I swear that the stones sing. During the week, I used to walk in Highland’s sanctuary and in the quiet, even with no other voice present with me, I swear I could hear the congregation singing. From the worn stones, from the tattered wooden pews, from the high rafters, the hymns pour forth as if in a continuous stream. Even now, I can walk into the sanctuary in my mind. If I am still long enough, I can hear the particular voices and faces from the Cloud of Witnesses, present and past.
Now during this sabbatical year, so far away from the stones that sing and the communal worship with the Cloud of Witnesses, a hymnal has become the sacrament that leads me home, grounds my feet, centers my being, and remembers me. In this exile space where I worship away from the land I call home and the people who call me home, hymns are the great time-and-space connectors that hold us together.
In them, I am united with congregation present and congregation past. This past Sunday, I stood in a Baptist Church in Durham and sang Great is My Faithfulness with no need for the hymnal to hold for the hymn holds me. As I sang, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was transported not just to one sacred place but to all those sacred places that my family has entered across all generations. I was again at my grandfather’s funeral at Lone Oak First Baptist where we sang the truth so we could rest in it, even in our grief… thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not.
Hymn verses are always more strident, more brave, and more honest than we would ever be willing just to speak out loud. But we sing them anyway. Our voices unite and somehow God uses the hymns to make us the people God seeks us to be in the times we live. As John O’Donohue said in an On-Being interview with Krista Tippett – “Music is what language would love to be if it could.”
Hymns have become my nightly routine with my older son now that he has begun attending worship as a kindergartener. The last ritual of the day is laying down next to him with the green hymnal in my hands. We go in numerical order as I sound out the notes to ensure I know the tune. Then I proceed to sing the hymn while he twists and turns to get comfortable.
Sunday night, it was #48 – our next hymn in our series. In a way that both breaks me and restores me, he sings Great Is Thy Faithfulness with me by memory. He does not yet know all the actual words, but he sounds out the syllables as he has absorbed them over the years from me singing them to him.
The hymn knits us back together from all the fractures of the day.
After a few more hugs and reminders not to get out of bed (that usually go unheard), I tiptoe downstairs and find myself found and remembered again by the God who comes close enough to make me think that perhaps the singing stones live inside me somewhere.
For these singing stones,
For these ancient and yet ever-new hymns,
For the Cloud of Witnesses that planted them deep within me,
I pause and give great thanks.