May 15, 2015

Feeling Numb on Sunday Morning: Why I Sing With My Eyes Open

It is a hazardous thing to criticize a worship song. The songs we sing in church are dear to us—sacred even. Their potency comes from the fact that, over time, the songs become a part of us. Like eating and drinking, the rhythms and rhymes of these songs have a way of seeping deep into our marrow.

So it is with a bit of trepidation that I criticize the much-beloved hymn below.

To be clear, my issue is not really with the hymn but with what it represent—a deep and pervasive misunderstanding of what worship actually is. But I am getting ahead of myself. Here is the hymn:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

The history behind this much-beloved song is actually quite beautiful. Born in 1863, the gifted hymnist Helen Lemmel suffered a series of tragic disappointments and struggles in her life; the worst of which was the wrenching heartbreak her divorce. Apparently her husband left her because of she went blind. Nice.

Despite her many trials, Helen Lemmel reportedly found rest and peace in a near constant composition of hymns for worship. In fact, by the end of her life Ms. Lemmel had written about 500 hymns. Sounds like a great woman to make the target of criticism.

While her other 499 hymns may have been wonderful, Ms. Lemmel’s most famous hymn falls flat because of one extremely ill-advised word.


And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

“Dim.” Really?

Is “dim” the best word to describe how Jesus affects our way of seeing in the world? In the light of Christ does the world really become vague, opaque, indistinct, pale, and obscure?

Isn’t it exactly the opposite? Doesn’t Christ bring clarity and color to our lives? Doesn’t his “glory and grace” make our daily existence more vivid and lucid?

Sadly, Ms. Lemmel’s mistake is all too common. In fact, the popularity of her tragically flawed word choice reflects a persistent misunderstanding about worship. In brief, the persistent myth is this: Sunday morning constitutes a weekly escape, an opportunity to forget, a chance to get away, to close one’s eyes to “material” realities and concentrate on “spiritual” hopes.

I regularly hear worshipers comment that Sunday is a chance to leave behind a week of stress, trouble, and disappointment, a chance to forget a world of terror and violence, a chance to remember “what’s really important.” I wholeheartedly disagree.

Worship is not an escape.

Worship is not a time to forget.

Worship is not a place to close our eyes.

To approach Sunday morning in this way is to treat it like an opiate—something to anesthetize us from the highs and lows of our lives and our world. Worship is not an opiate. It is not something designed to make us warm, comfortable, and numb. This perspective actually proves Karl Marx’s famous quip correct. Religion is indeed “the opiate of the masses.”

Singing with Our Eyes Open

Nicholas Wolterstorff describes Sunday morning functioning in our lives like the muscle of the human heart. True worship, he argues, has a systolic and a diastolic function. The pumping heart draws the blood into itself, replenishes and strengthens the fluid with life-giving oxygen, and sends it back out into the body in a rhythmic and continuous vivifying pulse. The same is true of authentic worship,

Drawn into the heart of worship, the disciple carries her daily life along with her... to present that life to God... She thanks God for what she has found good in her life and that of others, she laments to God for what she has found painful in her life and that of others, she confesses to God what she and others have done wrong, and she praises God for God’s incomparable majesty.

Wolterstorff argues that worship is not a place to forget the week. We don’t leave our struggles at the door and engage in an hour-long game of pretend. No. We bring our lives with us and we set them before God. He is not interested in a game of pretend—and we should take his lead.

In gathering for worship, he explains, we carry “the thanksgivings, regrets, and laments of daily life” with us. In dispersing from worship we “carry into daily life the guidance and strength, the courage and hope, that we have received.”

The power of Sunday morning is not that it helps us forget a tragedy but that it helps us remember that tragedy correctly—within the greater gospel story. 

And what of the week ahead?

Sunday morning sends us into the coming week with eyes wide open. We walk into the beauty and brokenness of the week ahead with vision, clarity, and color.

We will not be numb. We will not expect comfort, but we will expect Christ. We will expect that in the light of his glory and grace the things of earth will grow strangely clear.

Rev. Dr. Matthew Kaemingk is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in An Age of Fear (Eerdmans, 2018). He is an ordained minister in the CRCNA.