Thinking again about a very old conversation

Marian - College Graduation Pix

My college graduation picture – 1970

I still think about something we discussed in one of my college classes that really disturbed me at the time. Almost 50 years later, I still think about it when something triggers the thought. It happened again last week. On January 15, the hymn for the day in the daily devotional book, Near to the Heart of God: Meditations on 366 Best-Loved Hymns, was “Search Me, O God.”

Search me, O God, and know my heart today;
Try me, O Savior, know my thoughts, I pray.
See if there be some wicked way in me:
Cleanse me from ev’ry sin, and set me free.

That hymn, written by evangelist, army chaplain, and college professor Dr. James Edwin Orr, is based on Psalm 139:23-24:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. [New Revised Standard Version]

The tune is called “Maori.” In 1936 when Dr. Orr was leading some evangelistic services in New Zealand, he heard four young Aborigine women singing a beautiful song entitled “The Song of Farewell.” The first words of the song were, “Now is the hour when we must say good-bye.” He couldn’t get the tune out of his mind. He began singing the words from Psalm 139 to the tune. He wrote the words as he fit them to the melody on the back of an envelope while he stood in line at a post office in New Zealand. Later that year he published the song in his book, All You Need. Over the years the hymn has been identified by two titles, “Cleanse Me” and “Search Me, O God.”

When I was a kid, we sang that hymn frequently at the end of Sunday night services at Willerup Methodist Church in Cambridge. I always liked the hymn. I thought the tune was beautiful, and it set the tone well for the quiet, meditative words. It was one of my favorites of that style of hymn.

What disturbed me in my Music Appreciation class at Wheaton College was that Dr. Cronk cited that hymn as one of the most atrocious examples of pairing overly emotional introspective words with a syrupy sweet secular tune. That was an insult I took personally. It was a direct challenge to the validity of my musical tastes. I liked that hymn. Obviously, I’ve thought about it a lot, even now almost 50 years later.

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Hazel petting our cat Penny

Another association I have with this hymn, or rather, the tune, is with one of our assisted living residents. Although 95-year-old Hazel was very hard of hearing and nearly blind, she loved to listen to me play the piano. We were still living at the farmhouse when Hazel lived with us, and whenever I sat down at the piano, Hazel would come into the living room to sit down and listen. One day she asked me if I knew “Now is the Hour.” She said it was the most beautiful song she had ever heard. I didn’t recognize the song by the title, so I went to one of my favorite websites, www.MusicNotes.com, searched for the title, and downloaded and printed a piano arrangement of the song. Hazel just loved listening to me play it. I played it often throughout the year that Hazel lived with us. I even played it as part of the pre-service music for her funeral. Whether I’m playing it as a secular song or a meditative hymn, the words that play in my mind are “Search me, O God…”

Reluctantly, I’ll admit that I’m glad Dr. Cronk said what he did about this hymn, even though it both hurt and troubled me at the time. His words have prompted me to think a lot about the meaning of the words of any hymn I play or sing. I also think a lot about the contribution of the music to the mood of the hymn.

There is often a story behind the pairing of text and music for a hymn. Many of the classic old hymns in our hymnals, including many written by Martin Luther and Charles Wesley, are paired with secular tunes of their eras. A hymnal is chock-full of things to think about. (Feel free to browse the hymnal the next time you’re sitting through a sermon that’s a little too long.)

Over the years I’ve learned that the more I understand a hymn, the more I appreciate it. I guess that’s why Music Appreciation was one of the best courses I ever took in college. Besides, the homework was always fun – simply listening to music.

Cleanse Me hymn 2

One thought on “Thinking again about a very old conversation

  1. thank you for sharing your thoughts. I wondered about the origin of the unusual name of this hymn tune. I love this old hymn, too. I know it as Cleanse Me. No matter whether your prof thought the melody fit the words, it’s memorable and meaningful to me and you.

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