Handling the Word: The Music, Art, and Meditation of “Hymn Journaling”

The “Bible Journaling craze,” as Christianity Today called in back in 2016, has continued to grow, expand, and morph into a variety of spiritual practices and disciplines. One recent twist: the Hymn Journal.

A #1 New Release in “Christian Devotionals” this Lent is called When from Death I’m Free: A Hymn Journal for Holy Week. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: Barna research suggests that journaling is one of the only spiritual practices that crosses education and economic lines. (Nature is the other.) But the way a Hymn Journal in particular combines music, art, and Scripture gives us an insight into what’s actually happening theologically when you sketch, doodle, draw, color, collage, and sing along.

The Scriptures actually talk about engaging Scripture. And when God’s Word talks about handling God’s Word, we get a variety of metaphors. Some of the richest imagery for handling the Word of God shows up in the Psalms. Psalm 1 for example, talks about the person who’s “delight is in the Torah of Yahweh” or the “Law of the Lord.” The context makes clear we’re not just talking rules here; this is the whole story of creation and redemption and promise of more to come.

And the blessed person who delights in this divine Story? That person “meditates” on this Word of God “day and night.” You could translate “meditate” in this verse as “chew”—the vocab can refer to how a cow chews and re-chews its cud all day long. Or you might want to go with the word’s other core meaning here: to crush an herb and release its aroma, flavor, and power. Imagine taking a handful of fresh lemon basil or chocolate mint and grinding it between your hands and taking a deep breath. That pungent odor is like Scripture: God’s Word has power of and by itself, always and everywhere, but when you handle God’s Word, you release that universal power into your own personal space and experience.

Or take another of my favorites: you know Psalm 119 talks about God’s Word as “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (verse 105), but did you know that one of the many words Psalm 119 uses for  “meditating” on the Word is a verb that basically means “to play?” It’s the same Hebrew vocabulary word we get in Isaiah 11:8.

The infant will play [sha’a’] near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
(Isaiah 11:8, NIV)

That “play” word describes the kind of delight you get from just having fun. Coasting down a big hill on a bike, swinging on a tire swing, taking a running leap off the dock, grabbing the front seat on a roller coaster: anything that makes you go, “Whee!!” and then bust out laughing is probably a good approximation of the Hebrew word sha’a’. (It’s even fun to say: shah-AH!) Notice how that playful delight shows up repeatedly throughout Psalm 119.

I will delight [sha’a’] in your statutes; I will not forget your word …
I find delight [sha’a’] in your commandments, which I love …
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live;
   for your law is my delight [sha’a’] …
If your law had not been my delight [sha’a’],
    I would have perished in my affliction.
(Psalm 119:16, 47, 77, 92, ESV)

Psalm 119 seems to think we should take playful delight in God’s Word. That play/sport/delight vocabulary word can be translated as “meditating” on God’s Word—not meditating as in just thinking about it intellectually, but playing with it; exploring it; handling the Word of Truth so that its eternal significance also has meaning for me, today (and having fun doing it).

The purpose of “meditating” on the Word—crushing the herbs, finding playful delight in the text—the purpose of handling Scriptures is to plant that Word deep in your heart so it can grow and bear fruit. That’s what I see going on with hymn journaling.

Music can glorify God all by itself; and music can also deliver the Word. Art can glorify God just by being Art, and if you spend any time on Pintrest or Facebook, you’ll see people talking about how Bible journaling is a kind of worship that brings glory to God.

I think that’s right, but not yet complete. Art can glorify God, but more than that, Art can also deliver the Word; I think that’s where the true power (and real fun) comes in.

The creators of the When from Death I’m Free hymn journal launched a Facebook pop up group to provide a sense of community (we follow Jesus better when we follow Him together). In that group, one of the participants captured what I am talking about. Their comment read: “I amazed by the double dose of concentration/devotion that music and visual meditation is allowing me. I walk around the house humming the melody, recalling the images, and repeating the lyrics. It is really quite powerful.”

Did you get that? The music delivers the Word. The visual imagery delivers the Word. The Word is powerful and active in your daily life, on your lips and in your heart, as you walk around the house.

Another Facebook member posted: “I’m loving how the artwork makes me take more time on my devotion and really ponder and pray. I especially like the visual faith experiments.” Taking more time—that’s like rubbing the herb (or chewing the cud…). An “experiment” tied to “visual faith”—that’s got sha’a’ written all over it, taking playful delight in engaging the Word.

St. Augustine famously said, “The one who sings, prays twice.” I’d like to add, “And the one who draws, or colors, or sketches, or doodles, prays again and again and again.”

The power is already there in the Word. Handling the Word (along with the colored pencils and markers) brings the power of the Word to bear in your day, in your week, in your life. And where the Word is present in your life, you can trust Jesus is present, too. Jesus is the Word of God who got His hands dirty for us; now that same Jesus is present by His Spirit as we get our hands dirty in the Word. The result is a powerful aroma that stays with you all day.

Oh, and fun; don’t forget the pure delight of having Scripture stains on your fingers and in your heart as you go about your daily routine.

This overview video was produced by a congregation in St. Louis, Missouri and shares a glimpse of what a “hymn journal” looks like and does.

3 Comments

  1. Since I was a young lad – teenager – I always found it difficult to read scripture/meditate before I went to bed to sleep. I found that God’s Word so exciting/stimulating that I had difficulty going to bed to sleep. I see that idea presented in this article when you refer to the Sha’a’ or “Whee!” feeling you can get from reading scripture. First time I have ever seen it expressed like this and sharing the same feeling I still get from Biblical meditation.

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