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.
I’m not sure why I picked this hymn. I’m nearing the end of this year long hymn project (part two…) and am actually struggling to find hymns I’m interested in. Partly that’s weariness, and partly it’s a frustration with texts that do not inspire, some that even offend. But if I return to my original purpose back in 2014 when I started this project, I am reminded that part of what I wanted to do was find meaning in places I thought there was none. There is always something to be learned, something to uncover.
This is a tricky one for me, as it is said to deal with the theme of “Christian perfection.” Well, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t exist, and I’m absolutely sure perfect Christians don’t exist, but I’ll wade in anyway. The words were written by Charles Wesley in 1747, but it didn’t take much to discover that the first stanza is an adaptation of John Dryden’s text used in Henry Purcell’s opera, King Arthur, from 1691 (although then it was a fair isle excelling and Venus choosing her dwelling – ever so slightly different!). The hymn is sometimes sung to Purcell’s music, but the version I am familiar with was written by John Zundell in 1870.
Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heav’n to earth come down: fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown: Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art; visit us with thy salvation, enter ev’ry trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into ev’ry troubled breast; let us all in thee inherit, let us find the promised rest: take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be; End of faith, as its Beginning, set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty to deliver, let us all thy life receive; suddenly return, and never, nevermore thy temples leave. Thee we would be always blessing, serve thee as thy hosts above, pray and praise thee without ceasing, glory in thy perfect love.
Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be: let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee; changed from glory into glory, ’til in heav’n we take our place, ’til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
What can I find in these words? They are filled with the idea that we, as flawed humans, require cleansing in order to achieve restoration, liberty and salvation. The love beyond all loves that God gives is invited to accomplish this. Maybe this is a good thing. I know many people who rely on this concept of God’s love to achieve who and what they wish to be. Many people hold dearly to the idea that this powerful divine force will save them. Save them. It’s a formidable notion, one I continue to struggle with. It is a focus I have difficulty relating to – and one that sometimes has requirements that seem to be exclusive and damaging to those that don’t agree and comply, or those that simply don’t succeed. The preoccupation with salvation can be quite unloving.
If I look at the words differently, I do find some comfort. A love that is beyond all other loves, is a good thing. The breathing of a loving spirit into our troubled souls, is a good thing. The idea that there is a force that is defined by its lovingness is a marvel. We live in a culture that defines success in terms of our careers and accomplishments, our wealth and possessions. We don’t really consider our ability to express all-encompassing love as something to be held in such high regard that it surpasses all else. When was the last time that special person you know who spends all their time and energy caring for friends and relatives received an award worthy of media coverage? Never. When did the friend who simply held your hand in a moment of pain get a salary raise for their efforts? Never. When was an honorary degree bestowed upon the one that taught a child to ride a bike or drove a carload of kids to camp or fixed your flat tire or helped you move? Never.
When I start to think of the multitude acts of love that we experience each day, and throughout our lives, I am amazed. Amazed at their power and amazed at how much we take them for granted. In a way, these acts are our salvation – those we receive and those we give. Without them, surely we would be lost. In doing them we become fully human by sharing in the good and bad this life has to offer. It may be that God’s example of love is a source of inspiration, but the definition of love can also be found elsewhere. It may be hard to find that inspiration, and it may require choices that involve tremendous strength and openness. But I suspect within the concept of an excellent love lies one of the secrets to a good life. The one we’re living in the here and now.
Love divine, all loves excelling. What a pursuit. Will it be my salvation? I don’t know. But I do know a life lived with this goal will be rich in ways that can’t be predicted. Ways that may not be obvious, easy or of our time. Ways that will result in a view on our final days that will see a life’s beautiful landscape, painted with all the colours available, fully experienced and wonderfully lived.
Somewhere, way back in my childhood, this is the first hymn I ever learned to play on the piano. Or, I should say, the first one I remember playing. I think I was about 11 years old and I suppose playing it was easy enough to draw me into the world of hymns. I have fond memories of playing it, and other hymns, with a friend of mine – we would merrily flip through the hymnbook and play whatever we could. Sometimes, in fits of laughter, we would settle on two hymns on facing pages, and dive in for a duet of less than inspirational quality, regardless of competing time and key signatures. Probably not what the hymn writers intended.
