I have the incredible privilege at my job to lead a weekly Bible study. As a Christian and a Music Therapist, I saw this as a tremendous (and somewhat rare) opportunity to intertwine my faith and my practice. I am also a bit of a history fan–I’m generally pretty terrible at retaining historical facts, however I find them incredibly interesting. In relation to hymns, historical context can also be exceedingly insightful.
Generally I approach the group as an extended lyric analysis. I pick a theme (shocking I know) and choose two or three songs that coordinate. For instance, last week I chose the them of “Love” (because again, I’m still in honeymoon mode) and chose the songs “The Love of God” and “Jesus Loves Me.”
*As a general note, I like to choose one song that they will know by heart (for reality orientation and emotional/social goals) and another they might not be as familiar with. I find that this unfamiliarity challenges their attention skills and requires more focus to sing along and comprehend (addressing cognition goals).
My most common format is as follows:
- Opening Prayer
- Introduce theme
- Hymn 1
- Hymn 2
- Historical overview of Hymn 2
- Line by line analysis / scriptural heritage of the lyrics
- Sing Hymn 2 again
- Closing Prayer
Just to give an idea, the story of “The Love of God” goes something like this. A man named Frederick M. Lehman was down on his luck. His business had dismally failed and he had resorted to packing oranges and lemons in Pasadina, CA. One Saturday in 1917, he was contemplating the Sunday sermon on the love of God and he was so overcome by its power, he penned the lyrics to a song–writing them on the side of a lemon box. When he got home he composed a melody and his daughter added the harmony. However there was something missing in the text. He began to search through his Bible for the words to fill the void and found an old bookmark with this stanza printed on it:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Though stretched from sky to sky.”
This was exactly what Lehman had been looking for. Now this verse has a fascinating story of its own. The words were inscribed on the wall of a prison/asylum cell by one of its captives. When the man died, the maintenance men came to paint over the room, but were so moved by the beauty of the verse that they wrote it down before it was covered. For a long time, historians did not know whether the words were the prisoners’ own or if they were referencing another man’s thoughts. Eventually it was discovered that the poem was written by a Jewish Rabbi named Meir Ben Issac Nehoria in the year 1050. The beauty of this Rabbi’s epic was miraculously preserved throughout the ages reaching some 900 year across time to a man in Californa who wrote a song on a lemon box. Wow.
At this point of the group I then asked the question, “Why?” How could a simple set of words survive the ages? Why would a seemingly insane man be so moved to write them on his cell wall? Why would a man stop in the middle of his work day to write a song? To answer this question, we need only look at its title: “The Love of God.” This message of Love is one that is eternal–it reached a Jewish scholar in 1050, an incarcerated man in 1700, a failed businessman in 1917 and our little Bible study in 2016.
We then took the song line by line to explain the metaphors laid out, read scripture from which these messages were taken, and discuss instance of this love in our own lives.
After all this, in light of everything we learned from history, gleaned from scripture, and proclaimed of ourselves, we sang the song again with a newfound understanding of His love.
I have found this format to be well received. The residents always comment on how interesting the stories behind the hymns are–I think it gives them a fresh perspective on the ones the have sung forever and more investment in the ones that are new. I find that sometimes in religious settings, we seem to think that the hymns we grew up with were somehow the earliest form of musical worship–even though most of those were written in the era of our great grandparents–and for my residents, their parents! I love introducing them to the idea that some of the texts we sing are ancient and only the musical arrangements of them are “modern.” All in all the process seems to intellectually and spiritually stimulate and challenge, as well as emotionally refresh and encourage.
I love and relish my time of worship alongside my residents each week and hope that this story, as well as the idea of nursing home Bible study, encourages and challenges you as it has so greatly impacted me.
Also, if you have never heard the song “The Love of God,” here is one of my favorite arrangements. The key change at 3:40 is incredible. https://youtu.be/NqbqjX2KRyY