I Sing a Song of the Saints of God

by Dave Hurlbert

When I was a six-year-old Southern Baptist, I loved singing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” at Sunday School and at Vacation Bible School. The idea of being magically transformed into a ray of sunlight struck me even then as improbable and silly, in spite of it being, ostensibly, one of Jesus’ very own ideas and demands. The infectious waltz tune encouraged singing as loudly as possible, and swooping up and down dramatically during the finale, “A suuuuuun-BEAM, a SUUUUUUUUN-BEAM, a sunbeam I will be!”

Three years later, after I’d learned to read music, I enjoyed singing either first or second soprano in the Sunday service hymns. Most of the selections used in the Baptist Hymnal at that time, in the 1960s, were rollicking good fun. There were fascinating up-tempo waltzes (“He Waaaaaalks with Me and He Taaaaaalks with Me”), as well as peppy oom-pah tunes that could have been straight out of Tin Pan Alley (“Every Day with Jesus Is Sweeter Than the Day Before”). My brothers and I would sing these and other hymns at home, and especially during long car trips, always swaying in time, trying our best to outsing or outshout the competition.

Today, at age 48, I’m an Episcopalian. The music we sing during our services is nicely sophisticated: some Anglican chant, some Bach, a bit of Purcell, and many hymns recently written in a spare, modern or postmodern style. I love the piety, the purity, and the craftsmanship of these hymns, but I’m disappointed that there isn’t much that’s just plain fun to sing. It’s true that we often sing hymns that inspire joy or hope—Christmas carols, for example—but they seldom inspire smiles or laughter.

English hymnwriter Lesbia Scott (1898-1986) composed a brilliant exception: “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Mrs. Scott wrote the hymn in the 1920s for her children, to demonstrate that saints can be encountered even now, in daily life. Today many of her lyrics can seem dated and quaint. I can hear what I imagine to be her proper, fluty voice, singing:

You can meet them in school, or
In lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one too.

Every single time I’ve sung this piece in church, I’ve been amazed at the change that takes place among the congregation. Since the words are so unexpected and so delightful, everyone seems to follow the meaning of each line. This is quite a different experience from singing a standard, say, Victorian, hymn, where I for one sing most of the right words but fail to take in much of the actual meaning of the piece. When we all follow a hymn’s meaning, from beginning to end, we share a story together. The hymn becomes much more than “Number 136 in your service book.” It becomes a communal sermon as well as a celebration.

We’re lucky to be able to dance as we sing some of our hymns at St. Gregory’s. I think that dancing a hymn increases its chances for humor and delight. After all, it’s pretty difficult to dance to something overly pious or morose. The Shakers knew all about this. In some cases, they actually refer directly to the dance steps in their hymns. My favorite example of this is “’Tis a Gift to Be Simple”:

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
’Til by turning, turning we come round right.

People fall into laughter during the bowing, bending, and turning, arms outstretched. It’s one of my favorite times at church, or at our annual Artists and Writers Retreat, where we sing and dance this hymn at the end of most services, turning like tops all the way out of the chapel. A liturgy ending in shared laughter bonds us all together in an extraordinary way. Afterwards we can’t help but talk to each other as we dig into breakfast or indulge our way through coffee hour.

During a recent St. Gregory’s hymn-writing symposium I decided to build on our wide Christian heritage of the Southern Baptists, Mrs. Lesbia Scott, and the Shakers, and write a hymn that we might all enjoy singing as well as dancing. I wrote “When Good Folks Die,” a hymn for All Saints, in honor of Mrs. Scott’s great success. The second stanza, my favorite, goes like this:

When bad folks die, they end up in heaven,
All rounded up by the Holy Ghost,
There’s no escape,
There’s no getting out of it,
God wants us all in the Heavenly Host!

Plink and plank on golden harp-strings,
Tune your harp to your heart’s delight;
Plink and plank, and dip just right;
Don’t turn ’round; Heaven’s in plain sight!

The hymn seems to make people laugh as they dance. I hope I’ve done Lesbia and the Shakers proud. I used to worry that I was just plain frivolous in my quest for silly hymns. “How dare you write something like that: a slap in the face to all the solemn and profound sacred music ever composed!” Fortunately, I can go back to my childhood memories of being a Sunbeam, and remember the pure joy in singing our theme song. I can also imagine all the souls in heaven singing hymns like this, joyfully, unrestrained, and smiling.

Dave Hurlbert serves on the editorial board of God’s Friends. As a member of St. Gregory’s, he edits the parish newsletter, the Nyssa News, and helps coordinate coffee hour each Sunday. His profession is copywriting for advertising and marketing agencies.

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