Rowing

When I think of the past few months and the months that lie ahead, I feel a bit like I am floating along a river that isn’t really going anywhere.  Life has pretty much stopped.  There are still things to do, things that must be done and the hours fill with tasks, but there doesn’t seem to be much direction.  There are no events to look forward to, no real upcoming plans and no point in making plans.  It isn’t quite boring, but it isn’t quite anything else either.  There are lots of conversations and sharing of memories and stories, but the distance makes this odd.  Interactions are carefully orchestrated to be safe, we are on constant alert and are cautious in our activities.  Spontaneity is out, seeking interest in the ordinary is in.  We’re living virtually, which literally means it is simulated rather than real – sort of better than nothing, but a substitute nonetheless.  The river moves, it doesn’t actually stand still, but its path exists on no map and I can’t tell where its heading.

This old African-American Spiritual reminded me of this.  It is a working song – literally sung when rowing a boat.  Who is Michael?  Some believe he was an oarsman from a plantation on St. Helena Island in South Carolina.  Someone who toiled to carefully get people to and from the mainland.  Others believe he is the Archangel Michael who is called upon when the waters are rough, or called upon to carry one over the River Jordan to heaven beyond.  Either way, Michael works hard to get us where we need to be – offering a route to safety or comfort in a storm or peace as we pass through to the other side.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah.
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah.

The River Jordan is chilly and cold, hallelujah.
Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah.

The river is deep and the river is wide, hallelujah.
Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

In some ways, these words are bleak.  We need to get somewhere, we need to help, the way is rough.  There are many, many more verses that can be sung.  One version I came across had more than twenty additional statements.  Boasting will sink your soul, your father and mother have already gone, the river will overflow, darkness is coming.  Row to save your soul.  Imagine singing twenty or more verses, interspersed with Michael row the boat ashore….it is a relentless and long ride, it requires a lot of energy and strength to pull the oars with the rhythm of these words.  It is tiring to think about, it is tiring to do.  And where were these people going?  They didn’t know.

But then there’s this word.  Hallelujah. At the end of every, single statement.  Hallelujah.  When one utters this word, it is an expression of rejoicing.  How could these people who lived lives filled with uncertainty, injustice, pain, suffering, loneliness and hardship complete every observation of their lot with a triumphal proclamation?  A simple word that expresses jubilation, anticipation and hope.  It is a remarkable thing, and a remarkable example of the kind of belief the human spirit is capable of.  It is not dependant on knowing the outcome of our circumstances.  It simply acknowledges that there is joy to be found because we believe in its possibility.

As we float along this strange river we find ourselves in, there is something to be said for believing in whatever inspires a hallelujah.  Yes, we row.  We work, we think, we complete tasks, we contribute, we share, we trust and we serve. But it is a wide river and we also need to remember the milk and honey to be found on the other side.  We don’t know when we will get there, or what new beauties await us, but I am certain if we cannot sing our hallelujahs now, we may miss finding our way later.  Rejoicing is an act of will.  It is not payment for something received, or an exchange withheld until we are satisfied.  So, as I feel myself wandering with an absence of direction, I wonder if I need to sing hallelujah more frequently.  Perhaps there is something about this act that creates the space for hope to grow and for peace to reside.

Hallelujah.

A Million Voices

I woke up to some pretty gloomy weather this morning.  It promises to be rainy and muggy and generally unpleasant here today.  So I offer a gloomy hymn. Not because I wish to wallow, but because it has an interesting history and reminds me that when we sing together, literally or figuratively, the weights we carry are shared and much easier to bear.  Consider this in your day and your week.  Are you sharing the weight of those around you or adding to it?  I don’t think this means we must be little rays of sunshine in every moment, but when we act upon selfish desires we can inadvertently add to another’s frustration and suffering.  The news stories about crowded parks and beaches this past weekend are a strong reminder of that. We are working for the greater good. We are all required to make sacrifices.  When we do, this thing is reduced and we find ourselves singing with a million other voices.  And we are strong.

