A New Year’s Reflection from Ravi Zacharias
Henry Frances Lyte, at least on this side of the Atlantic, may be a name that only great lovers of hymns will recognize. He is the author of the famous hymn “Abide with Me.” Very few hymns have merited a whole book on the background of their writing. “Abide with Me” is one of those. I am indebted to the author of an old volume that tells the story for the numerous facts he has culled.1
The first time I heard this hymn I was a nine-year-old boy standing by the graveside of my grandmother, who died in her seventies. Little did I know then that I was listening to words that had such a solemn and powerful history. I don’t know what it was about the hymn that gripped me even then, but I recall wiping away tears hearing “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.” I was not fully comprehending but grasping just enough to know we were in need of a Presence and of comfort.
Lyte was a natural poet. Having lost his parents early and been cared for by the headmaster of the school, who became his guardian, he was tenderhearted and his emotions ran deep. It is an incredible story. At age seven, he was orphaned when both his parents abandoned him, each for different reasons: a father who turned his back on responsibility and a mother who left to make a living. His poetic genius began to surface early, as he longed to belong. He recalled bedtime as a child being tearful, as he wished for even the shadow of his mother to pass by. Here are the first four lines from an early piece. (The whole poem is beautiful.)
Stay gentle shadow of my mother stay:
Thy form but seldom comes to bless my sleep.
Ye faithless slumbers, flit not thus away,
And leave my wistful eyes to wake and weep.
One can imagine the groaning of a child spurning his orphaned reality.
At age sixteen, he penned a masterpiece, “To a Field Flower.” He was fascinated by the rose and the tulip, but his adulation remained for the lingering primrose that withstood the choke of winter and beamed at the dawning spring:
Hail, lovely harbinger of spring!
Hail, little modest flower!
Fanned by the tempest’s icy wing
Dashed by the hoary shower.
Thy balmy breath, thy softened bloom,
Was ever welcome here;
But at this hour of wintry gloom,
Thy smile is doubly dear.
With his love for his mother and for nature, it was not at all surprising that he yearned for eternity. Eventide came for him in 1847 after he had pastored for 23 years, mostly in his beloved England. He was 54 years of age, far away from his home, and was buried at a cemetery in Nice, France. On the gravestone, after his dates and the scripture that he wanted inscribed, is written, “That author of ‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.’”
The impact of that hymn is global. Loved by royalty and by the masses, the hymn stirred stories from all over the world testifying of its impact. Mahatma Gandhi loved its lyrics. ‘Til this very day in New Delhi, India, January 29th marks the closure of the Republic Day ceremonies. On that day at a performance called “Beating Retreat,” military bands play for the gathered crowd. “Abide with Me” is the final piece. I recall it being played by the band as the lights gently dimmed in front of the beautiful Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Presidential Palace. It is a powerful sight and sound played in a quiet mood, a hymnic equivalent of the “Last Post.”
In England, there is a fitting memorial stone at Westminster Abbey beside the markers of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and John Wesley, all great hymn writers. It merely says:
IN MEMORY OF HENRY FRANCIS LYTE
1793 ✝ 1847
“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide.”
Oh the power of that hymn! One of the most stirring stories comes from 1927 when the man who led the singing at Wembley Stadium during the football final, after leading songs of levity at half time, surprised the crowd of 100,000 by choosing to sing and lead the crowd in “Abide with Me.” King George V rose to his feet, immediately baring his head as others followed, and Sir Winston Churchill joined in singing every verse. People said that they had never experienced anything like it, listening to 100,000 people singing that immortal hymn. The king remained silent through two of the verses, “just to be able to judge the intense feeling of the mighty company of singers.” Since then it has been sung every year at the FA cup final.
Bill McGeehan of the New York Herald Tribune, one of the greatest sports editors, stood with tears running down his cheeks. He remarked, “Gosh! I never thought I would live to hear something like that.” The game was of little interest to him after that. He left immediately, went back to his hotel room, and wrote one of the most unexpected articles on a sporting event. He pondered the great words so powerfully sung:
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!
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.
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Thou on my head in early youth did smile;
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left thee.
On to the close, O Lord abide with me!
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay shall be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O, abide with me.
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.
Lyte’s final words before he opened his eyes in heaven were whispered on November 20, 1847: “Peace! Joy!”
And so we come to the close of another year. Farewell 2018 and welcome 2019. The world is not a happy place for many. Some spread evil with delight. Others are victimized by evil with pain. The world faces decisions on a scale never faced before. The best seem clueless on what the future holds. But the one hope that still stands tall is the hope of Jesus who changes us from within to see the gloom without and breathe new possibilities into it. Sometimes when the darkness is greatest, the light shines the brightest. Let us live in the light of eternity, as there we will meet the only Judge who is perfect and the only life that is fearless.
But if the Lord will grant me one request in His presence, I would love to hear the heavenly choir sing “Abide with Me,” just to remember with deep emotion what we once yearned for on earth. Maybe Henry Lyte and William Henry Monk, who wrote the melody, can lead us, and the Welsh can sing one verse—nobody on earth sings like the Welsh.
But until then…
A blessed New Year and may His abiding presence be with you. Whether this year will be a comma or a full stop, we do not know. We do know He is with us forevermore. I live in the sandwiched years of two markers. My mother-in-law is 99. A grandson is one. Both need His abiding presence. Both reveal the majesty of God’s indwelling beauty. From the fresh beam of a child’s smile to the wrinkles of God’s handiwork, each has its own splendor.
Even so, grant us your signature on our souls, dear Lord, and the assurance that time cannot steal what eternity has protected.
We enter anew with You, everlasting Father, the One that dwells in the eternal Now. Hear our prayer:
Hold then thy cross before my closing eyes
Speak 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!2
Thank you, friends, for your friendship and for standing with us. It is the message of the Cross we will continue to carry as the old year passes and the new one begins. God’s word abides forever.
Ravi, Margie, and the entire RZIM team
1See Henry Francis Lyte and the Story of “Abide With Me” by Henry James Garland.
2Closing stanza of “Abide with Me.”