I love to sing hymns. You know, the kind with the organ swelling in four-part glorious harmony as the congregation sings along, maybe in harmony, too – and if you’re lucky, you get an organ interlude/flourish before that last verse, and maybe even a key change (though that usually take me out of tenor range). Many take me back to my childhood, be it only the tune or the whole hymn itself, but it just brings me back to a place of confident faith that I can’t say I experience anywhere else. (Excuse me if I’m sounding too much like Garrison Keillor here.) And while I do enjoy singing the praise songs that have become popular in many worship settings today, there’s something about holding that hymn book in my hand and joining the heavenly chorus.
Part of what I love about hymns, and something that I’ve only more recently really began to realize, is the beautiful poetry of hymns. On Easter, I wrote about the way the words of a particular hymn stuck me that morning, and it seems every Sunday I’m greeted anew with more words of faith and assurance, many written by saints of old. This morning it was “God Himself Is Present” (see below) that (masculine pronouns not withstanding) really got to me, taking me into the presence of the Holy One.
And it’s the poetry aspect of the hymns (what else could it be) that has gotten me frustrated various times in the past few months and brings this critique: if you’re going to sing a hymn, you really should sing all the verses. If you were going to read a poem, would you only read half of it? In fact, many poems we remember by their concluding lines of verses (i.e. “… and I took the road less traveled), so why do we feel it OK to conclude a hymn early? If it’s the length of the service one is concerned about, pick a different hymn or fewer hymns – don’t shrink a perfectly good poem down from it’s full nature.
I attended a Catholic mass a few months ago with a few friends, having gone to a Lutheran service earlier that day with one of them, and she noted that one thing about Catholic services is that it’s a very rare occasion to sing all the verses of a hymn – in fact, at that mass I attended, we sang only the first two verses of each hymn we sang. I won’t go as far as calling it sacrilegious, but it would certainly be a deterrent for me attending mass if I knew I’d never get to sing a hymn in its fullness.
A particular example which really got me going with this, about a year ago: At a particular service, they have hymns during communion. The final song was “O Christ The Same.” This is a beautiful hymn to the tune of “O Danny Boy,” with three verses: the first speaking of Christ in ages past (“our yesterdays”), Christ today (“the present hour”), and Christ in the future (“all that is to be”). We were on the second verse as communion distribution concluded, and the service would continue when we stopped singing.
And we stopped singing after the second verse!
Here you have a wonderful poem by Timothy Dudley-Smith, telling this story of past, present, and future, and all we get is the first two pieces of the story! It happened again last week with “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” as we failed to sing the final verse, which sings of assurance in death (“the night draws near”).
I implore all you worship planners (or those with such influence): don’t do a disservice to these great poets and SING ALL THE VERSES OF THE HYMNS!
“God Himself Is Present” by: Gerhard Tersteegen
God himself is present;
Let us now adore him
And with awe appear before him!
God is in his temple;
All within keep silence,
Prostrate lie with deepest rev’rence.
Him alone God we own,
Him, our God and Savior;
Praise his name forever.
God himself is present;
Hear the harps resounding;
See the hosts the throne surrounding!
“Holy, holy, holy!”
Hear the hymn ascending,
Song and saints and angels blending.
Bow your ear to us here:
Hear, O Christ the praises
That your Church now raises.
Light of light eternal,
All things penetrating,
For your rays our soul is waiting.
As the tender flowers,
To the sun their faces holding:
Even so would we do,
Light for you obtaining,
Strength to serve you gaining.
Come, celestial Being,
Make our hearts your dwelling,
Ev’ry carnal thought dispelling.
By your Holy Spirit
Sanctify us truly,
Teaching us to love you only.
Where we go here below,
Let us bow before you
And in truth adore you.