Notes From The Balcony

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For ALL the Saints – unfinished business

Posted by John Montgomery on November 2, 2010

[Note: Much of this post was first published four years ago reflecting on the verses of the classic hymn, For all the Saints. In that original post, I made a promise to return to this reflection, intending taking up the identified issue some 12 months later. It has now been 48 months. This past week,  my friend Kathy, who is a student at Candler, ask for some help about a related subject. I dug out the old post and dusted my procrastination off. It is time to start to make good on part of my promise. I start with an edited version of the previous post.]

 

This is the season when our congregations celebrate the “Community of Saints” who have gone on before us and who stand now as beacons showing the way for our own journeys of faith and proclamation. Officially, the date is November 1. As I look around, some churches formally celebrated the tradition yesterday and others like mine will take care of liturgical business next week.

There are hymns marking these words and deeds. There are rituals memorializing congregational members who have died during the previous 12 months. And many of us whose closest loved ones have passed in the last several years mark the time in solemn reflection on the present shattered bonds of intimacy that will perhaps in the future be healed – as the old song anticipates, a time when “the circle will be unbroken.” This is always the case for me as I reflect on the life and death of my spouse, friend, lover and partner in mission, Judy Sparks Montgomery who passed now some ten years ago.

Four years ago, our church, broke with tradition and we did not sing the grand old hymn by William Walsham How, For All the Saints. We did not sing this hymn because my pastor, David Jones, feeling in his “mind and heart” that this is the right thing to do in relationship to a request that I had made that previous week in our worship committee meeting, he directed our music team to choose other songs.

I had not asked that we would not sing the hymn. I simply indicated my hope that we did not make this hymn the “summary” of our worship experience.

David felt that a one year pause would not be improper. David’s gesture to me as both a member of the worship committee and as a friend was particularly humbling.

So what is this all about?

My witness had to do with my deep existential experience of this particular celebration of worship over the last several years. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ majestic tune and How’s poetic words are indeed classic. But as I have repeatedly sung this hymn, it has been harder and harder for me to see that this is about Judy and others like her. The military tenor of the language does not paint a picture of my late wife’s sainthood.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not being anti-soldier, many have given the full measure defending not just my country but my country’s values and I am more than willing to acknowledge their contribution. My difficulty with the hymn particularly as it shows up in our hymn book is not what is there, but what is missing.

For example, our current United Methodist hymnbook cuts some very important verses that speak of our forebears in faith – the preachers of our message, the writers of our gospels and the martyrs who stood their ground even when threatened with torture (a lesson, we seem too easily ready to forget these days).

Listen to these words…

3) For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

4) For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

5) For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For All the Saints was written as a processional hymn by the Anglican Bishop William Walsham How. The hymn was first printed in Hymns for Saint’s Days, and Other Hymns, by Earl Nelson, 1864. The hymn was sung to the melody Sarum, by Victorian composer Joseph Barnby, until the publication of the English Hymnal in 1906. This hymnal used a new setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams which he called Sine Nomine (literally “without name”) in reference to its use on the Feast of All Saints, November 1. It has been described as “one of the finest hymn tunes of [the 20th] century.” (Thank you Wikpedia)

Why Bishop How also included four full verses using military imagery must remain a mystery. At this point we cannot recover the historical context that informed his decisions. Perhaps they partake of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” In this country, we were deeply divided over the question of slavery, although I have found no documentation that How had this in mind when he wrote the verses.

We are generally used to singing three of the original four.

2) Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

7) O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

8) And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

9) The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Alleluia, indeed.

Of course, How introduced the hymn with the stirring words that we all know by heart.

1) For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

How concludes his hymn with verses reflecting on the day when in its fullness, the Kin(g)dom does arrive.

6) O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

10) But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

I’ve always taught my children that if they see the need, they do the deed.

In my follow-up conversation with David, I suggested two particular responses that could be made in the future allowing us to re-appropriate this glorious hymn. First, we must sing all the verses and we need to find the time in our worship to make this happen. Secondly, we can create additional verses that celebrate the sainthood of all. I have now committed to crafting several of these new verses. I’m including two. Part of the purpose of this post is to invite your aid. I would welcome any and all contributions. Here is my first draft – you will quickly see why I am asking for help.

O great physician, hear now our fervent prayer
Guide our doctors, our nurses in their care
That brings health and wholeness to our deep despair,
Sing alleluia, Sing alleluia

Yes, I know it needs work! Try this one.

Deep well of wisdom, our passions still ignite
Strengthen all teachers, together we seek light
That frees all from ignorance, that discerns the wrong from right
Sing allelulia, Sing alleluia

My next verse would be for relief workers – I’m thinking particularly of those firefighters related to 911 both during the bombing and the clean-up afterwards. I’m thinking of those who are still rebuilding after our Coastal hurricanes. I’m thinking about those saints digging half mile holes in Chile to rescue trapped minors.

And then, we need  at least one verse about those whose sainthood was worked out in constant care, year after year, for our communities and our local churches.

If we really worked at it, we could sing for the whole hour. What a great service of worship and thanksgiving that might be.

11) From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia

Alleluia, Indeed!

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