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Some Personal Reflections on Hymns
Lionel E. Deimel

January 13, 1992
Revised October 23, 1993

What follows was first presented as an opening meditation at a Parish Council meeting at St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon. It later became an Adult Forum program, first at St. Mark’s, Erie, and then at St. Paul’s. The presentation in Erie included singing by a quartet and by the congregation. When the program was presented at St. Paul’s, the quartet was replaced by a full choir. Because this is a personal reflection, it cannot be used by others in its current form, but a hymn lover could surely use the same idea I had to develop his own program. 

 

As I walk down the center aisle at St. Paul’s singing Sunday’s recessional hymn with the choir, I’m often saddened and bewildered by the many members of the congregation who are singing feebly or not at all. Some people even stand without a hymnal, looking resolutely forward, and uttering not a word. Too bad. Singing is not only very Christian, but profoundly human. I suspect their education failed many of these people, though we may be partly to blame for not telling them that making a joyful noise unto the Lord does not require a musician’s competence.

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love to sing hymns, and I enjoy doing so now more than ever. Hymn singing is always both a musical and religious experience for me, although the proportions are never predictable. I am often moved by hymn texts when I least expect it, and I am sad for those who do not at least allow themselves to be open to such an experience.

I’d like to share with you some of my experiences with hymns, thoughts about hymns, as well as some hymn texts themselves.

I think the first hymn to move me to tears in my childhood was “The Church’s One Foundation.” I was affected both by its words about Christ’s sacrifice for us and by its loving imagery of the Church. My favorite verse has become the third, which was omitted from the Presbyterian Hymnbook from which I first learned the hymn. There were originally seven verses, by the way, and there exist at least ten; The Hymnal 1982 contains five. Keep in mind the words of the Apostles’ Creed “the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints”:

1. Hymn 5251, 2

The Church’s one foundation

Is Jesus Christ her Lord;

She is his new creation

By water and the word;

From heaven he came and sought her

To be his holy bride;

With his own blood he bought her,

And for her life he died.

 

Elect from every nation,

Yet one o’er all the earth,

Her charter of salvation,

One Lord, one faith, one birth;

One holy Name she blesses,

Partakes one holy food,

And to one hope she presses,

With every grace endued.

 

Though with a scornful wonder

Men see her sore oppressed,

By schisms rent asunder,

By heresies distressed;

Yet saints their watch are keeping,

Their cry goes up, “How long?”

And soon the night of weeping

Shall be the morn of song.

 

Mid toil and tribulation,

And tumult of her war

She waits the consummation

Of peace for evermore;

Till with the vision glorious

Her longing eyes are blessed,

And the great Church victorious

Shall be the Church at rest.

 

Yet she on earth hath union

With God, the Three in One,

And mystic sweet communion

With those whose rest is won.

O happy ones and holy!

Lord, give us grace that we

Like them, the meek and lowly,

On high may dwell with thee.

Probably the hardest hymn for me to sing without tears is “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” a hymn I did not learn as a Presbyterian. It was written for her own children by Lesbia Scott, who died in 1986. I like the hymn’s Anglican quaintness, but I am moved by its simple call to holiness:

2. Hymn 2933

I sing a song of the saints of God,

Patient and brave and true,

Who toiled and fought and lived and died

For the Lord they loved and knew.

And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,

And one was a shepherdess on the green:

They were all of them saints of God—and I mean,

God helping, to be one too.

 

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,

And his love made them strong;

And they followed the right, for Jesus’ sake,

The whole of their good lives long.

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,

And one was slain by a fierce wild beast:

And there’s not any reason—no, not the least,

Why I shouldn’t be one too.

 

They lived not only in ages past,

There are hundreds of thousands still,

The world is bright with the joyous saints

Who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,

In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,

For the saints of God are just folk like me,

And I mean to be one too.

I have always been fond of the “Navy Hymn,” which has two incarnations in our Hymnal, the more modern of which prays for travelers by whatever means, not merely for seafarers. Notice how, in this hymn, the notion of the Trinity is woven into each verse. The Sunday after the Challenger exploded, our church choir in Meadville sang “Almighty Father, Strong to Save” as its anthem:

3. Hymn 5794

Almighty Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep:

O hear us when we cry to thee

For those in peril on the sea.

 

O Christ, the Lord of hill and plain

O’er which our traffic runs amain

By mountain pass or valley low;

Wherever, Lord, thy people go,

Protect them by thy guarding hand

From every peril on the land.

 

O Spirit whom the Father sent

To spread abroad the firmament;

O Wind of heaven, by thy might

Save all who dare the eagle’s flight,

And keep them by thy watchful care

From every peril in the air.

