Today’s post is by Linnéa Clark, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania.
One of my favorite features of Evangelical Lutheran Worship is its “End Time” section (#s 433-441). When the end of the lectionary year arrives, I find myself turning to beautiful, timeless hymns that long for the fulfillment of God’s reign and the coming of Jesus. Many of the “End Times” hymns hold longing in tension with joy as they celebrate God’s promises and proclaim that God’s reign is already at hand.
Lately, I have been drawn to “On Jordan’s stormy bank I stand” (ELW 437). The text, drawn from a longer hymn written in 1787, describes the contrast between where we are – waiting on “Jordan’s stormy bank” – and God’s promised kingdom, where there is no sickness, sorrow, pain, or death. The text refuses to resolve: with a pair of questions, the final stanza voices a deep yearning to see the face of Christ. Each stanza of the hymn culminates in a refrain that empowers us to join in God’s work ourselves: “Oh, who will come and go with me? I am bound for the promised land.”
This hymn lives a parallel life outside the pages of hymnals like Evangelical Lutheran Worship in the Sacred Harp community which sings traditional a cappella American shape-note music. Originally developed in North America and England in the late 1700s, shaped notation was intended to help congregations sight-read hymns and sing well in harmony. Shape-note “singing schools” quickly acquired a life of their own outside the church. Today, Sacred Harp groups can be found around the world, and they welcome first-time participants.* “On Jordan’s Stormy Bank I Stand” appears as “The Promised Land” (128) in the 1991 revision of The Sacred Harp.
In Sacred Harp performance practice, the melody of this song is carried by the tenor part, a mixture of high and low voices. It is surrounded by bass (low), alto (high), and treble (mixed low and high) voices. When sung, the melody weaves in and out of the six-part harmony. The most striking feature of the song is its minor key, a sharp contrast to the major key printed in ELW and other hymnals. When Sacred Harp singers sing “The Promised Land” in its customary minor key, they tend to sing it quickly. It has a powerful forward energy, as though the singers are already pressing onward through the storm toward the promised land. You can listen here to a video from the singing community in Cork, Ireland.
If you choose to sing “On Jordan’s Stormy Bank I Stand” this season, I invite you to lean into its longing for God’s coming reign by experimenting with your interpretation. Alternate interpretations help to illuminate different aspects of the text. Try singing it faster, interpreting its time signature as 2/2 rather than 4/4. You might even choose to read its key signature as E minor instead of E-flat major, adding an air of conviction and resolve. The stormy bank, the wide extended plains, the longing, and the journey toward the promised land come vividly to life.
As Advent approaches, may love and longing for God’s promised reign of justice and peace enrich your shared song.
*Interested in exploring this hymn in its Sacred Harp context? Visit fasola.org to find a regular singing near you. No experience is necessary, and people of all ages, abilities, and experiences are welcome to sing and lead songs.