For the past three months I have been posting a little something every day. When we began this season of isolation, it seemed like a good thing to do. A way to connect, a way to offer a tiny bit of encouragement, a way to collect and express my own thoughts, fears, joys and creativity.
I have learned a few things. The most important, for me, is understanding that we all feel insecure and afraid – about who we are, what we do, our talents, our skills, our security, our relationships. When the foundations of our lives are threatened or shaky, we need each others’ reassurances, guidance and support. I’ve learned that kindness is an aspiration of many. We are not always successful, but most of us wish to be kind and efforts are made in a multitude of ways, every minute of every day, to be better. I’ve learned that strength comes in many different forms. It is not as we are told it is, residing in the loudest voice, most powerful position or most visible source. It is beyond what the media suggests or our leaders proclaim. It is soft and gentle; solid, resilient and clear. It is that which carries rather than shoves, nurtures rather than schemes, gives rather than takes.
And now, I am encouraged, but I am tired. It is time for a break. I hope these posts have been of some comfort. Perhaps I will return at some point, but for now I wish only the best in the midst of a strange time. Look for kindness in the faces of everyone you meet. Allow it to shine through your eyes, your hands and your heart. It is worth the effort and will not leave you disappointed or alone.
We have come to the end of my year of song. So I give you a doxology. The word doxology comes from two Greek words – doxa, which means ‘glory’ and logia, which means ‘saying’. So it combines to mean a short statement of praise usually added to the end of canticles, psalms and, fittingly for this situation, hymns.
This has been an interesting year. When I began this project I really didn’t consider it to be anything more than a means to motivate myself to do music. A deadline, of sorts, that would force me to work at something I wasn’t obligated to do – having no boss to please or paycheque to earn for my labours. Well, it did that, and then some.
I have learned many things this year.
I have learned that people love hymns. They are old and some may find their words and music outdated, but many of us love them anyway. Many of us are comforted by their familiarity; by the depth of their texts and by the history that has carried them to us. There are truths to be found whether we agree with every word or not. This is one of the great beauties of art – be it musical or poetic, visual or literary. There is more there than appears on the surface.
I have learned that it is possible to find beauty in places I had thought ugly. Some of these hymns were not my favourites. In asking others for their suggestions, I hadn’t considered what I might receive! To be perfectly honest, I genuinely disliked some of these hymns when I started. I didn’t like all the tunes and I definitely had serious challenges with many of the texts. But in the end, I am deeply grateful for having been gifted with the task of finding meaning despite my personal tastes, beliefs and perspectives. What a valuable lesson.
I have learned that I am part of a community. One that is both easily and not easily defined. One that has become a little larger over this year. It contains both friends and strangers; people with diverse beliefs. It has overwhelmed me with support. Time and again I have received incredibly kind words from many of you. Continued sharing of personal experiences related to these hymns. Encouragement regarding both the arrangements and the thoughts I’ve shared. Endless positivity. In a world where one often hesitates to read a ‘comments’ section, I have had exactly zero negative or critical responses to this project.
So beauty, community and the a shared appreciation of these hymns. Pretty good reward for the task. Pretty good flow of blessings.
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.
The end of every day is a time to release what has happened, and move towards what will be. Easier said than done. When our lives are filled with questions and empty of normalcy, it is difficult to lay down our worries and rest peacefully. Problems abound – be they related to a pandemic, or simply the realities of our circumstances, our health, our relationships. Yet, every new day offers us the opportunity to begin again; to spend time being grateful and to look for ways we can grow and improve. The evening signals both the end of this day and the approach of the next. It is a time to reflect, or just breathe. We look for peace and strength to carry on, places of rest and safety. Each day is a gift, each evening a reminder. May you find whatever it is you are looking for, may you be blessed and may your life be filled with kindness.
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.
There is a reason we are encouraged to take vacations from our jobs. There is a reason employers are required to provide this time, or if they are not, there are reasons why they should. We need respite. Moments that allow us to rejuvenate and find ourselves. Moments that allow us to be reminded that we are more than the circumstances we find ourselves in, more that the jobs we do or the stresses we encounter. These breaks are needed in all aspects of our lives. So find a moment and breathe. We are, each and every one of us, worth this little bit of time.
