Wednesday, December 20, 2006

a constant sense

I have a feeling this is going to turn into another series of posts… It’s also another topic I didn’t really think I’d broach in this forum. But the love and dating essay didn’t bring me any flames, so I figure I’ll take another shot at something potentially controversial.

Let’s talk about faith and religion. Except not much in depth right now; I’ll get to that later. What I really want to talk about—or rather, share with you directly—are some of my favorite hymns. These are hymns that keep coming to mind as I plan a larger essay. Once I had three or four in the queue, I realized they merited their own entry.

One observation is that faith has two meanings in this context, which I think sometimes gets forgotten. (And I’ll definitely be oversimplifying for now. I’ll oversimplify less later.) A person can have faith in God, which is some kind of belief in the existence and trustworthiness of God. She or he can also be faithful to God, meaning they abide by that belief through the various hardships and joys of life. And this sort of faithfulness is carried out by God, too; God is faithful to us, in ways we can’t fathom.
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
The text above is by Thomas Chisholm. It reminds me a great deal of Psalm 90. That psalm was written by Moses, which is really rather amazing. I’m particularly struck by his testimony to God’s faithfulness “in all generations”, when Israel had just come out of four hundred years of slavery. Isaac Watts wrote a deliberate versification of Psalm 90 (in fact, of most of the psalms), which is another perennial favorite:
Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
“Return, ye sons of men:”
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Another hymn by Chisholm, but less well known, starts towards what I’d like to discuss about religion—namely, that it’s about relating to God, not about beating people over the head with one holy book or another. This one is much less well-known. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it outside of a Church of Christ hymnal. (The composer of the tune was L.O. Sanderson, whose son Leon was the song-leader for the church in which I grew up in Memphis.)
Be with me, Lord, I cannot live without Thee;
I dare not try to take one step alone.
I cannot bear the loads of life unaided;
I need Thy strength to lean myself upon.

Be with me, Lord, and then if dangers threaten,
If storms of trials burst above my head,
If lashing seas leap ev’rywhere about me,
They cannot harm or make my heart afraid.

Be with me, Lord, no other gift or blessing
Thou couldst bestow could with this one compare:
A constant sense of Thy abiding presence,
Where’er I am, to feel that Thou are near.

Be with me, Lord, when loneliness o’ertakes me,
When I must weep amid the fires of pain.
And when shall come the hour of “my departure”
For “worlds unknown,” O Lord, be with me then.
To close, we come to my absolute favorite hymn, another by Watts. Whatever religion one subscribes to, I think there has to be some heartfelt recognition of the goodness of the God one worships. That’s a pretty general statement; more precisely, I find in this hymn an expression of one’s utter disbelief and gratitude at the work God has done for our sake.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The last verse says, I think, why faith and religion are so important: they draw from us the most profound recognition of meaning and duty in life. In the end, however, when we recognize it, we follow God not from duty, but from love.

No comments: