Abide with me

One has to wonder how on earth a Christian hymn – AND a hymn about death and dying, what’s more – is sung at soccer (and rugby) Cup finals in Britain. And why has it been sung at Cup finals ever since 1927 too? But that’s when it began, when 91,206 fans filled Wembley Stadium in 1927, including Winston Churchill and King George V, along with another 15,000 fans gathered in the city centre of one of the teams playing in the final, and because it was the first ever radio broadcast of a Cup final, Abide with me was also heard by millions of people all across Britain as well.

It was chosen originally because it was King George V’s favourite hymn, but it still begs the question: “Why sing it at a soccer match?” And who got the idea that singing a hymn, of all things, was appropriate for a sporting event, and why has it been a popular tradition ever since?

Whatever the reason, it’s had an amazing effect on people through the years. As one person said, when singing Abide with me at a Cup final, “I lost it completely during those famous words, but I sang lustily through the tears, an arm round each of my sons, and surely my late father joining in from on high. Only a game (eh)? Yeah, right….” And he voices what so many people have felt, that something deeply moving happens when singing Abide with me with thousands of other people.

The only major resistance to the hymn at Cup finals has come from people who don’t like a lone singer with a microphone singing Abide with me FOR them. They’d much rather have the whole crowd singing it together to a band playing the music. In other words, what people want to hear and feel is the great swell of human voices echoing round a stadium all singing Abide with me together, and belting it out as loud as they can without embarrassment. This is what people want; but again, one has to ask WHY.

Perhaps it’s the story of the man who wrote it, an Anglican vicar, Henry Francis Lyte, who died from tuberculosis only ten weeks after completing the hymn in 1847. He composed a rather dull tune for it, but when the words of the hymn were published 14 years later in the book Hymns Ancient and Modern, one of the most popular books of hymns ever written, the editor of the book, William H. Monk, whose three-year-old daughter had just died, composed the tune we now sing, called Eventide. According to Monk’s widow, it had been “a time of great sorrow” for the two of them when their daughter died. In her own words she recorded the moment: “Hand in hand we were silently watching the glory of the setting sun (our daily habit) until the golden hue had faded… Then he took paper and (in just 10 minutes) he pencilled the tune which has gone all over the world.”

So a dying man wrote the words, and a man who’d just lost his little daughter wrote the music. Even the phrase “Abide with me” came from a dying man, a close friend of Henry Lyte, who kept muttering it over and over again as he was dying. But isn’t it what we’re all hoping when death and terrible events occur, that there really is a God who abides with us to give us some sort of hope when faced with death and our helplessness? It’s not surprising, then, that the hymn was often sung in the trenches during World War 1 – when death could come at any second – or that it was the choice of hymn played at Ground Zero by a Salvation Army band after the attack on the Twin Towers 10 days earlier.

Perhaps “Abide with US”, therefore, would be a better title for the hymn, because it’s so often sung or played in a group setting. And amazingly, it’s not only sung at funerals, it’s also sung at weddings, including the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth ll on November 20, 1947 – the very same month and day that Henry Lyte died 100 years earlier. But there’s something about this hymn and its admission of human frailty that makes us want to sing it together at special events, because right down deep we recognize we’re all in the same boat.

The man who led the choir at the Cup final in 2015 echoed this very thought when he said: “Just look at the words. ‘Help of the helpless, O abide with me’. Everyone has got a story of negativity, we all face fears and a bit of darkness in our lives. We all need a sense of light at the end of a long tunnel, and I think it’s great – 90,000 people celebrating coming together. It’s no longer about your individual voice, but many voices singing together.”

But it’s also WHAT they’re singing that brings people together, like the words “When other helpers fail and comforts flee,” because in this life who hasn’t experienced helpers failing, when people you thought you could trust and depend on let you down? And who hasn’t experienced comforts fleeing, when life suddenly takes a nasty turn just when everything was running smoothly?

The same thing happened to Henry Lyte too, because at one point his preaching was so popular he had to build a bigger church, and everything was humming along very nicely, but then another Christian group infiltrated his parish and started stealing his members away. And that hurt because, as one of those members admitted, “We were deeply attached to him (but) some Plymouth Brethren persuaded ten of us to join them. We went in a body to Mr Lyte and told him we must leave his church. We never entered his church again. But when Abide with Me was printed and each of us was given a copy, we realized more keenly than anyone else the meaning of the words ‘when other helpers fail’.”

