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?
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?