There is not much left to say. I have said most of what’s in my head and heart, maybe more. Over the past five years, I have contemplated 124 hymns. Some that I love. Some that I like. Some that I hate. Some that I didn’t even know. Some were favourites gifted to me by friends and relatives. Some I chose for reasons that were varied. Some contained words that were beyond my understanding, some beyond my own convictions. Most provided interesting challenges – musically, intellectually and spiritually.
I have come to understand that the written word has relevance that can span time and place, complications of history and evolution of creed. And that it is a dynamic force – not necessarily stuck in its original intent, but offering opportunities to find more, or less, than others before me, or those yet to come. These words have motion. They stand still only in our resistance to reading them with multiple lenses.
This is the last hymn in my church’s current hymnbook. It is a good place to end. With words written by Thomas Ken in 1694 and set to the beautiful Tallis Canon, composed in the 1560s. It is a tune that I could listen to forever. It is a tune I could sing every day and never tire of. It is special.
All praise to thee, my God, this night, For all the blessings of the light. Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, Beneath thine own almighty wings.
Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, The ill that I this day have done That with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.
Oh, may my soul on thee repose, And with sweet sleep my eyelids close, Sleep that shall me more vig’rous make To serve my God when I awake.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Praise him, all creatures here below. Praise him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
I am thankful for these songs we sing. I am thankful for those with whom I regularly get to sing them. I am thankful for those who taught them to me first. I am thankful for the gift that music is – giving me a place to think, struggle, learn, share, weep and soar. The combination of words and music that exists in this world is the entirety of my wealth. It is my greatest treasure and my most valuable collection. For those who throughout time and place have and continue to create this treasure, I thank you. You are not forgotten. Your gift is received into my open arms, my eager ears and my vulnerable heart.
For all the blessings of the light, and beneath almighty wings, we sing in thanks. We sing. We sing.
Well, I really couldn’t come to the end (almost) of this hymn project without including a Mennonite hymn. And this one is just that, through and through. Both the text and music were written in 1890 by Amos Herr, a farmer and Mennonite minister from Pennsylvania. Returning from caring for his livestock early one Sunday morning, in the middle of a blizzard so bad, the story goes, he and his family were unable to get to church. So he took the time to remember all that he was thankful for, despite the hardships of farm life and bad weather.
I owe the Lord a morning song Of gratitude and praise, For the kind mercy he has shown In lengthening out my days.
He kept me safe another night; I see another day; Now may his spirit, as the light, Direct me in his way.
Keep me from danger and from sin, Help me thy will to do, So that my heart be pure within, And I thy goodness know.
Keep me till thou wilt call me hence, Where never night can be, And save me, Lord, for Jesus’ sake; He shed his blood for me.
There are a few themes that come up repeatedly in these hymns we sing. One of them is gratitude. I love the way this one speaks to the value of singing a morning song – in exchange for all there is to be thankful for. A lovely gesture and a beautiful reminder of the treasure we each hold within our voices. The ability to express our thanks.
I also love that we have this debt. To owe God, or whomever provides one with kindness, mercy, safety, light and goodness, is a privilege. It is a good debt. It is the kind of debt that carries us through storms and shelters us when we are under stress. It is the kind of obligation that allows us to sit down and write words of gratitude in a blizzard and see beyond the moment into the possibilities that life has given and offers, despite its challenges.
And, I love the means by which we can remit our payment. We owe a morning song. A song that recognizes all and says thank you anyway. A song that is willing to be beauty amongst ugliness, joy amidst sorrow. A song that rises above the realities of our lives to spread something lovely for our own, and others’, ears to hear. What better way to pay for what we owe? What better way to receive payment?
I am once again struck by the power of our songs. The power of our voices. We see it over and over again – concerts, recordings, videos, religious celebrations – people singing and those listening being moved. Moved to applaud, moved to cry, moved to be calmed, moved to act, moved to share, moved to challenge, moved to love. Our songs are who we are and what we believe. They are our frivolity and our depth. They express our humour, our creativity, our complexity and superficiality, our histories, our cultures, our beauty, our feelings, our experiences, our skills, our talents, our good and our bad.
So I’ve looked at these hymns and I’ve sung them in my own way. Because I owe a morning song. For all of my life, and the life I have left. I sing alone, I sing with friends, I sing with strangers. I sing in gratitude, I sing with thanks.
There are not many occasions to sing evening hymns, which is sort of unfortunate because some of them are quite beautiful. Hymns that speak about the end of our day, both literally and figuratively, in ways that provide comfort, reassurance and peace. Words and music that carry us beyond the day’s struggles or celebrations into places of rest.
When John Ellerton wrote this hymn in 1863, his intention was for it to be used at the close of a church service. A means of encouraging the parishioners to contemplate how their worship and faith could influence their interactions with one another, as they went about their daily lives.
Saviour, again to your dear name we raise with one accord our parting hymn of praise. We give you thanks before our worship cease; then, in the silence, hear your word of peace.
Grant us your peace, Lord, on our homeward way. With you began, with you shall end the day. Guard now the lips from sin, the hearts from shame, that in this house have called upon your name.
