Have you ever been to a hymn-sing? Neither had I, until 2010. At that time, local churches, with the help of a wonderfully-gifted song leader, began to host evening hymn-sings about once every three months. If you’ve never been to one, these times of worship feature congregations being invited to sing through entire hymns, in traditional fashion, in order to grasp fully the significance of each word and theological concept. Occasionally, the church and song leaders will have invited special performers–an organist, a harpist, a noted singer who has been filled with peace following a difficult time. And then, there is the request period. Sometimes, we congregants have a tendency to keep the organist and pianist on their toes–requesting everything from “In the Garden” and “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to “Sunshine in My Soul” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”–in April, mind you!
I recently had the pleasure of experiencing one of these precious events. Traditionally, I’ve attended hymn-sings with my sister in Christ, Pianist. However, Pianist was unavailable, so I thought I’d review it for her. Pianist, I don’t think you’ll ever want to miss another hymn-sing for the rest of your life!
Setting: My heart. It is a gloomy place, filled with decidedly unpoetic rainclouds–not the rain of happy tears, but the angry, overcast clouds of unrest and pain. Yes, unrest. I have had little peace and less rest in the Lord, and it shows. On this particular evening, I am scheduled to attend a beautiful hymn-sing where, it is hoped, I can seek the Father’s face once again, and maybe find His presence flooding my life once more. However, both my rides have canceled–Pianist, because she had another event she needed to attend, and another sister in Christ, because she was not feeling well. What am I going to do? Does the Lord not want me to seek His presence? Why, for the past three weeks, have I been so unable to find any time to worship Him? And why now do I have no transportation to the only event I’ve really wanted to attend since July, 2012?
Aloud: “Why, Lord? I do not understand your ways!”
Obviously, I have spoken the prayer more loudly than I had intended to, because Jedediah approaches me and offers to serve as my transportation. Jedediah: literally, “Beloved of the Lord”. Jedediah is my brother in Christ and a strong, solid man of God. He is also far fonder of contemporary worship than of congregational and even choral hymns. I will go with him, but how will he feel about the experience? Will he be blessed by it, or slightly bored? Can I communicate to him how much this means, or even get him to enjoy it with me? Tucking those questions into the back of my mind, and my guide-dog’s identification into my purse, I get hastily into the car and set off with Jedediah, hoping we won’t be too late.
Oh, how lovely! We’re only five minutes late. We’ve probably only missed the prelude–which my parents used to pronounce “pray-lued”, and which I believed was intended as a time for silent prayer until long after I had learned to read! Despite the fact that we are nearly on time, we have to rush into the building, not even properly working with my guide-dog. Once inside, we discover that there is space only in the balcony. Last time Pianist and I were in the balcony, we were cramped in the very last row with people who wanted to talk through the service, and we could scarcely hear either the congregation or the choir. Again, my heart begins to doubt: “Lord, how can I be so close to this time of worship, but not really with Your people? How can we really worship when we’re in the balcony and can’t hear?” I know the answer–not everything in life can be attached to our spiritual lives and, even if this could, what right do I have to question Almighty God? Still a work in progress…
But when we reach the balcony, I make an interesting discovery. First, we are not in the farthest seats; I can hear everything. In fact, I have programmed my recorder for a high-sensitivity setting, so it picks up more than I have ever been able to preserve in the past. With or without the recorder, I can hear the congregation and choir almost as well as if I were sitting in a regular pew. Then, too, we are two of the few people in the balcony and sitting alone, for all intents and purposes. Unlike our last balcony experience, my guide-dog is not cramped, and I can stand to worship if I wish. No one is nearby enough to chat through the service… It’s perfect!
We have, in fact, missed the pray-lude. We are halfway through the first hymn when we finally find our seats. No matter–this is not one I’m terribly familiar with, and I feel we can afford to have missed it. Not so with “No, Not One”. Honestly! To think that I’ve been a Christian since the age of four, yet I’ve never before heard this hymn! The Calvary Chapel worship teams aren’t doing their job… Well, they are, but they don’t have five hours in which to lead the congregation in worship each Sunday–sadly. In any event, the rest of the congregation is obviously acquainted with this hymn, because when the song leader assigns parts, they immediately fall into rhythm with the song. I, on the other hand, am in awe and only catch on to the words “no, not one! no, not one!” halfway through the second verse. And then, there’s that awesome chorus–and I reserve the word “awesome” only to describe the things of God. “Jesus knows all about our struggles; / He will guide till the day is done. / There’s not a Friend like the lowly Jesus, / No, not one! No, not one!” And here I had been feeling all alone… Here, I had forgotten that He would never forsake me. Had abandoned in my heart the notion that I should come to Him for all my rest, my joy and hope and peace… By the time us congregants are asked to sing the chorus one more time, a cappella, I realize that we have a little problem on our hands. When I was packing my guide-dog’s ID, I really should have remembered to stash some Kleenex in that purse of mine.
