I can't imagine what my life would be like without hymns. They touch on everything that speaks to me. I love music, and singing, particularly in a crowd. And I am stimulated by theological ideas, whether they echo my own or challenge my deepest convictions. But most of all, I cherish words that transcend their surface meaning and invite us into mystical truths. Hymnody does all of this for me.
I know my heart is captured when I'm singing one of those good old Lutheran hymns and the words catch in my throat. They are so big that I can’t get them out. In “For All the Saints”, when we sing about people who have died in the faith and cheer us on until we join them, the words “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine” aren’t easy to leave behind as I move on to the next phrase. Then I find that I can never sing the sixth stanza because I’m always fighting back the tears: But then there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia! Alleluia!
As I’ve gotten older, “How Firm a Foundation” seems to squeeze the sound from my vocal chords when I get to the fourth verse. Throughout all their lifetime my people shall prove my sov’reign, eternal, unchangeable love; and then, when gray hairs shall their temples adorn, like lambs they shall still in my bosom be born.
I’m not sure why certain hymns seem to affect me this way, but they do. I wish I could say that the words sneak up on me and catch me unawares while I’m singing, but that’s not usually the case. I know the words; I’ve sung them a bazillion times before, and I know what's coming. But I can’t help myself. They penetrate an unprotected place within me and all pretenses disappear.
There is a verse from an Advent hymn that disarms me like this. We sang it last Sunday and it's stuck to the inner walls of my skull like velcro: “Comfort, comfort now my people; tell of peace!” So says our God. Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrow’s load. To God’s people now proclaim that God’s pardon waits for them! Tell them that their war is over; God will reign in peace forever. The phrase where I lose it completely is, “Tell them that their war is over.” Whenever I hear those words, I can’t help taking them personally. Even though I’ve never served in the military, I think back on my life and, in many respects, it feels like I’ve been through a war. Some of this has been because of circumstances beyond my control, and some of it has been self-inflicted. But no matter the cause, engaging in war has been physically and emotionally exhausting. There is no greater peace than knowing that the war that has had such a toll on me in so many ways, is finally over.
"Tell them that their war is over." How can hymn writers give us such huge words and expect us to sing them? Maybe that’s why hymns are meant to be sung by a community of people. While I’m struggling to sing, others are effortlessly blurting the words out. And then, while someone else is stuck on the first phrase of a hymn, I’m gliding through all the verses.
Singing hymns takes the collective courage of a community. When I try to sing from the hymnal in the privacy of my home, I consistently get lost in the witness of the words. That’s a big reason why I gather regularly for worship with a faith community -- because I know I can count on them to sing hymns with me. And I need to sing hymns.