Henry Francis Lyte was an Anglican priest who originally intended to be a doctor, but then entered the ministry. He was a prize-winning poet during his university years, and best known for his elegant hymn, “Abide With Me.” He continued to write religious poetry through his life. He was born in 1793 and died when he was only fifty-four years of age. The first verse captures a transcendent and haunting mood:
“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.”
It is uncertain when he penned this text. It has been connected to the death of a fellow clergyman, of which he said
“I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”
Regardless, it’s reflective and somber tone nearly always takes me to a melancholy mood. It is often sung at funerals. In one of the eight original verses is the line “Change and decay in all around I see.”
Ian Bradley, a leading scholar of Victorian hymns, names his book on this subject, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. He notes, “John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, has pointed to the damage done to the cause of reform and moving on in the life of churches by the deadening effect of [this line] from ‘Abide with me.’”
Nevertheless, the end of life is a serious and inevitable matter. In the ministry, we deal with it all the time. There are other things to talk about in life, joys and pleasures, work, goodness and family. We cannot long live in the valley of the shadow. But when it comes, it is good to know that we are not there alone.
Our church sits atop a mountain, a beautiful garden behind the sanctuary perched on the edge, looking out across the southern suburbs of Birmingham. It is a view that invites meditation and deep thoughts. Once, while there with a friend, a retired missionary and a man of great kindness and compassion, I asked what he was thinking about. He pointed to the hospital below, in the valley. “I was just thinking about all the human suffering contained in that place, every single day, and that Christ dwells with them there.”
That, at its best, is what faith can do. Today, while my own dear mother is taking her second chemo for stage IV cancer, I pray for her and for the millions every day who make the journey along the cliffs of suffering and disease. Perhaps these lines sit well here for us all:
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
LISTEN to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Abide with Me, arr. Mack Wilberg.
How can you not like the story of the Pilgrims? They came to America to find freedom, we remember. Religious freedom. They were “separatists,” believing that the True Church must separate itself from the corruptions of the world, in particular the Anglican church and its state-supported status as an established church. They were known as “non-conformists,” as in non-conformity with
the state and with the book of Common Prayer as its guide. As in, “Hey, one of us needs to watch for the sheriff.”
First they went to Holland, where there was greater religious freedom. Amsterdam was a bit much for them, so next they went to Leiden. All was going well until they realized their children were speaking fluent Dutch and fitting in a little TOO well. They couldn’t go back to England—only jail and more trouble with the state awaited them.
So, after a lot of political and economic negotiation, they struck a deal to go to the New World. They set sail with two ships, but one had to turn back. Only the Mayflower made it.
During the trip there were divisions between the Pilgrims, who called themselves the Saints, and the others on the trip, designated “Strangers.” The Mayflower Compact was struck just to keep harmony among the differing groups.
There was great illness on the ship—at least one died en route. They left in September, went off course, and landed far off their destination—in November. Cape Cod in November can be, well, brisk, to say the least. Continue reading “Thanksgiving, Squanto and Hope”→
So it is Thanksgiving Eve. If Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) can be an elaborate anticipation of the solemnity of All Saints’ Day and Fat Tuesday a wild and wooly welcome to the austerity of Lent, there should be a similar welcome mat to Turkey Day, something to usher it in, not stomp it out a la “Black Friday.”
Thanksgiving Eve should be something of an antonym to carry true to “Eve-ness” (Christmas Eve, naturally, being the all-time great, with it’s dark sense of Herodian murder plots, shivering shepherds, and wandering wise men). It should be a day of shameful reminders of ingratitude, self-absorption and congratulations that can be followed with humble rejoicing and remembering the next day that nothing was deserved in the first place.
Any holiday that began with Europeans almost starving to death and depending on the kindness of the poor natives they would eventually wipe out or addict to alcohol on reservations should not be one in which the self-congratulating is mixed with feasts and football. It just doesn’t seem right. Better to blow out the egotism and delusions on the eve and then wake up to something like, “My gosh, we don’t have anything to eat. How will we make it?” Then have your neighbors bring something over and re-enact the whole helplessness. How did it get to be, “Boy, are we ever BLESSED.”
There is something about powerlessness, helplessness, vulnerability and fear that drive you to important truths. I think about the Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw’s book, having endured a childhood in the Great Depression and Coming of Age on Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. No wonder they came home and were glad just to have a little house in a new suburb and work the same job for 45 years and retire still married to the same woman. And maybe this same absence of profound deprivation has left us unable to genuinely “feel” Thanksgiving as it is meant to be.
Could be, of course, that the past few years are getting us a little closer to the truth. 9% unemployment has unleashed predictable politics–all we need is a new president, throw the bums out of congress, shoot lobbyists, and so on. What I never hear is, “Life is hard. We better pull together and help one another. Hey, I don’t have to have my whole bonus this year. Let’s figure out how to keep Jim employed–he’s got three kids at home.”
