Hymn triggers….

This was one of those Sunday mornings that was a minefield of triggers, hymn triggers. I’ve learned that I have to look over the bulletin for roadside bombs before the church service begins. So there it was, the hymn before communion – “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” (Little Flock, I think). I haven’t laid eyes on this hymn for at least eighteen years, since we left the Assembly. I took a sharp breath and muttered, “Oh, dear.” I whispered to a friend sitting next to me to please pray for me and pointed to the hymn. She knew exactly what I meant and squeezed my hand.

I quickly read through the words before worship and began to identify the worst parts and brace myself. During the first part of the service and the sermon I was able to collect myself and get very objective and ready for that hymn. When it came, I got through it with only an increased heart rate. No tears.

But the memories were flashing before my eyes. Mark Miller singing this particular hymn – the volume always increased on the last phrase, “You have washed us with your blood; you are worthy, Lamb of God.” He would lift his chin up and really let it out. Thinking of the great truth of the fourth stanza, and how the words clashed with the Assembly message: “Let us wonder – grace and justice join and point to mercy’s store; when through grace in Christ our trust is, justice smiles and asks no more: He who washed us with his blood has secured our way to God.” There was a flood of conflicted feelings about the bittersweetness of the Assembly experience.

But after communion there was another IED I hadn’t noticed – the hymn “Join All the Glorious Names.” That one took me completely by surprise. I did pretty much okay through most of it, probably because I was already trying to steel myself against my emotions. But the last phrase of the last verse was my undoing – “Behold, I sit in willing bonds beneath thy feet.” In the Assembly I had always sung that as a renewed commitment to submit to everything, and it always inflicted a sharp pain.

All in all, though, it really helped to ask my friend to pray for me. Knowing she did was a present reality that kept me at least partially grounded. I wasn’t completely swept away in the tide of tears as I so often have been. About six months ago we sang, “It Is Well with My Soul,” which, again, I don’t think I had sung for years. I was still so obviously blubbering at the end of the service that the dear older man who sat behind us came up afterward and put his hand on my shoulder and asked me, “Is it well with your soul, sister?”

It seems so crazy that this stuff still goes on with me after 18 (eighteen!!) years. The reality is, though, that memories of the past remain in the brain, vested with the same emotions that imprinted them at the time, until they are accessed and reframed with a different understanding, and refiled with a different set of “tags”, to use a blogging metaphor. My brain has done so much of this over the years that today, when the last verse popped up, it was only moments before the new tags were applied.

First Congregational (small)The music through the whole service this morning was a trip down memory lane, most of it positive. The first hymn was “All Glory, Laud and Honor”, for Palm Sunday. That took me back to my earliest childhood at the First Congregational Church of LA, where I sang in the children’s choir. First Church is very reminiscent of English cathedrals and the formal English service. First Congegational Church Chancel: a nave that seemed about four stories high, chancel of ornately carved wood, gorgeous stained glass on all sides. We wore miniature English-style choir robes –  plain full length purple underneath short starched white cottas. I have a picture of us all lined up on the church entry stairway, holding our little crosses made of strips from palm fronds. We processed solemnly up the center aisle behind the cross and the adult choir, the strains of the huge pipe organ reverberating. It’s a good memory, a memory of reverence and awe. First Church indelibly imprinted on me a love for the English communion service and the Book of Common Prayer. I can remember standing beside my mother in the pew hearing her sweet voice saying the Apostle’s Creed. We attended that church until I was about ten.

Back to today’s service. During communion the pianist played a medley of hymns: “I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Come unto me and rest.'” – college, InterVarsity Christitan Fellowship. Wonderful memories. “The Lord’s my shepherd,” Fountain Avenue Baptist Church. My family went to Fountain Avenue after we left First Congregational. I was baptized there. My mom came to faith in Christ, was baptized there and started the church library. She stayed there until she went to Westmoreland Chapel. My dad was a deacon. Good memories.

I guess when you get to your sixties you reflexively look back over your life and try to make sense of it as a whole. It was good today to be taken back to all those times and know that God has never left me nor forsaken me. I can see the Assembly years – twenty long years –  as part of the whole, and He has been teaching me the whole way.

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Margaret Irons and her husband Steve and three children were in the Fullerton Geftakys Assembly for twenty years. We left in March, 1990. We are still recovering and learning in Orange County, CA.

5 thoughts on “Hymn triggers….

  1. Hi – Found this site via Stop Spiritual Abuse on facebook. First, let me say I am sorry for what you have been through – 20 years – wow..

    But I do appreciate that I am not the only one who still experiences triggers in church. My experience was only 5 years ago, and in a different church group. Ironically, I am triggered by contemporary praise music–I was victimized while on a praise team. So now we are at a church service where only hymns are sung, and that is comforting to me.

    I posted on Stop Spiritual Abuse, asking how people moved on and became involved in church again. If any of you are on Facebook, I would love to hear anything you have to say. I feel my life would be empty and purposeless without God, but my faith has truly been shaken in all this.

  2. Funny you should mention “Let us love and sing and wonder,” because I love that hymn. I don’t ever remember singing it in the assembly.

    A great saint just passed away two weeks ago. She was 83 and spent 70 years playing piano in churches. The assembly had a long list of what-is-wrong-with-churches. This woman’s faith was authentic and infectious. She loved the Lord and loved the hymns and somehow, sitting in her living room listening to her play, I retrained my mind. It is as if her simple faith has been written over my old legalistic default.

  3. These were good thoughts. I don’t get so many triggers as the church I am in has more of the contemporary stuff (“Dancing upon injustice?!?”) and jazzed-up older fare.

    But it does underscore the need in recovery to create new rituals (habits coupled with emotions) to replace the old ones. In smoking cessation classes they teach that one is as much addicted to the habit of smoking as well as the chemical of smoking. For me, stopping to drink caffine was difficult not because of the caffine (that was out of my system in a couple of days) but because I love the feel and the atmosphere of sitting at a coffee shop for breakfast with men solving the world’s problems.

  4. I was in IVCF too — that’s how I went Protestant in the first place! Wonderful memories indeed. And I’ve been doing a weird sorta thing — I love Catholicism, but the way I used it growing up to cope with my very sick family situation made it unsafe for me to attend Mass for a very long time. So I finally started hanging out at this lovely, healthy little church with a friend of mine. Absolutely no alarm bells, and when I finally told them I was Catholic and had no intention of EVER joining (I am now going to Mass again), their reaction was, “Okay, well if you want to hang out with us, that’s cool and you’re welcome.” No, “…and we’ll convert you yet!” Just acceptance. No judgment either. I love it, and would send any of my Christian friends there, and join it in a heartbeat if I were still Protestant. I love my Catholic parish though, too.

    Anyhow…the hymns. They sing the hymns there, springing out spontaneously in four-part-harmony, and yeah, it completely gives me the willies.

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