*

This week I present a hymn that is actually a Lenten hymn! Although, the history of it didn’t exactly match up with my expectations of a hymn that is quite commonly heard at this time of year. The words were first published around 1811 as a camp song and are sometimes attributed to Methodist minister Alexander Means, but it is unclear if he actually wrote them. The music, however, has a more interesting story. There are many examples in early church music (when it was unusual for people to be able to read – words or music), where it was common to set religious words to a popular tune for ease of learning and appeal.  This is one of those hymns. It is the same tune as the English song The Ballad of Captain Kidd (c.1701), which describes the exploits of pirate William Kidd. It may even predate that, and apparently there were at least a dozen popular songs to this tune at the time. So, a pretty gloomy camp song, with pirate music ends up being a Lenten standard. I guess we never know where things may end up!

I was quite pleased that someone suggested this hymn. I’ve always loved the haunting tune and the way the words repeat in order to get the point across. Sort of adding weight with each repetition, becoming heavier and heavier until we all start to sing, bearing this weight together, by the millions.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb Who is the great “I Am”;
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

Maybe this one is a turning point in my Lenten theme of aloneness.   Maybe as we face our spiritual journeys alone, we have the choice to do so in the company of many. Different voices. Probably different words, ideas, perspectives. But all singing for strength and comfort. Singing in praise. Singing in community.  I take comfort in that. It is what moves me when I sing many of these hymns despite concerns I may have over some of the words; some of the church’s history; some of my own pain as a result of conflict and struggle within the church. There is something to be said for joining our voices. To sing with millions – regardless of who or where they are – is a magnificent example of the ideal of wondrous love. So we sing, campers and pirates alike. And when we do, we are all carried by the strength of a million voices.

Imperfect Contentment

It is possible to choose our own state of being.  It is not always easy, but it is possible.  I admit that this week I am struggling with this.  I am feeling impatient and discouraged by the lack of opportunities in my immediate future. And yet, there is much to enjoy in these unexpected moments.  Increasingly frequent conversations with friends and family. Time spent walking, talking and noticing. Reminiscing about wonders of past experiences and travels. Enjoying food made with care and love. And, of course, everything that arrives with spring.  We’re all weary, and yet the lists we can compile of things that bring joy and contentment are long – perhaps different than usual, but long nonetheless. Enjoy your own list and grasp it tightly.  Allow these things to comfort and inspire something deep within.  They do not replace our losses, but they can carry us through these strange days.

*

It just so happens that I am to attend the funeral of a friend’s mother this weekend.  This hymn was on my list for this week, but seems especially appropriate as I know this family are people of faith who hold, in their grief, to the comfort offered in these words.  The idea that the rest beyond the river is real, and that their mother has found this beautiful peace.

Fanny Crosby wrote these words in 1869.  She is a well-known hymn writer, and this is a very familiar set of words.  The story goes that she became blind as an infant after receiving poor treatment of her eyes during an illness, an affliction that she felt resulted in having a fine memory and receiving a better education, one that she might not have had otherwise. Her first hymn, written at the age of eight, contained her lifelong philosophy: “O what a happy soul am I! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be.”

Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain;
Free to all, a healing stream,
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain. 

Refrain:
In the cross, in the cross
Be my glory ever,
Till my ransomed soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.

Near the cross, a trembling soul,
Love and mercy found me;
There the Bright and Morning Star
Shed His beams around me.

Near the cross! O lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day
With its shadow o’er me.

Near the cross! I’ll watch and wait,
Hoping, trusting ever;
Till I reach the golden strand,
Just beyond the river.

I have mixed feelings about this hymn.  In some ways, the words are strikingly beautiful. The precious fountain, the healing stream, the starlight beaming around us, the idea of reaching the golden strand. The promise of something beyond death. Lovely.  And, I can appreciate the comfort these words bring in times of loss. But, I do struggle with the preoccupation with the afterlife in these kinds of hymns, with the waiting for something as though this life is less than an unmatchable gift.  There is a famous quote by Carl Jung that says, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling.  If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.”

