The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.
I love the evening. The calm found in darkness. The night sky, stars and the moon. Although I don’t often have the luxury of doing so, there is nothing better than playing piano late into the night when it feels like the rest of the world is sleeping. There is something about filling that kind of silence with music that brings to mind a space far greater than the room I’m in. This hymn reminds me of that space. Of the world out there that carries on when we sleep. Of the world that needs to be cared for whether we can see it or not.
We thank Thee that Thy church, unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night.
The words to this hymn were written by John Ellerton in 1871, reportedly on his nightly walk to a teaching position he held. Not surprising to those of us who enjoy late night walks, it is easy to imagine how creativity can emerge from this activity. It is easy to imagine that creativity should emerge when we come to the end of the day. The cycle of day to night and night to day is so much a part of us and this hymn reflects that. Reflects the understanding that every end is also a beginning.
As o’er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.
The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ’neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
So as I relish the evening, I need to consider what follows. All the possibilities that emerge from the end of one day and the beginning of the next. And the thing that flows between; the thing that hold us together as we pass from night to day and back. This is our treasure. Find it and let it share the calm space of the night, and the joy of the new day.
So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.
As I near the end of my year of song, I felt it fitting to include this beautiful hymn. This is one that is usually reserved for funerals, but it also speaks to endings; it speaks to our fears about what the future holds.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
The story goes that these words were written in 1847 by Henry F. Lyte as he lay dying from tuberculosis. Although, I also read that he was haunted by the phrase “abide with me” that had been repeatedly muttered by a friend who was dying. Either way, there is a sense of desperation in these words; a sense of urgent need when passing into the unknown – in this life or the next.
This is a hymn that has offered comfort to many. When William Monk wrote the familiar tune in 1861, he apparently did so to help his wife get through a difficult time. And there are many other stories of its use. Everything from being played on the deck of the Titanic as it sunk to being sung in the trenches of World War I. It was used as a theme in a prelude by Ralph Vaughan Williams and recorded by Thelonious Monk with his jazz septet. It is even said to have been a favourite of Mahatma Ghandi.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
What I take from all of this is that fear of the unknown is pretty common. There is much in life and death that we do not understand. Try as we might to find answers, there frequently aren’t any. Often what we think will lie at the end of any path, is simply not there at all.
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.
When endings arrive we all need something to bear us into the unknown. Something that reassures us in the midst of uncertainty and sometimes real fear. We need to feel cradled in care – or at least as though we don’t walk alone. What comes next isn’t always bad, but not knowing is frightening and difficult when faced alone. These words are not about finding answers or ignoring reality. They are about finding something that will be a companion along the path of the unknown. Something that will listen when the words “abide with me” are spoken; something that cradles that request and fills our view with peace.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
My life flows on in endless song;
above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
When I started this year of song, I received a number of personal comments shared by those who made suggestions of hymns for me to consider. This is the last story I have to share from that list – although there are a few more weeks to go! I have placed this beautiful hymn near the end of my year because it contains the line, “how can I keep from singing?” If there is one thing that has driven me to do this project, that is probably it. There is something about all that life contains that requires me to sing – many tunes, many words, many emotions.
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
The gift of this hymn, written in the mid 1800s by Robert Lowry, came from a fellow pianist who started out by saying that while it is lovely, she has often been annoyed by its lack of a time signature. However, she acknowledged that somehow a beautiful character emerges from this very thing. There’s an uncertainty in the rhythm that, despite our preponderance for a regular beat, presents us with something both soothing and meaningful. A little like finding a song to sing in spite of the uncertainties of life.
It is dear to me that this friend also shared that her mother has requested this be sung at her funeral. Knowing this has made it difficult for her to sing those famous, repeated words, “how can I keep from singing?” as the reality of that day seems to creep closer. But she loves the hymn anyway, and it remains a treasure. I am once again struck by how words and music carry, through time, our common experiences; providing comfort and space to let our emotions flow.
What though my joys and comforts die?
