While I was serving in Milwaukee, a companion and I decided that we’d open each companionship study session by singing a hymn. That’s a fairly common practice in the whole mission experience, but this companion and I took it one step further—being good at sight-reading, we agreed curate our choices from among the more unfamiliar hymns in the LDS hymnal.
We didn’t do this because we were raging against the traditional choristers and music chairs of Mormondom. I’ve encountered some members of the church with fiery opinions about how we always sing the same songs and they’re so boring and shouldn’t we add “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” to the hymnbook.
I typically fall on the opposite side: I’m pretty okay with regularly singing the well-known, well-loved anthems of the church. Those hymns and I have built up a history over the years, and they never fail to recall memories of faith and testimony.
Elder Brinton and I chose to give preference to hymns we didn’t know so that we could acquaint ourselves with their unique messages and melodies. This practice prepared me for an experience I had a couple months ago in Sacrament meeting.
The rest hymn that Sunday was #126, “How Long, O Lord, Most Holy and True.” If you want, you can take a minute right now to look it up.
Back? Okay. So the congregation really struggled with this one. It’s a slow song in a meter that might have confused some people. Strike one. I don’t think any of us had ever heard it before. Strike two. It’s in a minor key. Strike three.
The congregation honestly tried singing the first verse. We looked up questioningly from our hymnals during the second verse. Some started shaking their heads and snickering during the third verse. Many dropped out in the fourth verse. When the song was over hymnbooks were tucked back into pews with chuckles and chatter.
This is not a condemnation post. It’s not a sin to be sheepish about not knowing or not being able to sing a song in the hymnbook. This post is about defending a hymn, lest we never sing it again and miss its powerful message.
Getting over the initial awkwardness of learning a new melody allowed me to consider the lyrics. The hymn is a plea from the righteous souls in spirit prison—those souls who, for one reason or another, did not accept the gospel of Jesus Christ while in mortality but have done so now. In the hymn, they describe their anxious wait for their temple work to be done.
How long, O Lord most holy and true,
Shall shadowed hope our joy delay?
Our hearts confess, our souls believe
Thy truth, thy truth, thy light, thy will, thy way!
Thy truth has made our prison bright;
Thy light has dimmed the dying past.
We bend beneath thy loving will
And seek thy onward, onward path at last.
Eternal Father, gentle Judge!
Speed on the day, redemption’s hour.
Set up thy kingdom; from thy house
Unlock for us, for us the prison tow’r.
From grim confusion’s awful depth
The wail of hosts, faith’s urgent plea:
Release our anguished, weary souls;
Swing wide, swing wide the gates, and set us free!
The lyrics are plaintive and beautiful. They remind me of my responsibility and opportunity. Can you imagine the agony of seeing things as they really are and being powerless to change your situation? Can you imagine what it would be like to wait for years—decades, centuries—and finally see one of your posterity accept the gospel of Jesus Christ (what are the odds?!) only to give perfunctory attention to family history and temple work? (“Maybe next generation.”) The ghostly echo in each final line conducts me from reverie to reality.
The hymn’s music is sepulchral, and why should it not be? We’re singing from the grave. It is appropriate. Like the illustrated postmortal wait, the hymn’s notes plod on, pensive and drawn.
If you ever happen to sing this song in a church meeting, give it your full attention. If you don’t feel comfortable with sight-reading, it’s okay to follow the words silently with the organ.
There are others doing the same.