And how many church members and pastors in any church have experienced that same grief of fellow church members they’ve been friends with for years simply packing up their bags and leaving the congregation forever, bringing not only their friendship to an end but also their support?

But how many people in that crowd of 90,000 at Wembley stadium have gone through exactly the same grief, of people they loved deserting them, of husbands and wives taking off with other people, of parents divorcing, or best friends choosing other people to be best friends with instead?

No wonder Abide with me hangs on. But that’s the point, isn’t it? It does hang on, because you realize when standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people singing Abide with me that we’re all in the same boat. We’ve all gone through grief and sorrow, and all of us have felt estranged and alone, as if we’re the only person on the planet with unsolvable problems and no one understands. But here’s a hymn that DOES understand, written by a man who clearly knew what helplessness feels like.

It beautifully strips away all the stuff that separates us, like colour of skin, financial status, religious affiliation, our different personalities and intelligence levels, and the image we have of ourselves, because the person belting out the hymn beside you is singing it for the same reason you are: He’s got troubles too. And for one brief moment you realize that no one lives a charmed life. In this life we all have troubles, and Abide with me would never have survived as a hymn if we didn’t. But it can seem at times like everyone else has it all put together, and it’s other people who have everything going for them – not us.

And again, Henry Lyte was a perfect example of that, because as a person and a Christian he seemed to have it all going for him. He was a striking man in his appearance, and he was charismatic, charming, very funny, well loved and extremely popular. He was also an award-winning poet and a scholar with a huge library of theology and old English poetry, described as “one of the most extensive and valuable in the West of England.” He was an expert flute player, he spoke Latin, Greek and French, and he also became an expert on wild flowers.

And along with all those talents and interests he was also a wonderful pastor to his parish of fishermen, often visiting them on board their ships, supplying every boat with a Bible, and compiling songs and a manual of devotions for the sailors’ use at sea. And he often got up at 6:00 am to pray for two or more hours before breakfast. So here was a man and a Christian you’d probably feel quite intimidated by in his presence.

But this was the same man who wrote Abide with me, which could only come from someone who’d experienced the other side of life with its endless setbacks, heartaches and disappointments. And he had his share of them all right. As a child he was very close to his God-loving mother, but his father whisked him away from her and stuck him in a boarding school and immediately abandoned the family, and soon after that Henry’s mother died. At the age of only nine Henry Lyte found himself alone and with no family left to support him.

And I wonder how many other people in that huge crowd singing Abide with me at Wembley stadium have similar stories to tell, of their families breaking up, of parents dying early from cancer, of children born with birth defects, of accidents ruining their future, of alcoholic fathers draining the family’s finances, and on and on it goes, the list of human woes and shattered dreams that have left millions of children and adults feeling utterly abandoned and alone.

But read the book of Psalms and isn’t a large chunk of it too about a man who had nothing but troubles? And David was a man chosen by God as well, but look what he wrote in Psalm 6 (The Message):

“Please God, no more yelling, no more trips to the woodshed. Treat me nice for a change; I’m starved for affection. Can’t you see I’m black and blue, beat up badly in bones and soul? God, how long will it take for you to let up? If you love me at all get me out of here. I’m no good to you dead am I? I’m tired of all this – so tired. My bed has been floating forty days and nights on the flood of my tears. My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears. The sockets of my eyes are black holes; nearly blind, I squint and grope.”

Imagine singing those words in a hymn at church on Sunday to a nice little tune, “I’m all black and blue, my eye sockets are sunken holes, and if really loved me, God, as you say you do, then why are letting all this nonsense happen to me, when any minute it could kill me and what would be the purpose of that, eh?”

Not the most popular choice of hymn for most songleaders, I imagine, but David sang every word of it and composed the music – and it became a hymn sung by Jews through the centuries that was probably sung by Jesus when he was here as well. And now here we are, thousands of years later, finding ourselves with a similar song, Abide with me, written by another man who felt like death with very similar emotions expressed, and it too has become a hymn, and an extremely popular one.

