By Jerry W. Burns, Resident
“In the darkest hours, we each have a way of coping. You may not be religious, but almost everyone who was raised in this country has heard some of the sacred hymns that sustained our parents and grandparents as they labored in the fields under a hot, noonday sun to make crops with which to feed their families. If some of the more popular and well-known hymns do not touch your soul regardless of belief-then there may be nothing more to say.
But I believe that most are touched.
In the picture that floods my thoughts, I look across the quiet prairie, farmland as far as the eye can see. It’s Springtime and the flowers are pushing up through the snowbanks along the fence rows. It’s quiet this Sunday morning. The only sign of life-blackbirds looking for grain. It’s Spring on the wide-open prairie, as my faithful retriever and I walk the fence rows, occasionally kicking up a beautiful pheasant. I enjoy the solitude. I miss her.
Considering the distance on this early morning, I see a small white country church with a tall steeple. I see family cars and trucks in the distance, all driving toward the little white church on the prairie. Slowly I keep walking, but I am drawn toward the church. I look down at my hunting pants, which are stained.
I am not dressed for church, yet I cannot turn away. I soon walk the two or three miles and stand at the edge of the parking area. The windows of the church are open, and I can see spring bouquets of flowers sitting in each window. I don’t go to church as often now-since she died.
The service has begun and drifted out of the windows of that beautiful white country church are sincere voices singing a familiar hymn. I hear these words:
O, Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee,
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
I am touched by the sincere singing and the words of the old hymn that George Matheson wrote when his heart was broken by the young lady he had been engaged to.
I can’t resist, so I tie Grace up to a fence, brush off my pants, and quietly enter the little church where I take a seat on the last pew. I feel right at home among the immigrant families who farm the land and work until they are weary in body and soul. But on Sunday morning, they come together hold hands, and sing these beautiful hymns that give them the courage to face the winds and insects and storms which dance across the prairie. I am glad that Grace and I came this way today.
I teach at the Northwoods Community College in Ely, Minnesota. The service continues, but I do not hear much-I’m thinking about the story I read about the hymn. I lost my wife a couple of years back, and in my grief, I bought a beautiful, large book, Stories about the Christian Hymns. This book has proven a great comfort to me; and this hymn, O, Love, has become my favorite.
The service continued that Easter Sunday out on the prairie, but my thoughts turned to George Matheson, born in 1842, and within a year of his birth, his sight began to fail. But he studied hard and became a Bachelor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow at the age of 19. He was eventually ordained as a minister in the Church of Scotland.
As a young man, he fell in love with a girl with whom he became engaged, but then, abruptly, she broke off the engagement saying, “I’m sorry George, but your illness means I can’t marry you.”
Years later, when George’s sister was married, in mental anguish, the memory of that earlier abandonment by his fiancée came flooding back bringing intense sadness. George turned to God, and that evening he wrote the beautiful and intensely moving hymn Love that Will not let me go.
O Light that follows all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze it’s day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that sleekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain.
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that lifts my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead
And from the ground their blossoms red
A life that shall endless be.
I quickly left that Sunday morning at the little church on the prairie. I didn’t want anyone to see the tears running down my cheeks. I was moved deeply by my visit to that little church and hearing those honest and sincere voices singing, “Oh, Love, that will not let me go.”