Tune: ST CLEMENT, Clement C Scholefield (1839-1904)
Picture a Sunday evening in September 1959. In the gathering twilight a primary schoolboy, not yet eleven years old, is making his way alone by bus and on foot (as was possible in those far-off days) into an empty Belfast city centre. The leader of his church youth organisation had encouraged all those who might be interested to attend a small late evening gathering with a missionary flavour, and he had responded…
Looking back, I can’t be sure why I wanted to be there, but I suspect it had something to do with the theme. I was regularly intrigued by tales of exotic people groups spun by missionaries home on furlough, complete with their visual aids from far-flung locations. And, of all the hymns that we sang at our organisation’s meetings each Friday night, it was one about “the nations” that had caught my imagination above all.
At any rate, with darkness now fallen outside, here I was: the room wasn’t large – a simple meeting space upstairs in the youth organisation’s headquarters – but it was fairly full. I can no longer recall anything that was said or done – until we got to the hymn that had been chosen to conclude the proceedings.
It was “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended”. Of course, I had sung that particular hymn before. But not until that evening did it take hold of my imagination in the way that I still recall even today. One thing I was quite sure of: the tune was a perfect fit for the words. Its steady onward movement, while not at all ponderous, left us singers enough time to think about what those words might possibly mean.
Although a schoolboy, I suspect I was not alone in regarding it as an evening hymn, an appropriate way of ‘ending off’ the day with God, who had gifted us the daylight hours with all their activity:
- The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.
But as I began to sing the second verse, things started to fall into place, to make sense in a quite unexpected way. The glorious sweep of the tune seemed to match the onward progression of the earth in its orbit. And, for the first time, I think, I had a mental image of the true extent of the worldwide family of God, no longer restricted to the space or time which I inhabited. Perhaps a little fondly, I suspected that eternity might even be something like this:
- We thank Thee that Thy church, unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night.
- As o’er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.
This was heady stuff – the nearest thing to being ‘caught up to heaven’! But in the fourth verse, I found the focus narrowing, to bear on real, living people, of whom I was a part:
- The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ’neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.
That sense of ‘oneness’, of belonging to countless other brothers and sisters, gave me (an only child) a sense of wonder – a glimpse into the worship of the universal Church. And in the final verse, I, with the others, was invited to give my assent to the lordship of the Creator whom all will one day acknowledge as King:
- So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.
Later, of course, I would learn that the original words had been written in 1870 as a missionary hymn and sung as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria in 1897. It was also to feature at the handover of Hong Kong a century later. But, as I sang, there was no sense of triumphalism – I didn’t find that in the words – merely a sense of God being in control amid the uncertainties of my own life and times.
It would be a few more years before I made up my mind that the Christian faith had to be central to that life. In retrospect, I can see that the encounter with this hymn that night was part of a slow but steady work of grace. As great hymns can do, the ‘missionary hymn’ had done its work, in a way its author could not have imagined.
I believe I went home that night singing it over to myself. All these years later, I’m still singing it.
Meditation – Revelation 5:13 (NRSV):
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and in all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!”