TWICE NOW IN our ward we have received our sacrament-meeting programs and found no speakers listed.
Instead, between the passing of the sacrament and the closing hymn were these words: "Worship through music."
As with a testimony meeting, the bishopric member who was conducting started things off. He spoke about a favorite hymn and what it has meant in his life. Then the chorister led us in singing one verse of it.
From the congregation, people trickled forward, then became a stream, adding and explaining their choices.
A Brazilian-born member of our ward spoke of the time when, not long after his conversion, he had the chance to meet then-LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball face-to-face in Brazil. For him we sang "We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet."
This meeting took place only eight days after the passing of President Gordon B. Hinckley, and one sister spoke of what it had meant to her and her family to watch his funeral on television, over and over, and how they missed him. For her, with her, we sang, "God Be With You Till We Meet Again."
A brother who had recently traveled through the west and realized what bleak landscapes the pioneers had traveled through had us sing "Come, Come Ye Saints."
Our Relief Society president spoke on behalf of her "favorite daughter" (i.e., her only girl child), asking us to sing the third verse of her favorite hymn: "I Am a Child of God."
I am a child of God.
Rich blessings are in store;
If I but learn to do his will
I'll live with him once more.
One of our ward organists, a dear friend who used to bring music to play and books to read to our handicapped son, asked us to sing "If You Could Hie to Kolob" but what she wanted were the "extra" verses, 4 and 5, which are almost never sung:
There is no end to virtue;
There is no end to might;
There is no end to wisdom;
There is no end to light.
And on it goes: "There is no end to" union, youth, priesthood, truth, glory, love, and finally "there is no end to being; there is no death above."
Singing only these verses, I actually enjoyed taking part in the hymn. Usually I dread it, because of the last word of the third stanza "race."
This is a word whose meaning and context have radically changed since W.W. Phelps wrote these words. He meant, by "race," the ongoing propagation of an individual's progeny.
The word continues to have that meaning in the old phrase "him and all his race," meaning him and all his kinfolk, especially his descendants.
But to most English-speakers today, the word race, when it doesn't pertain to an athletic event, carries a vastly different meaning. It implies that the superficial racial divisions of the human race will persist eternally, which is not the meaning of the hymn.
Given that this misunderstanding is certain to be extremely common, I find it baffling that the word has not been changed in our hymnbook to the obvious replacement: "Grace."
It is even more baffling that this hymn is stopped after three verses, so that this is the word that is left to linger in our minds. Nothing could be easier than to cut out the last half of the third stanza and replace it with the first half of the fourth stanza.
Because the fifth stanza consists of four lines repeated to make eight, removing half the third stanza makes this into a standard four-stanza hymn.
If we can change "Yoo-hoo unto Jesus" from "How Firm a Foundation" to avoid making the hymn ridiculous, can we not have as much sensitivity to Saints who have suffered from racism throughout their lives and remove the highly misleading, archaically used word "race" from "If You Could Hie to Kolob"?
Though we already had sung it as our sacrament hymn, one member of our ward spoke of what "I Stand All Amazed" meant to her.
A missionary assigned to our ward asked us to sing "Ye Elders of Israel" because he's from Ephraim, Utah, and the chorus speaks of the mountains of Ephraim.
An elderly man whose grandsons pass the sacrament in our ward asked for "In Our Lovely Deseret." One of our young women (and a lifelong friend of our youngest daughter) asked for "As Zion's Youth in Latter Days."
A sister whose husband had just come back from a terrifying brush with death asked us to sing the first and third stanzas of "How Firm a Foundation." We knew what it meant to her when we all sang the Lord's answer:
Fear not, I am with thee; oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
That was the astonishing thing about this sacrament meeting: How these common hymns, which we often sing with little reflection on the words coming out of our own mouths, took on new life and power when they were chosen for us, with an explanation, by people we know and love in our own ward.
This sacrament-meeting program was planned. We had done this once before, but our beloved music leader and accompanist, Dot Freeman, was out of town and missed it. She asked for another chance to take part, so she could play the hymns for our congregation, and of course our bishopric obliged her.
You don't know Dot, probably, but perhaps you know someone like her. She plays the piano for everything and everyone who wants her to. Two wards meet in our building, and when the other ward had no one able to play for the meetings, she filled in without a moment's hesitation or complaint so that for years she attended two sacrament meetings a Sunday.
When you add to this her work as a teacher, the countless hours she spent driving each way to take her turns at the bedside of ailing family members, and all the other services she performs while remaining endlessly cheerful and uncomplaining, you realize: This is a life of perfect service.
There are sorrows and suffering in her life, but you never hear about them from her. She so rarely asks anything for herself that it would be a churlish bishopric indeed that refused!
In our ward, all our music is surrounded by and infused with the love that Dot Freeman brings to us through her consecration of time, talent and everything she has been blessed with.
I would be sad if, because I'm telling you this, someone discovered a rule somewhere that forbade our passing the teaching time of our sacrament meeting in such a way.
This meeting brought us together as a ward; it provided a chance for many who rarely speak or bear testimony to stand before us and tell a brief story of how the spirit of God had touched their lives through music.
I brought forward no hymns myself. I was suffering from the aftereffects of a bad cold. I could barely speak, and I had two lessons to teach that day.
But it was not because I didn't think of any.
The first church song that sprang to my mind is not in the hymnbook, though I wish it were. It was the first song that I ever sang in sacrament meeting standing before the congregation, when I was 7 years old. A girl in the ward sang it as a duet with me: "My Light Is But a Little One."
I love the chorus of "Shine on! Shine on! Shine on bright and clear!" But it was only the hymns in the book that we could choose from.
My fingers almost flew to "Teach Me to Walk in the Light of His Love."
Ever since we realized that our third child, Charlie Ben, would never walk, would never speak, my wife and I have found it impossible to hear that song without falling apart emotionally. Though he has since passed away (after 17 years of a much-loved life), that hymn brings back all our love and all our grief for Charlie Ben.
So even though I knew I was among friends, and could have told them what the hymn meant to us, and it might have added to the meaning of the hymn to them as well, since so many of them knew Charlie Ben, I kept my seat.
I had those two lessons to teach. I could not destroy myself emotionally when I had responsibilities to fulfill, and needed to have a voice to fulfill them.
Instead I sat and read over to myself the great hymn of comfort that helped me through many a Sunday of sorrow: "How Gentle God's Commands."
I'll drop my burden at his feet
And bear a song away.9 comments on this story
Don't take the hymns for granted, my friends. They are the words that we speak to each other and to God, as a congregation, all at once.
They are the songs that run through our minds when we are alone and in need of comfort or guidance.They can be the poetry through which the Spirit speaks to us. Our book of living psalms.
Orson Scott Card is a writer of nonfiction and fiction, from LDS works to popular fiction. "In the Village" appears Thursdays in the Deseret Morning News. A longer version of this column is available in the Mormon Times section of deseretnews.com. Leave feedback for Card online at www.nauvoo.com/contact_desnews.html.