Singing Hymns Alone

Reality TV, Hymns and Faith

“In the dead silence” he says to the camera, “you can hear your departed mother singing a hymn in church from 30 years ago”

I have watched every episode of 7 seasons of the History Channel’s survival reality show, Alone - a show in which 10 people are dropped into the wilderness with just 10 tools of their choosing, and who must provide shelter, food and water for themselves while entirely alone and filming the whole thing themselves – no camera crews.

In a season of social isolation, I have found it inspiring to see how these survivalists take care of themselves completely by themselves.  But what is most compelling to me, aside from their stunning skill and creativity, and ability to like, make snowshoes and musical instruments and traps out of just like, sticks and stuff… is what happens to them emotionally. They set out wanting to prove themselves and win the prize money, and many have the skill to do so but choose to tap out, not because they don't have the chops to stay, but because the isolation has put into clear focus just how important their relationships are - how much they cherish their children, how much they miss human touch.

Last night I watched the final episode of Season 7 so stop reading now if you don't want a spoiler…but the challenge this season was to survive 100 days alone in the arctic. The guy who made it was magnificent – he hunted a musk ox, build a cabin largely out of stones, and knew how to do all the things. He had devoted 30 years of his life to his passion for bushcraft and wilderness survival. 

But as the 100 days wore on, he found himself thinking about his mother, how much she loved him (even if she didn't understand him), and how shitty he had been to her over the years when, for instance, all she wanted each year on his birthday was to celebrate his birthday. We eventually learn that she died while he was preparing for Alone . . . and he didn't attend her service.  Regrets and clarity seeped in during those 100 days by himself, so much so that by the end, he came to a simple truth about his life: that it had been exclusively centered on himself.

And then, on day 100, as the arctic landscape around him is covered in a fresh snow, he dedicates his win to his departed mother. Then he comments on how glorious the silence is around him in that moment, how much he loves the sound of it. He closes his eyes and hums a tune.

“In the dead silence” he says to the camera, “you can hear your departed mother singing a hymn in church from 30 years ago”

I recognized the tune from just a few notes: Standing on the promises.

Standing on the promises I cannot fall
Listening every moment to the Spirit's call
Resting in my Savior as my all in all
Standing on the promises of God

I teared up when he said this, when in the silence of an arctic snowfall he could finally, finally hear the voice of his mother.

When he hummed those few notes, it was a confession of faith.

Many of us may or may not intellectually assent to the same doctrinal and theological propositions we were taught, but the music that we made from our bodies, the vibrations of song created and shared in communal expression is still ours. And I believe that the sentiment these hymns can evoke from within us…that that is also faith. (These days, my idea of what constitutes “faith” keeps expanding!)

Sometimes hymns are my creeds, my first language, the texts of my faith which have formed me from even before I was born. If I grow to be an old woman whose mind softens at the edges of reality, I may not know my own name of the names of my children and grandchildren, but I am certain I will still know every single word to Great Is Thy Faithfulness. No matter what my mind holds, agrees to, or understands, I will always be standing on the promises of God, because the hymns I have sung throughout my life will never let me go. And for this I give thanks.

Singing hymns, acapella and in 4-part harmony is the thing I miss most about church. One of the strongest opinions I have about worship is that the primary musical expression of the gathered should be congregational singing. Because while lofty organ music and praise bands might have their place, they can never REPLACE sung hymns. 

Because when we are on our death beds surrounded by loved ones, when fast falls the eventide, we will have only our own human bodies with which to pray and sometimes the most potent prayers we have are the songs of those who have come before us. 

I made a Spotify playlist of a cappella hymns I grew up with - sometimes I put it on and sing the alto part as loud as I can.

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