|ollowing family worship one Friday evening years ago, I asked our daughter to play hymn number 648 from the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal1—a piece that had been percolating in my mind since I first heard it sung in our local church during a Memorial Day service. I’d instantly fallen in love with it, and as I sat there on the floor of our family room that evening listening to its majestic melody on the piano I felt as if transported to another world.
Preachers and worship leaders should understand the power of music—the effect a certain melody can have upon particular individuals sitting in the pews before them, and how different those individuals can be—in experience, in temperament, in culture, and in taste. In regard to taste, for instance, neither my daughter nor her mom (who was present) cared a thing about the piece that so excited me that evening—an excitement that would grow even larger because of the following tragic event.
My wife and I had been vacationing in the U.K. the end of August 1997. We’d spent the Sabbath in Scotland, returning to London late Saturday night. Sunday would be our last full day in the British capital and, notwithstanding the late-night arrival from Edinburgh, we arose early Sunday morning, not wanting to waste a single hour of that final day. Going down for breakfast at the little Adventist-run bed and breakfast, we found those who’d preceded us solemn-faced and glued to the television set in the dining room. “Princess Diana is dead,” they said as we arrived, “killed in a Paris auto accident.”
Our entire plans for that final Sunday changed as we joined tens of thousands of mourners paying tribute to the fallen royal icon at her Kensington Palace home in West London.
Back in the U.S., as I watched the funeral (on tape), I heard the very song I’d asked my daughter to play that Friday evening, embellished by the great organ and choir of Westminster Abbey. A favorite of the princess (they announced), the piece took on new meaning for me as one of the most powerful songs in our hymnal:
“I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:
The love that asks no question,2 the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.”
But it’s the second stanza that captures my imagination. With one line modified in our hymnal to make it more in sync with Scripture, it reads:
“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And one by one and fervently we pray for her increase,3
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”
As even a casual observer knows, the power of a hymn does not lie alone in its lyrics. Only when set to music do those lyrics become fully loaded with emotive intensity to reach the inmost soul. This means that you’re catching less than 50 percent of the force of the words just quoted if you’re unfamiliar with the tune.
And that’s my central point in this article: we should know our hymns; we should be able to sing our songs.4
How I Got This Burden
In one particular church my Sabbath morning message would dwell on the experiential dimension of the sanctuary—on the comfort, protection, and power that flow out from that heavenly place where Jesus ministers for us. So in response to the request for bulletin information, I chose number 527 for the opening hymn.
“From every stormy wind that blows,
From every swelling tide of woes,
There is a calm, a sure retreat;
’Tis found beneath the mercy seat.”
The information supplied, I arrived Sabbath morning with great expectations, looking forward to the spiritual and emotional lift from the congregational singing of that powerful song.
But as I sat there on the rostrum, the leader of the “praise team” came to whisper in my ear that they didn’t know it.
“Don’t know it?” I whispered back, incredulous (as much as if to say: So why am I learning this only now!).
“No, we don’t. Do you have another choice?”
Typically, I’d spend as much as a half hour going through the hymnal, searching for just the right song to match my message. So you’ll understand that the last place I’d want to do this would be while sitting on the rostrum waiting to speak!
“How about number 477?” I finally said, “‘Come, Ye Disconsolate.’” (Remember the words? “Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”) It was a good substitute, I thought. But they didn’t know that one either.
I mentioned one more. No, they also didn’t know it.
“OK,” I eventually said, “just choose something.”
Experiences like that form the source of the burden I carry on this subject.
On another occasion, I chose as the opening song that great hymn by Charles Wesley: “And Can It Be?” (198) with “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (250) as a backup. Arriving for the Sabbath morning appointment, I noticed that neither hymn was listed in the bulletin. Instead, they’d chosen “In Christ There Is No East or West.” It takes only a moment to see the huge thematic gap between my choices and what we ended up singing.
For me, the hymn selected does not stand on its own. It should be an essential part of the preacher’s message.
Singing It Right
In some cases the congregation might know the selected piece and yet come up short in its execution.
Example: With an upcoming preaching appointment occupying my mind, I attended a Sabbath service that closed with the old hymn “Never Part Again” (449). It’s a powerful piece when done right—and they did it right that day! They had “fun” with the song, and one could tell that every line was hitting a spiritual spot. All heaven broke loose as the congregation came to the dramatic chorus for the final time:
“What! Never part again? No, never part again,
What! Never part again? No, never part again,
And soon we shall with Jesus reign,
And, never, never part again.”
It was the kind of experience that makes a congregation break out in “amens” after its own singing. And in the midst of all that inspiration, I said to myself: “That’ll be the closing song when I speak in a few weeks. I want to hear it again!”
But what a surprise I was in for! The song director, the pianist, and the congregation found themselves on different continents as the song proceeded, thanks in large part to the song director, who was completely at sea with the timing—and that’s a song where you’d better do the timing right!
Congregational singing, when done right, has a powerful effect on both preacher and people. On the island of Tobago in the Caribbean I had occasion to select the same hymn mentioned previously, the one by Charles Wesley (“And Can It Be?”). It was as if that Tobago camp meeting crowd had been waiting to sing the piece the entire year and now got their chance. I’d never heard it done with more spirit! It choked me up, and I had to step away to pull myself together. You could feel God’s living power in that room.
Something happens when we sing our songs right!
