I have a particularly rich family heritage in Christian song, so I learned to love singing early on. Part of this experience was with my immediate family, and part of it was in extended family gatherings. Another important part was with the New Hardels, a group my parents and three other couples formed for singing at weddings and other special occasions. The second and third generations of that group are now singers, too!
Hymn Sing time at Camp Manatawny, especially during Senior High II Week, was a significantly spiritual and emotional time, as well–both when I sang as a camper, holding hands with my girlfriend Robin back in the old Rec Hall; and when I had the extraordinary spiritual pleasure of leading the campers for four summers 1998-2001 in Garrett Hall (shown above). Although the Manatawny singing experience of the younger age groups was not always stellar, the fine tradition of the Senior High weeks, led in my experience by Larry Bills and Dwight Smith, and later overseen by Roger Hladky, always resulted in rich musical and spiritual feasting that was not often experienced through the rest of the year by most of us.
A couple of weeks ago, our family enjoyed an outing to Letchworth State Park with the Buckwalter family; afterward, we stopped in at the Portageville Chapel for the “Hymn Festival.” The plan for this evening was to sing 12 songs written by John or Charles Wesley. Familiar Wesley songs include the carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today.” I noticed that even though all the songs for this evening were of high quality, only one or two were truly hymns. Of these, only “Love Divine” would be familiar to many.
I point all this out not to devalue the other songs. To be sure, “O For a Thousand Tongues” and “Rejoice, the Lord Is King!” are worthy of time in the assembly. I continue to think, though, that it is important to direct more of our singing to God in the first and second person, and toward that end, I like to point out how little of our “hymnody” actually does that. It is my perception that American church music of the 19th century and most of the 20th century was particular impoverished in this respect. Many of the longer-lasting songs of past centuries, such as “Shepherd of Tender Youth” (3rd century, I believe), tend to be addressed to Father or Son. These days, thankfully, the songs being written tend to be more often God-oriented, although the text is not always rich.
Sometimes we bring a hymnal with us in the car, so we can sing together. There’s one in the car right now, and when we sang last Tuesday, I was reminded of the late summer when I took off in a new-to-me car for my last semester of college. One of the things I did to keep myself occupied and awake was to sing from a hymnal, memorizing several songs. I memorized “Be Still, My Soul” and “Father, Hear the Pray’r We Offer” and a few others. Not all of those were hymns, textually speaking, but “Be Thou My Vision” was, and is! Although this is a difficult song for part-singing, it’s a worthwhile pursuit. The worshipful words are top-flight.
Worship shouldn’t be confined to the assembly (and neither should the assembly be confined to worship). And summer can bring good opportunities for worship outside the assembly. As your family travels, and if you have the blessing of attending a Christian camp, and just in your home in the longer, more relaxed evenings, find opportunities for worship.