Our first hymn today is one which is often requested for funerals. It is
no surprise to learn that this hymn was composed to provide comfort to someone in a time of special sorrow. What might be more surprising is that it was intended only to be read as a poem by one person, the author’s mother. Little is known of the life of Joseph Scriven. It is believed that he was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1820, graduated from Trinity College in Dublin and emigrated to Canada at the age of 25. He died at Port Hope, Ontario in 1886. It is believed that the hymn was written around 1855.
The hymn only came to light as the result of a neighbour who tended to Joseph during his final illness. The neighbour happened upon a manuscript of What a Friend we have in Jesus. After reading it, he questioned Joseph about it. Joseph then recounted how the poem was intended to comfort his mother in a time of special sorrow in her life. What exactly that sorrow was we will never know but Joseph said that it was a personal thing and he did not intend for anyone else to ever read it.
We can be thankful that Joseph’s neighbour decided not to keep the poem a secret but let it be published. It first appeared in Hasting’s Song of Pilgrimage in 1886 and was attributed to Joseph Scriven. It was set to music by Charles Converse who wrote the tune What a Friend just for this hymn.
The kind of friendship Joseph Scriven imagined with Jesus is the kind that so many people seek for but seldom if ever find. In fact, we probably could never hope to find anyone outside of Jesus who would be prepared to bear all our sins and griefs. Joseph then reminds his mother - and all of us who have heard these words through the ages – that it is a privilege to carry everything in our lives in prayer to God. Our hesitancy to do so only leads to a lack of peace and the continuing presence of pain that we needlessly carry when we choose not to include God in our lives.
When it comes to the second verse, we have no doubt reflected on the fact that there is no one of us who has not experienced trials and temptations. We all know that there is trouble somewhere in the life of someone we know but Joseph reminds us to never be discouraged and take it all to the Lord in prayer. And is there anyone else we know who will be faithful enough to listen to and let us share all our sorrows? Probably not; but Jesus knows our every weakness and is still willing to share our sorrows and help us in our trials and temptations.
The final verse is almost like a recap of what he has already told us. If you find yourself weak and heavy-laden; if you find you are cumbered with a load of care, do not hesitate to take it to God for he is for us a refuge in the midst of any trouble or trial of life. And if you find your friends have grown tired of your struggles and have stopped listening or caring, do not despair for God will take you in his arms and shield your spirit and you will find a solace there. No wonder the neighbour felt compelled to share this wonderful poem with the world.
Our second hymn today is an African-American spiritual. Like so many of the spirituals that came from the 1800’s, it was born from the life of slavery. In the midst of great sorrow and hardship and oppression, there rose a spirit among the slaves that transcended their physical existence. Imagine in the midst of that oppression to be able to declare that you were going to live, work, pray and sing in such a way that God could use you anywhere, any time. It is a testament to the hope that they held so deep in their hearts that nothing in all creation could separate them from the love that God had for them and their firm belief that it was for them to live so that God could work through them. They met adversity with courage and conviction.
Our third hymn was written by Jane Leeson who lived in the 19th century. She was a prolific writer of poems and books for children. She also translated a number of hymns from Latin to English.
Often used as a children’s hymn, the author chooses to focus on one key lesson that, when learned, is the lesson from which all of life will flow: loving God who first loved me. It is a lesson that Jane knew she needed to learn every day and even though she had grown into an adult, she knew that it was only with the heart of a child that she could respond to the love of God for her and so follow God wherever he led her. She wanted to be taught how to trace the steps of God, how to be strong in her resolve and how to love by observing the way Jesus loved. In the final verse, love in loving finds employ are words which sound a little strange but really is intended for us to discover how learning to love as Jesus loved can help us to be followers of God. In the end we are never to forget the phrase that ends each verse: Loving God who first loved me.
Our final hymn today was written by Joseph Gilmore. Joseph was born in Boston in 1834 and was educated at Brown University and Newton Theological Institution. He served as Professor of Hebrew for 2 years and then was a Baptist pastor in Fisherville, New Hampshire and Rochester, New York before being appointed Professor of Logic in 1868. Little else is known of him. Apparently, the hymn was written after a lecture he gave at First Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1859. The Scripture that did inspire him is from the 23rd Psalm. Echoes of that Scripture can be found in the repetition of the phrase “He Leadeth Me”.
He leadeth me is one of my personal favourites and is one that I have loved from a young age. The hymn traces the journey of a faithful follower of God throughout life and ends with the affirmation that even in the face of death, the faithful follower has nothing to fear for God will lead us even then through that final crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land – heaven.
In the first verse, Joseph celebrates that wonderful assuring thought that God leads him no matter what he does or no matter where he goes. In the second verse he reflects on the fact that be it sorrow or joy, be his life calm or troubled, God’s hand is still there to lead.
Knowing this, he is willing to put his hand in the hand of the man from Galilee – to coin a more modern sentiment – and never complain or regret his choice. Whatever lot comes to him, whatever life may bring he will be content for he knows that it is God who leads him.
And so at the end of all his days, when his task on earth is done, he knows that nothing will ever stop God from leading him from this world to the next. He is assured that God will never let him journey alone or will he ever abandon him. In every moment, in life, in death, God will be there to lead him and so a faithful follower he will be for ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth him.
All of our hymns today have some element of overcoming adversity and seeking for the presence and strength of God throughout even the most trying circumstances that we face. May we find strength and hope through the words of these hymns and know that the struggles we face in our time are not unlike the struggles of those who came before us and that we too can know the peace and hope that coming to God in prayer can bring and the love that can shape each our living each day.