Some of us have lost family members. Some of us have lost jobs. All of us have lost something at some point this past year, whether that’s a favorite hobby or just time with friends. Going into the holiday season, these losses tend to park at the front of our minds, made more poignant by the memories of past gatherings. We remember when Grandpa was still with us, when Mom was still alive, when we could still invite our family and friends to join us around the Christmas tree without worrying—or even imagining—that one of us could be carrying a deadly disease. 2020 was hard. And who knows what the next year will hold? But before we let our brains run away with bleak imaginings of future catastrophes, I want to share a practice of mine that I think may help center us in the hope we actually have.
Everyone knows that babies are tricky when it comes to getting them ready for bed. For those of you who are parents, how many times did you hold your child at night, bouncing and shushing them while also hoping and praying (with all your might!) that their eyelids would droop and (for God’s sake!) stay closed? In an effort to cut down on the number of bedtime battles between my daughter and me, I’ve begun observing a sort of ritual with her, where I do exactly the same thing and sing exactly the same song right before laying her in her crib. Am I trying to create a kind of Pavlovian response, where Pepper hears a specific tune and immediately gets tired? Maybe. But what I’m also doing, and what is actually at the heart of my decision to make this routine a ritual, is beginning the long task of teaching her about life, how it can be good and how it can be bad—which brings me to the song I’ve chosen to sing.
I had never heard the classic Anglican hymn, “Abide with Me,” until my third year in seminary, when someone chose to sing it one morning in chapel. After the service had ended, our dean of students explained that “Abide with Me” was typically sung at funerals or occasionally sung at compline, as the hymn deals with themes of nighttime and death. “It’s kind of a bummer,” he said, “because ‘Abide with Me’ is actually one of my favorite hymns.” And for good reason. Not only is the hymn setting beautiful, but “Abide with Me” faces the facts of human life in a refreshingly frank way: “Swift to its close, ebbs out life’s little day. Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away. Change and decay in all around I see; oh, Thou who changest not, abide with me.” At first, those lyrics sound a little grim. “Change and decay in all around I see”? Who needs reminding of that? Probably not many of us, though I think there’s something powerful about naming the darkness. But what we do need to hear, again and again and again, is the second half of that last lyric: “Oh, Thou who changest not, abide with me.” Life in a fallen world can be painful and beautiful, and sometimes the contrast between the two is too much for us to bear. When we reach that point, when our world feels like a rushing river snatching at our feet, that is when God, in his forever ability to be who he is, says “Fear not, I am with you. Be not afraid, the LORD is on your side.” And that is what the lyricist has in mind when he begins the third verse: “I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless. Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness. Where is death’s sting? Where grave thy victory? I triumph still if thou abide with me.” The confidence in these lyrics at first can give us pause. Who in their right mind really doesn’t fear a single foe, even with God on their side? And how many of us can brush away tears without bitterness, when the hits just keep coming? To say, “I triumph still if thou abide with me,” seems almost false. Where is the triumph when we stand over the grave of a loved one? When we wake up on Christmas morning to an empty house? Despite the seeming confidence, I don’t think the lyricist would have us sing these words bombastically, puffing out our spiritual chests to show how saintly we are, how pain and sorrow just roll off our backs as though they were nothing. Rather, I think he would have us sing this hymn as a prayer. As we let the words of this hymn cross our lips, we aren’t always declaring that we have perfect faith in our Lord; but we are asking for it. And, in a way, we receive our answer immediately. “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.” Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes. We are not alone in experiencing sorrow and pain. When the Son of God was born into this world, he came knowing that if everything went as expected, he would die a horrific death at the hands of his own people—and yet it was this horrific death that would ultimately save his people: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22b-25a).
We have been saved in Christ Jesus, rescued from the dominion—that is the oppressive power and possession—of sin and death. This does not mean that we are saved from all trials, from the consequences of our own actions or the terrible pain we can never explain. But it does mean that, in spite of it all, we will triumph because God himself is walking with us toward the heavenly Jerusalem, a place where there will be no more tears and no more pain, a place where “earth’s vain shadows flee.” The journey is hard. One day, we may be scaling the heights of life, and the next we may be crawling through the valley of death. And yet, when our eyes are closed and our shoulders bow under the weight of this fallen world, Christ’s cross still stands, telling us with irreversible certainty that everything will be alright in the end, that we will see those we love, that the illness will resolve, that every regret will be smoothed away by the hand of our Creator. We need only look to the cross to know that God has put everything on the line to bring us home to him. “Where is they sting? Where, grave, thy victory?” With God on our side, nothing and no one can have an ultimate say in our ultimate hope. “I triumph still if Thou abide with me.” AMEN.