Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

"The Old Rugged Cross"



You may or may not be aware that there's a long-standing fight about "The Old Rugged Cross"--not the cross but the hymn. Three small towns claim to be the place where a dapper George Bennard penned the old soul-stirring favorite. All three celebrate the hymn as if the cross itself stands yet today in Albion or Pokagon, Michigan, or Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. 

It doesn't, of course, but Bennard's very famous text makes the rugged cross seem almost alive.

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.

Childhood hymns play back often in my head, at odd times and for no obvious reasons. Suddenly, I'm singing "'Give,' Said the Little Stream," three complete verses. Somewhere in my aging synapses a DJ spins out Sunday School recordings willy-nilly.


"The Old Rugged Cross" is there too, and it came back Sunday morning when we sang that old hymn, for me maybe the first time in a half-century. I've never taken up arms in the fights over the music we sing in worship, not because I don't have an opinion, but because I'm just more and more sure that there's no accounting for taste. 

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 some day for a crown.

I get it. Makes heaven a pawn shop, doesn't it?

"We don't worship the cross," I remember someone pointing out years ago, someone who wanted that number cut from the new hymnal. "We worship a risen Lord, not a piece of wood." 

Strikes me as being right. What Bennard's precious old hymn does is profess a kind of idolatry. 

End of argument. Sort of.

Theology rarely trumps beloved familiarity. And I wouldn't have bothered explaining that argument to my mother, who would have listened but then wandered over to to her piano once I left and played it anyway, rapturously too. Sung along even, and loved it.

Some Sundays these days we worship with a handful of Presbyterians, often enough for them to make us feel like we're family. That's PCUSA, by the way, the liberals. That old congregation is so firmly set in its ways that it hasn't updated its hymnal since the boys came back from the war. It's an aging congregation where no one worries about sketchy theology or whose church has what going on this week across town. We just sing. Oldies. Not well either.


Idolatry or not, something got stirred in me when we sang "The Old Rugged Cross," even though I know the KKK had a nasty habit of borrowing those lyrics for their own evil purposes. For many thousands of old folks, "The Old Rugged Cross" is almost as precious a symbol as is the cross itself, don't you think? I'm betting somewhere in the last several centuries Garrison Keillor had some massive audience singing along.

The Omaha tribe, just south of us, got a gift a decade ago when Harvard's Peabody Museum returned their Sacred Pole a century after it had been given to them for safekeeping. During that homecoming, some elderly tribal members, none of whom had ever seen it, openly wept when the box was opened, even before they laid eyes on their Sacred Pole. Tears flowed.


So I'm talking to a bunch of elementary school kids about our neighbors, the Omahas, and I thought it might be interesting to bring this Sacred Pole up--how a whole crowd of Omaha people went silent when it returned.

I was afraid the kids would laugh. I might have myself when I was their age. Lord knows, white folks have done so for a long, long time--and worse.

Last Sunday morning it struck me right there in the pew that the very sentiment that enamors "The Old Rugged Cross" to those of us who treasure that old hymn isn't that far afield from the tears those Omaha tribal elders shed when they first put eyes on Umoⁿ'hoⁿ'ti, the "Real Omaha."

They're not the same, of course. A cross that holds the broken body of our Lord--or doesn't--is not a soft and slowly rotting branch of cottonwood, no matter how ritually decorated or adoringly venerated. Besides, it doesn't stand in Sturgeon Bay or either of its rival burgs; it's not in a museum somewhere or really "on a hill far away." 

But go ahead and sing "Old Rugged Cross" again sometime and consider how spiritual veneration lives in a variety of colors and textures, shapes and sizes, some white and some not, some bloody and some clean, some old and some new.

I could take my old crucifix along to school, I thought, and, right in front of the whole bunch of kids, fling it up against the wall. That might get the kids' attention. 

Don't worry--I didn't.

You have to worship in a really old church to sing "The Old Rugged Cross." But then, you don't have to go looking for that kind of church because there's likely a DJ in you spinning that hymn right now. Listen. The version you're hearing may well be something close to one I do, from my mother's piano. And it's probably equally precious.

Sometimes I wonder about falling church attendance, about millennials walking away from the church, about rising numbers of people who choose against attending worship, when all of us--white and red and green and brown--want so very badly, so very humanly, to worship, really want to believe.

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