It was a different kind of service yesterday at St. John's. Instead of the usual organ prelude and processional, they had all of us in the altar party take our seats, sit for a brief bit, and then all of us... Eucharistic Ministers, Clergy, Vergers, and Acolytes joined with the choir and congregation in singing... not one... but FOUR hymns. And that was just the beginning.
At the start of the summer, we were notified that August 12th would be "Favorite Hymn Sunday." Each member of the congregation could vote on one, a single, favorite hymn. The top ten would be chosen and included in the Sunday program. I whined to the choir director that choosing just one would be extremely hard for me. She laughed, admitted it was hard, and--no--I could not vote more than once. Some apparently did. In fact, a parishioner who is currently singing with the heavenly chorus managed to cast a vote as well! There was also one vote for "Stairway to Heaven." Love that!
As I have talked about in my spiritual autobiography, hymns play a HUGE role in my story of this whacky journey with God. It happens less frequently now, but for quite awhile, I would wake up every morning with some song from the Episcopal hymnal on a loop in my head. All kinds of anthems, some that were associated with church seasons and others that were the tunes used to sing psalms and canticles when I was a child, would become the soundtrack for my day. Hence, a service labeled, "Favorite Hymn Sunday" could very easily have put my jukebox brain into overload. Everyone was being very secretive about the hymns that had made the list. The choir director had already informed me that my vote for "God is working his purpose out" had failed to make the cut. However, she told me that I was not alone in liking that particular hymn. One of the prominent defense lawyers at St. John's apparently is also partial to that one. Proof that politics and professions may separate us, but we can find commonality in God and music.
OK, so the top ten hymns that did make it into the service were:
Open Your Ears, O Faithful People
Morning Has Broken
Lift High the Cross
Eternal Father, Strong to Save
Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees
The Church's One Foundation
Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee
Praise to the Lord (the Almighty the King of Creation)
and the number one hymn: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Were any of these ever on the hit parade in my brain? Oh, yes. Definitely! The Church's One Foundation, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Lift High the Cross, Eternal Father, Strong to Save (which was sung at my father's funerals in Exeter and Tallahassee) were all part of my Top One Hundred Hymns. Forget ten. I was nearing 100 songs that would play continuously in my head. It was maddening. And it was the cue for me to return to the church after a self-imposed exile during "the dark times" in Tallahassee Episcopal churches. I thought this intrusion was tied to having to make decisions about music for the funeral services for my father. And that might have been a plausible explanation except that the funerals were over, and the hymns... were not. Later, upon looking at the lyrics, I figured out that the hymns and fraction anthems were encoded with their own messages that had nothing to do with my father, but were for me to ponder and consider as I embarked on this journey with God.
The first hymn to have hit my brain waves was the famous St. Patrick's song, "I bind unto myself today." That one started shortly after dad died on Oct. 5, 2007. I thought I was hearing it because it was a tune I remembered listening to my dad sing in church. But then this spring, I looked at the chorus again:
I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, and One in Three.
When my father died, my own commitment to God really began in earnest. Traditions and prayers that had lost all their taste when I was a teenager suddenly had meaning and depth and breadth. In many ways, dad's life now in sunset had given birth to a sun rise in my faith, and I was being joined to the Trinity each time I crossed myself in the name of "The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen." And, as if that wasn't enough, the hymn I voted for quickly became the number one tune in my head:
God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year; God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near; Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be, when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God and the waters cover the sea.
Over and over and over. I don't know what that "time" is, how long it will last, when it will come, and will I be standing or sitting or lying down. I just know that whatever is "the purpose" will be worked out. In between rounds of this hymn, I'd get a dose of "The God of Abraham praise" or "Take up your cross" or "Christ is made the sure foundation" or "Breathe on me breath of God" or "For All the Saints who from their labors rest" or "Alleluia! Sing to Jesus" or "Crown Him with Many Crowns" (gotta love the line, "Hark, how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own"!) It was a real winner when I discovered that the canticle I was humming from my youth, "O ruler of the universe, Lord God, great deeds are they that you have done surpassing human understanding" was called "The Song of the Redeemed." That certainly seemed to be the overarching message: these hymns, and the many like them in my head, were about redeeming me. Reclaiming me. Reminding me that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that separates me from the love of God.
Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be! Let they goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee: prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here's my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.