It has been almost three years since I thought about a hymn. Well, sort of. In that time I put together a book of the first year of this hymn project (These Songs We Sing available at https://www.pandorapress.com/#/), so was reminded of the beginnings of this project. But, a lot has happened since those beginnings.
For many of us, the past few years have been life changing. The COVID pandemic has touched us all – in big and small ways. A couple of years ago, we were in the midst of it, at a time filled with unknowns. Now it feels like we’re sort of at the end of it – even though it continues to impact many. The way we live our lives is different, somehow, even if we can’t quite define how. If I look at my own life, it is simply not the same. As a musician, some things temporarily derailed have returned, others have not. Some activities remain altered, some are back to normal. Some things have been casualties of the emotional and psychological impact of these strange times; casualties of people’s inability to recover from the fear, the devastation, the pain they encountered along the way. Understandable, yet difficult for those touched by these ongoing struggles and the behaviours and actions that can emerge.
I will admit to feeling a bit out of sorts lately as a result. Feeling a bit like the life I had has been replaced by one that resembles it, but isn’t quite as it should be. There are losses that will not be regained. There are things gained that I wouldn’t trade. I suspect this is common. I suspect we are all looking to find our bearings at a time when the ground we walk on is extremely bumpy, maybe even a bit unstable.
So, I return to the words and songs of old. I have found comfort, wisdom and beauty in hymns in the past and I am certain I will find something of value again. I do not seek religious answers, I seek those nuggets of gold that are woven through time; bits of treasure found in the ideas left to us by those who have walked before. I am not concerned with the literal, but with the spirit of this kind of beauty that can sustain and inspire. I wish the same for you.
How to begin. After looking at so many hymns over the past eight years, I’m running out of favourites – both mine and those of friends and family. So I went on a bit of a random scavenger hunt. I came across this old hymn with a text based on Psalm 39, written by Isaac Watts in 1719 (the tune doesn’t have a known composer as far as I can find, but is listed as being in The Brethren’s Tune and Hymn Book, 1872. It was new to me until this week!). The words are a powerful reminder of the fleeting nature of life, and all within our lives.
Teach me the measure of my days, thou Maker of my frame.
I would survey life’s narrow space, and learn how frail I am.
A span is all we can boast, an inch or two of time.
We are but vanity and dust in all our flow’r and prime.
See the vain race of mortals move like shadows o’er the plain.
They rage and strive, desire and love, but all the noise is vain.
What should I wish or wait for then, from creatures, earth, and dust?
They make our expectations vain, and disappoint our trust.
Now I forbid my carnal hope, my fond desires recall.
I give my mortal int’rest up, and make my God my all.
These ideas are not new to any of us. The idea that our lives are about more than the trappings of day to day life is commonly taught. The idea that our focus should be on God (or whatever ideal/spirituality one holds to) is basic Sunday School teaching. We all know that nothing lasts and that we age and that the rushing around of our lives becomes meaningless if done at the cost of all else.
What struck me in these words was the way Watts describes our time. The narrow space; the inch or two. We are not here for long. We are, in the grand scheme of history, not that significant. And yet, how we live our lives can be remarkable and can have a lasting impact. These words are, after all, 300 years old.
As I ponder what this means in my own life, I am acutely aware that the details of what I accomplish are actually not that important. It can be very easy to get caught in the standards of this world – the idea that some accomplishments are better than others, or more important, or more valuable. We make these distinctions all the time. Some jobs get more attention, some pay more, some have prestige. In fact, almost all of our judgments on people’s successes or failures are employment, recognition and money related. We care very little for the notion of a vocation or the simple gifts, like kindness, as a valid life’s work. We evaluate our inch of time based on a fairly short list of easily recognizable and measurable factors.
Life is short and really can only be measured in terms of the day we arrive and the day we depart. How we fill the intervening years is about something more than a resumé or profile or accolades or bank account. It is about the wisdom with which we walk in this narrow space. It is about the wisdom with which we adjust for our successes and failures, adjust for things we cannot predict. It is about the wisdom with which we make ammends when we need to, and celebrate when we are able. We are frail and we are strong. When we learn to measure our days by both of these realities, we begin to live fully. And, we have much to offer.