These are very old words. They can be found in many Gregorian chants, the earliest record of their use in 990 at a monastery in Switzerland. The original Latin text is: Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi: Quia per Crucem tuam redemisti mundum. This familiar hymn version was written as part of an oratorio by Théodore Dubois in 1867 (translated into English in 1899 by Theodore Baker).
Christ, we do all adore thee, And we do praise thee forever. For on the holy cross hast thou the world from sin redeemed.
This is a simple hymn. The music is simple; the words are simple. Perhaps this is what drew me to it as a child. We adore and praise Christ, why? Because of his sacrifice and resulting redemption. End of story. For those that adhere to this belief, there isn’t much more to add. And, many have experienced moments where the simplicity of repeated statements of this kind of childlike faith have been very moving and very meaningful. Sometimes that’s all we need.
And yet, as always, we need to look beyond the places we lived as children. To look for that which confounds as well as comforts, to consider other points of view. Can this simple sentiment mean more than what it appears – can it be meaningful beyond the confines of a specific belief system?
Christ’s example of sacrificial love is powerful. His story is about providing what was needed, in all sorts of ways, to all sorts of people. Healing, food, comfort, reassurance, and ultimately, redemption. And, some choose to adore and praise him as a result. Regardless of how his example has been used and misused throughout church history, these behaviours are valuable and honorable and worthy.
I don’t really know what sin is, but I suspect behaving in ways that are the opposite of love defines it well. I also suspect that the lists of sins that have been screamed at us from many a pulpit, contain more about maintaining power structures than about expressing love, and have little to do with deep, moral truths. The standard is so much higher than what we have been told. Simply following rules is both easy to do and easy to dismiss, and a little lazy in the lack of understanding of how humans learn, grow and evolve. Truly living in a spirit of love requires a great deal more effort, and its absence requires enormous redemption.
For me, redemption is about the process of regaining what has been lost. When we exhibit behaviours that are less than loving, we lose something. We lose a part of the recipient’s spirit and a part of our own. We leave a trail of destruction in our wake. We become unadorable.
All of this leaves me wondering about both the simplicity and complexity of choosing love. It is difficult. There are times when we must honour ourselves by walking away from damaging situations, or must rely on others to provide for a need we cannot possibly fill. Being a person grounded in love does not mean we are weak and accepting of whatever the world or our neighbours throw our way. But how we choose to behave matters. What we say, what we do, how we react and respond.
Adoration and praise is probably best saved for the gods. But redemption is something we all need. If we are willing to consider the greatest examples in human history, we will see that whatever was lost is always regained through actions, words, honour and commitment. When these things are firmly grounded in a paradigm of love, rebuilding is possible, even if it is challenging and takes a lifetime.
This simple hymn reminds me that that there are powerful forces available to guide my path. There is hate. There is love. The guide I choose will determine not the perfection of my experience, but the impact my path has on this world.
The original Latin includes the words, and we bless thee. This is my wish. That our lives and the paths we walk provide that which blesses those we encounter and those who follow.
It just so happens that I am to attend the funeral of a friend’s mother this weekend. This hymn was on my list for this week, but seems especially appropriate as I know this family are people of faith who hold, in their grief, to the comfort offered in these words. The idea that the rest beyond the river is real, and that their mother has found this beautiful peace.
Fanny Crosby wrote these words in 1869. She is a well-known hymn writer, and this is a very familiar set of words. The story goes that she became blind as an infant after receiving poor treatment of her eyes during an illness, an affliction that she felt resulted in having a fine memory and receiving a better education, one that she might not have had otherwise. Her first hymn, written at the age of eight, contained her lifelong philosophy: “O what a happy soul am I! Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be.”
Jesus, keep me near the cross, There a precious fountain; Free to all, a healing stream, Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
Refrain: In the cross, in the cross Be my glory ever, Till my ransomed soul shall find Rest beyond the river.
Near the cross, a trembling soul, Love and mercy found me; There the Bright and Morning Star Shed His beams around me.
Near the cross! O lamb of God, Bring its scenes before me; Help me walk from day to day With its shadow o’er me.
Near the cross! I’ll watch and wait, Hoping, trusting ever; Till I reach the golden strand, Just beyond the river.
