A Study Break Brought to You by This Patron of Organized Religion

To each his own, right? I’ve come to very deeply respect those who subscribe to different religions or some other spiritual way of life. If a person’s belief system is godless or nihilistic or relativist or absolutist, that’s his choice, and I’m fine with understanding that we can talk about this aspect of our lives and not get in a big honkin fight over who’s right. We don’t have to convince each other of anything. We have our own ways and attitudes and I’m not about to ruffle any feathers. Not really. 

I love my church. It’s really been a constant for me, especially when I’ve strayed from the path, I knew and remembered deep down that I could always return. I can show up in any town just about anywhere and find a congregation where the same doctrines and principles are taught and believed and practiced. It’s easy to feel like I belong, because of the gospel that unites us. We buoy each other up, we serve each other, we bear testimony to each other. Seeing each other at church every Sunday gives me much needed support. It’s a wonderful blessing, and it’s hard to believe I ever took this for granted.

In the way of organized religion, mine is very, very organized. This I find a great blessing, because I don’t have to worry about the infrastructure of the church. It’s not going to fall apart. When President Hinckley passed away, there was no wonder or speculation about who would be the Church’s next leader because of the pattern that has been established which we believe to be God’s will. 

The typical Mormon’s home is very organized. This is not to say that each home is spic-and-span clean. There are systems of organization; schedules, family meetings, opportunities to connect within the family and out in the community. Mormons generally keep themselves ridiculously busy to keep their lives organized, if that makes any sense. This life is the chance to learn and progress as much as we can. To love wholeheartedly, to forgive fully, to be our best selves.

So, we study up or practice or try new things out to become better parents or students or professionals. We seize opportunities to help others. We form friendships, because we need help just as much as anybody else. Our characters strengthen in the bonds we form in various relationships. Organized religion works for me. I understand that people aren’t perfect so the way they go about running the church may not always be perfect, but they’re doing the best the can, and that’s really all I ask.

It’s important to keep this in mind, especially when little hangups about the church enter my mind. One hangup in particular somewhat annoys me. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just me or my particular congregation. I thought about all the other wards I have attended, and each of them has the same little problem. I don’t know if many people notice, or maybe I’m just too anal-retentive. I don’t have a problem with large families or strange things being said at the pulpit, to a point, and my personal offense threshold hasn’t yet been breached.

Every single ward has a tendency to sing hymns very slowly. Now, I understand we’re not supposed to go crazy with the tempo; I get that we sing to worship. But sometimes, we get dangerously close to sounding like a lullaby. Some folks sing very loudly, which kind of helps the dragging pace. I know I should be grateful we have organists and choristers to lead the hymns, but I want to elaborate on this observation a bit. That’s all it is, an observation.

Take, for instance, “How Great Thou Art.” The dynamic marking in our hymn book is Reverently, where the tempo is a quarter note = 58-72. Those numbers mean beats per minute. Let’s say we take the tempo to 60, which is one beat per second. The words of the first line thankfully aren’t one beat each, but still, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made” equals four measures. Four beats per measure. Sixteen seconds. The verse is 16 measures long, which should put each verse at 64 seconds. Multiply that by four verses, and the hymn is 4 minutes and 16 seconds long. 

That’s fine, a lot of secular songs are around four minutes. I can definitely sing a standard like “How Great Thou Art” for four minutes. It’s one of my favorites. What people fail to realize is this hymn has the potential to last so much longer. Often, it does. What people don’t notice most of the time when they’re singing this hymn (and others) is the organist tends to slow down. The organist slows down, and the chorister slows down with the organist, instead of taking stronger charge to keep the tempo. Why does this happen? Is it an invisible force? Satan? Joyous rapture? Do their fingers and arms get tired? Are they hypnotizing the congregation to get confessions for the bishop?

Then, it’s no longer a four-minute hymn. Say the time it takes to sing each verse increases by 25 percent. The second verse is 80 seconds, the third is 100 seconds, and the final verse, if you’re not light-headed and about to faint from expelling all those notes from your lungs, is 125 seconds. 64+80+100+125=369 seconds. A four-minute hymn has turned into a 6-minute hymn. Some people take the hymn even slower. They sing it like their lives amount to nothing and not like God isn’t great so shut up thank you very much. They’ll sing that for the opening hymn, and by the time they finish, the service is OVER. Wake up, everyone! Time for Sunday School!

So, I can go to any town, just about anywhere and find a congregation that sings hymns tortuously slowly. I can use those two extra minutes in a hymn to ponder the beautiful words and be grateful for my Savior, or I can wonder how all of a sudden I became a senior member of the ward. Who wants to take that kind of a risk, to awaken from an unnecessarily long hymn to end up in an unfamiliar part of the future? It’s just a little thing; it’s entropy in the chapel. That’s the nature of organized religion, its tendency toward chaos in the form of us imperfect mortals singing ourselves to sleep. 

The church isn’t going to collapse because the way we sing is a bit soporific. But I’d like to try a little harder to give the hymns a little more life. We have to do our part. Pick up the tempo just a smidge. Enjoy the melody (or the harmony, if you prefer). Focus on the words and feel their emotion, and sing it like you mean it. Really sing reverently. When the entire congregation sings that way, worshiping together becomes a whole new experience. We have to move the music a little in order for it to move us. We have to be together in it, though. That’s the beauty of organized religion.