The Hymns that Made Me

Chapel of the Ozarks at Branson, MO
Chapel of the Ozarks at Branson, MO

Songs shape us. The sensory power of melody writes both the lyrics and the emotions deep into our psyche, shaping our very identity. That’s why people with advanced dementia somehow remember the words to songs they loved in earlier years. My internal music library contains everything from Gwen Stefani to Josh Groban, but without doubt, it will be hymns that may someday rouse me from a dementia fog. Kids, please add these 10 hymns to my playlist.

1. Holy, Holy, Holy

This song awakens my earliest sense of God’s presence, as a I wrote about here. It will forever take me back to stained glass and liturgy and white patent pumps. In some of my darkest times, this song played on continuous repeat in my heart.

Holy, holy, holy,

Lord God Almighty

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.

Holy, holy, holy,

merciful and mighty

God in three persons, blessed trinity.

Country church, somewhere in Arkansas

2. The Old Rugged Cross

I was seven years old when I gave my heart to Jesus. This song tells the redemption story simply, but powerfully. It was a favorite in the small Baptist churches of my youth.

On a hill far away stood an old, rugged cross,

The emblem of suffering and shame;

And I love that old cross, where the dearest and best

for a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross

Till my trophies at last I lay down;

I will cling to the old, rugged cross

And exchange it someday for a crown.

St Thomas Church at Dubois, Wyoming
St Thomas Church at Dubois, Wyoming

3. Just As I Am

For ten formative childhood summers, I spent a week at Camp Grace in the mountains near Wheatland, Wyoming. It would be impossible to overstate how critically these weeks shaped my faith and my life direction. Without fail, evening chapel concluded with every verse of “Just As I Am.” On hearing the first few measures of this song, I find myself once again standing in my purple Converse All-Star high tops, surrendering my heart to the God of the universe.

Just as I am, without one plea,

But that thy blood was shed for me,

And that thou bidst me come to thee,

Oh, Lamb of God, I come. I come.

County Kerry, Ireland
County Kerry, Ireland

4. Rock of Ages

The images of this old hymn resonate in my depths. I am safe from life’s storms, hidden in the rock of my Savior.

Rock of ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in thee.

Let the water and the blood,

From thy wounded side which flowed,

be of sin the double cure,

save from wrath and make me pure.

While I draw this fleeting breath,

When my eyes shall close in death,

When I rise to worlds unknown,

And behold thee on thy throne,

Rock of ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in thee.

St John the Baptist Catholic Church at Ammansville, TX
St John the Baptist Catholic Church at Ammansville, TX

5. I’d Rather Have Jesus

My parents had an admirable record collection, and I spent many an hour cross-legged in front of the phonograph playing album after album. Most were classic country — Conway Twitty, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline — but some of those country artists also recorded hymns. My absolute favorite album was Jim Reeves, singing gospel favorites, including this one. Oh, that voice! No one can match his buttery rich baritone. I nearly wore that album out.

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold,

I’d rather be his than have riches untold.

I’d rather have Jesus than houses or land

Yes, I’d rather be led by his nail-pierced hands.

Than to be the King of a vast domain

and be held in sin’s dread sway.

I’d rather have Jesus than anything

This world affords today.

I’d rather have Jesus than worldly applause,

I’d rather be faithful to his dear cause.

I’d rather have Jesus than world wide fame,

Yes, I’d rather be true to his holy name.

Chapel at Tensleep, Wyoming
Chapel at Tensleep, Wyoming

6. Come Thou Fount

I don’t remember when this hymn became woven into my life, but it certainly did. No purer lyrics exist. I try not to complain about modern worship music, but really, does anything today even come close? No. I love the first verse, but it’s the third that captures my heart cry.

Oh, to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let thy goodness like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to thee.

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love.

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for thy courts above.

Mount Moran reflected in still water
Mount Moran

7. How Great Thou Art

This song wells up from the depths of my soul, unbidden, whenever I witness God’s handiwork in nature. I simply cannot view the majestic Tetons without breaking into this song.

Oh, Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee;

How great thou art,

How great thou art!

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee;

How great thou art,

How great thou art!

Church in Prelog, Croatia
Church in Prelog, Croatia

8. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Of course, the repetitive tradition of Christmas carols binds them to our memories. My Christmas favorites list is long, but the top spot belongs to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Written in that dark chapter of our country’s Civil War, the message of hope feels freshly relevant with each new Christmas.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet the words repeat

of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair, I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said.