There is something mysterious about how we define our own personal spirituality.  Some of us are religious, others are not.  Some rely on inherited or chosen beliefs to resolve their fear of death. Others ignore the inevitable, seeking fountains of youth.  And, some choose to be content with the wonder that is our world, our neighbours, our creativity, our experiences, our very breath.  They choose gratitude.  Perhaps this comes from faith, from the Divine, from relationships, from knowledge – all sorts of sources.  But I think, as Fanny Crosby understood even as a child, there is some element of choice in gratitude. A willingness to look beyond our circumstances and the inevitability of death, and seek that which is wonderful.

Our lives are not perfect.  Far from it.  They are filled with all kinds of despair and disappointment, fear and uncertainty.  We require assistance – sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from professionals.  There are endless bumps along the road.  It can be incredibly difficult to find contentment in our darkest hours.  I wonder if this idea of gratitude is some kind of key to all of this.

Gratitude is simply the act of being thankful, combined with the action of returning kindness.  For me, this notion of returning the kindness is powerful.  Even when all else is dark, to return a kindness is a source of light that is unexplainable.  The smallest act can serve to provide a tiny flame that may just be enough to stave off the darkness – even if only for a moment.  I am reminded of the paintings of the Dutch Masters. Very dark canvasses filled with detail that is difficult to see but for the portions lit by candles, or a sunbeam through a window.  We don’t know what’s in the periphery, we can’t see everything, the subjects are sometimes engaged in difficult tasks, or may be poor or hungry or overworked, and yet there is a remarkable beauty in this smallest bit of illumination.

I don’t know what’s beyond the river. But I live in this world, in this life with the intention of being thankful for every breath I am able to take. Some are harder than others – that’s okay.  Sometimes we need to help someone else find their breath – that’s okay.  Sometimes our pain is so deep that we need to let someone else bring us the very air we need – that’s okay.  But this life is wonderful in all its complexity.  There are healing streams and precious fountains, and the river is beautiful – on this side and the next.

It Is Well

Every once in a while I am encouraged by someone who, in my perception, I should be offering care to rather than the other way around.  This hymn is about that special ability that some people have to care for those around them despite finding themselves in dire situations.  It is a powerful gift to receive love, understanding and compassion from one who appears depleted.  It is a powerful lesson, also.  We have so much within ourselves.  And when we acknowledge that kind of wealth, we are able to share it and embrace what it really means to be well.

*

We have arrived at one of our most treasured hymns. I think it may be the one on my list that was most often suggested. One friend shared, “This hymn is my mom in all circumstances.” What a statement. What an image of a strong and caring woman for a daughter to look up to.  What expressions of love – by both demonstrator and observer of this kind of strength.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

And on it goes, repeating the phrase “it is well with my soul” until we start to feel that this seemingly impossible spiritual state is, in fact, possible.

This is a hymn born out of tragedy. The story is quite famous. After suffering financial ruin following the Chicago Fire of 1871, Horatio G. Spafford sent his family to Europe while he cleaned up the mess. The ship they were travelling on was involved in a collision and all four of his daughters died. It was when he passed near the spot of their death, that he wrote these words.   The tune, written later by Philip P. Bliss, is named Ville du Havre, after the ill fated ship.

Once again I am amazed at what emerges from tragedy. How some special souls in our world seem to be able to express, through the deepest pain, something that serves to inspire and uplift us – over time and through generations. The ability to both share and rise above our pain brought me a number of stories about singing this hymn at funerals. It moves us, makes us weep, helps us grieve, and gives us comfort. What struck me, however, was that it is often those who are dying that give us these words of comfort by requesting they be sung. This is a song that allows those left behind to feel assurance. These are words that, when given, allow us to send our loved ones to their eternal rest. That is an enormous gift.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

I get choked up every time I sing “the trump shall resound” because it is a magnificent image.   It implies a welcome of great proportions. It’s the kind of welcome I think we would all like. It’s certainly what we wish for those who go before us. Whether sung at a funeral or not, this hymn brings us to a place of contemplating our soul’s wellness. A place where we can choose to lovingly express and share the deepest strength of our being.  Perhaps that lies in faith; perhaps in choices, integrity, values, relationships, inspiration, beauty or simply contemplation. I wish that, like my friend’s mother, these words described me in all circumstances, maybe one day they will. But even more, I hope I can find the part of me that will give these words to those I love when the time comes that they need them. Those who have done so are beyond inspiring.

