Ray Palmer (1808-1887) Lowell Mason (1792-1872)
1. My faith looks up to thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary, Savior divine! Now hear me while I pray, Take all my guilt away, O let me from this day Be wholly thine!
2. May thy rich grace impart Strength to my fainting heart, My zeal inspire! As thou hast died for me, O may my love to thee Pure, warm, and changeless be, A living fire!
3. When life's dark maze I tread, And griefs around me spread, Be thou my guide; Bid darkness turn to day, Wipe sorrow's tears away, Nor let me ever stray From thee aside.
4. When ends life's transient dream, When death's cold, sullen stream Shall o'er me roll; Blest Savior, then in love, Fear and distrust remove; O bear me safe above, A ransomed soul!
Minneapolis. Winter, 1962. The choir of residents at the Ebenezer Home on Portland Avenue in Minneapolis was singing this hymn. The chapel with its dark brown pews was filled with other residents who were enjoying the choir singing one of their favorites. A few tears ran down their faces. I was the organist playing the Hammond for them. All of 18 years old, as I looked at the people in the choir, they seemed to be from another world. They were singing about dying. “When death’s cold sullen stream/Shall o’er me roll;/Blest Savior, then in love, Fear and distrust remove; O bear me safe above, A ransomed soul!” They sang it confidently, if a bit warbly. Most of them were older women in nice dresses, wearing the old black shoes with solid sturdy heels they wore at the time.
At eighteen, I marveled that they could be singing about their deaths which seemed rather imminent to me. "Death's cold sullen stream," kept going through my head.
I remember thinking a lot about that for the rest of the day. And occasionally the sound of that choir comes back to me when I hear the hymn again. These devout women knew what they were singing—they were the age of what my grandmothers would have been if they had survived childbirth. Born in the 1880s, they had lived through more than I could have imagined. Things I knew about at some remove and to some extent experienced in my mother’s vivid accounts of her own mother’s death in 1924 in childbed.
How many of them had lost close family members in the wars, in the flu, in the dust bowl era of the Depression? I knew that intellectually, but what did it mean to me?
Surprisingly, the author of the hymn text, Ray Palmer wrote this text about the life of faith, ending on death and dying, while not much older than I was at the time. After a religious experience he decided to study for the ministry and matriculated at Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. He had graduated in 1830, when he was 22, and was teaching in New York when he wrote the hymn. He finished the text, weeping as he wrote. His poetry spoke for and continues to speak to people facing their ends. It does more than that, too. It speaks to all of us as we feel guilt for our sins, face troubles, dark mazes filled with difficulties and fear.
Fear and anxiety are much a part of our lives today. The virus and now the protests and riots have caused new fears and anxieties. Helicopters buzzing above us nearly constantly these last few days have given voice to the thin whine of anxiety that I feel in my own flesh.
When my parents were facing their own anxieties they would quote Philippians 4:4-7 to one another. “In nothing be anxious, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” My dad always stressed “with thanksgiving.” That is wiser than I thought before. This past year as I finished translating the Icelandic classic Hallgrímur's Passion Hymns, I realized that the fundamental pose of the Christian, as Jesus taught us on the night he was betrayed, is gratitude. To be grateful is to know someone outside of yourself is owed thanksgiving. It shows we need someone to worship. Turning our hearts over to God in thanksgiving changes our focus from our situation to the one who gives everything for us. “O may my love for Thee/Pure, warm and changeless be/A living fire.” In it we will find peace that passes all understanding. Amen.
After Ray Palmer wrote the text, it was given to Lowell Mason, the hymn writer of his era. Mason worked to bring a more classical sound to the hymnody of the day, making the song of the church more tasteful.
Lowell Mason is the patron saint of American music educators. He introduced the subject of music into the schools. Born in Massachusetts, in early adulthood he moved to Savannah, Georgia. While working in a clothing store, he studied music with a German-American musician. He began writing his own music and was fairly successful at it. He thought the European masters could be used for hymn tunes. He moved to Boston where he continued composing and working with classical music, founding the Boston Academy of Music (1833).He composed the music to "Mary had a Little Lamb!" When he was 59 he traveled to Europe to study music at Leipzig, where every American composer wanted to study. There, at the Thomas church, Bach's church, he developed a great interest in congregational singing. When he returned he moved to New York where he served as musical director of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, making it the hymn singing congregation in the city. He retired in 1860, but continued his work composing.
First Plymouth Congregation Choir, Lincoln, Nebraska