There are times in all of our lives where we just need to take a moment and find some calm. Times when we need to allow ourselves to find peace – even if momentary – in amongst the stresses and challenges of our lives. Times when we give ourselves permission to spend time nurturing our souls so we can regain even a tiny bit of strength to carry on. Because, life can be hard, and facing all it entails can be draining and debilitating. For some this is about meditation or prayer. For some it is about exercise or going for a walk. For some it is about taking a nap or listening to music. Whatever it is, these times are necessary tools of rejuvenation.
The words of this hymn were written around 1845 by William Walford. He was an uneducated wood carver who happened to be blind. Apparently, he was a deeply religious man who spent a great deal of time memorizing Bible passages and eventually became the minister of a rural church in England. He wrote poetry, but relied on others to write it down as he could not. This one was relayed to an acquaintance and, sometime later, was published by The New York Observer. It was subsequently set to music by William Bradbury and has remained a popular hymn ever since.
Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, that calls me from a world of care, and bids me at my Father’s throne make all my wants and wishes known. In seasons of distress and grief, my soul has often found relief, and oft escaped the tempter’s snare, by thy return, sweet hour of prayer!
Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, the joys I feel, the bliss I share, of those whose anxious spirits burn with strong desires for thy return! With such I hasten to the place where God my Savior shows his face, and gladly take my station there, and wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!
Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, thy wings shall my petition bear to him whose truth and faithfulness engage the waiting soul to bless. And since he bids me seek his face, believe his word, and trust his grace, I’ll cast on him my every care, and wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!
I’m pretty sure I’ve never spent an hour in prayer or meditation. In fact, the times I feel closest to that kind of communing with my own spirit and my own understanding of the Divine are usually when singing. Sometimes this communion is found when I experience some kind of beauty – be it natural or human made. I have known many who take this kind of time to consider their concerns and joys – I remember hearing that my grandmother would get up at around 4:00 a.m. every day to pray for a long list of people, myself included. I know these words speak to this kind of prayer.
There are a few words in this hymn that strike me. First, the idea that we are anxious spirits. The second is that we are souls waiting to be blessed. There is something powerful in the combination of these two ideas. Yes, we are anxious and yet we can be blessed. I’ve been thinking about this a fair amount recently. The notion that our anxiety may well be permanent, but this doesn’t rule out our capacity to find blessings in this life. There are a multitude of reasons for our anxiety – some with solutions, others without. There are long lists of justifiable reasons to be dissatisfied, frustrated, disappointed and unhappy. Is it possible to find peace in a mere moment of calm? I think maybe it is.
When we take time to breathe only for ourselves, we can access our essence. That part of us that came before the circumstances, the illnesses, the stresses, the pain. It is not easy to find this place. There are so many layers between reality and this deepness. I suspect my grandmother’s daily practice of prayer didn’t come naturally but was a skill developed over many years – and there were probably days she could have used more sleep instead. I suspect there are times in our lives when laying aside our struggles is a monumental task, sometimes impossible without assistance. This hour of prayer practice is one that requires immense commitment. But, perhaps it is worth it.
Spending time rejuvenating one’s soul is a valuable act. It allows us to live. How we choose to do this is very personal and will vary for each of us. In this hymn, the sweet hour of prayer results in wings that bear our petitions. What an idea. The act of taking this time to be calm within ourselves, can result in something that then carries us forward. Not with solutions, or even answers, but with wings that help us bear the weight. It is a beautiful image. It is the flight of the heavy ladened made a tiny bit less burdened. Take an hour, a few minutes, a moment to find these wings. And then, fly.
For all those things that settle my mind, strengthen my resolve and shelter my heart. These things that I have collected in order to continue on this road of life – a road filled with countless joys and unmentionable sorrow. What carries me may be vastly different from what carries you, but it is my wish that we all find that something that is enough. Enough to make life possible and full. Enough to allow us to withstand the fires of reality and embrace the beauty of our dreams. Something. Find it and hang on.
Lent is a time of reflection. Obviously, it is specifically associated with the Christian church and its preparation for Easter, but I suspect it is not a bad idea for any of us, regardless of our individual beliefs, to regularly take some time to consider who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. We make choices every day that impact our direction. Even not making choices sends us down one path or another. So many things influence us. So many circumstances seem to either stand in our way or open up doors.
