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Ask Deborah: Hymns and Healing

Deborah Patterson knows health ministry. As the executive director ofNorthwest Parish Nurse Ministries and author of Health Ministries: A Primer for Clergy and Congregations, she works daily with parish nurses, pastors, and health professionals. In this feature, she answers your most pressing or perplexing questions on health ministry. Are you hitting a roadblock with a program in your church? Are you wondering where to start with health ministry? Do you feel like you need a new idea on a specific topic? Ask Deborah!

QUESTION: I know that music is an important component of healing, and that the use of familiar hymns can often reach someone with dementia. Do you have any suggestions on the use of hymnody in health ministry?

ANSWER: I agree with you about the importance of music and healing in worship and other church-related settings. This topic was the focus of a recent Lilly sabbatical project that I received through the Louisville Institute, which resulted in the resource, Balm in Gilead: Hymns of Healing and Wholeness (available at the Church Health Center Store).

While collecting hymns for this resource, along with the stories of their text authors and composers, I was deeply touched by the pain and courage of generations and centuries of faithful people who responded to God’s presence through the hope and message of music. Each hymn which appears in that resource includes a summary of those stories.

Recently, Deborah Carlton Loftis, the executive director of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, put together a healing service which focused on hymns. In working on this service, Deborah asked whether singing these hymns might “provide an opportunity for individuals to face the pain they’ve been trying to squelch and ignore? Could the singing be a chance for the congregation to express their love and acceptance of someone who is hurting? Just as physical wounds have to be cared for so that they heal properly, our emotional and spiritual wounds must be cared for as well. Might these texts provide a window of opportunity to provide the needed care? How could the hymns we sing encourage us to reach out with God’s arms to those around us?”

One program that has built on these deep connections of music to healing and wholeness related to dementia is the “Singing for the Brain” program offered through the Alzheimer’s Association in the UK. Familiar music can often calm an agitated individual, and there is some evidence that music builds networks in the brain which can be reactivated and soothed when the music is heard again later in life. And often familiar music can trigger some renewed use of language, if only for a moment.

In any case, don’t be shy about using music with your health ministry programs. Ask your choir director, choir members, or a local music therapist for help, or do it yourself. Here are five recommended hymns to get you started. You will see their stories are filled with pain, yet trust in God’s redeeming love and care. There are many more. Enjoy seeking them out, and singing them with others.

1. Now Thank We All Our God (written by a pastor after his wife died in the plague)

2. What a Friend We Have In Jesus (written by a young man in Canada to his mother back in Ireland)

3. It is Well with My Soul (written by a man who lost all four daughters in a shipwreck)

4. Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior (written by Fanny Crosby about a man in prison)

5. Guide My Feet (African-American spiritual, written at a time of great suffering)

As Deborah Loftis says,

“Everyone experiences pain and the need for healing at some point in their lives. The hurt may be physical or emotional; it may be a single traumatic event that causes a wound or it may be an accumulation of small things that eventually add up to significant need for healing. Whatever the situation, members of the Body of Christ, the local congregation, can be a vehicle for God’s healing balm—if the need is known. Often we think that we must be strong, however, and deal with our hurts on our own. Sometimes, however, we are reluctant to share our pain. We think, ‘I don’t want to trouble anyone and besides, Christians are supposed to be strong enough in their faith to deal with whatever is wrong.’ Sometimes there is shame in the painful situation and fear that our church family will be shocked or will turn away if they know what is happening. We might even wonder if God would turn away if we expressed what is really deep inside! What would happen if we shared our pain? The Psalmist did just that and found that God did not turn away. In the Psalms of lament we find that even the deepest pain and anger can be voiced to God and to the worshipping community. Just as the Psalms were sung in Jewish worship, we sing hymns in our [Christian] worship.”

Music is for all, whether we sing, hum, tap our toes, weep, or quietly meditate. The hymnody of the Church has much healing balm to share with all.

Note: For more information about The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, visit their website at The quotes from Dr. Loftis above were shared in e-mail correspondence on January 23, 2012 and used with permission.

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Deborah Patterson is here for you and your church. To send in a question to Deborah, send an email and write "Ask Deborah" in the subject line. Please include your first name and location.