Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Song In The Night

I predict that in about 11 seconds, you are going to say, "wow, Chris, that's heavy."

Have you ever had a night where a heaviness is so near and the phantoms of fear come up so close that the darkness is almost tangible? You toss and turn. A panic comes on. You get up and pace and try to shake it off, but you're just plain afraid.

I would guess that everyone has had a night panic at least once.

There seems to be something extra scary about being afraid in the middle of the night. Maybe it's because lacking a visual connection to the stuff around us, we have a frightful capacity to fill in the blackness with all kinds of phantasms conjured by our fearful brains.

There is a powerful weapon against the terrors of the night. Janie used to wield this weapon a lot. She utilized it to get settled when fears seeped in from behind the window shades and from under the dresser. Her fears about cancer. Her fears about the welfare of the kids and me when she would eventually die.

And the weapon's name?

Music! Specifically, music about God. Because sometimes the fears are so opaque that nothing else will cut through. A song in the dark can dispel the darkest mayhem in your mind like a thunderclap...or a whisper up close.

One of the greatest things about music is it's ability to carry to our hearts and minds great thoughts about God. This makes it a powerful weapon against fear in the night. When I'm all alone, I can still sing - as long as the song itself has a place in my heart and mind already. And how does it get in my heart and mind? Repetition. We should sing great songs often so they can come to mind easily. So that when the darkness comes, when the doctor says, "yes, I think it's cancer," when you're lying on the gurney in pre-op staring nervously at the ceiling, when your meds aren't right and the side-effects make you pace and wring your hands at 3:00 in the morning, especially in these times and worse, the truths about God found in the songs in your heart are there to settle you.

Of course, it's the bible truth, and the presence of the One it describes that settles you...the music is merely a carrier.  I wonder if what really happens when we sing isn't so much God's presence arriving (isn't He already here?) as it is our heart's attention being diverted from our present scary situation and onto the face of God. It makes me think of Paul and Silas singing hymns in the dark of their prison:

"And when they had inflicted many blows upon [Paul and Silas], they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them..." Acts 16:23-25

Music has such a power to shift the mood from despair to hope. I wonder what songs they sang? I know it was written later, but can't you almost imagine the two prisoners singing in the blackness, 

"Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with Thee! 
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not. As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be! 
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see! 
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!"

Janie had a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the hymns. From the old-timey Baptist stuff like "Wonderful Grace of Jesus" to the tender, "Fairest Lord Jesus;" from the happy "Blessed Assurance" to the brooding, "O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus;" from the the hopeful "One Day" to the mighty "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing," Janie had 'em all stored in her noggin - and in her heart. 

One of the things that concerns me about some of the, how should I say it? theologically "thin" church music* being written these days is that though the songs are fun to sing with all of our friends around us on Sunday morning, many don't have enough meat on their bones to thoroughly equip our souls with solid, dense, mighty truths about God. When the dark night comes, and the only songs laid up against it are fluffy and light, then a potentially useful weapon - music - has turned out to be a flimsy plastic sword. Martin Luther said that after the sermon, the songs in church are the greatest teacher of theology for the church. Oh, that that were true of more of today's songs! This is why I get excited by (among others) great modern-day song writers Stuart Townend and Keith and Krysten Getty, who wrote the theologically robust, "In Christ Alone." We sang this wonderful song to Janie as she took her final breaths, and again at her memorial service. I like it because it reminds me, in the dark, that....

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone! who took on flesh

Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay

Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave he rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine -
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,

This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

Charles Spurgeon preached a whole sermon about singing songs in the night. He said that when you don't have a song, just ask God to give you one. You don't need to come up with something: "So, then, poor Christian, you needn’t go pumping up your poor heart to make it glad. Go to your Maker, and ask him to give you a song in the night. You are a poor dry well: you have heard it said, that when a pump is dry, you must pour water down it first of all, to prime the pump, and then you will get some up; and so, Christian, when you are dry, go to God, ask him to pour some joy down you, and then you will get some joy up from your own heart." I would also mention that Spurgeon battled spiritual depression his entire life, so he speaks not so much 'in theory' in 'real life.'

So if you are having troubles in the night, may I warmly commend 'a song in the night' to you? 
Do you sleep like a baby? May I still commend the idea of injesting great, theologically robust songs about God? Get them stored away in your heart against the day that you may need it. 

One last thought: can you imagine, in those scary moments, God himself singing over you? What a powerful weapon that would be against the night phantasms! Zephaniah 3:17 says,

 The Lord your God is in your midst,
     a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

Maybe I'll write a worship song about that...


How about you? Can you recommend to me some more modern day hymn-writers? Thanks!


*For more about music and worship, you may find this blog post interesting.


  1. WOW, Chris, this is so good and so right! First of all, nice to know I'm not the only one whose had one or two of those moments in the middle of the night (YUCK!). And man, what a comfort are the strong promises of God ensconced in simple melody!

  2. Well, Blaine, at least we know there are at least two of us. :)

    Weird coincidence: I just now saw, like 2 hours after posting, that Munch's "The Scream" painting is going up for auction and is expected to fetch $80 million. I hadn't thought of the work for a long time and now, like 2 hours after using the image in this post, it's in the news? Weird. And I think it's popularity (second only to the Mona Lisa according to some) shows the affinity many (all) of us have for a feeling of lostness in the universe....how badly we need a Savior! There's probably a whole post in that, eh?

  3. Excellent post! I've felt like that exactly one time in my life...when I was in New Orleans. No offense to anyone from there, I loved the city, but at the same time I picked up evil vibes the whole time I was there...all the voodoo shops and the creepy guy with the dead animal puppet didn't help. Anyway, I can't tell you which song Paul and Silas sang but I can tell you what hymnbook they used: Psalms. I've recently gotten into Psalmody and you can actually get Psalters which are hymnals with all the Psalms! (I'm probably the last person on earth to know this.) Anyway, I was thrilled. I've been teaching them to my church. Not the music from bible times, of course. This one is not from the Psalter but I liked Michael Card's version of Psalm 121 so much I memorized it (the Hebrew and the English) and I often sing that one when I'm afraid. You can hear it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EczvQi98Pro

    Thanks for the post; I totally, totally agree. I would be sad if we couldn't worship God through music.

  4. Sorry to hear about your experience in New Orleans Celeste....and being reminded of it right here at Mardi Gras time!

    Thanks for the reminder about Michael Card. I didn't know about that Hebrew-ish sounding Psalm 121...how interesting and I can't imagine how difficult it must be to sing - so different than, say, Chris Tomlin or or our other modern music styles.

    I wonder if the early church sang things other than the Psalms? I seem to remember a song called Phos Hilaron, which they think is among the earliest hymns they've found so far, but I forget the year 'they' say it was written. Very early though. I think Phos Hilaron translates to "Hilarious Light." But they sang "Hail, gladdening light" as a candle was brought forward. Not sure why. Maybe you or someone else knows?

  5. Oooh, interesting! Now you have me wondering...I've never heard of that song. I'll have to check it out. I'm always looking for new "old" songs. Wait, let's consult the Internet, the oracle of all trivia...would you look at that...David Crowder Band recorded it on their album Church Music. According to Wiki it's the oldest known recorded hymn outside of the bible that's still in use today. Cool!

  6. This is exactly true. I will be posting about a similar theme soon. Soon, I say. It's been an interesting winter.

  7. Here's a few tunes in response to your question at the end there about modern-day hymn writers.


    Walt Harrah sets theology and doctrine to music, really. so rich. I love his website, especially if there is a snippet there of the tune itself in addition to the words. And I am so grateful that he is our church's elder of music and worship!