Leaning On the Everlasting Arms
“Come, children,” calls the father, his voice ringing across the yard. “Time to sing!” And they come running, because it’s a great time. Mother is at the reed organ. There are plenty of them in southeastern Pennsylvania. Why, you can’t have Germans about you without musical instruments. Father sings the bass part, mother the alto, and the children soar with the sweet treble, the melody. They are singing hymns, and as with their voices, so with their souls; the music binds them together, and lifts their hearts to the Father of lights, from whom comes all fatherhood, all family life.
“Elisha,” says the father, a minister of the faith, “aren’t you singing?” The father knows, but he wants to hear it all the same. “Yes, Father!” cries the small boy, and he joins his pipes with the rest. But he was thinking about the song. What if it went like this instead? What if we sang these words too?
The quiet mirth of that homely scene is something the world cannot produce, cannot understand. The world’s fun is often exhausting and, in the end, dispiriting, disappointing. You bring back a sunburn from the beach, and ill temper too, because the people next to you were loud and careless, and they kicked sand on your lunch. You come back from the amusement park, more harried than amused. But to sing with people you love, about and to the God you love – to sing songs that you will remember all your life, so that when you sing them again, the brothers and sisters who are now far away are with you, and the mother and father whose bodies are laid in the grave stand beside you, and you hear their voices, and you know that the God you adore has not forgotten them either, and you will see them again, and touch their hands, and hear some familiar word that will bring all the years back like a great wave of an everlasting sea – there is nothing like it in the world.
Elisha A. Hoffman (1839-1929) is a grown man now, a beloved Presbyterian minister, and he has come to visit one of his flock, a poor woman whose life has been filled with sorrow. He knew that words, even the sacred words of the Gospel, might not help her now. She needed to do something. So he laid his hand on her shoulder and said, “You can do nothing better than to take all your trouble to Jesus. Take it to Jesus.” And a light broke from her face, and she said, “Yes, I’ll tell Jesus. I must tell Jesus.”
That was the seed of a hymn Reverend Hoffman wrote, “I Must Tell Jesus,” one of two thousand. He never pretended to be a great poet. He had no formal training in music. But he had good strong common sense. He believed that the text of a hymn should be simple, straightforward, metrical, and lyric, expressing elemental thoughts and feelings, and the foundational truths of the Christian faith. You won’t find anything fussy or overwrought in a hymn by Elisha Hoffman, and you won’t find anything dreary or dirge-like, either. He ministered for a while at a home for sailors on the coast of Lake Michigan, and you can bet those were some rousing times!
One of the really mirthful features of some of the old evangelical hymns, including several that Hoffman wrote, is that in the refrain you often have half the congregation singing these words and the other half some other words that are different but that fit in very nicely, and usually while the high voices pause or hold a note, the low voices muscle in, and vice versa, with all the voices coming together at the end. That’s what you get in his “Is it Not Wonderful?”, with one half singing, “Is it not wonderful, is it not wonderful,” while the other half sings, “Yes, it is wonderful, strange and so wonderful!” And you also get it in today’s hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” This is one of Debra’s favorites, and so is the clip from The Human Comedy that she’s provided for you, a scene full of mirth and innocence, with soldiers going forth to fight and perhaps to die.
Here’s the hymn. You see, it is simple, but an old man can sing it, a woman in the bloom of life can sing it, a little child can sing it, and it is filled with cheerfulness, as the faith really is. What, after all, do we have to fear? Christ has gone before us and reversed the lance of death, taking the Cross and stabbing death through the heart. He is near us. What else do we need to know?
What a fellowship, what a joy divine, Leaning on the everlasting arms; What a blessedness, what a peace is mine, Leaning on the everlasting arms. REFRAIN: Leaning, leaning, Leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus, Safe and secure from all alarms; Leaning, leaning, Leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus, Leaning on the everlasting arms. Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way, Leaning on the everlasting arms; Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day, Leaning on the everlasting arms! REFRAIN. What have I to dread, what have I to fear, Leaning on the everlasting arms? I have blessed peace with my Lord so near, Leaning on the everlasting arms. REFRAIN.
From Debra: This scene begins slowly, but watch as it gains momentum and the camera pans the faces of the men, some mere boys ..
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