I have mixed feelings about this hymn. In some ways, the words are strikingly beautiful. The precious fountain, the healing stream, the starlight beaming around us, the idea of reaching the golden strand. The promise of something beyond death. Lovely. And, I can appreciate the comfort these words bring in times of loss. But, I do struggle with the preoccupation with the afterlife in these kinds of hymns, with the waiting for something as though this life is less than an unmatchable gift. There is a famous quote by Carl Jung that says, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.”
There is something mysterious about how we define our own personal spirituality. Some of us are religious, others are not. Some rely on inherited or chosen beliefs to resolve their fear of death. Others ignore the inevitable, seeking fountains of youth. And, some choose to be content with the wonder that is our world, our neighbours, our creativity, our experiences, our very breath. They choose gratitude. Perhaps this comes from faith, from the Divine, from relationships, from knowledge – all sorts of sources. But I think, as Fanny Crosby understood even as a child, there is some element of choice in gratitude. A willingness to look beyond our circumstances and the inevitability of death, and seek that which is wonderful.
Our lives are not perfect. Far from it. They are filled with all kinds of despair and disappointment, fear and uncertainty. We require assistance – sometimes from friends and family, sometimes from professionals. There are endless bumps along the road. It can be incredibly difficult to find contentment in our darkest hours. I wonder if this idea of gratitude is some kind of key to all of this.
Gratitude is simply the act of being thankful, combined with the action of returning kindness. For me, this notion of returning the kindness is powerful. Even when all else is dark, to return a kindness is a source of light that is unexplainable. The smallest act can serve to provide a tiny flame that may just be enough to stave off the darkness – even if only for a moment. I am reminded of the paintings of the Dutch Masters. Very dark canvasses filled with detail that is difficult to see but for the portions lit by candles, or a sunbeam through a window. We don’t know what’s in the periphery, we can’t see everything, the subjects are sometimes engaged in difficult tasks, or may be poor or hungry or overworked, and yet there is a remarkable beauty in this smallest bit of illumination.
I don’t know what’s beyond the river. But I live in this world, in this life with the intention of being thankful for every breath I am able to take. Some are harder than others – that’s okay. Sometimes we need to help someone else find their breath – that’s okay. Sometimes our pain is so deep that we need to let someone else bring us the very air we need – that’s okay. But this life is wonderful in all its complexity. There are healing streams and precious fountains, and the river is beautiful – on this side and the next.
There are some people who seem to carry heavier burdens than others. I’m not sure why. I know we all have burdens – some big, some small, some fleeting, some constant. I know we carry them in different ways – some of us are visibly strong, some walk in silence, some appear endlessly unlucky or lucky, some buckle under the weight, some recover, some do not. It is mysterious, and often seems a little unfair. While the severity of our struggles vary, there is none amongst us that escapes this life unscathed.
This hymn speaks to the need we all have to find external strength to help us carry our burdens. The words are based on several Psalms, and were written to be used with this tune when Mendelssohn incorporated it into his oratorio, Elijah, in 1846. The tune is much older, being used as a hymn since at least 1693.
Cast thy burden upon the Lord,
and he shall sustain thee.
He never will suffer the righteous to fall.
He is at thy right hand.
Thy mercy, Lord, is great,
and far above the heav’ns.
Let none be made ashamed,
that wait upon thee.
Simple words, and a simple concept. Sustenance is always available to those who ask. I particularly like the last line that implies that there is no shame in the asking, the needing or the waiting for help. How beautiful. And how contrary to what most of us actually do and feel. Experiencing the impact of our burdens is often enough to shut us down, rather than open us up to expressing our needs and seeking help. We do feel shame. We live in a world where everything is judged on its obvious success, or failure. We are very hard on ourselves and on others.
These words are meant to indicate a need to cast our burdens into the care of God. This is meaningful to many, and I suspect even a few who are not religious, occasionally reach out privately towards something spiritual in moments of intense struggle. But, as is often the case, I wonder if there’s another side to this. To the understanding that we are meant to seek assistance. We were not meant to fight all our battles alone.
If that’s the case, then we are once again given tremendous responsibility towards our neighbours. As providers of care, as askers of help. For some this comes easily – on both sides of the equation. For others it is unbearably difficult. Not all are comfortable seeking help. Not all have somewhere to turn. Not all are suited to providing care. Not all have the resources or skills to offer what’s needed. Not all believe help is available.
Perhaps this is why humans have always created communities. Groups of people that have many talents, many perspectives, many skills. Overlapping each other in hopes that none will fall through the cracks. Not willing to allow those precious companions to fall, being at the right hand of the weary. Perhaps.
