Sunday, August 27, 2017

Abide With Me -- Henry F. Lyte

(Luke 24:29)

He was a 54-year old, who knew the end might be near. And so, Henry Francis Lyte wrote for all of us “Abide with Me”, allowing us to imagine what was in his soul as he pondered the conclusion of his mortality. What would you or I record, if granted the opportunity and the calm demeanor to pen meaningful words for others to read? Would it matter if the approaching finality was sudden or expected? Perhaps Henry’s version might have been considered a curse by some, since he had to bear for a pretty long period the ill health that ultimately cornered him. But, on the other hand, maybe it gave him the proper perspective, and helped gestate his poignant words over time. Perhaps death should be something you and I consider carefully.

Henry Lyte was a sickly minister in the Church of England throughout all of his adult life, but it’s said that he didn’t let that diminish his effort to serve. He’s the one who would have preferred to ‘wear out, rather than rust out’, and so is it ironically possible that this desire drew him to an early grave? He ministered energetically, despite his chronic asthma and the tuberculosis that ultimately caused his demise. It was only as his health reached a new low that Henry decided a temporary move to a warmer climate in Italy was a good idea in 1847. Nevertheless, he gathered himself for another sermon as he prepared to depart, delivering a final message to the crowd to whom he’d ministered for some 20 years in Lower Brixham. His words reportedly stuck with his hearers, who remembered his admonition that they consider their own mortality with great care. Was his sermon in fact based upon the eight-verse poem that he composed about abiding? Some have said his thoughts were, at least in part, from the perspective of two 1st Century disciples who encountered Jesus after He arose, but did not immediately recognize Him. These Emmaus travelers (Luke 24:13-35) were glum, initially, because of death – Jesus’ death. But their spirits rebounded in His presence, especially when He prepared to eat the evening meal with them. Is that what Henry imagined – perhaps a bit cheated and down in the dumps, but then deeply satisfied and hopeful because of the promise he possessed as a believer, too. He called out for God’s abiding presence, knowing this was not in vain. Some historians have speculated that Henry may have in fact composed much of the poem decades earlier, and then polished it as he prepared to depart for Italy years later. No matter – thoughts of eternity and its import for many years or even decades would not have been unusual for someone in Henry’s circumstance. In fact, the fog of ill health likely would have compelled the composer’s entreaty to God from an early age. Perhaps it was a fog that he felt was lifting, as he earnestly sought his hearers’ attention with his last sermon and this poem.     

He was thinking about Jesus, but not about His death. Instead the moments after life began anew for Jesus may have been on Henry’s mind. My favorite of his eight verses is number seven. It’s where Henry paraphrases what Paul writes to some Corinthians about death’s sting being muted (1 Corinthians 15:55). The potency of the old apostle’s words weren’t worn out, unlike Henry’s body. They’re from Paul’s spirit, and therefore from the Spirit above. It seems that Henry found something there that gave his own spirit an injection of life. Plug into somebody that cannot die, and abide with Him! That was Henry’s solution to his own situation…how about yours?    

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; A Treasury of Hymn Stories, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945; and Then Sings My Soul, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.  

See this site for all eight of the original verses:

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