Grant us your peace, Lord, through the coming night; turn all our darkness into perfect light. Then, through our sleep, our hope and strength renew, for dark and light are both alike to you.
Grant us your peace throughout our earthly life, comfort in sorrow, courage in the strife. Then, when your voice shall bid our conflict cease, call us, O Lord, to your eternal peace.
There is an abundant use of the word peace in this hymn. It is interesting. This plea for peace as a way to give thanks, to guard against shame and hurtful words, to renew strength and hope, to comfort our sorrow and to end conflict. Interesting, because we often think of peace as the end result of the absence of these things. And yet, Ellerton seems to be suggesting that while we wish for peace, it is also the thing that allows us to achieve it. What a circle!
There are lots of definitions of peace. There are ambitious ideas of freedom from war and violence, and intimate interpretations about silence and calm. Most of us are looking for all that this spectrum offers – and would happily accept the ability to achieve the result; to benefit from the accomplishment of peace. But as I’m thinking about this hymn’s words, I am wondering if peace is something we achieve, or if it is something we must choose.
Choosing peace requires me to give thanks. Even when I do not have what I want or need.
Choosing peace requires me to be kind with my words. Even when I am justified in my criticism.
Choosing peace requires me to value who I am and what I contribute. Even when I struggle with confidence or shame.
Choosing peace requires me to renew my strength. Even when I need to seek renewal outside of myself.
Choosing peace requires me to be hopeful. Even when I have no answers.
Choosing peace requires me to comfort the sorrowful. Even when I have no idea what to say.
Choosing peace requires me to end conflict. Even when I am in the right.
Choosing peace is, in reality, extremely difficult. For example, that last one is an immense challenge. How do we end conflict in the face of incredible wrongs? It is a conundrum. But peace is the absence of conflict. How can we possibly expect to achieve it if we use the tools of violence to lay its foundations? I suspect the answers lie in the previous assertion that peace is as much the starting point as the desired end. How we choose to take on the challenges of our world – the injustice, the pain, and even the blessings – makes a huge difference.
Our lives are filled with so much that is beyond our control. Yet we have a tremendous ability to influence our world with every decision we make. It is both a responsibility and a great privilege. Not one of us is so small that these choices are meaningless. We are individually and collectively powerful, often in ways we cannot even imagine. Make your choices carefully and let peace be your guide.
There is something very special about finding a community that fits. A group of people that supports and cares for its members. Some are small, some are large. Some emerge from our beliefs, our faith, our interests, our jobs, our struggles, our desire to learn, our hobbies, our activism, our politics, our neighbourhoods, our families. There are lots of options. Sometimes these communities have common goals and similar perspectives. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they develop for unknown reasons, or merely because we live in close proximity. We can become very close with people completely different from us, those we seem to have nothing in common with. It is a bit mysterious.
I suppose faith groups have always been seen as a kind of community. The regular meeting of people with shared beliefs, the inevitable socializing that happens, the sharing of life’s biggest moments – births, weddings, funerals. It is not surprising. There are many hymns that reflect this, as well as the idea of humanity being God’s community on earth, and all the expectation that implies. This is one of those.
This is a very old tune and very old words. The music, originally a folk tune from around 1700, dates back to 1735 as a hymn, and the words to 1723. Initially written in German by Nicolaus Zinzendorf, they were translated to English by Walter Klaassen in 1983. Zinzendorf was of noble birth, a Count, who relinquished this life in exchange for missionary work, travelling extensively, even as far as the UK and the United States. He wrote around two thousand hymns, the first at the age of twelve (although, it has been noted in a few places that not all of them were very good and perhaps, he should have written less!). He believed strongly that Christians were meant to live in love and harmony, and encouraged the concept of Gemeinde, or congregation as a community. These words speak to this.
Heart with loving heart united, met to know God’s holy will. Let his love in us ignited more and more our spirits fill. He the Head, we are his members; we reflect the light he is. He the master, we disciples, he is ours and we are his.
May we all so love each other and all selfish claims deny, so that each one for the other will not hesitate to die. Even so our Lord has loved us, for our lives he gave his life. Still he grieves and still he suffers, for our selfishness and strife.
Since, O Lord, you have demanded that our lives your love should show, so we wait to be commanded forth into your world to go. Kindle in us love’s compassion so that ev’ryone may see in our fellowship the promise of a new humanity.
Loving hearts united. Denying selfish claims. A willingness to die for one another. Compassion. Fellowship. A pretty tall order for community members. But if we are honest, pretty close to what most of us wish for in our closest circles. That commitment to a care so deep, that all else falls away in times of joy and sorrow, in both our finest and our bleakest hours. A lovely thought that is not always easy to find, receive or provide.
Should we be so fortunate to find that special place, it must be said that is not always easy to be part of a community. There are times when our communities break. When trust is betrayed, safety eroded and fellowship unsteady. We are, after all, human. We fail. We hurt each other. We are hurt. When connections are deep, these times can be unbearable. The loss of support, the loss of contact, the feeling of being in a strange place that was once so familiar.