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day.

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland
Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland

9. Up From the Grave He Arose

Just like Christmas carols, our Easter hymns become sacred through repetition. Truly, I’m not a cranky pants about today’s worship music, but some traditions should be off limits. Would it kill you to sing a hymn at Easter? And is it really Easter if the service doesn’t close with “Up From the Grave He Arose”? I think not. (Okay, that cranky pants thing….maybe a little bit!)

Low in the grave He lay,

Jesus, my Savior.

Waiting the coming day,

Jesus, my Lord!

Up from the grave he arose,

with a mighty triumph o’er his foes!

He arose a victor from the dark domain,

and He lives forever with His saints to reign.

He arose! He arose!

Hallelujah, Christ arose!

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

10. It Is Well With My Soul

When an EF-5 tornado leveled a third of my city in 2011, this song came to my lips. A mere 6 blocks outside the path of the storm, we sustained only minimal damage, but no one escaped unscathed. Everyone knew some degree of loss and devastation, even if indirectly. It would take months to clear the rubble and years to rebuild, but through the darkest days, Joplin folks drew on a deep reserve of faith. I cannot see the photos to this day without reliving the trauma, but also drawing strength from the source of our resiliency.

When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

My sin — oh the bliss of this glorious thought —

My sin, not in part but the whole

Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,

The clouds be rolled back as a scroll.

The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend,

Even so, it is well with my soul.

Hopefully I won’t need this dementia playlist anytime soon, but I may just enjoy it now anyway! I’d love to hear what hymns made YOU!


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  1. I love this list! Most of these would be on my list as well. Some of them I haven’t heard for a while but I think I will start listening to them to renew their familiar beauty. I want them on my dementia playlist as well. There are some more recent additions I think but we’ll see. Come Thou Fount will be at the top of the list for sure. Thanks for this!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Susan! I’m waiting for a smart aleck comment “What’s a phonograph?”, but I know those of us at a certain age can relate! I’m enjoying a quiet “writing weekend” at Table Rock Lake, and I’ve been humming these tunes all weekend. 🙂

  2. I so enjoyed this walk down memory lane as well! I love all of these precious hymns which have such soul stirring promises. We didn’t have the country singers records, but I remember Dad buying almost every record that was sold by groups that came to our churches in Chesterton in Rock Springs. And I would play them over and over as I sat at my sewing machine making clothes for myself and my sister. My favorite though is “He keeps me singing”.
    There’s within my heart a melody,
    Jesus whispers Sweet and low,
    “Fear not, I am with thee-peace be still,
    In all of life’s ebb and flow.”
    Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,
    Sweetest name I know.
    Fills my every longing,
    Keeps me singing as I go.

    1. Cindy, I used to love to hear you girls sing! Your harmonies were beautiful! I, too, love “He Keeps Me Singing”. It’s funny how you can go for years without hearing one of these songs, and as soon as the melody begins, you find yourself singing every word! So good to hear from you!

  3. My playlist would be very similar, Aileen! I grew up listening to those same hymns. Thanks to you, Holy, Holy, Holy has been playing in my head all day–not a bad thing! I would add the Christmas hymn, Angels We Have Heard On High. Also, there’s a song by Barbra Streisand on her “Higher Ground” album called On Holy Ground that always stirs me. I want that one played at my funeral.
    By the way, love your new photos–you look great!

    1. Thanks, Jules!! I’m not surprised we have similar playlists. It was sure fun to put it together, especially digging through my photo archives to find photos of churches. I had no idea I had so many! I sure miss you. Would love to have a long visit over a cup of coffee….maybe this summer in Dubois??

  4. Dubois in the summer sounds wonderful…but we’ll be spending this summer at our new place in Traverse City, Michigan! We decided to hang up our motorhome travel shoes and find one place to spend the summer. Have you ever been to the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City? Think about it…

  5. My 90 year old Mom can still harmonize with her three kids when we sing hymns. I hope somebody will play these and other hymns for me when I cannot do it myself. Thanks Aileen

    1. Oh, Steve, how precious that must be to hear her sing those hymns! It’s not uncommon for my mom to sit and weep while she listens to her favorite hymns. The words touch her soul and give her hope. The closer we get to that reunion with Jesus, the sweeter the words of those old hymns.

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