A dear friend passed away a while ago, and when his widow informed me with her Easter card this year, she mentioned how this article - originally written for the April 1995 newsletter of the Zion-Immanuel Dual Parish Newsletter - had been such a favorite of his, and how he had shared it with his family. His daughter, who had received a copy from her dad, found it moving and had shared it with her children as well. The details in this paragraph came out as they planned Richard's funeral. Reading all of this, I had to look it up, and as I read it, I decided I wanted to share it with you also, so here it is:
A Hymn for Times Like These
I know that many of you have days where the time just seems to fly. It seems to be a function of age, that time goes faster and faster. Lately it seems like that old saying, 'The fowarder I go, the behinder I get!' It isn't just the hours or the days that seem to be speeding by, it is life itself. It is at precisely these sorts of times that I think of that wonderful evening hymn, Abide with Me.
I guess the reason it comes to mind is the second line, "Fast falls the eventide." How swiftly indeed! It wouldn't be so bad but as it falls, all of the skills and abilities of the flesh upon which we have grown so dependent seem to fade too. The easiest one to identify with is the memory. Everyone seems to feel their memory changing and drifting and fading. "The darkness deepens;" is how the hymn puts it. We could picture the darkness of the world, its crimes and evils as deepening, I suppose. It's true. But somehow I see, in these words, the darkness of the gathering night of death more clearly. And when I see that in my life, I pray as in the hymn, "O Lord, with me abide."
Failing Comforts Abound
I see it happen more often, lately. Right now it is happening among my older friends, and even among some of you in my congregation. The doctors say, "Well, there is really nothing more that I can do. You will just have to live with it." It is not always about something serious and deadly - sometimes it is about Arthritis, or about a bad back. These are serious and painful enough, but not immediately life threatening. Still, that comfort and help afforded by the doctor and by the hope that something is going to ease the burden of pain and growing disability is suddenly gone. It is at a time like that when we reverberate in harmony with the hymn,
"When other helpers fail and comforts flee.
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me."
The best part is of course, that He does - He abides with us and He comforts and helps us. But the comfort of God is not to take away the troubles or stop the pains, but to give us grace to bear it patiently. Christ suffered for us, we too can suffer, and when we do it with faith and patiently (relying on God's promises that our suffering will never be too much to bear and that He will help us endure) we bring glory to His name! It is then we echo Christ's suffering by how we endure. In such a time as this our prayers often echo verse 6;
"I need Thy presence every passing hour;
what but Thy grace can foil the Tempter's power?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, oh, abide with me."
Change and Decay...
It is not just the speed of life that is so striking, but the direction it is going. We no longer seem to see the progress we thought we were seeing when we were younger. Then it was all so exciting! Today, it is no less stimulating, but it is not filled with promises of a bright future, but with depressing images of good things being left behind and evil consequences and unhealthy attitudes increasingly seem to be taking their places.
Everything is changing! I am a technophile, so, naturally, I like the new gadgets. But I don't like the way they separate people from one another. We have our own TVs, our own music, our own stereos that hang on our belts and play just into our ears. Hand-held Gameboys have replaced pinball machines. Home exercise equipment has replaced the gym. We are losing social activity.
Many of the changes are frightening. We read the papers and watch the evening news and see murders rising every year. Senseless violence is happening everywhere. Violent attacks are no longer things that happen only at night in places where we should be careful not to be, alone, at night. How true the hymn,
"Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see."
Thank God that He does not change - or His love for us.
That is why I am such an old "stuck-in-the-mud" when it comes to worship. While the world is changing around me, I need a touchstone, a place where I can go and the world is not changing, and everything is not decaying, and I can hunker down in the familiar and be "home" with God and with those who also need that secure and unchanging love of God. The hymn says, "O Thou, who changes not, abide with me." In that sweet, old, unchanging (the Ordinaries of the Liturgy) yet always changing liturgy (the Propers for the day) and in the sweet constancy of the proclamation of forgiveness and of the love of God for me, I find the solid security and unchanging rock and fortress I crave.
If the worship was always changing, I would not find that Refuge. I might not even find the faithfulness of God and the trustworthiness of the gospel believable. I can forge out into this changing world because I can turn back to my unchanging God and meet Him in the commonplaces of His Word and of the Liturgy which preaches that Word. Verse 3:
"Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell'st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me."
The Heart of the Thing
I guess the thing that bothers me most is not that the world is changing, but that I am not. Oh, I see the "age and decay" creeping up on me. What I do not see is me growing more and more to the image of Christ. I see another law at work in the members of my body (to borrow the words of Paul). I had hope to be come more holy, somehow. But I see my own sins in sharper relief. I see my failures and my wickedness even more clearly.
Now it might be true that I have grown in the grace of God. My intellect tells me that, as I look back on my life, but my conscience has a different story to tell.
"Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile. [that's me!]
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee."
My heart convicts me of my sins. How good it is to know that God does not! I particularly find comfort in the gospel - in the constancy and always- there-for-me good news of the love of God and the grace which He has poured out on us all in Jesus Christ.
It never changes. He never leaves me nor forsakes me. I am never alone, and I am never without the comfort of His absolution. I did not understand it when I was young, but there is nothing so sweet as forgiveness! When I hurt, I am not really comforted by someone patting my shoulder and saying "There, there." When I sorrow, human sympathy does not actually soothe the pain. When I am in danger and in fear, I am not reassured by vague promises that all will be well. But in every case the absolution is my solid rock in the tempest!
"I forgive you all your sins." Those words comfort me. What do I have to fear if my sins are forgiven? Then God is with me! Then I know that God really does love me. Then I have a lively confidence in every need.
"Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for ev-'ry plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me."
It's the Real Thing!
Not Coca-Cola, Jesus Christ!
"I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness."
The swift passage of time and the gathering clouds of evil, and the setting sun of life have no power to defeat us. They catch our attention now and then. They even tempt us to despair. But they always lose when we realize that God is with us. Jesus Christ is with us every step of the way.
The real pressure for me is that door at the end of the tunnel - the door marked "Death." And this marvelous hymn holds out the only answer, pointed and clear:
"Where is death's sting? Where, grave thy victory?
I triumph still if Thou abide with me."
Only one verse left. It is my prayer - and yours, I am sure. I end this short message with its words. I type them with tears blurring my eyes and my throat closing with emotion, glad I do not need to try to speak them. Let us pray it together as you read.
"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!"
Yours in the Lord,
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