I know my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
Whenever I listen to this hymn and sing it, I will be reminded of this shared story. The combination of beauty, annoyance, recognition, sorrow and comfort. Mixed emotions. So many of these hymns speak of the range of our experiences; recognizing that life just isn’t simple. But sometimes they also state really simple ideas that can provide so much more than we expect. This one is like that. It reminds us that we all have a voice and were made to sing. A built in instrument that has no equal; one that can sooth, weep, uplift and inspire. I am unendingly grateful for the gift of singing – whether it’s done out loud or silently, in community or alone. Sing.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?
Imagine it is the middle of a war and you read the Twenty-Third Psalm. Arriving at the words “He leadeth me,” you are unable to continue. The very idea of being led through extreme difficulty stops you in your tracks. This is the story of Joseph H. Gilmore who wrote the words to this hymn in 1862 during the American Civil War. There is something very powerful about his experience of finding comfort in this sentiment – that the very thing he chose to put his faith in was guiding him through what must have been very dark days.
He leadeth me, O blessed thought!
O words with heav’nly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom,
Sometimes where Eden’s bowers bloom,
By waters still, over troubled sea,
Still ’tis His hand that leadeth me.
What struck me as I read this story, was that, in Gilmore’s own words, “…it makes no difference how we are led, or whither we are led, so long as we are sure God is leading us.” It was his faith, his belief that was important, not the details of life or the circumstances in which he found himself. For me, this is a perspective often lost. We live in a time when results are the primary motivation for everything. Success, wealth, fame, recognition. We wish to be led in the right direction – not just led. Our beliefs and values can seem to be constructed to fit the reward, be it material or spiritual. And yet, look around. The diversity in the results people experience is overwhelming. By our popular measures of success, it would seem that very few are following a good leader. So few achieve the dream we are presented with; the ideal life is hard to attain.
These words are about faith and conviction. They are about the conscious act of allowing whatever it is we believe to guide us. Our obsession with results, makes this seem almost countercultural. We want to win, we want to achieve change, we want to accomplish things, we want to succeed. All can be good, but when we are driven by these things, life is fast and empty. Standing on the foundation of what you believe, what you truly value, provides a better view – of the good and of the bad. Taking in that view is worthwhile, providing boundless opportunities for ourselves and those around us; for our world and our communities. So, really look to whatever leads you – if you have chosen wisely, it will carry you wherever you need to go.
He leadeth me, He leadeth me,
By His own hand He leadeth me;
His faithful follower I would be,
For by His hand He leadeth me.
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in three persons, blessed trinity!
This is another very familiar hymn – one I know extremely well and could probably almost sing from memory. It was written by Reginald Heber in 1826 for Trinity Sunday, the day that has traditionally celebrated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity established by the Council of Nicaea in 325. The tune, written by John B. Dykes in 1861, named Nicaea, also commemorates this significant event.
Well, that’s the history. And, no, it isn’t Trinity Sunday this week (that would be the first Sunday following Pentecost – sometime in the spring). This one came to my list with a story that had nothing to do with its history; little to do with the meaning of its words. This story is about a five year old child struggling in new surroundings and being encouraged by this hymn. Attending a small church that had a time of song requests at the end of their service, this child would often ask to sing this hymn – to the amusement of the adults! But they would sing it enthusiastically and the memory of this community support has stayed with my friend into adulthood. Partly because they indulged him, and partly because it created an image of a united group, walking through life together.
It’s interesting to me how powerful our communities can be. How much they can carry us through our lives. How much they shape the way we interact with our world. This story once again reminds me that we have no idea what the impact of listening to, and really hearing, a small voice will be. There are always consequences to how we respond to the voices around us. We can encourage, discourage, challenge, inspire, deflate and support. We can educate and be educated. We can tear down or we can build. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out which response is the positive one, but the lesson I take from this child’s experience is that to be heard is the starting point.
Finding a community that encourages our voices is truly a gift. Being a community that listens, is both a challenge and a privilege. So early in the morning when our songs are rising, I hope there is space to hear all who wish to sing.
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!