My Life in Hymns
Singer-songwriter Andrew Greer on how hymns led him back to faith.
By Andrew Greer
When I was a teenager, my friends often called me an “old soul.” The adage makes sense. I grew up on the fringes of West Texas, where my older brother used to tote me back and forth to grade school in the vintage Volkswagen Beetle he’d restored with his own hands. Those drive times were permeated with cassette music from the car’s original era—by artists like Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, and Peter, Paul and Mary—and I fell in love with folk music’s vulnerable lyrics and heartbreak melodies.
At church in those years, there was a constant push and pull in the songs that represented our time of musical worship. Thanks to the commercial success of “modern worship” artists, an entirely new catalog of tunes was consuming orders of service like wildfire. And even though many of these musicians were popular among my peers, I found myself combing through the hymnal to connect with God. Much like folk music, the simple heartfelt lyrics and Americana melodies evoked a thoughtful awareness of what my heart was feeling. And most importantly, they led me to a discovery of friendship with Jesus.
I first paid attention to hymns while ignoring our pastor’s sermons. He delivered fine enough messages, and as I matured, I found them to be quite thoughtful in their practical application of Scripture. But it was the words underneath the notes on the hymnal pages that possessed the attention of my heart in a much more intimate way than the spoken word. I remember thumbing over the last verse and chorus of Will Thompson’s “Softly and Tenderly”and being moved by the image of Jesus straining His eyes in expectation of seeing me walking towards Him in the distance.
Listen: Softly and Tenderly
Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary come home;
Earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!
Thompson, a highly successful songwriter, wrote this song and devoted his entire musical career to Christian music after attending a Dwight L. Moody evangelistic meeting in 1880. The song later became a favorite invitation tune during these gatherings, and when Thompson visited the evangelist on his deathbed, Moody reportedly told him, “I would rather have written ‘Softly and Tenderly’ than anything I have been able to do in my life.”
Thompson’s lyrics, tied to such a hauntingly gracious melody, made it easier for me to grasp Jesus as my personal Savior, not just as an all-of-mankind Redeemer.
Tune My Heart
When I made the move from rural Texas to Tennessee to enroll in college at Nashville’s Belmont University, I remember certain hymns were making a “comeback.” I first heard “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” on a stripped-down worship recording my roommate gave me. The completely acoustic rendering of Robert Robinson’s 1758 poem featured simply a collection of voices singing the soaring heartland melody over a slightly out-of-tune upright piano accompaniment.
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.
The bare-bones musical context of Robinson’s poetry (which he’d penned at age 22) immediately pulled at my spiritual senses. And as the prayerful voices grew into a collective cry on the final stanza, I thought my heart was going to break in two.
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
I connected deeply with these honest pleadings from fellow sojourners. Living on my own as a burgeoning adult, I was exploring my options for the first time. From the food I ate to the money I spent to the relationships I pursued and how I pursued them, my humanness began to surface. And though lofty ideas surrounded me in my new environment, it was these simple refrains I turned to as prayers for God to protect my heart for His own purposes.
Before the Throne
While I was prepping for a benefit concert at a church, the promoter (a good friend) asked me whether I planned on singing “Jesus Paid It All”—and if so, to leave it off my set list.
I had recently recorded a hymns record full of Americana-Folk renditions of the songs that have played such an integral role in my relationship with God, and “Jesus Paid It All” was a pivot point on the record—musically, because of how we produced it, and lyrically, because its message is the crux of the Christian faith. The songwriter, Elvina Hall, had scribbled the poem on the inside of her hymnal during her preacher’s long-winded prayer one Sunday morning. Perhaps our shared affinity for hymns over sermons established some sort of connection to the tune.
I told my friend it wasn’t a part of the night’s set list, but I was curious as to why she was specific about the song’s exclusion. She said her congregation focused on life, not death, and so believed patterning their actions after Jesus’ life would fulfill the salvation of God in their own lives. She went on to say she just couldn’t understand why God would kill His Son to show His love for us.
While I, striving to be a disciple of Christ, was in full agreement about aligning my behaviors with Jesus’ life example, I explained that His death on a cross and His resurrection to life are my lifeline. I know my profound need for redemption. And I am banking on the redemptive blood of the Christ as my gracious reconciliation to my Creator.
And when, before the throne,
I stand in Him complete,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
My lips shall still repeat.
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
Jesus paid it all. In full. Without reserve. Out of perfect love. The words of this hymn have become a permanent fixture on the set list of my heart. On the days when I cannot understand why I do the things I do, in the moments when doubts shroud the hope of a bigger eternal picture, hymns restore my mind, my heart, and my soul in the hope of my best Friend and Savior.
Jesus Paid It All: I wrote a new second verse to the traditional melody of the hymn. I wanted to incorporate black gospel elements in the arrangement, and The McCrary Sisters (who have worked with folks like Bob Dylan, Andraé Crouch, and Patty Griffin) graciously helped me put the heart of this song on tape.
Andrew Greer is a singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. His latest record is Angel Band: The Hymn Sessions.