What we separate from, we find anew. ~ Dr. Robert Kegan
I have this old battered piano book of hymns. My parents bought it for me when I was eleven years old. We were living in England at the time as missionaries working with the Afro-Carribean church that had immigrated to the United Kingdom early in the Century.
I loved that hymnal with its white cover splashed in blue and purple font. I couldn’t play the songs very well since I was still learning piano, but I treasured the book. I sat it on the spine of our keyboard and worked my way through the pages.
I recognized the hymns between the pages from our days in church before we moved to England, hymns like: “I Surrender All,” “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” and “The Lord Liveth.” Reading over those words, humming their tunes as I plonked out the melody on our Panasonic keyboard took me back to our little church in Lexington, Kentucky and the Sunday evenings my sister and I sat curled over the pews scrawling pictures quietly.
During those Sunday evening services, I learned how to entertain my little sister. I drew mazes and word games, created little activity books for her to solve.
In our new home in England, our church sang different songs. Songs they carried over from Trinidad and Tobago. I learned how to play the tambourine during worship. I watched mesmerized as the bodies of the older women clapped and bumped to a syncopated rhythm I could hardly fathom.
I liked these new songs, but I was sentimental, even at a young age, and homesick for a country where we ate Big Macs and Mac ’n Cheese. The white hymnal with its wire coil binding held all those memories and more.
My experience with church music morphed as I grew older.
Right after college, Dwayne and I moved to Los Angeles and started attending a hip, artistic church in a dance club in downtown LA called, Mosaic.
The first time I set foot in Mosaic, the soles of my shoes stuck to the floor — residue from the indiscretions of the night before. Each week, volunteers from Mosaic swept through the dance club to clean it up before we gathered for church.
We sat in folding chairs on the dance floor, a massive disco ball hanging silent above our heads.
Because we were in the heart of the talent capital of the world, our worship bands were comprised of professional musicians, traveled from all over the world to LA to launch careers.
Our bassist looked like Steve Tyler with slashed jeans, long hair, and craggy features. Our worship bands transformed worship songs into chart-topping hits. And because our pastor wanted Mosaic to be a hotbed for creativity, he openly encouraged our worship leaders to write their own songs.
As a result, many of our songs were original, never sung anywhere before.
My experience with worship had swung from ancient hymns carried by the voices and hearts of generations of believers, to the other end of spectrum: brand new songs birthed by our voices and raised hands.
For my part, I didn’t miss the hymns all that much. They felt stuffy and old-fashioned, out of touch with my life.
My mother told me once that my great Aunt Helma spent her life studying hymns each morning during her devotions.
I used to open a hymnal every now and then, when I wasn’t sure what to read in my Bible, and run my fingers over the black and white staves, the notes jumping like dots from the page.
I read lyrics like “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
With these words conjured images of my Aunt Helma, sweet as she was, yet weather worn and wrinkled, her hair tied up in a bun, no make-up, long skirts, high collars.
I struggled to connect with this part of my heritage, to understand it’s significance to me.
In LA, I was miles away from this history, and free for the first time to explore my faith outside of my family’s influence.
I remember one Sunday at Mosaic, we did church on the roof of the dance club. We sat underneath the LA sky, the city-scape peeling away from the rim of the roof. Above, stars twinkled through smog, below the basin twinkled with man-made lights, as vast as the stars above, all the while cars streamed around the freeways wrapping us up like veins of neon red and white.
I stood on the roof, the sky above, the city below, the music all around. I felt my heart open in ways I’d never done before during worship. I raised my hands with abandon, danced like the Caribbean women I admired in my youth.
My days of dancing worship on the roof of a dance club are long gone. But I still love to worship. Now we go to church in a vibrant, bustling community. We sing a smattering of choruses with a hymn woven in here and there.
In the same way, I too have learned to integrate my past with my present. My faith grows back into my childhood, even as it grows forward.
After dinner sometimes, when the kids run off to play and there are those sacred moments when nobody needs me, I pull out that white hymnal with it’s rainbow letters (I have it still), place it on the ledge of our piano and play with the practice of grown-up fingers:
“All to Jesus, I surrender. All to him I freely give. I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live…”