St Stephen Lewisham
29th October 2013
The Funeral of Mavis Lena Harris
Abide with me
The hymn Abide with me which we shall sing at the end of this service is one of the most famous in the world.
As so often happens, the words of hymns’ if we look at them closely enough will ‘speak’ to us more directly than any living human being can.
It helps to know something both about the author and his reason for writing it. His name was the Reverend Henry Lyte. He wrote the poem in 1847 while he lay dying from tuberculosis; he survived only a further three weeks after its completion. So, far from thinking of it a specifically ‘evening’ hymn, we know it to be the work of one who understands that he must himself shortly pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
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.
|The first verse describes the sense of darkness which is often the experience which people feel when they are facing death, whether their own or that of someone they love. There is a sense of helplessness as Lyte prayed to God (something he did every day for two hours!), not for healing but for help to realize that God was present with him at this hour of crisis.|
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
|In his second verse, Lyte contrasts the ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world’ with God’s eternal changelessness. He knew from his frequent bouts of illness the essentially temporary nature of everyone’s life on earth. Whatever glory we may achieve in this life, like St Paul he knew that ‘the glories of this world are not worthy to be compared with those that shall be revealed in us if only we allow God to save us from our fallen nature.|
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
|Lyte and Anne his wife experienced both joy and sorrow during their marriage. She was an unfailing support through good and ill. Their first child died at the age of one month, but subsequently they were blessed with another daughter and three sons, one of whom became a famous chemist, and their grandson a well-known historian. So Lyte’s life was one both of cloud and sunshine, but he knew that God was his ‘guide and stay’ in both.|
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.
|‘Weight’, ‘bitterness’ and ‘sting’: Those three words describe with an uncanny accuracy the experiences which people fear most in life. But God, in Christ Jesus experienced all three for us on the Hill of Calvary. The weight of the Cross, the bitterness of the vinegar, and the sting of death. There is no experience in this life which He was not prepared to undergo to save us from the final distress of separation from Him who created, loved us, conquered death by rising again for us.|
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine 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.
|In the final verse, Henry Lyte brings his hearers back to the heart of the Gospel message – the Cross: that unmistakable sign of God’s love for us. A hymn which begins with the darkness closing around a helpless man, ends with the morning breaking and the shadows fleeing away and the certainty that in our death, no less than in our life, God is ever at our side.|
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