Hymns Redeemed and Restored
As the son of Southern Baptist missionaries, Matthew Smith is no stranger to the basic ideas of Christianity. Since childhood, he heard Bible stories and teaching in ways that prepared him to understand and believe the basic tenants of the Christian faith. It was not until he entered college at Belmont University in Nashville, however, that the message of the Gospel with all of its forceful depth and simple truth seemingly captured his heart through the witness of a campus minister—Kevin Twit.
Nashville is the place where would be “stars” go to be discovered and where music itself becomes more than a passion or gift. It is a business. The “business” of music makes itself known in various ways—the country music scene and even “Christian” music surface as moneymakers as new hits make the rounds and some songs permanently root themselves in American history. For country music fans, the Grand Ole Opry is the standard and still evokes emotion even for young people who have never heard of Roy Acuff or Johnny Cash. The city is filled with singers who dream of a “new” song to make them famous—something that is fresh and on the cutting-edge.
So it is rare that a young man such as Smith, who is obviously musically gifted— both as a vocalist and with an ability to write tunes that people can sing and remember—would become and remain interested in Christian hymns. A quick look over the CDs he has recorded reveals that he is a student of the Bible and theology as most of the songs emerge from reading older theological works that are normally only discovered through teaching by a well-read pastor or theologian. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” join lesser known hymns such as John Newton’s, “The Lord Will Provide” or “Jesus, I Am Resting.”
In Smith’s newest release, “The Rising Day,” he blends a strange sense of grief with the strong sentiment of hope. For a young man, he seems strangely acquainted with grief. As he writes of the motive for this last musical project, he seems bombarded by realities for which there are few easy answers. For Smith, it has been “a difficult year.” Some of his friends divorced, some died and some walked way from the Christian faith to the point that they even deny it is true at all.
“We live in a fallen world,” Smith says. “There is no way to get around that, and the church often is just not the place where people deeply hurt and affected by life’s pain can go.” One of his friends is a recovering alcoholic, and she has made a deep impression on his life. The reality of her sin addiction forced her to resign herself to the fact that unless something was drastically done in her life, she would be forever unable to break free of sin’s power.
As an alcoholic, her struggle has helped him forge a newfound appreciation for the transparency and open admission of a broken life that only finds healing as it embraces the searing pain of life.
“Sometimes the church expects people to get over things quickly—to move on past grief and get on with life,” he says. Smith’s thinking has been changed to understand that “there are some things that will certainly take time to mourn and grieve” while some tragedies and losses in life are so great that “even Christians will grieve over them the rest of their lives.” This music project is evidence of that fact.
On the night when he appears in Norman as part of Union Association’s church planting team’s collaboration with other churches in the city, he is careful to always reference the Bible as the source for all of his thinking about suffering and even death. One particular song stands in stark contrast to much of the modern ideas about death—“Goodnight.” It is originally a very old hymn for which he has written a new tune. It speaks of a “journey” that begins with rejoicing to “see the glory” of God as the final (and yet new beginning) of life. Death is portrayed as little more than leaving one world to enter another—much like saying good-night when about to enter sleep.
One of the project’s most popular songs—“Redeemed, Restored, Forgiven”—represents the best of the old hymns. It begins with a person alienated from God and relationally severed from understanding (let alone knowing) God. Through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, the sinner “is made his own.”
For all of the talk about grief and loss, there isn’t a hint of cynicism that looks on the world as some sort of cruel joke or tasteless existence.
“In fact, I think it should be just the opposite,” Smith states. “Many in my generation have become cynical thinking that everything is really bad and corrupt, but Jesus did not live His earthly life that way. He knew what was coming and what was truly in the heart of man, but He never succumbed to a cynical view of the world He created.”
Andy McDonald, pastor of Redeemer Church in Norman agrees, “What we hoped would happen as a result of bringing Matthew here to Norman was to challenge us to look on our broken world as it is—not as we would want it to be.” McDonald went on to say that the music of his generation is finding great help by going back for the future of church music. “We are working hard to ensure that what we sing is based on the reality of the Bible—its honesty, hardships and hope in Jesus Christ.”