Awake, my soul

There are many things I like about Easter, but one of the best has to be the glorious music. When I was little, the older children’s choir at our church always sang “In Joseph’s Lovely Garden,” and I always found both the music and words very moving. (Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough for that choir, the music program had changed and that choir no longer existed, so I never got to sing it.)

Once I was old enough to join the adult choir, I got to sing the Hallelujah Chorus for Easter. As the lone high schooler in the group, I struggled to learn the alto part while the adults easily sang through it from many years of practice. Once I had learned it, though, I was disappointed to discover, over the next several years, that most churches do not perform it every Easter, as did the church I grew up in. (Adults in most church choirs seem to consider it too difficult, and I have to admit that in some cases they may be right.)

Even so, there are several wonderful Easter hymns to sing. There are “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” two hymns by Charles Wesley that are so similar that unless I have a hymnal in front of me I tend to intermix the words and music of both hymns. I never heard “Low in the Grave He Lay” until I was a teenager at a fundamentalist church, and I have to admit that it has never become one of my favorites, but it provides an effective contrast between the disciples’ grief, and the joy of the resurrection, that few other hymns do.

Today, at the early service (I am reluctant to call anything at 7 AM a sunrise service) at the Methodist church, we finished with “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Like the Hallelujah Chorus, it speaks more to me of Christ’s Lordship over all than specifically of the Resurrection, but if one is fit for Easter then certainly the other is also. What struck me as we sang it this morning, though, was the first half of the third line: “Awake, my soul, and sing.”

As I thought about those words, I thought of other hymns that also say “Awake, my soul.” There is “Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun,” the message of which I’ve always thought of as “it’s the beginning of a new day so start it right with praise.” I’m less familiar with “Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve,” so I have probably not sung it many times. Besides, when I have sung it, I was probably more focused on enjoying the wonderful music by Handel than paying attention to the lyrics.

I thought there must also be some Psalms with the phrase “Awake, my soul,” and was somewhat surprised to discover that it appears only Psalm 57 and 108. And since the verses in 108 are nearly identical to those in 57, there are some who think that it was only due to a copyist’s error that they wound up in 108 also. In any case, it appears that the reference to awaking likely has to do with literally getting up in the morning and beginning the day with praise.

As I sang those words this morning, though, I couldn’t help but think how appropriate they are in a figurative sense. My soul was given new life when I put my faith in Christ, but one can be alive without being very awake. How often have I said prayers and sung hymns without really giving much thought – and even less feeling – to what I was saying and singing?

I believe that one of the benefits of corporate worship is that we can take part regardless of how we happen to feel at the time. No doubt many people attended church today simply because it was Easter and church attendance was expected of them. (Yesterday, while working out at the Y, I overheard a woman telling two teenagers that she hadn’t seen them in church in a long time and they needed to be sure to go to church today because it was Easter.)

Yet how much better it is when our souls “wake up” and sing praises because the joy and thanksgiving spring from the deepest part of our being. Sometimes circumstances wake us up, especially when a personal crisis makes us think about what really matters in life. Sometimes it is something we read or something we hear in a sermon. For me, often it is from singing, as music seems to open up my soul in a way that words alone do not. (Hearing music, rather than singing it myself, does not usually have the same effect.)

Over the years, I have tried to attune myself to things that can serve as spiritual “alarm clocks” if I am walking about feeling dull, joyless, and aimless. One is to look at God’s creation around me – the grandeur of the sky, either by day or night, and the beauty of flowers and other growing things.

When I’m driving my car it’s easy to miss them, as I stare only at the road, traffic signs, and other vehicles. But when I walk – which the dog insists that I do at least daily – I notice the flowers blooming in my neighbor’s yard, a bunny darting to safety beneath a bush, the familiar constellations twinkling in the night sky, or the chirping of various birds and insects. And they remind me of the Creator and His good gifts to me.

Another is laughter. As C.S. Lewis explains in The Screwtape Letters, laughter among friends is often related to joy, and is a gift from God that hell has no use for. (Screwtape explains how some kinds of laughter do, however, promote the devil’s purposes.) There are times when, looking back over a day’s events in the evening, the high point of my day was a few moments of laughter shared with friends. I don’t know whether that says more about the bleakness of some of my days or the treasures that are laughter and friendship, but I am very grateful to God for those times of shared joy.

There are times when reading Scripture acts as a “wake-up” call, but I find that distressingly often, I can read through a passage without any apparent benefit, simply to tick it off a mental to-do list. It takes forcing myself to stop, reread, think, perhaps reread again, think again, and perhaps even complain to God about how little I seem to be getting out of it, before something stirs in my soul and seems to wake up to what is there for me.

It is that “stop and notice” that seems to be the key in many things. It is from conscious habit that I have made myself take notice of the beauty in nature when I am out walking.  If I’m busy hurrying on to the next thing to get done, or to enjoy, I generally won’t notice the good there is to enjoy right now. (That’s one of the best things about walking, that I don’t get anywhere in much of a hurry.)

The problem is that if I’m spiritually half-asleep (I hope I’m not too often fully asleep), I’m not likely to remember to stop and notice. But God is gracious, and fills our lives with all sorts of reminders. This morning it was three words in a familiar hymn. What will it be tomorrow?

One Response to Awake, my soul

  1. rcottrill says:

    Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. This morning I posted an article on “Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve,” so was interested in what others were saying about it. I enjoyed reading your observations about choral and congregational singing, and other things. Thanks for sharing.

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