A Tribute to the Fifth Sunday Sing

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands (Rev 5:11-12).

One of the sweet traditions in churches is the 5th Sunday night hymn-sing (a.k.a. 5th Sunday Sing). Or was. Some months will have five Sundays and many churches would gather that fifth Sunday night to, well, sing together. Just sing together.

The tradition will soon die off as another generation passes. After all, why sing dusty old hymns when there is a concert to be had, laser tag to be played or casserole to be eaten? I used to be that pious snot-nosed prick who snickered when the crusty old-fashioned blue-hairs gussied up to sing their childhood favorites (or the new songs when they grew up!). Now, I’m a pious snot-nosed prick who really wishes the church would sing together. Just sing together.

No loud band. No choreography. No lights. No performances. A piano or guitar keeps the tone-deaf on tune, but the voices are the real instruments of grace. Ah, the voices of Zion. It’s the voices of Christ’s congregation that John hears in his vision of eternal glory (Rev 5.11-14). He looked and heard. Egad! Is that a tinge of blue on my temples?

Every fifth Sunday night folks would holler the the number of their favorite hymn. In fact, most were so familiar with their hymnbooks that they only needed a number to know what hymn it was. And the “youth” tried to keep a straight face when someone like me announced the number to The Star-Spangled Banner or O, Canada.  What I thought was senility was actually patience.

You always knew on those nights who would request what. Mrs. Johnson would always request #141: The Old Rugged Cross. Mrs. Smith would always want to sing #330. You guessed it: Amazing Grace. My mom? #138: At Calvary.

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me he died
On Calvary.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
here my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

On, to, at Calvary.  These are sweet gospel prepositions filling out gospel propositions.

Sure, not every hymn was theologically robust or even correct (more on that another day), but they loved it all the same. Better to sing everything together than sing nothing alone. And at least the hymns provided a measure of depth to congregational singing and biblical understanding than the lather-rinse-repeat variety most churches sing today. Historically, the church learned from hymns written to teach (a la the Psalms). Now, the church emotes from songs written to excite. We aren’t moved until the crescendo, the rift, the bridge or the extended vibrato.

Gone are the days of four, five, six stanzas or more. By their very nature, hymns were written such that to sing the first stanza meant to sing the second and so on. They told a story and taught a theme. Like stopping a book after the first chapter, we now get bored too easily and need some “ohs” and “yeahs” to fill in the cracks. What we sing is only as helpful as how we sing it.

Say what you will, but those old folks are now into their fifth, sixth and seventh decades of church membership. We’re hardly producing that sort of churchmanship with our modern, entertainment-based fare. Experience trumps perseverance.

There was a time when I would cry from laughing that anyone would enjoy such boring singing. Now, I cry for a far different reason. And not because my hair is turning blue but because

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!

At Calvary.  There’s a fifth Sunday in June.  Perhaps old man Maxwell will holler #138 and make sure his kids are paying close attention.

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