(After singing “He's Got the Whole World in His Hands” together)
4 yo: Wait, God have the whole world in him hands, like this, like in him hands (points to his palm)?
Me: That is a great question. What do you think?
4 yo: I don't know. Maybe?
Me: Well, maybe. Another way to think of it is that God's love wraps around everyone and everything in the whole world. You know how the verses are about mommies and daddies and kids and stars and sun and moon. What do you think about that? That maybe it's about God's love holding us.
4 yo: (Sad voice) No one knows for sure.
Me: Good point. But I still think it's about God's love holding everyone.
4 yo: Oh, okay. (Asks for another song).
I spent a lot of time singing hymns to my children when they were babies. Part of our bedtime routine was nursing them to sleep and as I did, I sang. (Parenting note: you are actually not supposed to nurse them all the way to sleep, but whatever). Part of it, I admit, was to stave off my own boredom. But part of it was to get those hymns and words inside my babies, deep inside them, a kind of second language to carry them through, that they can access when they need.
There's a saying that the person who sings prays twice. Music does have transcendent quality about it, regardless of if you're singing spiritual songs. Music takes us places. It transports us. We remember. We forgot. We connect. We let go. Music has power.
When I was a parish pastor, I visited a woman living with mental and physical disabilities. She and I had never known each other prior to her living in a care center, so while she always seemed happy to see me and some days appeared understand that I was from her church, I could never be quite sure if she knew who I was or why I was there. She wasn't able to keep up a conversation and as time went on she was increasingly non-verbal. So I talked. I held her hand. I gave her communion and her eyes shined. Then I sang hymns. Only then, did her mouth make words, and she half sung/half whispered along with me as I sang Amazing Grace or What a Friend we Have in Jesus. She could not tell me her name but she could whisper those hymn lyrics. Tears would flow down her cheeks. I sensed the holy power of music weave its way deep inside her, perhaps deeper than conscious thought.
This is the kind of connection with sacred songs that I want for my children. I want those words in there so deep that they don't even remember a time when they didn't know them.
I know that words set to music are more easily learned and memorized, which is why to this day I can rapidly recite the 50 US states in order, thanks to my elementary school music teacher who wore beautiful scarves and taught us the "Fifty Nifty" states song. That too, is deep inside me.
I don't sing every night to my children anymore. Sometimes they simply don't want to sing, other nights they're begging for an extra story, or I'm too tired or I forget. But when I do, it's joyful. I love that my children are old enough to do the actions for many of the songs. Sometimes they'll grab a stuffed animal to rock during the line about God holding the "itty bitty babies" in his hands, or a flashlight for "This Little Light of Mine."
When my older son was about four, he heard me singing "Amazing Grace" somewhere (church? while nursing my younger one?) He interrupted me to tell me that he really liked that song. Why, I asked, curious. Because it always helped me sleep, he said. Sweet rest, set to music.