faint in school. It was a most effective way to get out of a telling off from his teacher, but led to me spending a happy day in hospital while they checked every aspect of his anatomy for anomalies. Of course, and happily, there were none. Different people are freaked by different things. I don’t mind blood at all, but youngest son completely flipped when the nurse did a pinprick test on his finger. He speaks of that, and giving urine, as the worst pars of the day.
What struck me was the “choice” given to my six year old. ‘Would you mind if….’ ‘May I…’ even ‘Please can I…’ The three doctors we saw all gave him the option to let a complete stranger look in his ears/down his throat/push on his tummy. And of course, being the sensible six year old that he is, he said, ‘NO!’ But really there was no choice. He needed to be checked out, so that next time he needs to be reprimanded, he won’t throw us into a panic again by passing out (only joking!).
Presumably this patient choice thing is so deep rooted in the culture that it is difficult to recognise when appropriate options goes too far. Youngest didn’t have a choice about the examination – as his parent I might have had choice, but I wanted him checked out. So no matter how often he said ‘no’ it happened anyway. Which completely undermines the notion of choice. Which defeats the point of giving it.
Finally one doctor saw sense, and stopped asking. The examinations completed, the medics decided this was a one off, and sent us home. I learnt that next time (if there is one), I’ll tell them not to pretend he has a choice. He will submit to the pin prick, because he is six, and his mother says so.
Those of you without teenage daughters may not have come across Jack Wills. With superb marketing, it sells casual clothing at non-casual prices to those who want to look cool. Even the knickers are cool, and cost £16 this season. I say no more.
After some considerable persuasion, and exemplary exam results, I bought my very own teenager a grey hoodie. She promptly asked if she could take it on the school outward bound weekend. A very expensive, very cool, and very casual hoodie in lakeland mud! But it came home without a mark on it. Very impressive. So when she asked if it could come to New Wine, of course I said yes…
All went well until a child staying with us came off his bike, swallowed by the mud monster of Shepton Mallet. My teenager was first on scene, knelt in the mud and prayed for him. She then helped him up, and got him to the medical centre, all the time supporting him, while offering prayer and encouragement, wiping away the mud. Well done BK. EXCEPT, she was wering the Jack Wills hoodie.
Enter the mother with the dilemma. “Good job with hurt child; how could you wear that very, very expensive hoodie; but good job; but how am I every going to clean it; but you did just the right thing; but I’ll never get it dry…” Five days later it was still dripping, since at New Wine this year nothing dried. And I had just about come down from the tent roof.
The experience of loosing my cool at New Wine is always salutary, since every tent on site can hear the row. How some of those other parents of a teenager must have laughed. Still, bouncing off tent walls is quite a soft experience compared to brick. And the hoodie looks ok – just appropriately aged.
The church is full of snobs. I don’t know why or even how we encourage it, but we clearly do. The worst of the snobbishness presents itself in hymn choices. In the place I work as a chaplain, I am always being asked for ‘All things bright and beautiful’, Morning has broken’, ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’. I can’t say I enjoy any of these very much, certainly not week after week. But music has such an important place in worship that I believe it is vital that we include music that people know, and warm to, whether thay come to church regularly or not.
This morning in church I was asked what we should sing – there had been a bit of a breakdown in communication and no-one chose the hymns until 5 minutes before the service. Luckily, we had a musically literate vicar who covered on the organ! When I was asked what we might sing (as Junior Church leader today) I suggested ‘All things Bright and Beautiful’, only to be asked if I was serious. One of the clergy told me how much they hated it.
The fact that the children know it, it links with their school worship, it is often known by strangers in our midst, and it makes ecological sense was irrelevant to musical snobbery. Very frustrating! The same snobbery prevails in prison, diocesan services, everywhere I seem to go. No wonder our church is so often empty of strangers in our midst.
Must stop being so cynical… It’s summer holidays – perhaps that’s why no children other than mine were in church. And we did sing ‘All things’; Hugh said, ‘We sing this at school’…