Next, the song leader introduces a fifteen-year-old organist. He has only been learning the instrument for a short time, but already he is eager to share the gift God has given him with the congregation. As he begins “Come, Thou Almighty King”, something in his playing reminds me of Jedediah. Jedediah, by the way, has been as immersed in the worship service as I am. He is following along in the hymnal, singing his heart out with the rest of us, and not quite seeming to care that this bears no resemblance to Jars of Clay or Hillsong or Michael W. Smith or Chris Tomlin-type worship. Now, the young organist is playing exactly as Jedediah would if he were fifteen and just beginning to learn a musical instrument–I just know it. He would play in this unpolished but joyful fashion, with spiraling little notes in the music, but with the sort of solid strength that Keith Green communicated in his piano playing, and a not-quite-fully-formed yet fervent love to match. It’s just so… Jedediah. Later, I try to tell him so, but can’t communicate it right. So, Jedediah, if you’re ever reading this, know that I saw your heart for Jesus when we attended that hymn-sing.
And now, for the crux of the entire service–the turning-point, the crucial element, the moment without which the hymn-sing would have been like any other church event. Beloved readers, turn off that television, the iPod playing in the background, your cell phone, and that glaring light that keeps shining in your eyes but which you’ve been too lazy to turn off. You should probably even turn off any humidifiers you have on, and your coffee maker, lest you be distracted by the scent of brewing Maxwell House. Now, close the door of your computer room, get your “reading hat” on, and LISTEN.
Quickly, the song leader makes an announcement about the next performers. They will be singing a hymn called “Arise, My Soul, Arise”. Judging from the title, this will likely be ah hymn reflecting the majestic sovereignty of God the Father–rather like “O Worship the King” or “How Great Thou Art”. As the musicians rise to sing, however, and the pianist prepares to accompany them, I find myself introduced to an entirely different hymn from anything I have heard before. The last six syllables of each of the five verses are especially moving–so much so that, for days afterword, I can scarcely wrap my mind around them. The singers weave in and out of lines of music, placing emphasis on the words and on my heart in all the right places. Perhaps it would help if I attempted–be it ever so feebly–to replicate my experience, complete with capitalization where the song’s emphasis struck closest. My screen-reader has never been friendly toward WordPress’ bolding or italic functions, so capitalization will have to do.
Arise, my soul, arise; SHAKE OFF THY GUILTY FEARS;
The bleeding Sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my Surety stands,
Before the throne my Surety stands,
MY NAME IS WRITTEN ON HIS HANDS.
Quite obviously, I need to read Hebrews more deeply, more thoroughly. Of course, our name is written on His hands–but how quickly I forget! And that part about shaking off my fearful condemnation! Each word, indeed, each syllable, is spoken with such conviction that I find the need for Kleenex anew. Beautiful!
He ever lives above, FOR ME TO INTERCEDE;
His all-redeeming love, His precious blood to plead:
His blood atoned for all our race,
His blood atoned for all our race,
AND SPRINKLES NOW THE THRONE OF GRACE.
At once, the knowledge of Jesus as our Great High Priest, and of the mercy seat, and the throne of God, are all in my heart–there as though they had never left. By this time, words cannot express what the hymn is doing for me, how it is making me feel as cleansed as I did when I first dedicated my life to Jesus, when I first took Communion on my fourth Christmas Eve…
Five bleeding wounds He bears, received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers; THEY STRONGLY PLEAD FOR ME.
“Forgive him! O forgive,” they cry,
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Nor let that ransomed sinner die!”
At this point, two of the singers have ceased their song, and only one member of the trio is left to uphold this verse. It is extremely unpolished, with the worshiper’s voice fading in and out. He begins to sing a second after his piano cue and trails off at times, but–oh!–he understands those words! You can hear it in his voice, the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the joy of knowing His redemption. This singer is saved, and he is confident of that fact. By this time, we have gone far beyond the need for Kleenex. It’s time for big, thick handkerchiefs–which, by the way, I have also forgotten to pack.
The Father hears Him pray, HIS DEAR ANOINTED ONE;
HE CANNOT TURN AWAY THE PRESENCE OF HIS SON.
