This week’s hymn comes to us from a friend who said that he often found himself praying this hymn when he needed guidance or direction. I thought that was a beautiful way to think of a hymn – as a prayer. I know many hymns are just that, but this is a tiny gem that asks very simply for a clear view of where to go and how to find safety.
Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness,
make thy way plain before my face.
For it is thou, Lord, thou, Lord only,
that makest me dwell in safety.
I couldn’t find a great deal of information about this hymn but it was written in 1861 by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the grandson of the more famous hymn writer Charles Wesley. At the time it was popular to write what were known as verse anthems. These were multi-sectional pieces designed, in combination with unison and choral parts, to show off the talents of the various soloists within a church choir. Lead Me Lord is an excerpt from one of these longer anthems, Praise the Lord, O My Soul.
I think the sentiment of these words is quite powerful. The idea that walking in righteousness clarifies our path and leads to safety is something to consider. I appreciate that the language used here carries a bit of baggage for some of us – righteousness sounds a bit close to self-righteous and implies a very specific way of understanding the world. But when I look at what righteousness actually means – justice, decency, honesty – I find myself thinking that this is, indeed, a way to clarify the path I want to be on. Making decisions about how I want to live based on the notion of justice also leads me on a very specific path. And, the safety found on that path is beyond my own. Justice requires safety for all. For me, to dwell in safety requires a broader understanding than simply a personal space for myself and those closest to me. Safety of the few is thin; and it is unjust.
So as I pray this hymn, my hope is that I will see clearly the path of real righteousness and that I will have the courage to walk that path. A path that is paved with justice and provides safety for all. This is where I wish to dwell.
It’s hard to imagine a year of reflections on our favourite hymns without Amazing Grace making an appearance. A hymn that is not only common in most Christian churches, it also makes regular appearances in popular culture and political contexts. It is not simply a familiar hymn, some have argued that it is the most well known song in the English speaking world.
The story of this hymn is quite famous. Movies have been made about it, books and articles written and there is even a newly opened Broadway show telling the tale. The words were written by John Newton following his conversion experience. This spiritual event took place during a violent storm while at sea as a slave trader in 1748. Following the experience, he continued in the slave trade until around 1755 when he began studying theology and eventually became an ordained minister in the Church of England. The words have been associated with more than 20 melodies over the years, but the one we are familiar with emerged in 1835.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we’d first begun.
Few of us will have the experience of receiving grace for something as horrific as being a slave trader. But grace need not be applied only to the grandest of transgressions. Grace is about mercy, kindness, pardon, forgiveness and acceptance. Grace is a treasured gift we can receive, be it Divine or otherwise. But as I ponder this hymn, I wonder if its power lies more in our ability to provide it to those in our lives; to ourselves. We are easily hurt and disappointed by a whole variety of acts, comments and failures. We are critical of others and ourselves. We live in a world where the ability to comment on almost anything anybody says or does is extremely easy. We have moments of compassion and encouragement, but I’m not sure we really know how to extend grace. Because it doesn’t really require the offender to change or be better. It just forgives and it is unmerited. This is a huge challenge. Would we forgive a slave trader who carried on for seven more years? I doubt it.
I will struggle with this concept for a while yet, but I can see the potential. When I receive grace, I am so much closer to where I should be – whether I choose to change or not. Giving this kind of forgiveness and care is a selfless act that may never see any return. And yet, using one’s life to open this kind of door for others is valuable. Open doors offer so much more than those that are closed – even if no one ever walks through them, they can see the view.
Come, let us all unite to sing: God is love!
Let Heav’n and earth their praises bring,
God is love! Let every soul from sin awake,
Let every heart sweet music make,
And sing with us for Jesus’ sake: God is love!
This week’s hymn is pretty cheerful. It basically says, everyone join in and sing. Sing because God is love. I suppose that’s as good a reason to sing as any, the idea that this Divine being is love. It’s kind of a grand concept. Not simply that God loves us or that we love God, but that God is love.
I must admit that love is another one of our commonly used words that is actually quite difficult to define. We understand it as a feeling of affection, attraction or devotion and a means of expression. Something that compels us to act in a particular way. Something that can shape our views, our actions and our decisions. But, for something or someone to be love, seems beyond our usual definitions.
How happy is our portion here, God is love!
His promises our spirits cheer, God is love!
He is our sun and shield by day,
Our help, our hope, our strength and stay;
He will be with us all the way; God is love!
The words of this hymn first appeared in an American songbook called Millenial Praises in 1812. It is unknown who wrote them, although they are sometimes attributed to Howard Kingsbury (unlikely, as he was only born in 1842!). It’s interesting to me that they are so pleasant. Filled with images of sweet music, happiness, sunshine, hope and strength. Sing praises and all will be well. While I will be the first to suggest that music can uplift, and that the act of praise, in whatever form or tradition you choose to practice it, may also boost the spirit, life doesn’t magically become all we desire just because we’re singing praises.
So I struggle with these kinds of words. If we can’t praise, do we become sad? If we are struggling, hopeless, depressed, sick or weak are we unable to praise? Have we failed? I don’t think so. I think we have just been unable to define love very well. Love encompasses us completely. Not just the happy bits, not just what looks or feels good. To me, these cheerful words are only part of the story. I’m happy to unite to sing, but love is about more than sunshine and so I also need us to sing in and about the rain.
Unite to sing whatever words or tune you know. There is much to be found in the unity of singing together. But if you find yourself in a moment where you have no song, simply listen – the rest of us will sing. And we will fill our voices with whatever love we have.
God is love! God is love!
Come let us all unite to sing that God is love.
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
As I think about the many hymns I’ve looked at throughout this year, there are a few common themes that come up again and again. One of these themes is pain and the desire to find a peace that can bear it. Over and over I’ve read words that must have emerged from great challenges, fears, disappointments and deep grief. Over and over the authors of these words have stressed that there is something greater than the pain. That there is hope.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
This hymn speaks to this theme. It came to my list via someone who admitted that many hymns stirred feelings of awe and occasional tears. He shared that his feelings varied when hearing the same hymn in different contexts and occasions. I found that interesting. Particularly with this tune, written by Jean Sibelius in 1899/1900 for a symphonic poem, the theme of which became a song (Finlandia) that has been used like a national anthem in Finland and a hymn in many churches. A beautiful melody that can evoke different emotions depending on the context.
These particular words predate the tune by many years, written originally in German by Katherine von Schlegel in 1725, and translated into English by British poet Jane Borthwick in 1855. What a history. Crossing nations, languages and musical forms. For me therein lies one of the great beauties of hymnody. It spans so much. It gives glimpses into both the challenges and inspirations searched for and found by those who wrote the words and the music.
So we have difficult themes and we have hopeful responses. And we discover that we all have and need both, and that it’s been this way forever. Sometimes we are lifted up. Sometimes we are not. But we are not alone. The experiences of pain and hope are shared by us all – now, in the past and in the future. Despite our differences, we are all just souls in search of stillness. There is comfort in that knowledge. There is joy, and there is peace.
Be still, my soul: the Sun of life divine
Through passing clouds shall but more brightly shine.