Years ago, when my oldest brother and his wife left for almost 20 years of mission work in Malawi, Africa, I was barely a pup. I was too small then to remember now much of the early time of their service there, but I well remember that then and always, whenever our family gathered, we sang. (I know. Tell that to most modern families and you might as well tell them you grew up on Mars.)
I learned many good, and even great, songs at church as I was growing up. Many were beautiful and rich with meaning. Some were pretty but of questionable musical/theological quality. Some were toe-tappers with great alto and bass “leads.” Those were fun to sing but even then (once I matured a bit) I thought they were better suited to a Sunday afternoon “singing” than worship. (A “singing” is another Martian thing we did on some Sunday afternoons instead of practicing playing with various shapes of balls.)
But I actually learned the most beautiful hymns of the Christian faith not at church but at home singing with my family. I remember thinking of that as, years ago, I was watching on TV the funeral service at the National Cathedral for President Gerald Ford. What a beautiful service! What magnificent hymns! I listened to one of the Ford family’s favorite hymns, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and the beautiful “God of Our Fathers” and realized that those were among my own family’s favorite hymns, sung often at home. (Oh, and what a statesman that man was! He had character and integrity to spare and a kind of selfless love for our country that should make the majority of our loudest modern politicians, both sides of the aisle, blush with shame, were their small and shriveled souls capable of such lofty emotion. There’s not much room in a tiny universe bounded north, south, east, and west by self, certainly no room for shame.)
I also learned early that our family had so many favorite hymns that if we were singing and you wanted some hope of getting your favorite song in the line-up, you’d best not be timid about calling out the song number really quickly.
One of our family’s best-loved hymns was “Father and Friend, Thy Light, Thy Love” [lyrics, John Bowring (1792-1872); music, Henry Baker (1835-1910)]. Once my brother and sister-in-law had gone to Africa, it became especially dear. Short but full of meaning, it particularly captured our hope and our prayer as we were separated from loved ones by an ocean and half a world:
(Vs. 1) Father and Friend, Thy light, Thy love, / Beaming thro’ all Thy works we see; / Thy glory gilds the heav’ns above, / And all the earth is full of Thee.
(Vs. 2) Thy voice we hear, Thy presence feel, / While Thou too pure for mortal sight, / Enwrapped in clouds, invisible, / Reignest the Lord of life and light.
(Vs. 3) Thy children shall not faint nor fear, / Sustained by this delightful thought; / Since Thou, their God, art ev’rywhere, / They cannot be where Thou art not.
I love it still and think of it often. It came reassuringly to mind as, years ago, sons of my own were “across the pond” doing mission work. I realize also, and this is itself genuine comfort, that some distances between people can be more difficult to bridge than oceans and miles. When our loved ones are apart from us for any reason and the gap seems large and frightening, this song’s truth is strong and real and a great blessing.
Wherever God’s children are—around the world, hard to reach across the table, or even having passed beyond this world—we can praise our Father: “They cannot be where Thou art not.”
Copyright 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.