Thinking about how we become who we are, and why, led me to this hymn. It was written by Kenneth Morse around 1942 – so quite a new hymn for this project! What caught my attention was the idea that something, in this case the Spirit of God, is needed to guide us, lead us and make us strong.
Move in our midst, O Spirit of God. Go with us down from your holy hill. Walk with us through the storm and the calm. Spirit of God, now go with us still.
Touch now our hands to lead us aright. Guide us forever, show us your way. Transform our darkness into your light. Spirit of God, still lead us today.
Strike from our feet the fetters that bind. Lift from our lives the weight of our wrong. Teach us to love with heart, soul, and mind. Spirit of God, your love makes us strong.
Kindle our hearts to burn with your flame. Raise up your banners high in this hour. Stir us to build new worlds in your name. Spirit of God, O send us your pow’r!
Once again, I am moved by some powerful images. This unseen thing that walks with us through both storms and calm, strikes the fetters from our feet, teaches us to love, is transformative, and lifts the weight of what is wrong from our lives. These are the things we all seek in our journey through life – this mysterious force that can raise us up above circumstances and ensure we can live the lives we hope for.
I recently had a conversation with someone who is struggling deeply with life’s disappointments. In trying to be of some comfort or help, I was reminded that I am extremely fortunate. I know this, of course, but when faced with someone who appears less so, it becomes very piercing. As we carried on our conversation over a period of days, what became more and more clear to me, was that this person was simply unable to find that silent, quiet, mysterious thing that carries us through storm and calm. And I felt as though the weight of the world’s wrongs was so heavy that it had become almost impossible to carry with only their own strength.
I had no answers to give, and no acceptable suggestions. It is very difficult to conquer anything when we assume that there is nothing out there that can help us. But, I know there is. Maybe it lies in faith. Maybe it lies in therapy. Maybe it lies in honest reflection on our lives. Maybe it lies in art, music, literature, nature, activity or rest. Maybe it lies in our relationships. Maybe it lies in the choices we make. Maybe it lies in places we can’t even imagine, but help does exist.
When I go back to these words, I am certain that the most critical part is the invitation for something to enter our lives and move. Move in our midst. There is much that we have absolutely no control over. But there is much that we do. When we are able to separate these two realities, we are able to see above the mire we sometimes find ourselves in. We are also able to see above our luck – and understand that there is much more out there than our own good fortune. To see that there are options when we feel we have none, and responsibilities when we’ve received our hearts’ desires.
Our lives are joyful and sad. This we share. As we take time to reflect, consider which side you find yourself on at this moment. And invite that beautiful, mysterious thing in that will carry you through or encourage you to carry another. Make the choice to rise above the good and the bad – for all is fleeting. Who we are is more than our circumstances and what we do or do not have. We are wondrous creatures. We can live wondrous lives, despite the views we are sometimes required to take in. We are equal in value and have treasured gifts. We can learn from each other, be kind, share, grow and change. Or we can be self-focused, dissatisfied, greedy, stagnant and stubborn. To ourselves and to others. Either way.
So, move in our midst. Kindle, teach and guide. I choose to accept these things from the sources I have found, from the sources that feed me. I want to move with them – sometimes very slowly, sometimes like the wind. I choose to accept that although my life is not what I envisioned, it is more than enough. And I am grateful.
I can say with absolute certainty that I am surrounded by people committed to the ideals of kindness and generosity. Those who choose to exhibit these characteristics in a multitude of ways. People who share their gifts, their time, their voices, their humour, their stuff, their feelings and their trust. I am eternally grateful for this.
As we continue through the season of Lent, I am still drawn to the idea of reflection. Taking some time to consider what is important. What are we really willing to devote ourselves to because we have decided it is worth the effort, the time and the commitment?
These very old words are attributed to the 12thcentury mystic, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. He was born into a family of nobility, but joined the Cistercian order and became a monk and scholar of significant influence in his own time, and far beyond. It is said that Martin Luther admired him greatly as the “best monk that ever lived,” some four hundred years later. He is thought to have founded 163 monasteries and was renowned for his religious devotion. The original poem, Jesus dulcis memoria, was a mere 42 verses – although, the most common English translation doesn’t require quite that much devotion of us anymore!
Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills the breast; but sweeter far thy face to see, and in thy presence rest.
Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame, Nor can the mind recall a sweeter sound than thy dear name, O Savior of us all.
O hope of every contrite heart, O joy of all the meek, to those who falter thou art kind! How good to those who seek!
But what to those who find? Ah, this nor tongue nor pen can show; the love of Jesus, what it is, none but his loved ones know.
Jesus, our only joy be thou, as thou our prize wilt be; Jesus, be thou our glory now, and through eternity.
These words are quite lovely. They describe feelings of complete love, joy and commitment – of being so convinced of the goodness of the subject of the devotion, that there is a sense that real peace has been achieved. That just the thought or name of the beloved is enough to bring us what we require, the comfort we need and the joy of glory.
Sounds perfect. Sounds easy. And yet, finding something that has this much inspirational power can be a lifelong battle. One that is often difficult to reconcile with reality. For some, the attempt at devotion, particularly within a religious context, can be quite debilitating. The notion that peace can be found if we are pious enough – it just doesn’t always work that way. For some, the idea of religion itself is so fraught with negative and damaging experiences, that it simply isn’t a place where any peace can be found. For some, the circumstances of life are such that this approach feels like a slap in the face, a diminishing of the realities that threaten to swamp a life.
As has so often been the case, I am once again compelled to consider that these words are directive in nature. Yes, they were written by a Christian monk to describe the characteristics of Jesus – something that will undoubtedly be meaningful to many. But they are also a pretty good description of a person who contributes much to those around them. Can we become someone that provides a place of peace and rest? Someone whose name evokes sweet memories? Someone who uplifts those that falter or soothes a contrite soul? Someone who is devoted to bringing joy and love?
It is a tall order. To be a person that is able to fully commit to being this kind of spirit is hard. We live in an era of self-focus. How we define almost everything is dependent upon our abilities to achieve success as individuals. Successes of wealth, career, education, notoriety or fame, popularity and physical attractiveness. We rarely vote for kindness or reward those who carry the weak or the needy. We are simply disinterested in those who do not exhibit the outward evidence of achievement.
But, these words are about a different kind of achievement. They are about something deeply personal and deeply needed. They speak to our common desire to feel surrounded by love and safety, by joy and reassurance. If I look around my life, I can see special people who exhibit these life giving characteristics. People who choose to cook for a neighbour who is not well. People who sing for the dying. People who give rides to the elderly. People who help a child with their homework. People who encourage a talent. People who check if someone is okay. People who say thank you. People who remember and acknowledge a meaningful day. People who volunteer. People who keep our world clean. People who are willing to speak out for good. People who share their own joy. People who live their lives fully despite many obstacles. People who listen. People who try to do what is right. People who are simply available. People who remember. People who are kind.
There are many ways to become a giver of someone’s comfort, safety and joy. Ultimately the task is begun with a choice. I suspect this choice is relatively easy but the actual task can be difficult. It takes courage to seek out the needs of others. It takes honesty and openness to understand what’s actually needed. Providing for those needs takes strength. It is a matter of listening carefully to the voices around us. To the words, the actions, the hidden concerns, the underlying messages. When we choose to see these things, and choose to act, we become part of that which is a sweetness that fills a space that was formerly empty. Providing with our selves, a place of rest, and just maybe, the prize of joy.
I have heard from more than a few friends that sleep doesn’t always come easily these days. Sometimes not at all; sometimes in fits and spurts; sometimes disturbed by dreams and even nightmares. It seems that just when I think I’ve conquered the night, I am caught in another bought of insomnia – mind racing, eyes wide open.
So I turn again to a lullaby. Another of these gentle songs that are meant to lull us to sleep.
This is an old one from Germany. It is attributed to a teacher and composer, Karl Friedrich Schulz around 1824, but there is some indication that it was based on a far older tune, possibly dating back to the 14th century, and one that has been used by a number of other composers in various works.
