Liturgical musicians all have them: those songs we just love to hate. Sometimes it’s a hackneyed chord progression, sometimes a lyric that makes us cringe, and sometimes we’ve just sung a hymn so many times we can hardly stand to hear it again. Whatever the reason, we all have a song or two that we wouldn’t mind retiring from our music libraries. For me, Gather Us In has always been one of those songs. It was a favorite of my church organist growing up, and she used it several times a month, every month, for my entire childhood. The theology of some of the lyrics seemed dubious to me, and all the repetition didn’t help the song go up any in my estimation. By the time I reached university, I was ready to bid Gather Us In farewell for a good long time.
So, when our Teach Bhride team was planning the music for this past weekend and Joy suggested Gather Us In as an opening hymn, my first instinct was to write it off immediately. I knew, however, that this past Saturday would be Joy’s first time directing music for an entire mass with our Youth Choir, so I wanted her to be able to choose songs she loved and felt comfortable directing, however skeptical I might feel about that song in particular. “Can you convince me why this is the best opening hymn to use this week, Joy?” I asked, secretly (I confess) hoping she might change her mind and think of another hymn she’d prefer.
Her response stopped me in my tracks. She read me a line from the second verse of the song: “Give us a heart so meek and so lowly. Give us the courage to enter the song.” She explained that, since this would be the first time the teenagers of the Youth Choir and the adult members of the Vigil Choir would be singing together this year, she wanted them to join in asking our loving God for “the courage to enter the song” throughout this coming year. I couldn’t deny that this song really was a perfect way to begin our year of music ministry with the choirs, so there was nothing to do but to applaud her great choice and move on to planning the rest of the music for mass. I might still personally dislike the song, but I could at least recognize what a good fit it was for that weekend’s liturgy.
On Saturday evening, though, I finally learned to see the beauty of Gather Us In. Since Joy was directing the choirs this week, I had the chance to cantor the mass. Before the liturgy began, I stood at the ambo to introduce the psalm to the congregation. Past Teach Bhride volunteers began this tradition of teaching the psalm immediately before mass in an attempt to encourage congregational singing, and it’s usually a fairly straightforward affair. This week, though, I felt compelled to say something more than just, “Please join me in singing the psalm refrain for this week.” I complimented the congregation on their beautiful singing the week before, thanked them for singing with enough enthusiasm that I could hear them even over us noisy Americans up at the microphone, and encouraged them to always, always feel welcomed and invited to sing along with the song text projected onto the back wall of the sanctuary. And then I sang the refrain from the psalm, invited them to repeat it after me, and uttered a silent prayer that my invitation would fall on receptive ears.
Throughout the mass, every time I went up to the ambo and raised my arm to invite the congregation to sing, something wonderful happened: people sang. Lots of people sang. A few dozen joined in on the opening hymn. A good two thirds of the congregation added their voices to the chorus of the psalm refrain. A handful more sang along during the Alleluia before the proclamation of the Gospel. Several even made eye contact and smiled as they sang, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” I could hardly believe my eyes, even less my ears! For a girl who grew up in a small parish where getting even a half dozen people to sing with enthusiasm was a monumental task, standing up there and being greeted with dozens of open, smiling, singing faces was an overwhelmingly beautiful experience.
As I watched the people of Clonard sing along to familiar hymns and new songs alike, I was suddenly reminded of that line Joy had read to convince me to use Gather Us In as our opening hymn: “Give us a heart so meek and so lowly. Give us the courage to enter the song.” For the first time, the full impact of those words hit me. Every person in the congregation that day had a choice to make: would they make the easy, safe choice and remain silent, or would they reach out with humble hearts and find the courage to join their voices to the chorus of praise? The parishioners of Clonard blew me away with the love and joy with which they chose to enter the song. But when I am faced with this same choice, am I just as willing to lift my voice in praise of Our Lord?
The God whose voice spoke this world into being invites each of us to add our little voices to the song of all creation praising its Creator. It is often easier to remain silent; when we speak, our voices may tremble or crack, our words may falter and fall flat. We know that our good God rejoices to hear our voices lifted in song, even if we sing out of tune or forget the words – so much so that the call to sing unto God is repeated over 120 times in the Bible, more often than any other command! Even so, sometimes our timid hearts fear to raise aloft an imperfect offering, and we hesitate to open our mouths. We long to sing in exultation, but fear that we might not be good enough. Sometimes all we need is a reminder that God delights in us exactly as we are, an invitation to sing our hearts out without worrying about how we sound. So my prayer for the four of us in Teach Bhride, for the members of our choirs, and for all those we minister to this year is that we might, by the grace of God, find the courage to bring our gifts forward – no matter how lowly they may seem – and, joyfully, to enter the song. Perhaps we just mind find, as I did this weekend, that the songs we hesitate to sing are things of beauty after all.