Some years ago an encouraging, musical couple from church gave me a copy of the Tyndale "One Year Book of Hymns" - now sadly out of print. Each day has a hymn text with a brief devotional. The devotional thoughts are drawn from the hymn, from the life or times of the author, or the scripture on which the hymn is based. It's a nice devotional companion.
I read in the book for a while, and then as is common with books in my life, I guess it sifted down a pile, and out of sight. Late last summer I came across it again, with the bookmark where I had stopped reading. I added it back to my daily morning practice, and am about to complete the year with it. What a gift was given me, by a couple that loves hymns and carries them in their hearts.
Some of the hymns in the collection were unknown to me. A very few are so unusual as to be of little practical value in public or private devotion. Most are classic, endearing, cherished by the church for generations. For my taste, almost all of the hymns make the accompanying devotional unnecessary or inconsequential. A good hymn should do that - it should stand alone, and point beyond itself to realities greater, deeper, and higher than the words on the page.
We had hymn singing like that in our services yesterday morning. Two of our hymns, especially, transcended even the beautiful singing of this congregation. When we sang "Before the throne of God above," very simply introduced and led by the piano, before congregational prayer, it seemed to me that we were uniquely prepared for corporate prayer. And in the later service when that hymn followed believers' baptisms, well I was undone and (in the words of a completely different hymn) "lost in wonder, love and praise." No commentary I could read or write will ever improve the simple singing of "Before the throne ..." And then again, at the end of the service, as a full house sang "For all the saints" - following a sermon on faith and faithfulness, to maestro Vaughan Williams's flawless SINE NOMINE. Well, it was heavenly, and there were the witnesses, who have gone before. Nothing beats singing a hymn for "getting it."
Sure, the One Year Book of Hymns has challenged me, too. More than once I have come into the office with the title of that day's hymn. To check whether that hymn is in our collection, and if not, can I squeeze it in somehow? Kid in a candy shop. So many hymns, so few services, so big a project already.
Read hymns. If you have to find them in a devotional book with commentary, even an excellent little book that is sadly out of print, read them. Read them, and rejoice. Read them, and weep. How can so many get through so much church with so little of this kind of nourishment?