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I grew up singing traditional Baptist hymns.
We sang favorites over and over, and they are now so engrained in my memory that they might as well be in my DNA.
We sang “Amazing Grace,” of course, and it remains a favorite because it captures the powerful way God’s grace can transform someone’s life.
It still brings a warm feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.
“I once was blind but now I see” beautifully expresses the change in perspective that conversion brings about.
As a new Christian, I could “see” things I had never meaningfully seen before: the beauty and loveliness of God’s creation, the value of every single person I meet, the spiritually profound impact of a consistent prayer life, the deep affirmation of accepting God’s invitation to join the life of faith.
I can still recall many other hymns from memory: “How Great Thou Art,” “It is Well (With My Soul),” “Blessed Assurance,” “To God Be the Glory,” and more.
In addition to expressing our relationship to God as individuals, these hymns bound us together as a community of faith.
We memorized together and sang together; we created a unified lyrical voice celebrating our relationship with God.
As I continued in my faith, I looked beyond traditional hymns to contemporary expressions of the Christian life.
That was the 1970s, so I looked to Christian pop and rock music.
My Christian friends and I were ready to move a little while we sang songs of faith and devotion.
(Saying thus, I reveal that I am referring to a certain brand of afraid-dancing-might-be-sinful white Christianity.)
I enjoyed Andre Crouch, Chuck Girard, Dallas Holm, and others.
When pop star B. J. Thomas became a Christian and recorded songs of faith, I was thrilled.
When he sang, “But I’ve seen children laughing/As only children can/And I’ve known my Creator/And I’ve been a happy man,” in the song, “Happy Man,” I knew what he meant: true happiness comes from knowing God and joy comes from genuine heartfelt experiences such as seeing children laugh.
As a teenager eager to help people understand how Jesus could transform their hearts and souls, I looked for ways to share the Gospel with my peers.
Maybe Christian rock-and-roll would snag their attention and entice them to consider Jesus as a new foundation for how to live and believe.
I prayed that more pop singers would follow B. J. Thomas’s lead and convert to Christianity and begin singing gospel music.
Eventually, I realized that spiritual messages could be found in music that was not overtly religious.
U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is interpreted by some to express cynicism about faith and an aimless wandering for meaning, but it doesn’t.
It is indeed a song about yearning for something that is not always reachable, but it imagines a future in line with the Gospel.
These lyrics touched me, a person of faith, because through them I connected with a songwriter who has a vision of a better world and who bases that vision on spirituality:
I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I’m still running
You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it
Some of Bruce Springsteen’s songs also reveal a foundation in spirituality by being about significant human emotions and experiences.
Springsteen was reared in a Catholic family, and images and themes from the church of his youth appear in his songs.
Many of his characters have flaws and definitely need to be forgiven—or to forgive.
When Springsteen sings, “Everybody needs a place to rest/Everybody wants to have a home/Don’t make no difference what nobody says/Ain’t nobody like to be alone,” in “Hungry Heart,” he sings not only about human relationships but also the kind of spiritual connection that two people can have when they love deeply as God has taught us to love.
Springsteen’s “Spare Parts” is about a bad relationship between a man and a woman that produced a baby, and the single mother struggles with how to live with little support.
The song has allusions to Moses, baptism, and repentance.
At one point, wondering what to do in her life,
She looked at her boy in the crib where he lay
Got down on her knees, cried till she prayed
The song doesn’t have a tidy ending in which everything is OK, but it reveals the human need for love, family, and community.
And it gives a sliver of hope as the mother takes a step toward a new life.
Which brings us right back to “Amazing Grace” being sung from memory in a church of flawed people turning to God for a new vision, a transformed way of being in the world.
Spiritual Director and Writer