O wie wohl ist mir am Abend, mir am Abend, Wenn zur Ruh die Glocken läuten, Glocken läuten: Bim, bam, bim, bam, bim, bam.
Oh, how lovely is the evening, is the evening, When the bells are sweetly ringing, sweetly ringing! Ding, dong, ding, dong, ding dong.
I’m not sure how I feel about bells ringing as I try to go to sleep. But there is something lovely about the idea of hearing bells softly pealing in the distance as the sun sets and all becomes peaceful. While on a glorious vacation. In some beautiful spot, perhaps an ancient hilltop village in the middle of Tuscany. Well…
Not many of us currently find ourselves in some kind of idyllic setting that can evoke this sort of image. We are not on vacation. We are not on an adventure in places that are new or exciting, finding ourselves thrilled with sites we’ve never seen and experiences we’ve never had. We don’t end our days reflecting on the beauty we’ve seen, tired in that wonderful way that allows us to sink into sleep filled with visions of what awaits us in the morning. Rather, we are limited in how we spend time with others – who we can see, whether we can hug our grandchildren or share a meal safely. We are hyper conscious of how we interact with strangers, and how we need to change our world, our cities, our every surrounding and behaviour. We are thinking and evaluating and aware and bothered and cautious and angry and lonely and trying and trying and trying. We are tired.
I am not suggesting that there is nothing lovely in our evenings or our days. There is much. But some of the bells that ring us to sleep carry more than the peaceful imagery found in this lullaby. Some are the voices of those who must be heard. Some are the cries of those who have never been heard. Some are our fears and questions about the future. Some are our loneliness and our pain.
I could easily make a long list of things that I am thankful for. Pages and pages could be filled with the blessings I have in my life. The people, the experiences, the things. And yet, sleep can still be elusive. We are unsettled. For many reasons. Good reasons, sad reasons, scary reasons. Reasons that sound like bells as we try to find the sleep we need. Bells that remind us in gentle and clanging ways that life is more than ease and comfort. That it is uncertain and it requires us to hear when it is unbalanced; to listen when things are not right. Nothing is guaranteed, we don’t deserve anything, all is fleeting.
And yet, there is a beauty to be found in the sound of these bells. They ring out with a song of possibility. A song that offers us the option to be better, to create a better world, to rebuild our lives in better ways. How often do we get that opportunity? How often do we take it? This uncertain time is offering us something we simply cannot ignore. It is really quite incredible.
I admit that I don’t enjoy lying awake with bells pealing through my mind. I long for a peaceful sleep with which to refresh enough to face challenges with strength and purpose. But when that isn’t possible, perhaps there is space to simply listen to the bells and seek their beauty and guidance and understand that what they are there for may be necessary and important. Life isn’t about perfection, it is about growth. Growth happens in many ways. As the bells gently ring you to sleep each night, embrace their song. Despite our heavy weariness, it is a song we need to learn, understand and sing.
There is something to be said about giving thanks for things that are difficult. We are living in a time that is teaching us much, if we choose to listen. Teaching us about others’ realities, pain, insecurities and needs. It is time for us to be thankful for our discomfort in all of this. And time for us to carry the weight of what we have done.
Thanksgiving is upon us and this is the weekend to be thankful. It is when we take a moment to celebrate our blessings and remember what we treasure, what we have, our abundance. While I quite enjoy the tradition, I will admit that there is a part of me that feels a little discomfort with our ideas surrounding thankfulness. When we sit at our gatherings and go around the table and say what we are thankful for, we hear about friends, family, health. Good and worthy things to be thankful for. We hear about the bounty of the harvest and the food we eat, the homes we live in, the clothes on our backs – jobs, education, freedom. The list is understandable. It is good. The words of this familiar hymn reflect all of this. We are safe and we are provided for.
Come, ye thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home; All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin. God our Maker doth provide For our wants to be supplied; Come to God’s own temple, come, Raise the song of harvest home.