We’ve got a grand opportunity to remember something that we seem determined to forget. I think about this while I hold my nine-month-old granddaughter. She is so precious and full of life, and I am terrified for the world she is growing up into, terrified into prayers and more prayers. I am helpless to prevent that world or fix it, so I am humbled terribly on this day. I won’t be here for her whole life, God willing, so it will go beyond me. You love a grandbaby this much, and suddenly you feel this helplessness again, like you haven’t felt in forever. It drives you to a different gratitude, one not rooted in your importance or competence or being the World’s Latest Big Deal. It is purely, powerfully helplessness that does it.
So let’s consider the Wednesday Before Thanksgiving as Self-Reliance Day. We can wear giant inflated heads and have Big Shot Parades, football games and overeating as though it was our destiny. Then, as is appropriate, consider a day of forgiveness, humble gratitude, reconciliation and remembering that without the rest of us, none of us is worth a dime, and don’t forget it. So while there are some hours left in Wednesday, put on you Big Head. Thanksgiving is coming. Act like a selfish jerk for a few more hours. Then come to yourself and remember what your life is really about.
Last Wednesday night I shared “thirty practices you can try in the next thirty days.” It was a reflection on Philippans 4:8-9: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” In this time of so much turmoil and uncertainty, I don’t find most people losing their minds, killing strangers or giving up. They are hunkered down, pulling together, depending on one another, and finding their own solutions to the times. So I thought a series of sermons on “Simple Gifts: Thirty Days to Thanksgiving.” The imspiration, grace and God-givenness of life cannot be conjured up, but we can surely put our attention on it, practice and implement them. I thought it might help to have a simple action each day that we can try that can express, encourage and deepen our sense of gratitude. I hope you find something here that might help.
1. Express appreciation to someone important in your life verbally or with a note. Call or write an old friend and tell them what their friendship has meant in your life. Write your favorite teacher and express what their teaching meant to you. They never got paid what they were worth. Appreciation is about all they get.
2. Volunteer to help in a ministry to those less fortunate. It’s as easy as calling your church office, local service organization or other place of caring and signing up.
3. Choose to forgive someone who made you angry in the past and act toward them as though it never happened.
4. Sing with some other people, not just your ipod. Sing with a baby if you can.
5. Give until it hurts and then give some more until it quits hurting and becomes second nature. Get where you can see somebody else getting help and enjoy it.
6. Change the way you talk about your life. Make a list of the negative things you say most often. Can you turn them into positives instead? Reframe them into deeper truth?
7. Get to know one person you walk past, see every day, sit near in church, work with or see at the store or interact with regularly without ever having bothered to ask their name.
8. Create a behavioral set for your devotional life. Clear out a space or have one place for prayer time. Light a candle, or do the same thing every day to create readiness.
9. Carry your Bible to church as a physical reminder to yourself to read it daily. Memorize some verses. Encourage our children to bring it.
10. Read Psalm 4:8. When you go to bed tonight, pray this prayer. “Lord, I turn the world over to you. I have carried too much of it on my back and it was never mine anyway. Be with me in my dreams, my weariness, and my endless lists of things to do tomorrow. Now go to sleep.
11. Laugh, hard, at least once today and remind yourself that you are not the center of the universe. If you need a little help, go to the funny birthday card section at the drugstore, watch children playing together, or look at your high school yearbook picture.
12. Sit in silence and breathe calmly for ten minutes. That’s all. How was it?
13. Do something for someone you love that tells them you do.
14. Fast from the internet and television for 24 hours and give some of that time to loving someone in your life instead.
15. Put a short appointment on your calendar today and leave it fallow. Sit, even for 15 minutes, and absorb a spiritual truth, look at something beautiful, or pray.
16. Share time and attention with someone who is suffering, in trouble or who needs you. It will pull you out of yourself quickly.
17. Make a list of people who have been mentors, encouragers and who have blessed you. The length may surprise you.
18. Give money and pray for a missionary you know or for a country in the world as you do
19. Practice acceptance. Accept God’s acceptance of you—remind yourself that because of grace, you are free to forgive, free to love and free to welcome
20. Get reacquainted with your inner child—play, do something you’re not good at, draw, or roll on the floor with a baby if you know one. Give it a rest with the serious adult for a while.
21. Accept that God has given you spiritual gifts and start using them for the sake of the church. They have nothing to do with how other people see you and everything to do with what God wants to do through you.
22. Pray without ceasing by spending a whole day praying a verse or thinking about God. Just be there.
23. Make a list of your close calls and then think, “It could have gone really badly for me. I was given a second chance.” Now consider giving someone else a second chance.
24. Put a dollar in the mission offering of your Church for every complaint you make today about your life, the government, Congress, the schools, society, “those people” (whoever they are), your parents, your loved ones, or anyone else. At least you can help missionaries.
25. Read Philippians 4:6. When you start worrying about something today, turn it into a verbal prayer.
26. Try praying all the way through the church prayer list. You don’t have to know what their issue is. Someone was distressed enough to put it there.
27. Spend some time in nature and pay attention to its joyful truth to you.
28. Think back to when you were at your most difficult time. Did you learn anything as you went through it that could help you now?
29. Give out ten affirmations today. Don’t go to bed with one or two still in your mouth unoffered.
30. Spend a little time jotting down everything that touches your life today that took other people to get it to you—at work, your food, every part of your life. In your time of prayer, consider the complexities of God’s giving through others to you.