By Amy Butler
In worship this summer we’ve spent our time revisiting some of the basics of faith and practice in our life as a church. Each week we’ve included a ritual of some sort in worship, intended to help us respond to the topic under discussion in a tangible, experiential kind of way. We’ve shared communion, read favorite Bible verses and even touched the water to remember our baptisms.
This week as we prepared to talk in worship about what it means to be a Baptist kind of Christian, however, nobody in the church office could immediately think of an appropriate ritual of response. Snake handling? Potluck? Excessive application of hairspray by the men or blue-frosted eye shadow by the women?
Good ministers set boundaries, and in this case I found them necessary. There is no way I am touching any kind of snake; I’m not Baptist enough myself to capably weave a church potluck into an actual worship service; and I’ve almost run out of my own supply of blue eye shadow, so none of these seemed the right choice for liturgical inclusion.
We finally concluded that most everyone has seen movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou and, fairly or unfairly, generally associates being Baptist with the singing of the good old hymns. What better ritual could there be than going really Baptist and singing some old-fashioned, traditional “blood” hymns?
Hearing the idea, I immediately began to wonder whether singing blood hymns is really an activity that will fly around here. Unlike many Baptist churches, a large number of our members are not natives of the southern United States, did not grow up in any kind of church and never, ever, imagined they’d end up being Baptists.
In other words, most folks attending our worship would not sing old hymns with eyes closed, feeling the sound of the organ wash over them and mouthing the words from memory.
While in some places just the beginning notes of these hymns trigger wistful, emotive responses, large numbers of folks here will find the hymn tunes unfamiliar and will actually pay attention to the words as they sing. And when they do, they will wonder why on earth we are singing about such strange things.
I — by admission a close-your-eyes, sing-from-memory kind of Baptist — went back and carefully read the words to some of these hymns: “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins.” “Sin stains are lost in its life-giving flow.” “Look! There is flowing a crimson tide.” “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” “The blood that gives me strength from day to day will never lose its power.” “His blood atoned for all our race, and sprinkles now the throne of grace.”
With due respect to the great tradition that has shaped our denominational faith practice, lyrics like these make us sound like we belong in one of the Twilight movies. Aside from questionable theology, the metaphors in many of these hymns have no real meaning for modern-day worshippers. I mean, who wants to approach the “throne of grace” (if they even know what that means) at all if it’s sprinkled with blood?
We started asking folks what they thought, however, and the most interesting thing happened. Even those who hadn’t grown up in a traditional Baptist setting began to express nostalgia when they heard the idea. They spontaneously launched into song. They recalled memories from childhood or scenes from movies. They said things like, “Oh no! I can’t believe I’m going to be out of town this weekend and I’ll miss it!”
This kind of response made me think it might really be a good idea to sing some blood hymns after all. Even though I still view much of the songs’ theological content as suspect, singing them is something that seems to draw us together. It helps us build identity and remember our roots — or at least the roots of those who have come before us in this place. It’s a shared activity that helps us remember that we think it’s pretty great to be Baptist Christians for a lot of reasons, not just the music.
I feel sure that once we explain the ritual on Sunday even our non-Baptist visitors will gladly participate in the singing of the blood hymns. Whether they make it through the planned 24 or so verses of Just As I Am during the invitation, however, is another question altogether.