 

O Trinity of love and power,

Our people shield in danger’s hour;

From rock and tempest, fire and foe,

Protect them wheresoe’er they go;

Thus evermore shall rise to thee

Glad praise from space, air, land, and sea.

I think of “Now Thank We Now Our God” as a Thanksgiving hymn, but its three verses each have a different character. The first expresses thanksgiving; the second is a prayer; the third a doxology. It was written during the Thirty Years’ War under less than happy circumstances. I particularly like the second verse, though the tune by Crüger and harmonization by Mendelssohn have a lot to do with my fondness for this hymn:

4. Hymn 3975

Now thank we all our God,

With heart, and hands, and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done,

In whom his world rejoices;

Who from our mother’s arms

Hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love,

And still is ours today.

 

O may this bounteous God

Through all our life be near us!

With ever-joyful hearts

And blessed peace to cheer us;

And keep us in his grace,

And guide us when perplexed,

And free us from all ills

In this world and the next.

 

All praise and thanks to God

The Father now be given,

The Son, and him who reigns

With them in highest heaven,

Eternal, Triune God,

Whom earth and heaven adore;

For thus it was, is now,

And shall be, evermore.

Many hymns end with a doxology as does “Now Thank We All Our God.” One might think this would tend to make the Hymnal boring, but I find the variations endlessly fascinating. For example, the wonderful Lenten hymn “The Glory of These Forty Days” concludes with the following verse:

5. Hymn 1436

O Father, Son, and Spirit blest,

To thee be every prayer addressed,

Who art in three-fold Name adored,

From age to age, the only Lord. 

  (Click here for full text.)

Such doxologies are often structured to reflect the ideas and metaphors of earlier verses. The result can be to add a powerful summation to a hymn. This is the case in “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High,” which derives from a 15th century text and movingly conveys Christ’s sacrifice:

6. Hymn 4487

O love, how deep, how broad, how high,

How passing thought and fantasy,

That God, the Son of God, should take

Our mortal form for mortal’s sake.

 

For us baptized, for us he bore

His holy fast and hungered sore;

For us temptations sharp he knew;

For us the tempter overthrew.

 

For us he prayed; for us he taught;

For us his daily works he wrought:

By words and signs and actions, thus

Seeking not himself, but us.

 

For us to wicked hands betrayed,

Scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed,

He bore the shameful cross and death;

For us gave up his dying breath.

 

For us he rose from death again;

For us he went on high to reign;

For us he sent his Spirit here

To Guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.

 

All glory to our Lord and God

For love so deep, so high, so broad;

The Trinity whom we adore

For ever and for evermore.

I could go on and on, but our time is limited. I conclude with an Easter hymn. The second verse is my favorite; I hope you can see why. The music is equally wonderful, however—a Hintze chorale harmonized by Bach:

7. Hymn 1748

At the Lamb’s high feast we sing

Praise to our victorious King,

Who hath washed us in the tide

Flowing from his piercèd side;

Praise we him, whose love divine

Gives his sacred Blood for wine,

Gives his Body for the feast,

Christ the victim, Christ the priest.

 

Where the Paschal blood is poured,

Death’s dark angel sheathes his sword;

Israel’s hosts triumphant go

Through the wave that drowns the foe.

Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,

Paschal victim, Paschal bread;

With sincerity and love

Eat we manna from above.

 

Mighty victim from on high,

Hell’s fierce powers beneath thee lie;

Thou hast conquered in the fight,

Thou has brought us life and light:

Now no more can death appall,

Now no more the grave enthrall;

Thou has opened paradise,

And in thee thy saints shall rise.

 

Easter triumph, Easter joy,

These alone do sin destroy.

From sin’s power do thou set free

Souls new-born, O Lord, in thee.

Hymns of glory, songs of praise,

Father, unto thee we raise;

Risen Lord, all praise to thee

With the Spirit ever be.

Amen.

 

1Hymn numbers and texts are from The Hymnal 1982, © 1985 Church Pension Fund.
2
Samuel John Stone (1839-1900)
3Lesbia Scott (1898-1986)
4
Sts. 1 & 4, William Whiting (1825-1878), alt.; sts. 2 & 3, Robert Nelson Spencer (1877-1961), alt. Sts. 2 & 3 © Church Pension Fund. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5Martin Rinckart (1586-1649); tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), alt.
6Latin, 6th cent.; tr. Maurice F. Bell (1862-1947), alt. © Oxford University Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
7Latin, 15th cent.; tr. Benjamin Webb (1819-1885), alt.
8Latin, 1632; tr. Robert Campbell (1814-1868), alt.

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