Ever find yourself singing a familiar hymn/praise song when it suddenly hits you that there’s absolutely no good reason to be singing it? I have, and I thought I’d share five songs that I just can’t sing anymore (or at least parts of songs I can’t sing anymore). I don’t want to simply talk about something I don’t like, but rather to perhaps spur a little more thought in us about the songs we sing in worship to God, and to encourage each other.
It all started a decade and a half ago when I was on a trip in a country which had been going through a nightmare political process, economic Armageddon, and complete social upheaval. Up was down, down was up, and almost everyone was just plain dead broke. We’d gathered for Sunday worship and a brother from the US got up and led the first song on this list: “Mansions over the Hilltop.” As the song was lead, I heard the lyrics (of the first verse in particular) in a whole new way. I was convicted by the disconnect between a song that had always been on the “most sung” list in every church context of my life to that point and the lives of my brothers and sisters that surrounded me in that moment. The disconnect was convicting because it was profound, jarring, and to my heart in that moment, just plain distasteful. We were singing the following words when it hit:
I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined
Now, first let me say that there is still much in this song that I love. It really is just the first stanza that I’m discussing here, and it’s the first stanza that I always sit out. I just can’t sing it. As we sang that morning, I thought about the first line, “I’m satisfied with just a cottage below.” I looked around the room, and realized that all the Americans present that day were from nice, suburban homes with central heat and air, plush carpet, and two car garages. When we sang about our “cottages” and being “satisfied” were we really singing about hardship and a longing for something better, or just moving from nice to nicer digs? More than that, I was impacted by the thought that not one of the indigenous families present had anything close to a cottage. No one owned a house of their own. No one had any gold, not even their wedding bands. No one owned any silver. Some had worked, but not been paid, for six months. We Americans were singing about how we were “satisfied” with so much more than they would ever even know in this life, and we were singing like it was a hardship to live in such conditions. They would have died to know conditions as comfortable as our hardships. It was, to be frank, embarrassing.
I choked up, and spent the rest of the song repenting rather than singing. To this day, I do not sing this verse. Those first two lines are too much of a reminder of the disconnect between our experience, and the experience of brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe. We are a spoiled lot, and canonizing our far too often materialistic perspective in our hymnody doesn’t help.*
And what about that line, “I want a gold one that’s silver lined.” Well, that just makes us all look like spoiled Nellie on Little House on the Prairie, doesn’t it?
* I doubt very seriously, by the way, that this was Ira Stanphill’s purpose or perspective, or at least I certainly think it’s right to extend to him the benefit of the doubt. But we certainly can’t deny that we often sing it from just that place. There are still lines in this song I do still like, and I join in the singing when we come to them. In fact, I love verse 3 (it encourages us not to be whiners, that’s always good!) and the chorus and the enthusiasm with which they’re always sung.