Getting into hymn writing is obviously a personalized road, so I asked one of the most creative people I (cyber-) know, Kelly Klages, artist extraordinaire, about her own experience. Now, before we read her compelling narrative, I’d like to remind you that there are eight days left for the 2016 Reformation hymn contest. To further encourage you to write for it, this blog will focus more or less on hymn-writing for the next week before returning to our regularly scheduled, semi-random, writing-related variety. For your contemplation . . . Kelly’s post:
I was asked how I got started in hymn-writing. Prosaically, it began shortly after having a third child, nearly dying, not dying (to lasting astonishment), and experiencing a train wreck of trauma to mind and body.
The month of hospitalization, including residencies in the cardio and psych wards for heart failure and terrifying hallucinations, took place in the spring of 2012, which was quickly followed by a hard crash of depression that summer. I stopped wanting to do everything. With a boatload of creative interests and more projects on the burner than I can ever seem to count (or finish), the lack of creative drive seemed as alarming as losing a limb. It might have been the factor that finally drove us back to the family doctor. “Doctor, I’m not painting! What can be done?!”
He gave me the survey about depression. I scored “worst” on every scale except the suicide question, which mercifully did not seem to be on the radar. The doctor prescribed medication and counseling.
The medication helped a good deal, and part of the recovery process is to gradually just make yourself do things that you know you like doing, whether hugely enthusiastic about it or not. It was about that time that I saw a call for entry for a hymn-writing contest that was being sponsored by the LCMS. Thirty participants would be chosen to attend a sort of retreat in the St. Louis area, and the contest was open to even those outside the US. It looked like a really unique opportunity.
I had never written a hymn in my life. Hymnody was a mysterious realm which I somehow associated more with sermon-writing and pastoral care. Perhaps a moment of medicated euphoria put me in a reckless mood—what had I to lose, after all? I would certainly not be asked to come, but it was creative writing, which I enjoyed, and it seemed like it would be a healing sort of project to work on. I wracked my addled brain, came up with three submissions, and sent them in. To more lasting astonishment, they asked me to come.
The hymn-writing event featured a wonderful program, but it was perhaps extra wonderful for someone struggling to regain some mental normalcy, and in need of solidarity and creative outlets. It was eminently Jesus-centered. It was intellectually challenging. The chapel services were resounding. The support and encouragement were staggering. There was the comradery of my fellow Lutheran writers, both new friends to meet as well as some I’d known for years but had never spent time with. There was Fred Baue with his guitar-laden lectures, Matthew Carver holding forth on translation, and Pr. Weedon being totally Pr. Weedon. We drew up a charter for The Society of St. Ambrose one fine evening in a haze of cigar smoke and bourbon. Does it get any better?
I returned home very, very uplifted. I’m not really sure what happened after that. Over the next few years I would, from time to time, be asked to write hymn lyrics for special occasions or for Lenten materials. The requests could only have come about as a result of having participated in the LCMS program and, I suppose, someone putting in a good word. It’s very mysterious and still surprises me, but I’ve been having a great time with it.
To this day, I find that I associate hymn writing, more than any other artsy project or creative exercise, with mental healing. My counselor had asked me once what comfort I derived from my faith in the midst of the struggle. Frankly, as I thought of those terrible weeks in hospital, “my faith” as such wasn’t worth speaking of. I was certain several times that I was going to die; I would hear threatening and hateful voices that accused me for hours on end and denied me any chance for absolution. The comfort in the spiritual care I received derived not from instilling nice sensations in my mind, but from a Word of concrete reality: “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes.”
I told my counselor that the comfort of Christianity I found in those circumstances was precisely that it was an external reality, not an inner feeling or a subjective experience, nor a sense of my own faith. My own inner feelings and experiences were in a pretty messed-up state. The verse “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” was both a physical and spiritual reality. At the time I could literally not trust my own eyes or ears to tell me the truth about anything, and forces stronger than I was seemed collectively determined to push me into a some yawning abyss of terror and despair.
Yet the truth, in spite of all this, was: God’s Word cannot lie. When white looks black, nonetheless: “I am baptized into Christ.” In the face of a thousand voices screaming that God must hate me, all the same: “This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will / He can harm us none, he’s judged; the deed is done; / One little word can fell him.”
It’s like these hymn writers have been through this mess themselves.
There is nothing like good hymnody for dragging one out of the prison of subjective vagaries and into the blazing, white hot light of Gospel certainty. Hymnody can both exalt the glorious richness of God’s grace and defy the devil exquisitely and incisively. That was a large part of the joy that hymn writing gave me in those early post-trauma attempts, and what makes it an exercise worth returning to. What’s more, hymn-writing and hymn-singing says: “You’re not alone. We are the Church throughout time and space. We will exalt God with you, and together we will defy the devil. We may go through hell, but Jesus went there first. He has promised to lead us out again and bring us to Himself.”