From Brain to Heart: Enhancing My Sacrament Experience

18

Brace yourselves: I have a sort of “super-power.” I suppose that a few of you share the same amazing ability. Imagine for a moment that we are riding together in a car, and you are flipping channels on the radio. Up pops some impossibly old song from the 70’s or 80’s that neither of us have heard for 30 years.

I know every word.  Every. Single. Word.

It’s true. I have a remarkable ability to remember the lyrics and music of songs from decades past. This is made more ridiculous because there is a really good chance that I won’t remember your name next week, or what I was supposed to get at the grocery store. I don’t claim to have a good memory, but when it comes to music, I am amazing. (The 80’s channel on XM as my witness.) An additional benefit of this super-power is that I can drive everyone in the car with me crazy.

About 12 years ago, I thought that maybe I should try and find some way to benefit from my super-power. It was about this same time that I was called to be bishop. Good timing. Here is what I decided to attempt:

I learned all of the words to all of the hymns that might be used during the sacrament services in the ward. Even the extra verses that are dragged out when the priests are slow.

It turned out to be a wonderful decision – so wonderful, that I expanded it and tried to memorize as many hymns as I could.

For the five years I sat up on the stand, I rarely looked at a hymnbook. Instead, I would use that time to look around the chapel. I would watch the priests as they prepared the bread. I would give the skunk eye to deacons if they got chatty. I would look around at the members of the congregation and seek inspiration.

As I pondered the Savior and the covenants associated with the sacrament, the Spirit would guide me. Many times my gaze would be drawn to someone in the ward who the Spirit wanted me to notice. Sometimes even a darkened countenance was visible. It was a time when I was very receptive to guidance and inspiration, and the Spirit would tell me who to reach out to. The Lord knows me well enough to grab me in those brief moments when I’m actually paying attention.

All this while singing a hymn that was embedded in my brain, and my heart – because I wasn’t looking down at the hymnbook.

That mantle has long since passed on to others, but my habit of singing without the hymnbook continues. The difference is that now I spend those few minutes singing from heart, while lost in thought. Sometimes I watch the priests as they break the bread, sometimes I just stare off into space and think about the Savior, and the words I’m singing. Often it is a time of personal inspiration. It has become my “normal.”

In our hymnal, the First Presidency published a preface that touched on this idea. The highlighted two reasons why memorizing hymns can be a blessing:

“Hymns can also help us withstand the temptations of the adversary. We encourage you to memorize your favorite hymns and study the scriptures that relate to them. Then, if unworthy thoughts enter your mind, sing a hymn to yourself, crowding out the evil with the good.”

“Brothers and sisters, let us use the hymns to invite the Spirit of the Lord into our congregations, our homes, and our personal lives. Let us memorize and ponder them, recite and sing them, and partake of their spiritual nourishment. Know that the song of the righteous is a prayer unto our Father in Heaven, ‘and it shall be answered with a blessing upon your heads.'”  (link)

There is a non-sacrament application as well. When I was a new deacon, Elder Boyd K. Packer taught how using music could help fend off attacks from the “imps of unclean thinking.”

“If you can control your thoughts, you can overcome habits, even degrading personal habits. If you can learn to master them you will have a happy life.

This is what I would teach you. Choose from among the sacred music of the Church a favorite hymn, one with words that are uplifting and music that is reverent, one that makes you feel something akin to inspiration. Remember President Lee’s counsel; perhaps “I Am A Child of God” would do. Go over it in your mind carefully. Memorize it. Even though you have had no musical training, you can think through a hymn.

Now, use this hymn as the place for your thoughts to go. Make it your emergency channel. Whenever you find these shady actors have slipped from the sidelines of your thinking onto the stage of your mind, put on this record, as it were.

As the music begins and as the words form in your thoughts, the unworthy ones will slip shamefully away. It will change the whole mood on the stage of your mind. Because it is uplifting and clean, the baser thoughts will disappear. For while virtue, by choice, will not associate with filth, evil cannot tolerate the presence of light.” (link)

Having a mental iPod full of hymns at the ready can be a mighty weapon to fend off attacks, bad moods, anger and all sorts of other cankering feelings. I recommend it highly.

There are also some logistical advantages to having some hymns memorized. FHE is much easier if everyone doesn’t need to go find a hymnbook.  Priesthood opening exercises might actually begin with something besides “Called to Serve.”

Finally, having the ability to memorize music and lyrics seems like a gift that is less-wasted if I use it to store up prayers to the Lord.

Here’s some links, if you are interested:

The Nourishing Power of Hymns.” Elder Jay E. Jensen. April, 2007.

“Worship through Music.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks, October, 1994. (In it, he calls out the saints in North America for being cruddy hymn singers.)

Here is the entire Hymnbook with music and lyrics. They can be played on the website or downloaded.