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Simply Love

There are days when I just don’t want to think about this plague anymore.  Days when I’m tired of worrying about what will happen next – speculating about the future, lost income, unemployment, cancelled travel plans and the monotony of this current existence.  Days when I don’t want to read the news or hear about more deaths, or wonder at the wisdom of those around me and the world’s leaders.  Days when the impact on the economy is the last thing I want to hear – knowing full well it trickles down to my own retirement funds and house value, and friends’ and families’ job prospects.  It’s just too much. It’s just too complicated.

On days like this, I want to think about simpler things. The sunshine.  The flowers.  The gentle breeze of spring.  Something that hasn’t changed, that remains lovely and untarnished.  So, I find myself drawn to another Sunday School song from my childhood.  It is a simple tune, a simple message.  God is love.  Simple.

Praise him, praise him, all ye little children, 
God is love, God is love; 
Praise him, praise him, all ye little children. 
God is love, God is love. 

Love him, love him, all ye little children, 
God is love, God is love; 
Love him, love him, all ye little children. 
God is love, God is love. 

Thank him, thank him, all ye little children, 
God is love, God is love; 
Thank him, thank him, all ye little children. 
God is love, God is love.

It seems to me that whether one believes in God or not, the idea that love is worthy of acknowledgment, praise, gratitude and imitation, is a good thing.  The use of love as a descriptor of God is one of the better options I’ve heard.  It is not dependent on a reflection of a flawed human characteristic, it is pure.  It is independent of who we are and all of our mistakes and failings.  It rises above what kind of day we’re having, our impatience and our selfishness.  And there it is.  On days when we are simply tired of everything, we can return to this thing that is more than everything we can ever hope to be.

Love is a word difficult to define, but I think we understand the difference between its superficial meanings and that deep space of welcome, joy, care, understanding, support, encouragement, sharing, strength, forgiveness, essence, knowledge, wisdom and peace.  It is a thing we give, and thing we receive.  It is larger than our circumstances and greater than the time we have been given.  And, amidst all of this, it is simple.  We are loved.  We love.

A lovely message to sing to children.  Love is worth action, be it thanks, praise or love itself.  And as I reflect on my own weariness, it is comforting to know, that it is greater than whatever I feel today.  It is greater than any virus, greater than any circumstance.  Knowing this allows me to see the sunshine and feel the gentle breezes.  It allows me to seek patience and to care again tomorrow.  It comes from above, outside, beyond….and within.  Use it, find it, share it.

Amen

What do we mean when we say amen?  It is often said at the end of a prayer. But it doesn’t mean…the end.  It means that we agree.  Or rather, that “it is so” or we have heard a bit of truth, or that we have some certainty in the validity of the words spoken or heard.  This is quite beautiful if you think about it.  The ability to state something so emphatically with one word.  It is not reserved for religious purposes, we’ve all heard or exclaimed “amen” when someone says something that we really want to praise, or confirm.

There are many reasons to say “amen” in all sorts of situations.  What I like about its use, particularly in the context of prayer or a religious service, is that we often say it together.  Even when we don’t quite agree.  We say it to confirm that we have heard each other.  Heard our thoughts, concerns and ideas.  It is a statement of understanding that our voices are important, until they are heard again.  In a way it isn’t so much an ending as a beginning – the point at which we have taken in information, and can begin to determine its value and what it means to us; what it requires us to do.  It is a symbol of our ability to listen, our ability to respect others’ voices.  A way of understanding our communities, and the vast array of options available to unite and celebrate each other.

Right now, we need to say “amen” together.  To listen, to consider, to ponder anew.  There is much to praise, and much to explore.  The ability to do so together, despite our differing views, will serve us well.

*

I love the autumn. The crisp weather, the sunshine through the changing leaves, the magnificent colours I am privileged to see in the eastern Ontario landscape. It is a time when many of my favourite activities get started and yet we also celebrate the end of summer, harvest and are thankful. As we prepare for Thanksgiving next week, this hymn of praise seemed appropriate. It was suggested to me by two friends who shared that it was sung at their wedding. They both expressed that it had been meaningful before this event, but became even more so after.

