Rev. Newton Cowan

Rev. Newton Cowan, Transitional Director for Pastoral Care

Over the last few months, I have been aware, dare I say hyper-aware, of the words to the hymns that we have been singing. The lyrics have been speaking in new ways to my spirit and soul. When this occurs, I try to do some research to find out what is behind these words that are written, in many circumstances, a long time ago. The narratives are engaging and speak of faith even in the midst of darkness.

One hymn has caught my attention as of late, the hymn, “Abide with Me.” The hymn was written by Henry Frances Lyte (1793-1847) who was an Anglican Minister. Our hymn book records the hymn having been written in 1847.

While there is some question as to the exact dating, an October 3, 1925 article from The Spectator says that Lyte wrote the hymn in 1820 after visiting a dying friend who kept repeating the words, “abide with me.” In many ways it was a prayer for God to stay with him in life and in death. There are two Scripture references of note. First is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verse 29. The risen Christ has appeared on the road to the village of Emmaus. They said to Jesus, Stay with us.” In other words, and some translations, abide with us; for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. The second reference is to 1 Corinthians 15:55 “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

Lyte contracted tuberculosis and towards the very end of his life Lyte wanted to preach one more time. His family strongly discouraged it, saying he was too feeble. To which he said, “It was better to wear out than to rust out.” Indeed, he did preach one more time on the topic of Holy Communion. He died several weeks later and as the story goes, with the words to the hymn in his hand.

The opening to “Abide with Me” is as follows:

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, oh, abide with me

For Lyte, and I hope for me, there is comfort in knowing that in life and in death we belong to God. But beyond this, this is a prayer for God to abide with me, to abide with me in the darkness that life can bring and in the brightest of light to know that I am not alone. This is not just for me; this is for you. In life and in death you do belong to God.

The other part of this story that has stuck with me is the phrase that Lyte said, “it was better to wear out than rust out.” I see this in many of the actions of you, all the members of First Presbyterian, where you continue to serve God in so many ways. If there is a particular hymn that has meaning for you, please email or call me, I would love to hear your story.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a lovely choral arrangement of this hymn from the University of the South, recorded in November of 2019 during a service of Compline in the most magnificent All Saints Chapel.