18 COMMENTS

  1. As a young convert 40 years ago, I heard a talk suggesting this. I chose to memorize “Come, Come Ye Saints”. I remember writing out the words and propping them up on a counter to memorize them as I worked in the kitchen. Every time we sing it in church, I have fond memories of doing this. This is such a great idea for young people because they can actually do it!! (It is getting harder for me to memorize things now as an older person). What a great idea, MMM. I can picture you singing and watching, such a great, great idea!

  2. You do have a gift, I on the other hand have never had the gift of memorization…. but I always sing the hymns in church. I used to sit in the back of the chapel, (until last year when my hearing impaired non-member hubby started to come to Sacrament meeting with me) I would notice as I looked forward that oft times I was the only one singing. I’ve always looked at it as my opportunity to praise the Lord and participate in the service each Sunday. My gift, is the ability to appreciate music and musical talent and to try to improve my own meager talent in that area by singing on Sunday while contemplating the lyrics.

  3. On the subject of hymns, last week we sang Now Let Us Rejoice and I could not get through the whole song. I sang the first first, and part of the next, but could not finish after that. I had to just listen and read the words. I seem to be very sensitive to songs about the 2nd Coming. I normally sing with enthusiasm, but this time I got choked up.

  4. The two songs that bring tears to my eyes are the Primary songs. “A Child’s Prayer” and “If the Savior Stood Beside Me”. I am a mess by the time they are finished.
    “Come Come Ye Saints” always gets to me with the words, “and if we die, before our journeys through, happy day, all is well”.
    My ancestors were in the Willie/Martin Handcart company.
    Thanks for your thoughts today. Just finished watching The Spoken Word. Never miss it. I then saw your MMM blog pop up on my phone. Perfect timing.

  5. Also a good idea now that the hymn lyrics aren’t posted during General Conference. Helpful during stake conferences too. Did you memorize all the verses in A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief? The best part of Primary is being able to learn the songs by heart.

  6. I was the chorister for sacrament meeting for several years. I did the same thing. Since I had the hymns memorized I could look around the congregation and see lots of different things. I saw the Spirit that some felt while the were singing. I watched the sacrament being prepared. There’s power in the hymns. Thanks for the link. And I add my amen to your words.

  7. Lyrics come easy to me as well, particularly with hymns where I’ve also learned the parts (tenor or bass, sometimes both). Makes the hymns much more enjoyable and meaningful, I find.

    Speaking of memorized hymns being useful to control ones thoughts, the following excerpt from former YM General President Charles Dahlquist’s April 2007 talk “Who’s on the Lord’s Side?” (https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/04/whos-on-the-lords-side?lang=eng) has always been, to me, the gold standard of controlling one’s thoughts using hymns:

    “President Boyd K. Packer has counseled us to have a hymn memorized so that when an inappropriate thought comes into our minds, we can replace it with a hymn. In applying this instruction, a friend of mine explained: “One day I left my office for lunch. After I had walked for about two blocks, I noticed that I had been humming ‘my song’: ‘I Am a Child of God.’ As I chained my thoughts back several hundred yards, I realized that as I had crossed the street from my office, a young woman, inappropriately clothed, had crossed in front of me. Immediately, subconsciously, the words and music of ‘I Am a Child of God’ began to roll through my mind—to displace inappropriate thoughts.” That day my friend learned a great lesson about his ability to control his thoughts.”

  8. I started singing without the hymnbook one day a few years ago because I was too lazy to pull it out of the rack. Since then I always try to go without even if it’s an unfamiliar hymn. It helps me think about the hymns and what they mean. I think we know more hymns than we think we do. You just never know if you’re always using the hymnbook.

  9. Thank you for the great observations. A little thought – when singing, even if you need to look at the words occasionally, look up at the director. It’s pretty lonely up there with everyone looking down at their books or staring off into space. If more of us look up at them, they may actually begin to feel they are of use, not just waving their arm around for no reason.

  10. I love the church hymns and love to sing them. However, I am in a different position. My place is at the organ. I’ve been our ward organist for 30 years! You know how in obituaries it many times lists the positions the person served: Relief Society president in 3 wards, YW leader, Primary teacher, etc. My list will be one: ward organist. It used to bother me that I couldn’t serve in any other way, then I realize that music is the Lord’s way we can communicate together. We recognize the hymns no matter what language we speak. I try to play the notes with feeling, not just pounding keys. I realize what I do at the organ can affect the entire congregation, and touch the one person who needs a spiritual experience. So when you sing without looking at the book, I will keep my eyes on the music so I can enhance your experience. Thanks for noticing how music helps bring the spirit.

  11. To Lori, in comment above: If you’ve never moved, you’re probably stuck. But I knew someone like you who moved and never told anybody in her new ward that she could play. It was kind of sad/funny but she said she wanted to be a teacher at least ONCE in her life. (She did get found out eventually!) On to the subject of music here. When I was in a RS Presidency, I began memorizing hymns and started with “Because I Have Been Given Much” and “Savior, May I Learn to Love Thee”. I desperately needed to feel loving toward the ladies in my ward. Not that it was so hard in general but there were a few where it helped me feel more Christlike toward them.

Add your 2¢. (Be nice.)