The following was delivered as a reflection on a Advent hymn during the Moravian Ministry Association’s worship service for Advent on December 6, 2012:
But I used to come back to Winston a few times a year for services; and so it was that one Sunday in 1995, I slid into a pew at Home Church next to my friend Alan Johanssen. And as he handed me a hymnal—a blue one—he turned to his sister and said, “Wait till Ginny sees this.”
My friends know that I am a traditionalist. Change does not come easily to me. And I reacted to the blue hymnal exactly as Alan thought I would.
Fortunately, I’m not so hidebound that I never got over it. Today the blue hymnal is a familiar friend. But I was surprised by what happened when I came to it looking for an Advent hymn. I passed all my old favorites by for a new hymn—this new favorite, People in Darkness Are Looking for Light (Hymn 266 in The Moravian Book of Worship).
I believe the first time I sang it was last Advent, at Moravian Seminary. And at first, frankly, I wasn’t sure I liked it. Too different. Too simple, really. None of the brooding harmonies I was used to for Advent. Too new. And yet after chapel, I couldn’t stop singing it. I still can’t. I love this hymn.
Doesn’t it so often seem that what we really need, we will at first hate? In fact, it seems to me that what the world needs most will at first be perceived as the worst thing the world has ever seen. Just for example: the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time was not only rejected but rudely derided by many publishers. At least one editor said it was the worst book he’d ever seen. It went on to win the Newbery Medal, which is the highest honor a children’s book can win, and it has never gone out of print. Another example: the Vietnam War memorial designed by Maya Lin. If you’re old enough you may remember that in the design stage, that memorial was absolutely excoriated by every art critic and every member of the public. The worst thing they had ever seen! You know how THAT turned out. The world hated that memorial, until they discovered how much they needed that memorial.
You preachers know where I’m going. To this: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” How many people in Jesus’ time thought he was the worst thing the world had ever seen? How many people since then have discovered he was what they needed most?
I like this new hymn for everything it is. Sprightly, lyrical, singable, full of hope and promise. But what I really like is that it called me— hidebound traditionalist old me—to choose something new. Because isn’t that entirely appropriate for Advent, when we anticipate the arrival of the newest and most difficult and most needed thing the world has ever seen?
Naturally, what is new is not always what we like. New is scary. New is threatening. Fear of the new is what keeps us hidebound. But Advent is the time for us hidebound people to leave our hides behind, and to turn our bare souls toward the promise of newness. It may look at first like something we don’t like; but it will very likely turn out to be just what we need.
This Advent, may your lives be filled with songs that ring strangely on your ears; and may they turn out to be the songs you finally can’t stop singing.