The Alleluias were plenteous Sunday – Easter and the first anniversary of Honey’s memorial service. It seemed as though every other phrase was punctuated with a joyous “Alleluia” and rightly so. Congregations at both Easter services I attended began by singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Toward the end of the third stanza of that hymn is the phrase “where’s thy victory, O grave?” It has appeared that way in every hymnal from which I have sung and led all my life. But the Methodist Hymnal version is “where’s thy victory, boasting grave?” I like that – an extra hint of resurrection trash talk! And choirs in both churches ended the service singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I could hardly contain myself when the Sanctuary Choir at First Baptist Church, Nashville sang it. Wow – that majestic room, those wonderful singers, that magnificent organ! Admittedly, the fact that I directed that choir thirty Easters in a row had something to do with how I heard it Sunday.
Christ is risen!
He is risen, indeed!
In the past couple months, I have received calls from two other ministers of music whose wives have also died of cancer – Greg’s wife Gail died January 6 and Larry’s Sandy only a month ago. With both I have been able to say with surety that I do know what they are going through. Both asked some form of the same question – “how did you do it?” Still stumbling around for answers, neither conversation went far until I mentioned to each the sustaining power that hymns provided for our journey during Honey’s illness and for me since her death about this time last year. I had to admit to learning that knowing a hymn or being able to sing or lead it was not the same thing as living it, or better said, living into it. For too many of us, hymns have become so familiar that we don’t “hear” them anymore. But through Honey’s illness/death, the experience helping build a hymnal, and the undeniable grace of God, hymns have ministered to me as never before and I am grateful. I pointed Greg and Larry to some of my favorites:
Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Sometimes a Light Surprises
All the Way My Savior Leads Me
Like a Mother with Her Children
O Worship the King
We Walk by Faith
Like a River Glorious
How Lovely, God, How Lovely
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
If You Will Only Let God Guide You
How Can I Keep from Singing
In Deepest Night
Spending time in a good hymnal is not unlike discovering a new Book of Psalms (the Hebrew hymnal). Hymns, like the psalms, have multi-stanzas, speak the many moods of Christian life, and are strong enough to be studied. For almost a decade I have enjoyed memorizing hymns, not to sing, but to say and live. I have discovered that in saying them, new riches reveal themselves in lines sung mostly mindlessly through the years. They become good food for the soul and balm for the aching heart.
If you have a hymnal I encourage you to spend some focused time in it. If you don’t have hymnal or need a fresh version, I certainly recommend the Celebrating Grace Hymnal – www.celebrating-grace.com. It has been interesting to see people order a Hymnal when they order a copy of the Notes From Susie book. Most of the hymns quoted in the latter are included in the former. Many of those hymns were in the “God, the Sustainer” section of the Hymnal, where Honey and I camped a good bit during our two-year journey.
Here is one of those stanzas I sang past countless times –
“Thy bountiful care what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light,
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.”
O Worship the King – Robert Grant, 1833
The mental image of God’s bountiful care washing over all His creation and individually over me calls forth yet another “Alleluia!”
P.S. You could never convince me that it was coincidental that Larry and I ran into one another at breakfast at a Collierville hotel the Sunday morning after Christmas 2015. I hadn’t seen him in nearly ten years.