Well, we have come to the end of our journey exploring the origin and messages behind some of the hymns found in our Book of Praise. Along the way we have sung some really old traditional hymns and some newer ones that have become standards in our time.
Today we finish with selections that combine hymns from the 19th century with those in the 20th century. We begin with a hymn that has been used at tent meetings and revivals – Shall we gather at the river.
Robert Lowry, the author of this hymn, was born in Philadelphia in 1826. From an early age he loved music and learned to play a number of instruments. He entered pastoral ministry with the Baptist church and was ordained at the age of 28. A reporter once asked him what his method of composition was to which he replied, “I have no method. Sometimes the music comes and the words follow… I watch my moods, and when anything good strikes me, whether words or music, and no matter where I am, at home or on the street, I jot it down. My brain is a sort of spinning machine, I think, for there is music running through it all the time. The tunes of nearly all the hymns I have written have been completed on paper before I tried them on the organ. Frequently they have been written at the same time.
Shall we gather at the river reflects on the river of life as envisioned by St. John the Divine in Revelation. There are also echoes of the Jordan River here as well. For the Hebrew people the Jordan River symbolized their coming into the Promised Land. The Jordan River was the place where John the Baptist led people to prepare for the coming of God in Jesus and the crossing of the Jordan has ever come to symbolize our crossing from the old life of separation from God to the new life lived in the Spirit of God now and the eternal life we are to receive after this time.
But ultimately the river in this hymn is the river of life that flows by the throne of God. In John’s vision, the river of life feeds the trees that line the river and the leaves are for the healing of the nations and the people. Lowry sees that vision as a sign to us that there will come a time when we shall find perfect peace and release from all the sorrows and trials of this life. We shall be able to lay down all our burdens for the grace of God will deliver us and we will receive the robe and crown promised by God to all those who put their faith and trust in God.
We often refer to this life as a journey or a pilgrimage. We recognize that this is a moment in time and that as time passes we age and move on in life to the moment when we pass from this world to the next. Reaching the shining river will be the end of this pilgrimage for at that moment we will have arrived at the place where we can dwell for eternity – a place where our happy hearts will quiver with the melody of peace. So yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.
Our next hymn is a beloved one from the time of childhood for those of us who have been part of a church community from an early age. I remember singing All Things Bright and Beautiful in Sunday school and that is probably why I often choose it as a Family Hymn around the time of the Children’s Story.
Penned by Cecil Frances Alexander, it is one of nearly 400 hymns that she wrote – and yes, Cecil Frances is a woman. How she came to get the first name of Cecil I don’t know but Frances also wrote other hymns we love at various seasons of the year including: Once in Royal David’s city, There is a green hill far away and Jesus calls us o’er the tumult. Primarily a writer of hymns for children, it is no wonder that All things bright and beautiful has been most often thought of as a children’s hymn; but we must never forget the words of Jesus who said that unless we receive the kingdom of God like a child, we shall never enter it. To be able to see the world in all its beauty without the cynicism that life can bring and without the prejudice and distrust that often seeps in is a redeeming thing. It is that childlike joy and wonder that we ever need to hold onto that this hymn celebrates and encourages in all of us.
The positive message of this hymn lifts our spirits every time we sing it. There is not one negative image or thought in it. Perhaps it seems a little unrealistic but it is that positive uplifting nature of the hymn that can inspire us to see the beauty of the world and know that the love of God is in the making of everything around us. From the greatest to the smallest, everything wise and wonderful, all things bright and beautiful come from the love of God who made them all.
No matter where we may live, no matter what the view that greets us, we can marvel at the creation around us as we witness the opening of a flower, the singing of a bird, their colours, their wings. We can celebrate the cold of winter knowing that it prepares us for the summer sun that will bring the fruit of the trees to grow and ripen. We can see the wonders of nature in the mountains that stand so high, the lakes that are so clear and the prairie grasses that seem to go on forever. Finally we can celebrate that we have eyes to see, lips to be able to express our thoughts and feelings and know that everything and everyone has been made that the God we know and love.
Our third hymn today is in the discipleship section of our book of praise. It has been a favourite to sing for at least 2 generations. I remember singing this one in Sunday school and then it first appeared in a publication called Praiseways. That was the Presbyterian Church’s way of experimenting with modern music. Nothing is known, though, about the author of this piece or where it originated. The tune is traditional and there is really no information about it.
But it is a fun song to sing and reminds us to keep our focus on God as we live our lives both in the day and especially at night. For a lot of people daytime can be filled with many activities that help the day go by but night-time can be hard as activities come to a close and we can be left with nothing more than our thoughts, hopes and/or fears. To ask God to give us oil in our lamps may be outdated today but the idea is to be able to be ever ready for the coming of the Lord. The author then encourages God to give us joy to keep praising, peace to keep loving and love to keep serving.
Back in university we added 2 verses. The first was give me batteries in my flashlight, keep me shining for the Lord. The chorus was changed to ever ready, ever ready, ever ready for the King of Kings. The other one was give me gas in my ford, keep me trucking for the Lord. It is certainly a song that is uplifting and encouraging.
There isn’t much to say about our closing hymn today. It is very simple and very short. We’ll sing it 3 times. English the first time, then the Hebrew and then the English again. It is a traditional Hebrew blessing set to a traditional melody and celebrates the fond wish for safety of friends or family until the time when they gather together again.
I chose it because this is our last service before our break and wherever life may take you in August, whatever you may do, I say to you farewell, dear friends, stay safe, dear friends, peace, peace. We’ll see each other again, so have peace, have peace. AMEN