O Love, that wilt 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.
O Light, that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy, that seekest 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 liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be. (scroll down to hear the hymn)
The hymn we have just sung has a story attached to it, as so many hymns do.
It was written by a Church of Scotland minister George Matheson, in the late 19th century. This was a man whom life had dealt a rough hand. As a child, he had begun to lose his sight, and by the time he was grown up was virtually blind.
He’d been engaged to a woman whom he loved very much, but she’d ended the engagement as his sight worsened, saying that she couldn’t face being married to a blind man. His main support and comfort in life was his beloved sister, but in time she married, and that meant that she had to move from him. The hymn was written, he said, just before her marriage, in a moment of private despair. He never said what exactly had prompted his writing it, but it’s not hard to see how he might have felt alone and afraid, ground down by the losses and challenges of his life.
It’s remained popular ever since, and I think the reason for that it is that it is so honest. It doesn’t try to sugar-coat suffering and misfortune. It doesn’t offer any easy answers. Matheson talks about his “weary soul”, and his “flickering torch” – a reference to his blindness. This is a moment when he is suddenly aware of his own powerlessness.
George Matheson’s life wasn’t easy, but in some ways it isn’t unusual. Day by day I meet people facing heartbreak and loss, fear and regret through illness, untimely bereavement, the collapse of relationships or businesses. Day by day I meet people who feel as if they are lying face down in the mud and every time they start to lift their heads from it, something comes along to push them back down. Some people live their whole lives in tough places like this, but I think it is rare for anyone to go through life knowing only its sunlit uplands.
That’s the reality of human life, the reality which Matheson knew and which those who love this hymn, as I do, recognise and respond to.
Matheson, as I have said, doesn’t give us any easy answers, and yet, somehow this is a hymn which helps simply by giving dignity to these tough times, affirming that they can be holy places too, places where God can be encountered in a new way. “From the ground there blossoms red, life that shall endless be.”
It’s tempting, on Good Friday, to want to hurry on to Easter. We don’t like death and pain and loss. This service will never be as popular as Easter Sunday’s rejoicing. We want resurrection and new life. That’s entirely understandable, and of course we know that the cross isn’t the end of the story. Death won’t have the last word. But that is Easter Sunday’s message, and we’re not there yet. Some people won’t be there the day after tomorrow, either. Their pain will continue. The morning won’t dawn bright and clear for them on Sunday, no matter what the calendar says. It’s important for them, for all of us, to hear the message of this hymn. What does it say about enduring those dark times, the Good Fridays and Holy Saturdays of our lives, when, like Jesus’ friends, we can see no sign of hope, to reason to think there will be resurrection?
The hymn reminds us that at those times, it is God who holds us. The hymn doesn’t say “O me, that wilt not let Love go”. It says “O Love that wilt not let me go”. It is God who holds us, not the other way around. He holds us. He just holds us, but that is enough. He is like the earth which holds the germinating seed, the womb which holds the growing child, the egg which holds the developing chick. He is the vital, safe place in which we need to spend as long as it takes for us to be ready to face the world again.
There’s nothing more irritating, when life is collapsing around you, than for well-meaning people to try to cheer you out of it, to talk about “light at the end of the tunnel”. It’s understandable that we say this – it eases our own anxiety. It is often harder to watch others suffering than it is to suffer ourselves. We feel helpless. We feel as if we ought to be able to do something to help. But the strength of Matheson’s hymn is its willingness to sit with those painful feelings, the things we can do nothing about, to accept them and honour them, to discover that pain we endure is not a squalid waste – however much it feels like that - but is also a place which can be made holy by God’s presence.
That’s why it’s important to spend this time at the foot of the cross. There was no shortcut for Jesus, no way around his humiliating and painful death, not without reneging on his message of hope and dignity for those who the powers of the world were determined to crush, as they tried to crush him. There is often no shortcut for us either. The cruelty, betrayal and brutality he endured were real and painful, and they took as long as they took, just as the struggles we may face are real and take as long as they take. But God’s love is “ocean deep” as the hymn puts it, his presence is eternal, and the life that can grow out of this bloodstained soil is endless and blessed.