Alex Watt

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Singing Hymns

When I came to Grove City College, I was unfamiliar with a good hymnal and knew only a few hymns. I am very thankful for the way that changed: At Hillcrest, the church I attend, I learned by imitation what it means to sing hymns joyfully and exuberantly. Being exhorted by brothers and sisters in song is beautiful, and I am always encouraged by the way that everyone sings; this is worship, not a professional performance.1

Apart from Sunday worship, I have also had the pleasure of singing hymns regularly with college friends every Saturday night. That has helped me to learn many I would not otherwise have encountered, or remembered. Take, for instance, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” a hymn I hadn’t sung prior. But I think my favorite hymn is “Abide with Me,” one I also learned from my college friends.

Given that background, perhaps it is not hard to see why I love the following passage from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow:

I liked the sound of the people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone: “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I loved the different voices all singing one song, the various tones and qualities, the passing lifts of feeling, rising up and going out forever. …

I thought that some of the hymns bespoke the true religion of the place. The people didn’t really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that the world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but still they liked it. What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude. I loved to hear them sing “The Unclouded Day” and “Sweet By and By”:

We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs of the blest . . .

And in times of sorrow when they sang “Abide with Me,” I could not raise my head.

  1. I might note in passing that two professors at the College have a site on congregational singing, worth exploring.

Posted on 22 Aug 2016.

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