This is a song of adoration. The words were originally written by Joachim Neander in German in 1680, and translated into English in 1863 by Catherine Winkworth. I am often struck by how some of these hymns span hundreds of years and can still provide meaning and inspiration to us. My favourite bits are in the second and last verses. Verse two speaks of how God “shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth.” What an image. I can understand why someone would choose this to mark the beginning of a marriage. It is both celebratory and filled with the promise of care.

The final verse has a statement that, I must admit, chokes me up every time I find myself singing it with others.

Let the “amen” sound from God’s people again.

There is something very powerful about voices joining together in an “amen” – something sort of primal. The word is a declaration of affirmation. It comes up in Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and English – with variations in many other languages and is used in all sorts of religious practices. It sort of means we agree. Maybe it’s a bit naïve to think we actually agree on much – and as we look around the world it seems we really, really don’t. But there is something spirit building about being in a space with people and choosing to say “amen” despite our differences. Choosing to look for ways to work together seeking something better; encouraging positive change, acceptance, peace and kindness. Idealistic I know, but when I sing this hymn it reminds me of that possibility on a very basic emotional level.

However you choose to say amen, and with whatever group you choose to do so, I hope this can be a reminder of how important it is to find a community with which to share your celebrations, your adorations and your songs.

Kindly Light

Every once in a while someone suggests a hymn for me to ponder.  I appreciate this.  Sometimes these hymns are familiar, but not personal favourites, so I haven’t really given them a chance.  I’m almost always glad when I do.  Sometimes they are unfamiliar and I find myself learning a little something new, or reading an interesting story or just enjoying a bit of music that I would have otherwise missed.  This one is new to me.  Although, once I read a bit about it, I can’t understand how I missed it!

Written by John Henry Newman in 1833, it was first published as the poem, “The Pillar of the Cloud” and later set to music, this particular tune by John Bacchus Dykes in 1865.   Newman’s words were written whilst he recovered from a terrible illness as he travelled from Sicily to England at the age of thirty three.  It is said he had many adversities, including the collapse of his father’s bank following the Napoleonic Wars, nervousness and anxiety and his sister’s sudden death.  It is clear when you read the words that he was looking for ways to cope.

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till 
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile, 
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

This hymn has been used as a means of coping with adversity ever since.  And in some pretty well known circumstances.  Trapped miners sang it during one of the largest mining disasters in British history in 1909.  In complete darkness, 26 men sang, beside the 168 who died.  It was sung by Betsie ten Boom as she and other women were led into the Ravensbruck concentration camp during the Holocaust.  It was sung on one of the lifeboats from the Titanic, survivors having heard it in a service that had happened just prior to the ship hitting an iceberg.  It was sung in the trenches of the First World War, by British soldiers to the accompaniment of artillery fire.  It turns up in literature and is said to have been a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi.

I have no doubt there are many other stories.  These words clearly speak to the common experience of needing to be reassured that we are walking in the right direction – especially when we simply cannot see beyond our gloom.  Moving towards something that greets us with angelic faces and sunshine and all that we love.  Over moors and swamps, past cliffs and rushing water.  We walk until the morning breaks, and our gloom lifts.

The idea that sometimes we need to seek guidance when we can’t see the way seems quite relevant at the moment.  There are still many unanswered questions for most of us.  And we haven’t yet found the solutions we’d like to hear.  I suspect many of us are starting to come up with responses that suit us, that begin to return to us what we are missing, to regain what we have lost.  I wonder if that is pride ruling our will.  I’m not entirely certain it will bring us to the morning we hope for.

My favourite part of this poetry is the term kindly light.  What a beautiful image.  This is what we are told we can find as our guide.  It is obviously a reference to God in this case, but I relish the idea that it is also something we can all become.  Something we can aspire to.  When we look around at this strange world we find ourselves in, where are the kindly lights?  Are they those that offer a quick return to everything that was before?  Are they those that refuse to acknowledge their neighbours’ suffering or the potential for more suffering?  Are they those that concern themselves only with what is closest?  Are they those that have found ways to benefit from others’ downfalls?