Yet, without our various communities, most of us would feel quite lost and alone. The value of connecting with others, despite our tendency to err, is immeasurable. It is the thing that ignites the filling of our spirits. Good communities, no matter how flawed, require us to express care. They require us to engage in conversations that matter to all involved – sometimes on subjects of great importance, other times not. But there is something about participating in these interactions that provides an opportunity to see the world through others’ eyes. To look beyond our own view to one that expands endlessly.
We all know people struggling within and without our various communities. People who can’t find their place. People who have been wounded and need time to recover. They need the care we can provide – as individuals, but also as the group. Inasmuch as there are many options for drawing us together, there are many options for what we can give when we’ve found our place. There is safety in the fellowship that can be used to provide what is needed elsewhere, and can expand the boundaries of the space. And for those that simply cannot find their community, keep looking. For the benefits of these connections are vast. The risks are far outweighed by the rewards.
What is a new humanity? Who knows. Perhaps it involves what we choose to look at and what we really see. I don’t know. But I am sure that when we connect, we walk towards something that is better than when we don’t see each other. And maybe, that’s what community really is. And maybe, when we look at the state of our world, it’s what we really need. To look, and to see. Allowing our hearts to unite. In love, compassion and fellowship.
It is not unusual to observe that life is completely unfair. It is not difficult to look at what is going on in our world and be convinced of this fact. We see it in the lives of friends, relatives and strangers who are faced with challenges far beyond what they deserve, sometimes far beyond our own. Perhaps we experience this truth ourselves, endlessly pursued by trials that feel as though our last bit of energy is being drained. Sometimes we are faced with moments of sheer terror at what is to come, or what we hope, pray and wish will never be. Heavy burdens abound.
As I read through the words of this hymn, I was struck by the depth of understanding the writer had of both the reality of life’s unfairness and the value of compassion, mercy and love in girding ourselves against whatever comes our way. The words are not very old, written in 1961 by Albert F. Bayly. I couldn’t find much information about Bayly, other than that he was an English minister who is said to have been a gracious and humble man, who loved painting, music, astronomy, literature, gardening and walking. His words are quite beautiful.
Lord, whose love in humble service Bore the weight of human need, Who upon the cross, forsaken, Worked your mercy’s perfect deed; We, your servants, bring the worship Not of voice alone, but heart, Consecrating to your purpose Every gift which you impart.
Still your children wander homeless; Still the hungry cry for bread. Still the captives long for freedom, Still in grief we mourn our dead. As you, Lord, in deep compassion, Healed the sick and freed the soul, By your Spirit send your power To our world and make it whole.
As we worship, grant us vision, Till your love’s revealing light In its height and depth and greatness Dawns upon our quickened sight, Making known the needs and burdens Your compassion bids us bear, Stirring us to ardent service, Your abundant life to share.
I don’t know if Bayly suffered many tragedies, but he clearly understood that we should be aware of those suffered by others. We should be aware. The notion that love is a revealing light is exceptionally powerful. In a society where love is often defined as a superficial feeling, these words challenge us to consider it as a means of giving us vision; giving us the ability to see what is going on around us. This powerful love, in this case emerging from God, is one that bears these weights. In a world that is broken. Still.
For me, the second verse is the most wrenching. Homelessness, hunger, captivity, grief, sickness and weary souls. They are with us – still. We see these things. In the lives of the people we know, in the spectacle of world politics, in our communities, in the news. It would be difficult to claim a lack of awareness in this age of hyper media access and constant connections.
Life can be abundant in many, many ways. Despite its unfairness. But sharing that abundance can also be difficult. Possibly because we define abundance in such small ways. Partly because we are self-focused and a bit greedy. Partly because we simply don’t know how to tackle the problems we see. But, I love the words spoken here that say we are to be stirred to ardent service. Ardent is not a word we use all that often, but it’s a good one. Implying passionate enthusiasm. Imagine if our service was driven by this kind of exuberance; imagine if service was a broadly valued attribute – the measure of success. Perhaps that’s not a very humble idea, but it’s a thought.
This hymn is about the power of love. The way love can open our eyes not only to that which is beautiful, but that which is not. The way love is a magnificent tool in combatting the unfairness of life and the challenges that are faced by us all. If we choose to use it with our voices, our hearts and our actions. Looking for and understanding the needs we see, choosing its strength to bear those needs and ardently serving the ultimate goal of healing our broken world.
It’s a tall order. But a life lived with compassion is one made up of small steps. Millions of them. Listening to someone’s pain or fears. Being present in a conversation. Accepting help. Challenging injustice. Welcoming the oppressed. Celebrating in someone else’s way of experiencing the world, their culture, their understanding of the Divine.
Not one of us can repair all the brokenness that we see every day. But all of us can begin to rebuild one tiny corner – in the words we speak, the choices we make, the support we offer, the gratitude we express and the kindness we extend. And, all of us can begin to rebuild one tiny corner – in the words we hear, the choices we observe, the support we accept, the thanks we’re given and the kindness we receive.
Love is a humble servant. It bears the weight of all our needs. Share it, accept it and feel its power. In its truest form, it gives purpose and abundance. In its truest form, our choice to wield it will make our world whole.