Genesis 8:6-12; Deuteronomy 30:19-20
Text: William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877) Tune: Kentucky 93rd/William Walker? (1809-1875)
1. Like Noah's weary dove, That soar'd the earth around, But not a resting place above The cheerless waters found;
2. O cease, my wandering soul, On restless wings to roam; All the wide world, to either pole, Has not for thee a home.
3. Behold the Ark of God, Behold the open door; Hasten to gain that dear abode, And rove, my soul, no more.
4. There, safe thou shalt abide, There, sweet shall be thy rest, And every longing satisfied, With full salvation blest.
5. And, when the waves of ire Again the earth shall fill, The Ark shall ride the sea of fire, Then rest on Sion's hill.
MEDITATION To be completely surprised about something in one’s field after retiring is an odd pleasure. This hymn had utterly escaped me. Written by the grandson of the patriarch of Eastern Lutheranism, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, it has the sound of anonymous. One scarcely hears the voice of the writer. It sounds like a folk hymn emerging from the piney woods of the American frontier. But it was written by a sophisticated clergyman who had left the Lutheran church of his heritage and become an Episcopalian. That was a common. For those who wanted to make it in America, becoming Yankee--to speak good English--in order to succeed was necessary. Although there were others before them whose language was not English, German Lutherans were the first really large group of immigrants to face the issue in the New Land. To keep their old language was to remain in the past and not be able to move forward into the future. Many Lutherans like Muhlenberg joined the Episcopal Church for that reason. To go to the new language exclusively, however, was to lose one’s past. The dilemma of every immigrant anywhere throughout history.
Muhlenberg, upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, entered Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church and served it until his death. He lived in New York City and became a fundamental part of the burgeoning city, an exciting time in America. The hymn, however, is what I would call world weary. Muhlenberg’s most well known text “I would not live alway” expressed the same thought.
To grow weary, like the dove Noah sent out to find a resting place, but could not and had to return to the Ark, is something many of us are probably doing now. Where can we find safety and rest? What can we return to? Will anything be the same? For Muhlenberg, the Ark was the church. There he could find a temporary resting place until the end: judgment day, and the riding of the ark over a sea of fire, to rest on Sion’s hill. There we will find real rest. Today, with our churches closed for fear of the virus, we only have a virtual resting place. We long for something permanent.
I had a friend who tells the story of being on an airplane flight with his wife and mother. It was early on in air travel. The plane began to experience turbulence and was lurching along. My friend noticed the man next to him calmly contemplating a new kind of plastic cup, wondering who had the franchise. He saw profits. My friend asked him what kind of faith tradition he belonged to. “Christian Science,” he answered. What was going on around him seemed to cause him little concern.
This made my friend become even more panicky. His formidable mother scolded him. “It is disgraceful,” she remarked, “for a Christian to be so afraid to die!”
This story and the comment keep running through my head. Death is the great enemy. I can’t silence her comment. Am I afraid? I have been listening to a series of lectures on the Black Death in the 14th century. There is a story of a young girl in Norway being the only one to survive in a village, everyone around her had died. She was found in an almost feral state, but lived and became well enough to marry and have a family.
What must it have been like to lose absolutely everyone in your family and surroundings? Millions suffered such a fate during the Great Plague. Half of the population of Europe, scholars estimate, died within three years. Our virus is much much less virulent than that. But the panic they experienced and their reactions look familiar today. People do not want to die. That is natural, I understand that well myself.
But the remark still echoes in my head. As a Christian, why am I afraid to die? What, in this time of sheltering in place, does it mean to “choose life,” as Moses advises in his farewell address to the Israelites? Does it mean to avoid the risk of dying, briefly? (We all must die, most of us sooner, rather than later.) Or does it mean stepping forward into risk? Whichever way you come out on the answers to these questions, remember, Jesus, the one who holds the future in his hands is the one we trust for life.
HYMN INFO This hymn was written before 1826, nearly two hundred years ago, and included in the Prayer Book Collection published in 1826 where several of Muhlenberg’s few hymns appeared. In some versions the hymn is called The Ark of God and starts with that stanza. Muhlenberg was rather young, only thirty, when he wrote these hymns. He went on to serve as rector in several Episcopal parishes in New York City, among them The Church of the Holy Communion. He worked diligently to help the poor and needy in the city, helping to establish St. Luke’s Hospital, among others.
This tune, Kentucky 93rd, comes from the shape note tradition of the south and is attributed to the Sacred Harp tradition. William Walker could be involved. He was the chief compiler of the folk hymns of America in his Southern Harmony. There were other tunes for the hymn. The group Anonymous Four used it in their CD Gloryland, which is where I first heard it and several others during a time of my own world weariness. A great comfort.
LINKS Anonymous Four https://youtu.be/RMUA8N91JCM