Singing the Faith

The Christian’s Life in Hymns

By the Rev. Dr. Amy Schifrin

We know a sound when we hear it. We can tell the difference between a toddler’s giggle and a teenager’s cry of despair, between an angry husband’s “harrumph” when he slams the door and his sigh of deep relief when his wife welcomes him back into her arms, between a baby’s first piercing wail and the raspy rattle of the dying just before life on this earth ends. We know a sound when we hear it.

God gifts us with this miraculous world of sound that we might know how much he loves us. God gifts us with this world of sound that we might sing the glory of his love. God gifts us with this world of sound that in the assembly gathered in his name we might hear beyond what we can see and be led into the future he has prepared for us.

When our voices speak a bitter word against a neighbor or come out shaped like a dagger against an enemy or mock in a snicker that is the residue of gossip, the misuse of the miracle of sound is revealed. But a hymn sung in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ—where the beauty of words are shaped and discovered in the lyric line of an ascending melody or in a harmony that pulses and drives to its resolution like waves on the sand—then our speech is transformed into what it should be: the glorious praise of God. In hymns that span the centuries as they span the range of the human voice, we sing the Victor’s song, announcing his Lordship even in the midst of all that threatens to tear life from us. For the praise of God, like God himself, is eternal. As we sing together, the voices of those who have gone before us sound in ours, granting us the strength to sing the next generation into life. His voice sounding in ours is where our fear dies and trust begins. 

Our hymns sing to God our confession of faith. Our hymns sing to God that all the world may hear his voice. The texts tell the sweep of salvation history in the context of Trinitarian Doxology. The music opens to us that of which the text speaks—but not by words, by something far more primal, the sound of creation itself. The melody of the spheres, the wind in the aspens, the meadowlark and the whale, the crack of thunder and lightning on the prairie, the coyote’s howl in the dark of night, the banshee’s scream, the hummingbird’s hum, the vocalization of women and men—made in God’s image—singing majesty, mystery, honor, power, grace, humility, thanksgiving, and joy are the Christian’s life in Christ in hymns.
So, I want you to take a moment and think about majesty, mystery, honor, power, grace, humility, thanksgiving, and joy. Close your eyes, if you like, and go back in your memories to a place where you might have experienced one or two of them, or go forward and imagine what majesty or grace or joy might look like . . . and then I want you to hear what these gifts might sound like. To do so, I want you to sing without using words. Just sing with an “ah” or an “ooh” or a percussive “bump, bump, bump.”

Majesty—AUSTRIA, LBW 358
(“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”)

Mystery—PICARDY, LBW 198
(“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”)

Honor—MARION, LBW 553
(“Rejoice, O Pilgrim Throng”)

(“Thy Strong Word”)

This singing without words, simply using an “ah,” we call vocalise. Singers practice it as an exercise even though most of the time they will be using words when they perform. When they sing at a concert or a recital, the words and music are performed as one, each part interpreting the other. The hearer receives such beauty in a way that the spoken text alone could not achieve. 

Something quite similar happens when a congregation sings a hymn. The text and tune no longer have separate identities, because they read each other, and in reading each other they draw us into the beauty of the one who is the creator of all beauty, God himself. 

This is the sound of God’s love being poured into hearts. And when it is poured into our hearts day after day at family devotions, night after night as we sing our little ones to sleep, Sunday after Sunday when we are gathered with the faithful around the table of the LORD, not only will we recognize it—but we will long for it. And even after a long journey, we will know this sound of eternal love when we hear it.

In the spring of 1986, I composed a tune for a new hymn for a text that had been written by the poet Gracia Grindal. Based on Psalm 131, it was entitled, “O God my heart is not proud.” It was to be a Lenten hymn for sure, and it came out of my prayers in a minor mode with tight close-set harmonies—suspensions that held our pain even until the final phrase: “O God, our hope is in you.” I happened to be pregnant at the time with my second child, who restless in the womb, was ever eager to make what would clearly be an early appearance. As I sat at the piano and worked on the hymn, I sang it again and again and again. I played it, and I sang it until, in what is the most delightful moment for a composer, it sounded right, and I then wept with joy that came from outside of myself. The next day, I went into labor. I had sent the hymn off to be printed, and I didn’t sing it again—for many months. 

But one day I was at my little pump organ, getting my aerobic exercise and playing and singing while my little one—now about 9 months old—was crawling at my feet. It was Lent, and so I got out the hymn I had written, “O God my heart is not proud,” the hymn I had written the year before. I started to play it and to sing, and my son who had been contently crawling around and playing with his toys became ecstatic. He pulled himself up at my knee and bounced his own liturgical dance and cooed and giggled as only a baby can. I finished singing the hymn and started playing another from the standard Lenten repertoire, and he went back to crawling. I finished the hymn and played mine again, and he once again started dancing and cooing. I tried it two more times—with the same response—until my own tears flowed so freely that I could no longer continue, but scooped him up in my arms.

He had heard it in utero. He had breathed it in utero. He had been surrounded by it in utero, and now he recognized it as his own. We know a sound when we hear it.

God gives us these hymns so that when the last day comes—we who are yet groaning in this world’s travail will recognize his sound and with the voices of all the saints and angels singing us on we will be led to his heart and know that we are home. Amen.