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.