One has to wonder why, though, because how many professional sounding choirs, all decked out in their robes and singing in perfect harmony, would choose to sing Psalm 6 and the exact words of King David that I just read out? But crowds of 90,000 people, who have little to no singing experience, many of whom probably can’t hold a tune, who have never worn a choir gown, would not darken the door of a church, and who see no relevance in any of the churches’ rituals, grand buildings, stained glass windows and pipe organs, have been belting out Abide with me for nearly 90 years.

That’s the people’s choice, a hymn all humans can sing together that openly and refreshingly admits our frailty and helplessness in the face of life’s endless setbacks, heartaches and disappointments. The people’s choice, the ordinary every day people who struggle to get through life and make a living, willingly sing a hymn in public that admits we humans aren’t handling things at all well, and we need help. And as a minister seeking relevance in my Christianity, my sermons, and what I’m in the Church for, I find that fascinating.

It tells me that the relevance of my existence as a Christian isn’t just closeting myself away in a building somewhere singing familiar hymns and going through the motions of opening and closing prayers, studying the Bible or preaching a sermon to the converted. That has its place, yes, just like the Temple of old was the place where you could honour God, sing hymns, hear sermons, pray your heart out to him and feel his presence, along with your fellow Israelites. But the Israelites were also told that their Temple was open to strangers and foreigners, who had exactly the same longings and needs the Israelites had, who also needed to know that God was real and he was abiding with them as well.

The Israelites needed to keep in mind, therefore, that their Temple wasn’t just for them, it was for everyone, and could they hear the cries of the foreigner too? And likewise, for us now, sitting in our little Temple here on Sundays, do we hear the cries of the people all around this building with the same troubles and the same longings we have, who have no place to go to express what they feel, no people they can comfortably admit their needs to, and no hope of a real Helper who can sort out the confusion and fears in their heads.

But here WE are in their community offering all those things. And isn’t that what we’re here as a Church for, to provide a venue, just like Wembley Stadium, where people aren’t afraid to admit their frailty and their helplessness in public, and where people are very comfortable talking about what’s troubling them, and where people really believe a Helper exists who is intimately involved in every detail of their lives, who forgives, who comforts, who lifts people out of impossible misery and confusion, and provides hope and energy for another day.

And just like foreigners of old discovered in the Israelite Temple that God was real and he cared for them too, think of the reaction in people today who discover there’s actually a place in their own community where ordinary people like themselves can pray and sing their hearts out to a God they come to realize is real, he’s listening, and he responds.

In other words, we’re just like the Temple of old, when foreigners in Israel and strangers travelling through could enter into a building where songs were constantly being sung and prayers offered to God with real expectation that he was there in person, listening to every word, and answering every need. The Temple was the place where you could cry out to God “Abide with me,” and he would answer in some way that “Of course I abide with you, because that’s what I created you and this Temple for, to come and dwell with you, to live with you, make myself real to you, and make my home with you.”

The Temple, in other words, was the one place on earth where you could feel utterly comfortable with God, because it was obvious in the very existence of the Temple as God’s dwelling place on Earth that he is utterly comfortable with us.

And now here’s the Church today, operating for much the same purpose, of providing a place and a group of people where it’s taken for granted that God abides with us, that when darkness is deepening, helpers are failing, comforts are fleeing, earth’s joys are growing dim and the world is falling apart, he’s always there, abiding with us every passing hour, foiling the tempter’s power, steadying and guiding us when the world and people and our own worries are too much for us to handle.

And here’s a place and a people who dare to sing a hymn that stares death in the face and they treat it like a toothless dragon coughing puffs of smoke not fire: “Where is death’s sting?” they sing, “Where, grave, thy victory?” Come on death; answer that one. Oh, you hold the cards, death, when it comes to watching me age and my strength and energy weaken, and the illnesses form inside my head and body that will eventually kill me, and I am powerless to resist them, but “I triumph still,” because here I am, death, still chugging along with hope and optimism despite the crumbling wreck I see in the mirror every day, because I know God is with me in life, death, and forever.