We are not alone. No matter how heavy the burdens become. There aren’t always answers to our problems, but there is something to be said for walking through these painful moments with someone by your side – whether they can fix things or not. There is no shame in asking for someone to walk with you. There is no shame in carrying a burden. Life is unfair. The only shame I can see is that which emerges when we refuse to walk with those who carry these heavy loads. Those close to us, those far. Those familiar, those who are strangers. Those we grow weary of; those we wish better for.
We all have gifts to offer. Give what you have. It may not be the solution, nor does it need to be, but sustenance is found in many places. Sustenance that allows us to carry whatever burdens we have received.
There are times when I read through these hymn texts and I find the language we use to describe God very limiting. In fact, I sometimes wonder why we are interested in such a small God, defined as a mere reflection of only some of us, in terms that can feel one dimensional. In this hymn, written by William H. Burleigh in 1859, God is appealed to as a father. For those of us who have enjoyed the presence of good fathers, this is relatable and positive. For those that have not, it is problematic. For those of us that are seeking something beyond an earthly creature, perhaps we need a little more. For those that wish to find themselves in the face of God – but are not fathers – we crave imagery that represents who we are, inspires what we wish to become, and reveals all that we hope to reflect.
As I looked at this hymn, I noticed that, in tiny print at the bottom of the page, alternate words were included. For me, these are welcome and helpful. They begin to expand this Divine being into something far greater than one human role fraught with complexity, as all human roles are. They begin to guide my vision towards the character of God.
Lead us, O Wisdom, in the paths of peace; Without thy guiding hand we go astray, And doubts appall, and sorrows still increase. Lead us, through Christ, the true and living way.
Lead us, O Teacher, in the paths of truth; Unhelped by thee, in error’s maze we grope, While passion stains and folly dims our youth, And age comes on, uncheered by faith and hope.
Lead us, O Guardian, in the paths of right; Blindly we stumble when we walk alone, Involved in shadows of a mortal night, Only with thee we journey safely on.
Lead us, O Shepherd, to thy heav’nly rest, However rough and steep the pathway be, Through joy or sorrow, as thou deemest best, Until our lives are perfected in Thee.
This prayer is full of requests to find paths that most of us are, on some level, interested in pursuing. Peace, truth and all that is right. I have no doubt that we vary in our definitions of what each of these pursuits mean, but maybe the idea that we are all seeking is useful. The line that says, “blindly we stumble when we walk alone,” is particularly meaningful. In this context, alone means without God, but walking alone – whether in our day to day lives, or in the ways we develop and process thoughts and ideas – is a path that is filled with shadows.
What I like about the expanded words in this case, is the understanding that our search for peace and truth requires the contribution of a variety of sources, be they spiritual or earthly. There is no single definition of what we need to achieve our state of rest, or find our place of fulfilment. We need wisdom, we need teaching and we need to be cared for, shepherded and guided through whatever our paths come across.
Leadership can be found in many places. In faith. In knowledge. In those around us, near and far. In those we know, those we don’t. In the thinker’s ideas and the writer’s words. In the artist’s expressions and the gardener’s labour. Leadership can be found amongst the highest echelons of power and the lowest states of poverty. It can be corrupt, and it can be pure. When we pray, hope, desire and beg for peace, let us be careful of whom we ask it. Because the characteristics of wisdom, teacher, guardian and shepherd are not always found in the obvious places, but they are always necessary to build this particular path. These are characteristics of strength, not self. They are characteristics that give, rather than take.
When I go back to the idea that how we speak about the concept of God, I am conscious that to expand our language means to open up space for many more of us to be included. These things that define those that lead us through the joys and sorrows, the rough and steep pathways, are characteristics we can all exemplify. A bigger God requires more from us. Perhaps that is the real challenge. Perhaps that is what we are often resistant too. Creating these paths of peace is hard. It means moving out of the way for gifted leaders to show us new ways. It means relinquishing status that has become meaningless in its self-serving nature. It means understanding that peace for some is superficial if it exempts others.
So, I look for leaders. I consider my role along the path. I seek peace and truth and hope to avoid error’s maze. And I say: Lead us, O Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, Child, Adult, Wisdom, Teacher, Guardian and Shepherd. For we simply do not know where we are going.