No.  The kindly lights in our world are those that offer care.  For the safety and health of us all – the young, the old, the sick, the weak, the poor, the vulnerable.  They are those willing to stand up to the pressures of our usual ways and say, be patient.  They are those who seek real solutions, even if they are slower arriving than we’d like. They are those who shine bright, beautiful light into our gloom – not removing it, but helping us understand that beyond it is something better than a garish day, far from home.  Something that will offer us safety whether we are a healthy child or a weakened grandmother.  A kindly light cares no matter who we are and doesn’t evaluate our worth based on how many days we have left or what we are able to contribute.

Whom we choose to lead us is important.  Whom we choose to follow.  A kindly light is infinitely more valuable than a light merely showing us what we want to see.  Because we are sometimes wrong.  And we are sometimes selfish.  And when we are, it is easy to walk down the wrong path, especially when it is dark.

Look for a kindly light; aspire to be one.  Choose your path wisely and walk with care through the encircling gloom.  One step at a time until the morning comes and the faces of all we love return our smiles and confirm that we went the right way.

Melody of Peace

We cannot really gather in our usual ways right now.  But we do gather in our hearts and minds, our memories and our anticipation.  We resist gathering, as best we can, in order to achieve the peace of knowing that all are safe and that our actions do not make this thing worse for someone else.  This is a beautiful, and very difficult, thing.  We are gathering metaphorically at a beautiful river. One that offers much. We should feel proud and encouraged by our actions. And hopeful that they speak louder than the actions of those who care little for those around them.  This is the melody we sing, a melody of peace.

*

I had never really given much thought to this hymn. It is very familiar, but not sung that often in my circles.  It feels like an old gospel song that should be found on a movie soundtrack, the scene set in the countryside with a small congregation holding a summer service out of doors.  A simple time. Hard working people singing and looking forward to something better.  Well, it’s probably been used that way, but it’s origins aren’t quite what my imagination conjured up.

This hymn was written by Robert Lowry in 1864.  He wrote both the words and the music, not that common, it turns out, in hymnody.  The context was the American Civil War and the story goes that in a moment of rest from the heat of the battle, both literally and figuratively, Lowry began to imagine the relief cool flowing water could offer, had there been a river available.   He composed the hymn in that moment, also reflecting on a biblical passage that spoke of a river flowing from Christ’s throne – a place for all to gather.

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod;
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Refrain:
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will walk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.

Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we ev’ry burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

These are really quite beautiful words.  The imagery of crystal tides, silver spray and the shining river are lovely.  These are visions that are filled with that magical thing we experience when we are privileged to see the beauty of nature. When we take in those moments that can never quite be described or captured by a photograph.  The sights, sounds, smells of beauty, of our earth, of a single, fleeting moment.  These experiences that we seek again and again because they are so precious.

What’s interesting to me about these words, is the idea that we gather at something beautiful because to do so offers us the opportunity to find a melody of peace.  A melody of peace.  Emerging from this wondrous river that flows from something beyond us.  Maybe you call it God, maybe you call it nature, maybe you call it science or the universe.  Or maybe you have no idea what it is, but hope for something deeper than yourself and gather for a glimpse nonetheless.  Humans have been seeking the beauty found in this river for all time.  We talk about it, we write about it, we create its potential imagery, we sing about it.

We also fight about it.  We seem unable to come to a place where this melody of peace can be sung in both harmonic consonance and dissonance with all the other voices gathered. All the other ways of seeing its beauty, of understanding its power for good.  For me, the battle is not beautiful.  The desire to be right is ugly.  The promotion of arrogant supremacy is the exact opposite of a sparkling crystal tide and the shining silver spray.  For these are characteristics found in many places; seen with many eyes; understood by many hearts.

It is a simple hymn. It probably means something different to me than it does to you, or, I suspect, it meant to its author.   But I like that we can find a connection in the belief that beauty is both healing and worth walking towards.  I like that we understand that gathering for a common good is a path to peace.  And, I like that peace can be a melody.  One we can sing together.  All voices, all languages, all rhythms, all possible notes.

Shall we gather at the river?