The evangelistic crowd was in the midst of song service as I arrived for the meeting on the tiny island of Bequia, off the coast of St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean. “Watch, Ye Saints” (598) was the song in progress, backed up by piano, synthesizer, bass guitar, and whatever other instruments they had. As they launched into the chorus: “Lo! He comes, lo! Jesus comes” you got the sense that if you stepped outside the tent and looked up, you’d actually see Jesus returning with His angels in the evening sky! It was powerful stuff—full-throttle from the belly!
I wish I had space to walk the reader through the hymnal, sharing my favorites and telling what they each mean to me. I don’t even have room to talk about the added dimension that comes from knowing the background of our hymns.5 To know the story behind George Matheson’s “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” (76), or John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (108), or John Bowring’s “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” (237) is to sing each song with deeper understanding and heightened enthusiasm.
Caveats and Observations
1. “Singing our songs” is not meant to convey the idea that we should individually like each song in the hymnal. If it were left to me, some of the hymns included would never see the light of worship. Nothing wrong with them, necessarily, but I don’t like them! Fortunately, not everyone shares my taste; and this means that someone else will select them, so I can get a chance to sing them. And that’s good for me, I think.
2. The “our” in the article’s title does not refer only to North America (where I happen to live). The hymnal we use here is also used in other places, but it’s not universal. When I travel to Norway, for example, I must adjust to the hymnal they use there. For Adventists in Norway the our in the title would refer to the songs in their official hymnal; and the same would hold true for South Africa, India, Zimbabwe, Germany, or wherever. I think it’s beautiful to hear new tunes and different lyrics as one travels around the world.
3. A factor to consider in using the word “our” for North America (and other places with the same hymnal) is that most of the songs in that hymnbook originated from a single culture. This should raise an alert for anyone concerned about the future of a multicultural, multiethnic, global church. The answer to this issue probably does not lie in the production of a new “official” hymnal—a huge undertaking in regard to time, resources, and personnel. But given the fact that the present hymnal has been around for nearly a quarter century (since 1985), its defects in this area could easily be rectified by the use of convenient modern technology (PowerPoint, for example) to diversify the music in any church. Without such adaptations, talking about “our songs” will become more and more meaningless.
4. Those who’re into contemporary music of one form or another should remember that our brains are big enough to hold both the “classical” and the “modern.” We should not become narrow by restricting ourselves to a single genre of music.
There’s Power in It
The Bible emphasizes the importance of music and musicians in corporate worship. The ancient musicians, it says in one place, “stayed in the rooms of the temple and were exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night” (1 Chron. 9:33). They needed to be “skillful” at their task (1 Chron. 15:19-22; cf. 1 Chron. 25:1, 6, 7). During the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, as the musicians unleashed their cymbals, harps, and lyres, “accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets” (can you picture that!), and the choir “[raising] their voices in praise to the Lord,” “the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God” (2 Chron. 5:12-14).
There’s power in singing. As they emerged from their hair-raising Red Sea experience, the first thing Israel did was sing (Ex. 15); at a critical time in Israel, it was the choir that led the nation’s army into battle (2 Chron. 20:20-22); under severe discomfort in a Philippian jail, Paul and Silas broke out into songs at midnight, leading to an earthquake and the conversion of the jailer and his family (Acts 16:25ff.); martyrs across the centuries sang as they faced death; the American slaves, steeped in religion, survived by singing; and who does not know the power of “A Mighty Fortress” (506), the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation”?6
We need to sing our songs with greater passion. Our own musicians should compose new melodies—about grace, the Second Coming, the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection, the Sabbath, and about other doctrines we hold dear—serious songs, “singable” songs, songs that touch the soul.
There’s something strange about a roomful of grown men and women opening their mouths and making sounds together. But the psychology of it is evident. It solidifies people; creates unity; strengthens resolve; brings comfort; deepens assurance; enhances hope. We do it for the rush it gives, the goose bumps it creates, the confidence it produces.
Before launching into some of “the good, old hymns” at a recent concert, Adventist singer Wintley Phipps made a statement that bears repeating: “When you come down to the final moments of your life, you don’t want no ditties. You want songs with substance.” And the piece that followed those remarks said it all:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll—
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”7
The story behind that song8 helps us brace for whatever life may throw at us, while we look forward to that stupendous day when, coming out of great tribulation, we shall join God’s people from around the world and across the centuries upon the sea of glass to sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. What an awesome moment that will be!
1Variously referred to hereafter as: “the hymnal,” “our hymnal,” “the hymnbook,” etc. Numbers in parentheses throughout the article refer to hymn numbers in this work. For a brief history of Adventist hymnals, see p. 7.
2The wording in our hymnal (“the love that asks the reason”) does not seem to make sense; so I revert back to the actual words sung at the funeral service, the original words, I think, of Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, the author.
3The original line reads: “And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase”—much more elegant than the substitute in our hymnal, but it gives the impression that “souls” go one by one to heaven at death.
4The Web version of this article will include a sidebar with suggestions on how we might foster a more extensive knowledge of our hymns.
5For a brief account of the story or background surrounding the hymns in our hymnal, see Wayne Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 1988).
6See Hooper and White, p. 488.
7The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, No. 530.
8Horatio Spafford wrote the song while grieving for his four young daughters whose ship went down in the Atlantic, off Newfoundland. (See Hooper and White, p. 504.)
Roy Adams is an associate editor of Adventist Review.