And I imagine there are many people in Wembley Stadium who wonder how they are actually standing there still upright after the year they’ve just had. But they know why, and they get the chance to sing why; it’s because God abides with us, blowing air under tattered wings to keep us aloft, like bumble bees at the end of the summer still gathering nectar even though they’re exhausted and the tips of their wings are shredded and frail. “I triumph still,” a person sings through the tears, and so do thousands of others with them who’ve experienced God’s strength in the most intimate and personal ways.

And Henry Lyte would have joined them, because he wrote the words “I triumph still” from personal experience. For years he’d suffered so badly from asthma, bronchitis and coughing spasms that he wasn’t hired in one church, and every year he had to spend months away from his church and his family in a sunnier climate to recover, but all during that time his friends said he remained “buoyant, cheerful and keenly interested” in what was happening in the world. Debilitating though his illnesses were his mind was alive and he was full of optimism.

Then at only 54 years old he was so ill with tuberculosis he knew he was going to die any minute, but he announced to his family he was going to preach one last sermon to his congregation anyway. They urged him not to, but as he’d often said in the past, “It’s better to wear out than to rust out,” so despite the danger to himself he went ahead and preached, totally unafraid of what might happen, and though exhausted by the effort he made it through.

The date was September 4, 1847. That evening he gave a finished version of Abide with me to a close friend, and ten weeks later Henry died.

One thing stood out in both the hymn and his sermon. In his sermon he said: “I stand here among you today, as alive from the dead…(to) induce you to prepare for that solemn hour which must come to all, by a timely acquaintance with the death of Christ.”

That timely acquaintance with the death of Christ had come to Henry back in 1818, when he witnessed the death of a fellow clergyman, whose attitude to death profoundly influenced him. In Henry’s own words: “He (his friend) died happy under the belief that though he had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his delinquencies, and (he would) be accepted for all that he had incurred.”

Now the last verse of Abide with me: “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

Put those two together and we see what sustained Henry through all his troubles. It wasn’t his strength of character or his optimistic personality, it was knowing the cross took care of every wretched thought and action he’d done in the past, and in the cross that Christ willingly suffered as a human in life and death too, and that one day, because of Christ’s death on the cross, his own tattered body, like Christ’s tattered body, would be raised into something beautiful. And it’s all those things that thousands of fans are expressing, with or without realizing it, when they sing Abide with me together.

The Cup final in Wembley Stadium, therefore, has become “a timely acquaintance with the death of Christ” for many, many people over the years. It has kept Christ’s death at front and centre in people’s minds, whether they like it or not, so even if they can’t wait for Abide with me to be over so they can get on with the football game, it is guaranteed that one day, sooner or later, something will happen – either in their own lives or in another terrible tragedy happening to other people – that will shake them to their roots and they will look for a Helper to get them through, and that’s when the words of Abide with me may suddenly come to mind.

And the same goes for people in this community who aren’t the least bit interested in God or on in us meeting here as a Church, but any moment something might happen that drives them into seeking a Helper, and that’s when they remember there was a little church meeting in their community that made itself known as a place of welcome and help to anyone interested.

And when they come, what they find is a little House of prayer, just like the Temple of old, where prayers are being offered, not only for one’s own needs but for the needs of friends, family and outsiders too, in the real belief that God is real, he’s listening, and he answers every one.

But will people ever do that? Aren’t their minds so closed that they would never come to a church? But if that’s true, then why for the last 89 years has Abide with me been sung at Cup finals? If people want nothing to do with God, then why don’t they have the hymn banned? But instead of it being banned it thrives, and we know why; it’s because Christ’s death ripped the veil down the middle in the Temple, opening the floodgates to God. And startling though it was, people tentatively stepped through the veil, just like people tentatively step into a church today when they’re in need, and find to their delight a place where people aren’t embarrassed to sing a hymn like Abide with me that happily and readily admits our human frailty in this life.

And there’s nothing like singing it together to remind ourselves that we all share the same needs and longings, as we see in this next video where it’s interesting to see just how many soccer fanatics are singing along with Abide with me, and they know the words. What makes them sing? Well, we know, don’t we? They sing it for the same reasons we sing it, because the words express perfectly our hope of a real God who abides with us every second of every day.

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