Our focus for today’s hymns is the theme of hope. Each hymn celebrates the author’s individual understanding of hope and paints for us vivid images designed to ignite our imaginations and help us to put into words what hope means to us.
God forgave my sin 774
Written in 1972, this is a relatively new hymn and yet one that is often sung in church as well as at camp and many other gatherings. Carol Sue Owens who wrote both the words and the music for this hymn was born in 1931. Along with her husband Jimmy, they have authored countless songs over the years including winning a Grammy in 1981 for the Christian children’s album called Ants’hillvania. They have worked with many other singers and songwriters including Pat Boone, Dean Jones, Andrae Crouch, The Imperials and Graham Kendrick whose own song Shine, Jesus, shine continues to be a well-loved favourite.
Carol’s song is all about hope. There is also a firmness of faith, peace and love all wrapped up here which makes it hard to put it in a category. The compilers of the Book of Praise put it under mission, but its message has to first touch our lives before it can even begin to touch others.
What an affirmation of faith and hope to know that God has forgiven our sin and that we have been given a new life, a new start to this life. And so, we can approach others as one who has received a great gift but with the desire to share that gift. And we share the gift of God’s forgiveness and new life for only one reason because he has told us to do so. She then echoes the words of Jesus in the chorus. He said: “Freely, freely, you have received; freely, freely, give. Go in my name and because you believe, others will know that I will live.”
Remember the words of Jesus to the disciples when Thomas expressed his doubts. He said that Thomas was blessed because he had seen and believed but that many more would be blessed because they would believe without seeing. Our faith can inspire faith in others. Our hope can inspire hope in others. Remember also Jesus’ new commandment to his disciples: Love one another as I have loved you. In this way others will come to believe in the truth of what we declare.
Jesus bids us shine 773
The author of our next hymn – Susan Warner lived in the 19th century in New York State. Susan was a well-known author of children’s books. Both her and her sister Anna became devout Christians in their early twenties. They were confirmed members of the Mercer Street Presbyterian church and held Bible studies for the West Point cadets. When they were on military duty, the cadets would sing “Jesus loves me”. The popularity of the song was so great that upon Warner’s death in 1855 she was buried in the West Point cemetery. The first verse of the hymn was written by Anna at the request of Susan.
The hymn remains a favourite today with its strong yet simple message. Every time it is sung I am sure people feel that call of Jesus for us to just be a light in the darkness, to bring hope in the midst of despair, to bring love in the face of hatred and to bring peace in the midst of conflict.
Each one of us isn’t asked to offer a great speech; we are not asked to sell all we have and give it to the poor; we are only asked to let the people of the world see that Jesus has made a difference in our lives. We are to be the people Jesus hopes we will be. We are not asked to change the world. We are asked to be a light in the corner of the world in which we live. You do that in your corner, and I will do that in mine.
Shall we gather at the river 797
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.