by Jesse Ratcliffe
Imagine explaining to someone who has never heard it, the singing of a beloved hymn by a full congregation, choir, and accompanied by a robust organ. It’s one of those life moments that you “just have to be there” to experience. The combination of voices, trained and untrained, old and young, loud and some a mere whisper in singing praise to God is a sound that cannot leave one’s memory. It is in those moments that the combined voices and instruments create a truly sacred space.
One minute detail about group singing that’s inspired me is how physically united we are when we lift our voices. Most obvious, we breathe together at the same time. As our breaths begin to match our neighbor’s, the collective heart rates begin to match our neighbor’s and anxiety levels begin to decrease. Furthermore, our cherished sacred music is imprinted in our minds. Many of us have experienced the devastation of strokes and dementia which rob normal speech, yet favorite hymns are easily recalled and sung.
O God, Our Help, In Ages Past is in the “Top Five” of my favorite hymns. Isaac Watt’s paraphrase of Psalm 90 combined with William Croft’s tune has provided a musical balm since 1719. The melody is sturdy, simple, and memorable. Watt’s words have reminded generations of church folk that God has always been and always will be, even during the darkest of times. To put it in perspective, we can imagine that congregations most likely sung that hymn during the ravages of WWI. One hundred years from now, folks may reflect that we did the same during the uncertain days of COVID. Our voices today are simply echoes of those before us.
Sadly, COVID has temporarily quieted our boisterous singing, but soon the day will come when we will be able to sing in full force without abandon. When that moment arrives, our voices will join the reverberations of those before us, and will continue to resound for years to come.