And yet, in all of this goodness, I am left wondering. As someone overly blessed with all of these things, it isn’t that my gratitude is absent. I am deeply thankful. But it may be that the source of my discomfort can be found in my blessings. It is a simple fact that not everyone is as blessed with these kinds of riches as I am. My thankfulness reminds me of the incredible imbalances found in the world – in my neighbourhood and across the seas. The imbalances of wealth, the imbalances of health, the imbalances of how people are treated, the imbalances of education, the imbalances of opportunity, the imbalances of warmth and love. So how do I celebrate all that is good in my life and acknowledge my great luck at the same time? For what I have, those things we are thankful for, are indeed mostly about luck. And it is in this state of privilege that I must recognize how much I am required to use the harvest of my blessings for some greater good; for some rebalancing in an unfair world.
But all that is good isn’t a permanent state – for anyone. The harsh reality of any of our lives is that we all suffer, and I am also left wondering about the things that cause pain. The things that challenge me. The things I am really not thankful for. Am I missing something important in the presence of the bad, the unpleasant, the hurtful in my life? I think so. For it is in my own pain that I learn to carry someone else’s pain. It is in my own sadness that I understand another’s sadness. It is in my own loneliness that I am able to see the lonely. When I despair, I go to a place where many, many live. I dearly need to see, feel and experience these places too, even as I struggle to bear up under their weight.
It is hard to be thankful for these difficult moments in our lives, but they offer us an opportunity to learn about resilience and they teach us to care. It can be a powerful act of generosity to walk through your own pain and then choose to use its lessons to carry another.
I rarely feel thankful for things that cause me pain, but I wonder if that is where my discomfort with Thanksgiving comes from. The strange mixture of gratitude for the good and disdain for the bad leaves me out of sorts. And while I don’t relish dwelling on painful experiences, especially those that are unresolved or even unresolvable, sometimes we must. Often we have no choice.
Perhaps as we express our thanks, we can consider our blessings and our pain. Raising the song of the harvest home – both the perfect and the bruised fruit alike. For all that we gather in our lives becomes our nourishment, and therefore part of the banquet we serve those around us. In the moments when our voices are able to sing, it is the whole picture that colours our tune. And when we cannot sing, hearing those who can is much richer knowing they have both survived the bad and rejoiced in the good. Whether we are singing or just listening, let us do it in truth; in sadness and in joy.
I would like to expand on this post from five years ago. At the time, there was a refugee crisis in Syria and the world watched horrific accounts of the lives of people caught in circumstances not of their own making. There were those who welcomed refugees openly, and those who did not. There were those who understood that when people ask for help and shelter, it should be given. There were those who made decisions based on protecting their own security, comfort and wealth. We continue to be these same people.
The soil I happen to have landed on, is full of nutrients and I grow easily. The soil others are faced with is dry, rocky and barren and requires so much effort to be fruitful, if growth is even possible. Perhaps it is time to fill my wheelbarrow and redistribute the good soil. Perhaps it is time to be accepting when someone else asks for, or takes what they need. Perhaps there is space for us all and infinite beauty to be found in the variety we create as a whole.
It’s been several months since I’ve arranged a hymn, and a month since I last posted anything. I know my year of song is over, but it seems there are still many hymns on my list. And so, bear with me if I occasionally send another one out into the world. These hymns just keep calling to me – and I continue to listen.
Over the past little while, the world has been inundated with horrific stories about the plight of refugees. Our news outlets and social media are full of pictures, tragedies and questions. These stories are not new, and, unfortunately, are not rare. They have, however, given many of us cause to think about this issue in a more critical way, and with greater urgency than we have in the past. How do we fit into these stories?
This hymn was written by Christopher Dock around 1770. He was a Mennonite teacher who emigrated to Pennsylvania around 1710, where he opened two schools. It is said he was completely devoted to the children he taught – staying after school every day to pray for each one individually. A man who cared deeply in both a practical and spiritual way. The tune is sometimes known as The Philharmonia (1875), but in my hymnbook it is also given the tune name of Beautiful Flower. Appropriate because it speaks about gathering little children together to be taught and to be cared for. Beautiful flowers indeed.
Like many, I have been struggling with the images of refugees seen around the world. Those of children are especially haunting. Beautiful flowers left hungry, homeless, afraid, alone and sometimes dead. These children have not always been gathered into the arms of those of us who have much to spare. Instead, we seem to have a bizarre need to justify our ability to offer care. Are their needs real? Will they harm us? How will they impact our countries? My memory of many, many Sunday School lessons doesn’t recall stories of Christ asking these kinds of questions.