His Spirit answers to the blood,
His Spirit answers to the blood,
AND TELLS ME I AM BORN OF GOD.
Yes… I knew that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah–even that these three terms are synonymous in English, Greek, and Hebrew, respectively. Yet, hearing it set to music–to these particular notes and with that much trust and faith in the singers’ voices–wraps the concept around my soul in a way that I know I can never forget. And let us not ignore the fact that, all during this presentation of glorious worship, the Lord is laying layer upon layer of peace upon my heart, like plastering walls of security and protection and peace that had once been crumbling fixtures incapable of withstanding the rain that continually fell on them.
My God is reconciled; His pardoning voice I hear;
HE OWNS ME FOR HIS CHILD; I CAN NO LONGER FEAR.
WITH CONFIDENCE, I NOW DRAW NIGH,
WITH CONFIDENCE, I NOW DRAW NIGH,
And “Father, Abba, Father!” cry.
“I can no longer fear”… And in that instant, all my fears of the previous few weeks are swept away, to be remembered no more, carried along to the sea of forgetfulness on those singers’ voices. It is in the stillness that follows that I realize that He has found me, His terrified sheep, and has carried me closer to Himself, to those green pastures that I had longed for. I can again rest in Him, beside those still waters that He has Himself prepared. Absolutely glorious!
Before I tell you who the performers are, let it be firmly and decisively stated that they are three of the most beautiful, salvation-conscious people I have ever heard. Despite my love of British worship music, Stuart Townend has almost never held a candle to these musicians. Each word is sung in such a way that I could immediately tell how close the concepts are to their hearts–that they mean every syllable.
The singers are eight, six, and four years old.
This is no “cute little song”, and certainly not a “nice little performance”. When the hymn ends, the audience applauds–politely, it seems–but I can scarcely catch my breath long enough to whisper to Jedediah, “That is the most beautiful hymn I have ever hard, and in the most beautiful way possible”. Later, when I convert the recording of this performance to MP3, I find an interesting phenomenon. I never do hear three voices raised in worship, but somewhere between thirty and fifty. Tell me all you want that the microphones interacted with my recorder in a unique way, but my sister and I have formed other conclusions…
Since that day, my life has been constructed in iambic tetrameter. You see, I have always imagined the first three lines of each verse broken in half, so that there are not three lines but six, with six syllables per line. In that case, each line is written in iambic tetrameter. And now, so is everything I think about the Lord, or about His wondrous works. What’s more, neither the hymn’s theology nor the hymn itself have been far from my thoughts. Whether on the bus or at work or drifting from room to room at home, I’m either humming or singing: “Arise, my soul, arise … My name is written on His hands. … I can no longer fear. … Dear Anointed One…”
You, too, can have something like this experience. Sovereign Grace Music sells a beautifully live rendering of this hymn, and YouTube features another live version from Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle. Since Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle does not offer its music for sale, but seems to put it out as a free ministry to the public, anyone is free to listen to it without engaging in any inner ethical conflict.
The rest of the hymn-sing is blurry, at best. A few highlights that I do and must remember, for it was to my heart that the Lord was speaking; Somewhere during the middle of the requests, I was still feeling frustrated toward someone whom I ought to have forgiven earlier. At one point, the Lord flooded me with peace and let me know that I could come to Him, and that He would allow me to forgive; I would not have to force forgiveness through my own waning strength. And then–oh, how magnificent!–the Lord gave me a new mission. For days, I had been attempt[ting to DO everything perfectly. Without sleep and without rest, I had been trying to remember every minute detail of my guide-dog’s needs, perform work responsibilities flawlessly, and still have enough energy to maintain a cheerful demeanor when around friends and family. Now, any oak tree can take being climbed, carved upon, and leaned against–but a flower can’t. Certainly, Bethesda Lily couldn’t. So I was feeling utterly depleted. Somewhere between “In the Garden” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”, He impressed upon me that my mission is not to prove how much I can and will do in this world, but to show others how to love Him more. So simple, yet such a blessing. Will running about the house tidying up show others how to love Jesus? No… But will kneeling to pray with a hurting sister in Christ, then offering to take some of the responsibilities off her shoulders and make some difficult phone calls for her, help? Perhaps. Will “much serving” be of service to the Lord? But will “sitting at His feet”?
At one time, I believed quite fervently that the hymn-sing featuring “Sunshine in My Soul” was among the most marvelous church events I have ever attended. Now, I see otherwise. Life in iambic tetrameter is awesome–simply awesome.