The Meaning in Hymns
I worshipped at Neighborhood Congregational Church recently for the kick-off of their community mosaic mural. Promoted by energetic Pastor Rod Echols, it is titled Coastline to Canyon. I like singing in church, though my ardor far exceeds my talent. The woman seated next to me possessed both. When I complimented her afterwards, she shared a cherished memory of amazing her mom as a 3-year-old by beautifully singing a simple hymn. It left me thinking about congregational singing, one metric of a church’s strength. Singing has long been a part of worship; the earliest hymns were the Psalms. In the liturgical calendar, this Sunday honors Isaac Watts (1674-1748), whose 750 or so hymns introduced the use of New Testament language. Christmas is coming and we’ll be singing his hymn, “Joy to the World,” based on Psalm 98. A contemporary classic is Handel’s “Messiah,” another Christmas favorite. You have to love the “Hallelujah” chorus sing-alongs.
Martin Luther, reformer and theologian, was also a gifted musician who advocated congregational singing. Of his hymns, a favorite is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” based on Psalm 46, also known as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” The Wesley brothers, especially Charles, wrote hymns by the thousands. Charles’ hymns, inspired by his conversion, taught the influence of the Holy Spirit. They wrote stirring, metrical music—termed gospel music—and Methodists were known for spirited singing. Everyone knows Charles’ Christmas classic, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Others contributed Reformed classics like “How Great Thou Art,” popularized by Billy Graham; “Rock of Ages,” telling of shelter from storms; or the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra’s comforting version of “Be Still, My Soul.” Ever feel a little down? Listen to these classics, easily found on YouTube.
If you’re Catholic, you may have a fondness for “Ave Maria.” Hearing this hymn carries me back to my years in Central America. Wasn’t it St. Augustine who taught that singing was praying twice? The Benedictine monasteries developed plainsong singing, which evolved into the haunting beauty of Gregorian Chants. Hymns speak to the eternal within us and unlike popular music, are cherished for centuries; we’ll soon be hearing the 12th century Christmas song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
African American spirituals spoke to the oppressions of slavery and the yearning for freedom. The Israelite escape from Egypt was invoked in “Go Down Moses,” with the plea, “Let my people go.” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” with clues to the underground railroad, speaks of looking over Jordan, perhaps a metaphor for escape over the Ohio River. If you haven’t heard these recently, listen to the versions by Paul Robeson, or any spiritual by Marian Anderson. On the other hand, there is “Amazing Grace,” a hymn of heartfelt repentance by John Newton, slave trader-turned-cleric.
The Civil War influenced a personal favorite, “Abide with Me; ‘Tis Eventide,” which leads to a story. Some time ago, the Beautiful Wife and I traveled to Provence, France, to pick up a son. He had been on a church mission, away for several years. There was an emotional farewell ceremony with 50 or so young men and women crowded into a living room and they sang this hymn in French with surprising beauty; we sang in English. That evening taught how the Holy Spirit, invited through hymn singing, leaves an unforgettable impression. You’ve likely also been touched by such experiences. There’s meaning in hymn singing.
Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].
Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):
Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.
Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.
Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 6 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.
Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.
First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.
ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.
Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.
Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.
Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.
United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.
St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m. There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.
St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.
Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.