 

Beautiful World

I would like nothing more than to go on a stroll through the English countryside, as the writer of this hymn did, and where he found his inspiration. Not possible at the moment.  But, I did walk through a couple of local parks today.  I saw thousands of colourful tulips, a crowd of goslings rushing towards a river, a spectacular magnolia tree in full bloom, squirrels doing their usual dash and many, many blossoms.  I long to see beauty that is new to me, but was reminded that it is everywhere – free for the taking.  It is with us when we celebrate wonderful achievements and events and when we mourn the loss of the things and people that we love.  Find a bit of beauty today and treasure it. Let it fill you with joy and gratitude.

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It is a gloomy day as I write this. The weather is unusually warm, but a bit muggy for my notion of an ideal crisp autumn. And yet, there is such beauty in the contrast of the colours of the changing leaves against the dark, cloudy sky. Somehow this contrast allows for seeing the range of oranges and yellows in a different way than on a sunny day.

For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies…

This hymn was written by Folliot Sandford Pierpont as he went for a stroll on a spring day in 1864. He was reportedly inspired by the beauty of the English countryside. What he observed gave rise to a poetic text filled with gratitude, praise and beautiful imagery.

For the beauty of each hour, of the day and of the night,
hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon, and stars of light…

Pierpont speaks so beautifully of what he sees in nature, but doesn’t stop there. He includes a verse with the simple thought of finding joy in our family and friends.

For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child
friends on earth and friends above, for all gentle thoughts and mild…

Such lovely sentiments. Deep within them, I see a reminder to find the beauty in the whole range of what we see and experience in both the natural world and in our relationships. Day and night; hill and vale; those who are with us and those already gone. Beauty exists – on a gloomy, or sun filled day.

This our hymn of grateful praise.

 

Holiness

There is something interesting to me about the concept of holiness.  Not necessarily in a specific religious sense, but in the way in which the human species has always searched for some way to understand our spiritual selves. Searched for something greater than ourselves, something that fills us with awe, something beyond the ordinary.  I believe there are many ways to answer these kinds of questions, and we all do so differently.  But what can unite us, is the knowledge that we are small and the answers we seek are big.  And they are holy.  They are not self serving nor can they be possessed by anyone.  The holy places we find are inexplicable but treasured.  We don’t have to understand, we may simply enjoy the rejuvenation and peace this mysterious thing brings.

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Heilig, heilig, heilig, heilig ist derr Herr!
Heilig, heilig, heilig, heilig ist nur Er!

Holy, holy, holy, holy is the Lord!
Holy, holy, holy, holy God alone!

It is a beautiful spring day as I begin to ponder this hymn. I don’t know why I chose to place it this week, but as I listen to the breeze rustling through the leaves outside my window, I think maybe it was meant to remind me of the value of holiness. As I looked for a definition of the word holy, I found that it is sort of difficult to pin down. It can mean sacred and worthy of devotion; it can mean spiritual or religious. It can be about spaces, behaviours, people and the Divine.  It’s a little bit mysterious – and something I suspect we don’t contemplate very often in our modern world.

This hymn comes from Schubert’s Deutsche Messe (German Mass; 1827). It is the Sanctus portion of the mass, which is a prayer of thanks to God – sung with the angels, who are said to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” unceasingly. Apparently this element of the liturgy is one of the oldest we have evidence of, dating back to St. Clement of Rome who died around 104. So the church has been honouring this holiness with song for almost two thousand years, probably longer. Interesting.

God, who, uncreated, God who always was,
endlessly exalted, reign for evermore.

Mighty, wondrous, loving, circled round with awe:
holy, holy, holy, holy is the Lord.

There is something peaceful about this music. The words are simple. The description of God is powerful. God is not created. No matter how we try to craft the Divine in our image, that simply isn’t the nature of this holiness.   And I think we do that often. It seems we desperately want to understand this thing that is beyond us. We want a God that makes sense. We want a God to back our ideas and justify our actions. We want a God that looks like us. But the Divine will not be diminished to fit into our ideas and spaces.

In a world where everything has been reduced to the easily grasped and the familiar, finding holiness becomes our challenge. Because we need mystery and we need awe. Wonder reminds us of our smallness in the universe while it gifts us an understanding of our worth. And we are worthy of holiness.

Like the sound of the breeze in the trees, there is a peaceful mystery to the holy. Listen.