Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, August 24, 2019


When I pastored in Charleston, IL, we had several students at Eastern IL U from Ghana. Most were Methodist. I don’t know how Ghana students got started coming to EIU, but once international students get established in a particular university, others tend to come to the same place. So we had a fairly steady stream of them. One of my favorites was Sam Asamoah.

Sam and I became close when I “cured” him of a strange disease. He was in the hospital. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. I made a pastoral call on him, as I did with any of my members, and prayed with him. He was out of the hospital the next day, feeling fine. I still have the dashiki he gave me as a gift. “It was your prayer that cured me,” he said.

Sam was not a caricature of some primitive African. He was an established educator, at EIU working on a master’s degree. But he had the African understanding of the spiritual wholeness of mind and body, and so he was able to incorporate my prayer into his healing.

There was a new edition of the Methodist hymnal at the time, and it included a number of hymns from non-European sources. One was an African hymn, with a very irregular beat. I thought we should sing it in worship so Sam especially, but Clement and our other Ghanaian students, too, would feel at home. Our organist and congregation struggled through it one Sunday morning, not well, but hopefully. As Sam came by me at the door, I said, “Well, did you like that hymn?”

He was horrified. “Oh, no. that’s terrible church music. I grew up in an English mission church. I like “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Holy, Holy, Holy!” He went away humming “O, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

Worship is coming up again, as it does every week on Sunday morning, and I’m worrying about what we’ll sing. And what we won’t sing.

I like “contemporary” church music. Some of it. I don’t like “praise” music much. It sounds too much like singing a grocery list, plainsong fashion, without the excitement of plainsong. It’s rightly called “count down” music: five words sung four times to three chords on two screens…hmm, I’ve forgotten what the “one” is.

I like hymns, however, from composers like Natalie Sleeth and Marty Haugen and Brian Wren and Ruth Duck. But like Sam Asamoah, I grew up in a different church. I grew up in a southern Indiana hillbilly country church. I need Charles Wesley and Helen Laemmel, Fanny Crosby and Alfred P. Brumley, too. A steady diet of Wren and Duck makes you think the church has been around only twenty years. Maybe thirty.

Throughout my sixty or so years of preaching, old people always complained that “we never sing the old songs.” They weren’t right. I always put the “old” songs in. but I put some new ones in, too. Their problem wasn’t that we did not sing the old ones but that we did sing the new ones. They just didn’t want to waste any singing time on “Lord of the Dance” when we could be “Standing on the Promises.”

I understand those old complainers better now, even though I’m not one of them. Yet. But if we go another year without singing about morning gilding the skies…

John Robert McFarland

“Sing lustily and with a good courage.” The start of # 3 in John Wesley’s directions for hymn singing.

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