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Five hymns to read during times of sorrow

Kazuya Akimoto, 2008

A life of faith is a life of trust: a trust that God will guide, protect and comfort. These five hymns describe the presence of God in midst of sadness, death and despair. Using metaphors such as wrestling, nightfall and a traveling journey, the hymnwriters describe personal feelings of pain and suffering and the hope that awaits us all in Christ.

1. Abide With Me

This hymn of comfort was inspired by Luke 24:29 in which travelers to Emmeaus tell Jesus to “stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” The text uses evening (“eventide”) as a metaphor for earthly death amidst the pain and suffering in a changing world, ending with supplication “in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.” Rev. Henry Francis Lyte wrote the hymn a few months before his death in 1847, reflecting on “what a beautiful image when we see the light of day ebbing – this light is only a shadow of the light of life that shines forth from Christ.”

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like thyself my guide and strength can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.
I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless,
ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

2. Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Gospel musician Tommy Dorsey penned these words in 1932, a week after his wife died during childbirth. In the style of a lament Psalm, the Dorsey makes a confession (“I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone”), cries to God for help (“Hold my hand lest I fall”) and then proclaims confidence in God’s power (“At the river I stand”). In the midst of tragedy and loss this hymn seeks comfort from the Lord who will guides, hears and leads.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
When my way grows drear,
precious Lord linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
When the darkness appears
and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

3. Come Thou O Traveler Unknown

This poem by Methodist hymnwriter Charles Wesley borrows from the story of Jacob wrestling with God found in Genesis 32:22-32. The speaker finds his identify in a fight against sin and sadness (“I need not tell thee who I am / my misery or sin declare”), but like Jacob he struggles to identify his opponent (“whom still I hold, but cannot see”).  After questioning his opponent (“Art thou the man that died for me?”) he suddenly discovers the presence of Christ (“’Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me!”) and rejoices in God’s very nature (“pure universal Love thou art”). Isaac Watts, the most prolific English hymnriter, describes this beautiful text as “worth all the verses that he himself had written.”

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
whom still I hold, but cannot see;
my company before is gone,
and I am left alone with thee;
with thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day.
I need not tell thee who I am,
my misery or sin declare;
thyself hast called me by my name;
look on thy hands, and read it there!
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
In vain thou strugglest to get free;
I never will unloose my hold.
Art thou the man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold:
wrestling, I will not let thee go,
till I thy name, thy nature know.
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
but confident in self-despair;
speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
be conquered by my instant prayer.
Speak, or thou never hence shalt move,
and tell me if thy name is Love!
‘Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear thy whisper in my heart!
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
pure universal Love thou art:
to me, to all, thy mercies move;
thy nature and thy name is Love.

4. I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say

This hymn by Horatius Bonar describes three invitations made by Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30, John 7:37-38 and John 8:12).  As a response, a weary and thirsty traveler finds rest, confidence and revival “’til trav’ling days are done.” The text sees life as a painful journey made easier by accepting the offerings of Jesus, which provide light and life.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, O weary one, lay down
your head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
weary and worn and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am this dark world’s Light;
look unto me, your morn shall rise,
and all your days be bright.”
I looked to Jesus and I found
in him my Star, my Sun;
and in that light of life I’ll walk,
’til trav’ling days are done.

5. In the Cross of Christ I Glory

John Bowring’s most well-known hymn opens “In the cross of Christ I glory / towering o’er the wrecks of time.” Humanity has certainly made a “wreck of time” by building and destroying, inflicting pain and ignoring the most vulnerable. Christ offers a different path: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Accordingly, this hymn proclaims the love and sacrifice of Christ above all else (Galatians 6:14).  All earthly experiences (“Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure”) are seen in light of Christ’s saving death (“never shall the cross forsake me.”).

In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o’er the wrecks of time;
all the light of sacred story
gathers round its head sublime.
When the woes of life o’ertake me,
hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
never shall the cross forsake me.
Lo! it glows with peace and joy.
When the sun of bliss is beaming
light and love upon my way,
from the cross the radiance streaming
adds more luster to the day.
Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,
by the cross are sanctified;
peace is there that knows no measure,
joys that through all time abide.
In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o’er the wrecks of time;
all the light of sacred story
gathers round its head sublime.

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John Newton was a slave ship captain

Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of “Amazing Grace” is intertwined with the story of transatlantic slave trade. In fact, the hymnwriter’s life tells us not only about grace, but about justice.

While his mother hoped that he would join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton (1725-1807) renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a planation in Sierra Leone. He was eventually freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.

In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain, “if this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.

After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton famously rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and lead several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans.

In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends associated with the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by celery. Inspired by the texts of Isaac Watts (“O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (“Christ the Lord is Rise Today”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, Amazing Grace was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, called NEW BRITAIN, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)

Despite the dramatic story told in movies and books—that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God—it was not until 30 years later (in 1788) that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Newton writes of “the hour I first believed” in “Amazing Grace”, but he also viewed faith as a more gradual experience: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things (c.f. any non-divine Bible character). However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact we can indifferent or complacent in matters of injustice and oppression. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much, much later. He lived long enough to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which finally ended the selling and trading of human slaves.

How are systems of  injustice perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from realizing that how we treat different kinds of people might simply be wrong? And how can engage in “Kingdom work” to make reparations? In scripture, God’s kingdom and people are often compared to a vineyard. The prophet Isaiah writes a “love-song concerning his vineyard”, but is quick to call out the nation of Israel for violence and injustice.

My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
   but heard a cry!

Isaiah 5:1-2, 7

Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by consistent and honest efforts. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficulty of facing the powers that be:

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

Luke 18:1-8 (Paraphrased)

Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways we might be participate in systems of injustice and work toward being “repairers of the breach.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:9b-12