I sing a song of the saints


    One of the first churches I remember going to regularly was the Argyle Road Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. We went there while my parents were in language school before we began going to the predominantly African churches. The church was a British Baptist Church, which was different from Southern Baptist life in several ways, mostly cultural. The services were in English. Two things stand out to me: one, the ushers did not pass offering plates, but velvet pouches that had short handles on either side. You took one handle, put your money in the pouch, and then held out the handle for the next person to take. (It was also quite fun to stick your arm all the way down to the bottom and jingle the change.)

    The second thing was a hymn I never heard in Baptist life: “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” by Lesbia Scott. (Listen here.)

    I sing a song of the saints of God,
    patient and brave and true,
    who toiled and fought and lived and died
    for the Lord they loved and knew.
    And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
    and one was a shepherdess on the green;
    they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
    God helping, to be one too.

    They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
    and his love made them strong;
    and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
    the whole of their good lives long.
    And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
    and one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
    and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
    why I shouldn’t be one too.

    They lived not only in ages past;
    there are hundreds of thousands still.
    The world is bright with the joyous saints
    who love to do Jesus’ will.
    You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
    In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
    for the saints of God are just folk like me,
    and I mean to be one too.

    I have no doubt that I’m probably the millionth blogger to quote the hymn on this All Saints’ Day, but I’m still captured by its imagery. I had never thought about a “shepherdess on the green” until I sang this song. Living in Africa made the line about being “slain by a fierce wild beast” feel plausible. My favorite lines still make me smile:

    You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea
    In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea

    Even though I didn’t think I had ever been down a lane and had only just learned from our British friends about afternoon tea, there was something so wonderfully ordinary about her list that made sainthood seem simple. Bill Reynolds, one of my seminary professors, wrote:

    Lesbia Scott wrote hymns for her three children during the 1920s as expressions of their faith. Never intended for publication, many were written in response to the children’s own requests. They would ask, ‘Mum, make a hymn for a picnic,’ or ‘Mum, make a hymn for a foggy day.’

    ‘I sing a song of the saints of God’ was intended for use on saints’ days to reinforce the fact that saints not only lived in the distant past but may also live and work in everyday lives.

    Three years ago, Ginger gave me Iconography classes for Christmas. Chris Gosey was my teacher. He still is when we can find time to get together. One of the first things I learned was icons were considered “windows into heaven”: ways to find God. The point was not to worship the icon as if it were a sacred relic, but to focus on it so that it pointed you to God. The spiritual practice of writing the icons has been crucial for me in dealing with my depression. In that practice, I also learned that the darkest colors are laid down first and then you “paint to the light.” I have held on to that image tightly.

    The paint we use is almost translucent, so it takes painting each line over and over – about fifteen to twenty times – for the lighter colors to establish themselves against the darker background. After hours and hours, a face begins to emerge from the darkness and the icon takes shape.

    Chet Raymo wrote a wonderful book called The Soul of the Night, in which he talks about standing underneath the night sky and wondering how there could be so many stars in the heavens and yet there was still darkness. There was enough light in the sky to chase the darkness away, but it was still dark. And then he said he realized what was happening: all the light has just not gotten here yet. The light of the stars, much like the light of the lines painted again and again, will come in time.

    I sing a song of the saints of God because we, too, are light not fully arrived. In a world with so many who say they follow Jesus, why is there still poverty and injustice? Why do people live and die alone? Why are we at war? Why is love not our common currency? There is still more light yet to break forth.

    And so we must keep singing.



    1. Thanks for giving us the charming history of this hymn. I’d never heard that and thought it was from the Victorian period. I always associated it with Episcopal churches because my daughters learned it in their preschool.

      We should sing it more often.

    2. Milton, you help me look at things in a new way –I’m thinking about the idea of us as saints, as “light not fully arrived” yet in this world. That notion fits with one of my favorite verses:

      Daniel 12:3 “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

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