I am also conscious as we approach Thanksgiving, that we have much to be thankful for. I enjoy time with about thirty children each week as a piano teacher. Every child I see is clothed, fed and has a place to sleep at night. This is a joy not to be taken for granted. The things we have allow our flowers to grow and show their beauty. It is an accident of birth that my thirty children can exhibit their beauty so easily, while millions of others struggle to break through the soil on which they find themselves.
There are few easy answers to the questions we’re faced with. But when we have much, choosing to place obstacles in the way of sharing is sad. It is heartbreaking. Why not gather the little children near – the ones you know and the ones you don’t? A field of flowers of all varieties is a beautiful thing. To view it will never diminish your experience. To view it will carry you through whatever hardship comes. To view it will bring, and spread, joy.
At the end of a difficult week, many of us feel alone. Alone in the challenges we are faced with. Alone in our confusion, weariness, frustration, pain. Alone with our thoughts about what is right and what is wrong; what we need to change internally and what needs to change around us. But we are not alone. And as we seek to find our way, we will find others on the same path whom we can walk with. We will find some who need our strength, and others who inspire. We are not alone. We are many. And we are the love that will not let go.
To be alone is a complicated thing. There are times when we are quite content to be alone – comfortable with ourselves and our thoughts and activities, at peace with whatever we are doing or experiencing. But there are other times, when our deepest need is to be with someone who loves us. To be in the warmth and safety of another’s presence. To understand that, ultimately, we do not live in a lonely place.
Both sides of this coin are elusive. It is hard to become content in our aloneness. It is hard to find that special presence, whether it lies in a person or in faith, that will carry us when we need carrying. I suspect most of us spend our lives searching for and working at accomplishing both sides. Some of us achieve the goal, others remain uncared for and lonely.
This hymn was written on June 6, 1882. Very specific. The reason is that its author, George Matheson, wrote of the experience as being an otherworldly happening that he felt was divinely inspired, and took him a mere five minutes to achieve. He said, it was as if it was dictated by some inner voice that was not his own. What is important to note is that he had suffered something, unknown to us, that caused what he referred to as “the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering.”
O Love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee. I give thee back the life I owe, That in thine ocean depths its flow May richer, fuller be.
O Light that follows all my way, I yield my flick’ring torch to thee. My heart restores its borrowed ray, That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee. I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head, I dare not ask to fly from thee. I lay in dust, life’s glory dead, And from the ground there blossoms red, Life that shall endless be.
There is such sadness in these words. And such loneliness. They sound like the words of someone who has suffered and who is so very tired. And yet, each verse speaks to the presence of something else. Love, Light, Joy and Faith. These foundations on which to stand in times of pain. These are not the empty sentiments of everything will be alright, these are the pillars that are being grasped because everything isn’t. These are the strengths looked at when strength is gone. These are the powerful ideals upon which a life is built. These are the things left when we are alone.
We all suffer. Some seem to suffer more than others, and I don’t really understand why. But there are times when I hear the words of someone who has suffered and feel a sense of tremendous strength. Tremendous dignity. Tremendous wisdom. Some people come to these understandings walking a long and difficult road and somehow manage to achieve the gifts of love, light, joy and faith despite their circumstances, their suffering. I admire this. I aspire to own and exhibit these gifts. These special people are valuable beyond measure. Valuable in ways our world often doesn’t recognize.
Look around you. Find those that suffer and admire their strength. Perhaps the suffering is small, perhaps it is large, but open your eyes to the remarkable spirit that can rise above the mess thrown at it by life. Admire those who find their pillars, aware of their support even when all else is crumbling.
Look for those that suffer and are alone. Perhaps you are the pillar that they need to grasp – give your love, your light, your joy, your faith. Embrace the lonely if you have a strength to share. Generosity of spirit is also an admirable gift.
Look at your own suffering and seek the smallest place to glimpse the love, the light, the joy and the faith that exists beyond yourself. We are part of a richness of human spirits that can carry and reassure. We are allowed to ask for help. We’ve lost sight of this, but we are allowed to ask for help.
We are not alone. We are many. We are the love that will not let go.